Choosing a career is one of the most important decisions you will ever have to make. Why? Well, it can define the course of your life. Work takes up an average of 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for the 50 or so years of your working life. That’s a long time to waste doing something that you hate!
Even though you are expected to make up your mind by the age of seventeen – and sometimes even before that, the truth is that you are never going to know if you are ready. Obviously, this is not a decision that you make in a blink of an eye as you need some time for reflection and lots of experimentation. For some, this can take months or even years. Most people aren’t sure about what they want to do, and that’s why they change their mind at different stages of their lives.
Career experts say that choosing a career is part of a long career development process that takes place throughout your life. When you are deciding on a career, these are the four stages you need to go through:
- Self-Awareness: Take the time to truly get to know yourself.
- Career Exploration: Explore different opportunities/options.
- Decision-Making: Consider different outcomes and reach a decision.
- Career Planning: Prepare yourself to take action.
This article aims to make the process easier, drawing from scientific examples of career theory and practice.
Step 1: Becoming More Self-Aware
Life is a journey of self-exploration, and the more self-aware you are, the more successful you are going to be. Without self-awareness, there is no way to know your skills and strengths, and you may find it difficult to identify the possibilities that open up to you. Once you learn what you are capable of and explore your potential, you are ready to take the first step to figuring out what you want to do in your career.
Self-awareness, which is defined as the ‘conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives and desires’, explains that you can only understand yourself better when you start focusing your attention on the details of your personality and behaviour. You have to look carefully at your thoughts, emotions and actions. The best way to do this is asking yourself why and how you do things. This should help you understand how you tend to behave in certain situations. Also, you need to take the time to evaluate your relationships with other people as it can tell you how you relate to them.
Becoming more self-aware means getting to know your strengths and weaknesses, what motivates you and makes you happy. It also means knowing your beliefs, personal values, recognising your achievements and failures and what these mean to you. If you want to learn more things about yourself to find a suitable career, then you have to give an honest answer to each one of the following questions:
- What are you really good at?
- What makes you happy?
- How would you rather help other people?
- How would you choose to change the world?
- What is your purpose in life?
- What wouldn’t you mind doing for free?
- What are your interests, hobbies and favourite past-time activities?
- Which subjects did you enjoy the most at school/college?
- What kind of lifestyle do you want?
- What are you most passionate about?
- Which jobs fascinate you the most?
- What jobs other people have that you wish were yours?
- What do you want from your career?
- Do you prefer conventional or uncommon jobs?
- Where do you prefer working?
- What inspires you to take action?
These questions can help you with your self-check and encourage you to think about your skills and personal qualities in more depth. Getting to know all of these aspects of yourself can help you make well-informed decisions about your future and set some solid foundations as to how to move forward.
Parson’s and Holland were the first career theorists who talked about the importance of self-awareness in the sense that you need to be able to analyse your skills, values, interests and personality to be able to make a well-informed decision about your career. Parson’s theory - even though an old-dated and traditional approach from the 1920s, can still be applied in certain situations today. His career-matching theory supports the idea that a person is ready to make a decision when they have acquired:
- An accurate understanding of their individual traits (aptitudes, interests, personal abilities).
- Knowledge of jobs and the labour market.
- A rational and objective judgement about the relationship between their individual traits and the labour market.
You might notice the order in which these three come. First, you get to know yourself better. Then, you are ready to examine the different jobs and look at how the job market operates. Finally, you can make your own judgements by figuring out how your skills and talents can relate to the world of work and finding your role in it.
On the other hand, Holland’s approach which is much more popular and widely used today describes six main personality types that form the RIASEC model - Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising and Conventional. Each type describes an aspect of your personal values, qualities, interests and preferences and when these are joined together, they can help you discover your personality type. In return, these ultimately tell you what profession(s) you are most likely suited to.
To help you out here is the analysis of the six Holland personality types and their characteristics:
- Active, practical, adventurous, independent.
- Prefer technical, outdoor and athletic pursuits.
- Like to work with their hands, on machines, tools, with plants or animals (like cats or dogs).
- Analytical, reserved, independent, scholarly.
- Prefer scientific, research and intellectual pursuits.
- Like to observe, learn, analyse, evaluate and solve problems.
- Innovative, intuitive, creative, expressive.
- Prefers creative, imaginative and intuitive pursuits.
- Like to work in unstructured situations, use their imagination and originality.
- Compassionate, caring, trustworthy, friendly.
- Prefer helping, developing and interpersonal pursuits.
- Like to enlighten, inform, teach, support, guide and cure other people.
- Direct, outgoing, energetic, confident.
- Prefer leadership, influencing and persuasive pursuits.
- Like to influence, persuade, perform, manage and work with other people; interested in economic gain.
- Data driven, analytical, careful, detailed-oriented, conforming.
- Prefer data management, numerical and organisational pursuits.
- Like to work with numbers, at a desk or office, following instructions.
When you are finding out who you are, you will realise that you share the characteristics of up to three personality types with one being more prominent than the other two. It’s impossible for anyone to match completely with just one personality type. This categorisation helps to identify which jobs and work environments you are mostly attracted to and see if you can imagine yourself doing that kind of work. Holland’s model produces real and effective results, and this is probably the reason why it’s currently being used in many popular self-assessment tools.
If you are still struggling to get to know yourself better, here are some other great ideas:
Take a Career Test
When you have absolutely no idea of what you want to do, the best way to decide on a career is to take a career test. While most people say these are unreliable, when they are not used in isolation, they are actually a great tool to start with.
A helpful one is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). This test is amongst the most consistent and commonly used career tests out there, and can provide you with a lot of useful information in regards to how you make sense of the world, how you interact with other people, where you get your energy from and how you prefer to make decisions.
The MBTI helps you discover your unique personality type which is divided into 16 different combinations in terms of introversion/extraversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, and judgment/perception. Depending on your type, you can figure out which professions are the best for you.
Ask Other People
Another excellent idea is to start with asking your parents, friends or teachers to tell you what you are good at. Most of the time, we find it difficult to recognise what we are good at, and we often need encouragement. People from your inner circle can give you some useful and honest feedback on what your talents and inclinations are. However, they might be too gentle or praise you, so you might want to challenge them a bit. Don’t forget that you also need to learn what you are not good at – your weaknesses, apart from your strengths. This should help you eliminate a few career choices.
Examine Your Hobbies
Your hobbies can tell you a lot about who you are. In a way they make you who you are, they allow you some ‘me’ time during the day, take the grind away and help you recharge your batteries. When you are carrying out these activities, you are most likely to feel like you are in your natural habitat and you want to choose a career that makes you feel like that; a career that makes you happy and matches your interests. Besides, there are also many hobbies that you can easily turn into careers including photography, travelling, exercising, crafting, writing, dancing and playing music amongst others.
When trying to figure out your strengths and abilities, you can also think about the subjects that you enjoyed the most at school. These are more likely to be the ones that you found to be easy. Careers that are associated with these subjects might suit you well.
Step 2: Exploring Career Opportunities
Young people today go into careers that they know nothing about and end up hating them. To avoid this, it’s important to take the time to see what it is like to be in a particular profession. So, before you say yes to anything, look at individual job profiles.
While you may be good at many things, it’s often challenging to decide on a career that combines all of them or has everything you need. Since there is no such thing as the ‘perfect job’, here is what you should look out for to be able to tick off most of the boxes on your list:
Nature of the Work
Look at careers that require you to carry out activities you enjoy and can do well. This includes the daily responsibilities that you are expected to do as part of your job. Learn more about what a typical day is like in the role and try to imagine yourself in it.
- Talk to graduates and other professionals already working in the field.
- Get more information from students studying in your chosen area.
- Get to know what a job involves online e.g. study job descriptions on National Careers Service.
- Unpaid work e.g. volunteering, job shadowing (creative job hunting) or part-time jobs.
You should try to find out what parts of the job you like/don’t like or expect to be different. See what works and what doesn’t and choose a career that is more likely to satisfy you.
Working conditions describe the environment of the job. The profession you choose may be indoors or outdoors; it could even combine both. This also refers to the working hours and tells you how long you are expected to work per day/week. Most full-time jobs are eight hours per day, but there are others that have longer or night shifts e.g. surgeons, bartenders, casino workers, etc. So before you make a choice, you need to make sure that you are well aware of what you are signing up for.
Apart from skills, some professions have physical requirements which you may need to comply with. For example, some jobs require physical strength, carrying or lifting heavy objects or being in good physical shape. Quite often there are physical demands in terms of strength, motion parameters e.g. standing for extended periods of time, climbing stairs, kneeling (for cashiers and construction employees), specific height or weight measures and vision/hearing requirements. If you can’t meet these, it means that you may not qualify for the job.
Lots of people choose to go in a career that pays well, although this pretty much depends on your priorities and career expectations. While this is something that you have to examine, it can’t be the sole element that determines what career suits you best. You might want to research potential salaries to give you an idea of how much you are expected to make in the profession. But, you should know that earnings vary according to location and individual employers.
Just like some people care about the amount of money they make in their career, there are also others who care about social status. If you want to get into a highly respectable profession, you won’t settle for anything mediocre, only well-respected and prestigious career such as a doctor, pilot, or lawyer will do.
Writing them down on a piece of paper should help you decide whether certain professions are right for you or not. It will also save you from the hassle of having to go back and forth in jobs that you don’t like.
Step 3: Deciding on the Right Career
The next step is creating a list of the careers you are interested in. It’s important to evaluate these against what you have already, including the information that you acquired from your self-exploration and make a decision. Most people who are starting out will have a few options to choose from. You might want to look into available opportunities defined by the subjects you chose at school, your qualifications and A levels – if you have any.
So, when you narrow down your choices to approximately three or five careers that you are interested in, try to find out how to get into each one. More specifically, you need to look at the following:
- The different paths that you can take leading to the profession(s) you like.
- The different types of work that are available in the field you want to get into.
- The different majors/degrees you can go into e.g. which are accepted and which aren’t.
- The level of education you need to get into the industry/profession you want.
This information can be difficult to obtain without proper research, though the one person who can help you get the most out of it is a careers adviser. These professionals have both the knowledge and the experience you need to inform, advice, and guide you effectively into making the right decision. So if you are struggling with it, this might be good time to ask for help.
A career adviser will ensure that you are being realistic about your choices and can help you go through these essential elements. Not only that, but they will also answer all of the questions you may have in regards to the following:
Special Abilities Required
Every job requires a certain skillset made out of soft and hard skills. The soft skills otherwise known as ‘transferable’ are the skills you need in any job whereas hard skills are usually more difficult to acquire as they require more time and are needed for specific jobs or industries. It’s always wise to think about the abilities you need to equip yourself with to enter a profession as well as if there are any special requirements that come with it.
If you want to get into a specific field, you need to start preparing for it early on. Entry requirements are different from profession to profession, and it’s essential to get to know what you need to do to get there. This preparation includes finding out what qualifications you should obtain and how many years of studies/ training you need to complete. It will allow you to think about the time and the money you need to invest in the career and if you are willing.
Chances For Advancement
Not every profession has opportunities for career advancement, so it’s wise to take a look at possible patterns for promotion before you make a choice. Whereas in a business environment you would expect to move up the career ladder gradually, in some industries employers don’t promote their staff quick enough, and as a result, you only get to develop professionally through job hopping. Most professions would allow you to get promoted to a higher position by acquiring the abilities needed to advance and of course the years of experience.
Chances For Employment
The instability of the job market, ongoing socioeconomic changes and insecure nature of some professions are good reasons to consider the long-term employment prospects of an industry. Before you decide on a career, it’s a good idea to have a look at the job opportunities it provides. As time passes, it’s only natural that some industries will decline and others flourish. Getting into a field with limited job prospects is career suicide. On the other hand, fields like engineering, computer science, IT, healthcare and energy are expected to see a rise due to advanced technologies and new products being introduced.
The job market is another crucial element that you have to think about when choosing a career. It is made up of the public sector, private sector and voluntary sector. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages regarding demands, working hours and potential earnings, so you need to choose wisely.
- Public sector: organisations who work for the state e.g. local and national governments, agencies, chartered bodies.
- Private sector: mostly private-run, for-profit businesses that aren’t controlled by the government e.g. sole traders, partnerships and limited companies.
- Voluntary sector: not-for-profit and charity.
You also need to think about the different types of employment available so that it matches your personality and values. For example, do you want to work for someone else or yourself? Do you want to go to work for a set number of hours 5 days a week or whenever you like? Also, if you choose to work for someone else, who you would rather do so?
These are your options:
- SMEs: (Small to medium-sized enterprises): Organisations that have fewer than 250 employees. Although these might offer a low start salary and aren’t as popular as large employers, they offer excellent graduate opportunities.
- Large companies: Well-known national organisations that employ more than 250 employees. These often offer higher salaries, but may have longer hours and reduced flexibility.
- Self-Employment: Being your own boss, working freelance, opening your own business or buying into an existing business. While this sounds like an easy and attractive option, most of the time it needs more work than you think. Find out more information about starting your own business.
Step 4: Create an Action Plan
Learning how to make use of the opportunities that are presented to you plays a huge part in your decision making and career planning process. Ultimately, without any action, there can’t be any results. The planned happenstance theory supports the idea that social factors, chance events and environmental factors are important influences when choosing a career or even when trying to find a job.
This approach is appropriate in times of economic recession, unemployment and when there phenomenally aren’t many job opportunities in the industry – or industries, you are interested in. Planned happenstance is all about searching for hidden opportunities. So instead of waiting for fate to come and knock on your door and tell you what career you should go into, you need to become more proactive and creative in your approach, exploring alternative opportunities. Besides, you know how the saying goes; opportunities don’t happen, you create them.
Opportunities can come in many forms such as people, seminars, educational workshops, events or run-ins. Your job is to make sure that you are out there taking advantage of everything that comes your way. Networking can be a great help here by expanding your professional circle and introducing you to key people in the industry.
You need to start considering:
- Where are you now?
- Where you want to be?
- How you will get there?
These three questions will help you create your action plan and get you started. When you have finished your self-evaluation, decide what your goals are and then come up with a strategy to achieve them. The best approach is to break your goals down into smaller steps and then write them down.
Below there are some more practical elements that you have to think about to guide your action plan effectively:
- Where are you going to live/work? (Are you planning to relocate/travel?)
- How are you willing to work? (remote work or office job)?
- What are your long-term plans and how these are linked to the career you want to get into? (becoming a mum/dad, balancing work and life)
Whatever you choose to do, you should know that there is no wrong or right method. However, no career planning approach should be used in isolation. A holistic approach to career planning means using a combination of different theories to get more accurate results.
The three most important elements in choosing a profession are that you would be good at it, enjoy it and that it has good career prospects. Can you tell if you have made the right choice? Let us know in the comments section below…