Saturday, September 17, 2011

What Career to Pursue?

Even if you've been an adult for a long time, it's probably not your fault if you still don't know what you want to be when you grow up. Reasonably, you assumed school would help you figure out what career to pursue. Alas, teachers and especially professors, live in an ivory tower, so most are ill-suited to helping you find a career. And even most students who go to their school's career center leave still unsure what they want to do.

After that, most people take whatever job they can get, and then with the golden handcuffs of having experience in one field are reluctant to change careers.

Or the career searcher reads a career guide or sees a career counselor who administers some "tests," such as the Myers-Briggs or Strong Interest Inventory, both of which are notable for their lack of predictive validity.

Or a career counselor or self-help book helps you identify your abilities and interests and then a matching career. That approach often fails because:
  • None of your abilities and interests stand out from the rest.
  • You identify abilities but those apply to too many jobs, like "people skills."
  • You identify an ability or interest that's unlikely to yield a decent living, for example, painting or singing.
  • A career fits your abilities and interests but somehow feels wrong.
  • You identify a career interest that is of interest to half the population: for example, the environment.
The following offers a better approach to finding a career:

Step 1. Scan annotated lists of careers in such guides as the Occupational Outlook Handbook, or my book, Cool Careers for Dummies.

For even more under-the-radar but currently in-demand careers, go to and search on a work-related skill you'd like to use in your work, for example, writing, analyzing, organizing, selling, or programming. Pick out the one, two, or three careers you find most intriguing.

Step 2. Google the name of that career and the word "careers," for example, "geologist careers." or "writing careers." Read a few articles that seem on-point.

Step 3. For any career that still seems interesting, search Amazon for a book on that career. In the best such books, each chapter is a different person's report on what it's like in that career.

Step 4. For any career that remains of interest, job shadow at least three (one or two might give unrepresentative perspectives) people in the field. Find them in the Yellow Pages, on the website of the profession's professional association, for example, The American Optometric Association, your alumni association, or simply ask your in-person or LinkedIn or Facebook network for referrals.

While you're job shadowing, ask questions such as, "What's your typical day like?" "What ends up being most important for success in this career?" "Why might someone leave this career?" and "What's the best way to get training so you're excellent in this career?"

Step 5. If a career still sounds good, choose it even if you're not 100 percent sure. Otherwise, you're likely to be waiting for Godot. Usually, career contentment comes only after you've entered the career and, like a great-looking suit, tailored and accessorized to fit you.

For example, career and life coaching fit me only moderately but I now love it, in large measure because I adapted it to fit me: I made nonnegotiable that I'd work from home and that I'd be a more active participant in sessions than is the typical counselor who mainly just listens. I also stayed committed to getting better and better rather than giving up after a couple of years of mediocre performance.


ST said...

Instead of relying on the Myers-Brigg or Strong Interest Inventory, it is worth it to invest several hundred dollars on a battery of tests given at the Johnson O'Connor Institute located in several cities (I just did it in Chicago). It is quite a chunk of change for many people, especially if unemployed or just starting out with little money. But, with the money people spend on school, it's a drop in the bucket and not much more than ONE credit in a typical college course of usually 3 or 4 credits total.

Of course, this will not test your people and other soft skills that you may have, but it tests innate abilities that usually don't change much over time. If you are really good working with numbers, but not so good with memorizing words, maybe it's not a good idea to go into a field like a multilingual translator, but maybe an accountant. It could help a young person or career changer from making a big mistake in direction instead of listening to what's "hot", what makes a lot of money, or what a parent, teacher or the media's pet career is.

They measure about 20 abilities. I did really bad on some, so that's good ... I know (and have known) not to go into fields that use those abilities. I did pretty well on numerical measures (and was told that's why I got a math degree, not that the math degree made me good with numbers) and visualizing 3-D things, which of course translates into engineering type fields. I also did well on learning new languages, so that's probably why my interest in learning foreign languages, but also the many computer languages I've learned over the years. The big whammy for me though, is a thing they call "ideaphoria", where they measure how many ideas you can crank out in a period of time. Not always good ideas, but ideas. I know I love to think, solve puzzles and ponder about many things, so that's probably part of it. Every time I would tell the facilitator about a certain field that I thought I'd get bored in and that's why I never went into it, she kept pointing at my score in ideaphoria and said, "You need to keep thinking of ideas, that's why, doing the same thing over and over doesn't cut it for you".

I also tested really high in clerical ability, but that's the type of thing that can be used in almost any career, and it usually means you're a good student in the kind of learning that requires a lot of "paper work".

The reality for me though, in the last five years or so, is that in my job I did do a lot of the same thing over and over (utilizing clerical ability, attention to details and balancing numbers in a logical flow), but it was the ideas I had to come up with to get that logic problem to work out that kept me interested for five years.

Marty Nemko said...

Thanks, ST.

At least among my clients, most have found that it didn't teach them enough about themselves of value or that they didn't already know beforehand, and it is expensive and time-consuming.

Frustrated Fed said...

I took the Johnson O'Connor test here in DC and it was a waste of time and money. It showed I had an aptitude for nothing!


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