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How To Choose A Career: 6 Steps to Know Your Path

It is time to choose a career or make a change? Knowing where to start and how to proceed can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be!

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The average person will spend up to a third of their life at work – 90,0001 hours! 

And while 65% of employees2 in the US are satisfied with their jobs, only 20% say they are passionate about their jobs. 

If you’re not part of that 20%, you may be wondering, “How do I join that exclusive club?”

What Does It Mean To “Choose A Career”?

Choosing a career is the decision to pursue a job or profession that will allow you to earn a living. It will impact how you occupy most of your waking hours and your financial stability, future opportunities, job satisfaction, and work/life balance. 

Phew. That’s a lot for one decision! 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, that’s ok. It is a big decision. But there are also ways to make the process easier. 

The average American today changes careers 5 to 7 times!

The advancement of technology and relative ease of relocation (no need to take a wagon across the plains) means access to satisfying career opportunities is greater than ever. 

1. Start With Self-Evaluation 

When considering career options, you’re going to want to consider a wide variety of factors, including your: 

  • Values
  • Personality
  • Skills
  • Passions
  • Long-term goals
  • Risk tolerance
  • Current and desired opportunities 

The hard part about choosing a career is that no solution or process can answer the question for you. Each of the factors above will affect what career options are a good fit for you. 

What’s more, these are not static factors. While your values and personality may stay fairly consistent, you will continue to develop skills and be exposed to new opportunities that change your interests and goals. 

Three significant factors make up the components of “dream job” status. They are: what you love, what you’re good at, and what pays well. 

A diagram showing three significant factors that make up the components of "dream job" status. They include: what you love, what you're good at, and what pays well. 

Source: The Honesty Experiment

Finding a job that satisfies all three categories requires time, self-evaluation, and substantial research into potential careers. 

Of the three categories above, you’ll notice that two of them are directly tied to your preferences and skills. 

Sounds like a good place to start!

There are countless resources to help you identify your skills, interests, and values. 

A resource I’ve used personally is the book What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard N. Bolles. It’s a book that goes beyond how to write a resume and interview (though it does cover that). 

The book starts by giving prompts that help you identify your passions, strengths, values, and highest priorities. It then guides you through how to use that information to focus on finding a career that satisfies as many of those areas as possible. 

I’d been working in university administration for four years. I liked my boss and my colleagues and had a pension, for crying out loud! Still, I knew it wasn’t the right fit for my passions and goals. 

After dedicating an entire Christmas break to working through the book, I ended up with a clear vision that what I really wanted to do was discover and share stories that matter. Less than a year later, I’d transitioned out of administration and into the film industry, where the hours were longer, the pay was lower, and I was enjoying my work more regularly than I had in years. 

The search for a meaningful career is a fairly recent construct in society. The industrial revolution shifted work from the subsistence-based farming communities to a translation relationship of work for pay. 

Recently, modern employees have found more satisfaction in having a meaningful career than in making money. When asked, American employees said they’d be willing to give up as much as 23%3 of their entire future lifetime earnings for a job that would continue to be meaningful.

2. Figure Out Your Priorities

This category includes discovering and evaluating your values, interests, personality traits, and tolerances. 

Start by making a list of things you know about yourself. For example, you might write down:

  • What is most important to me? This could be family, friends, learning, spirituality, financial security, etc. 
  • What are my top priorities? Where do you spend your most time and energy, and where do you want to focus in the future? 
  • What are my core beliefs? These could be things like courage, patience, friendship, honesty, etc. 
  • What gets me out of bed in the morning? What motivates you to work hard and keep going when things are difficult? 
  • What are my strengths? These could be hard skills (computer programming, writing, rocket science calculations) or soft skills (leadership, teamwork, conflict resolution). 
  • What are my weaknesses? Knowing the areas where you struggle and having a plan to improve them is a valuable tool when considering a career. 
  • What kind of person do I want to be? If you wrote a eulogy for who you’d like to be when you pass away, what would it say? What would be the same as you are now? What would be different? 
  • What are my preferences and tolerances? Are you risk-averse and want a stable career, or do you thrive on change? 

You might also consider using online assessments like the Core Values Index, 16 Personalities, and our science-based Personality Quiz

No single evaluation will be able to fully capture who you are, but as you take several assessments, you’ll begin to notice patterns. Those are the more integral parts of your personality and should be considered as you evaluate career options.  

Once you’ve taken time to self-assess, you should now have a sense of the few things that are most important for you, and this will help narrow down career options based on what will be the best match for your preferences.

3. Research Career Options 

Now you can start exploring industries, fields, and jobs that match your priorities. As you learn more about potential career options, take time to think about the resources and support at your disposal. 

As discussed in our article, How Your Parents’ Career Choices Affect Your Own Choices, people are more likely to choose a career that matches that of their parents. If you’re considering a career in the same field as a parent, or someone you know,  you may have a valuable resource to help you get a clear sense of the day-to-day work you could expect.   

A four-year university experience is a fairly common route after high school (even if you’re well into your career already). As you think about higher education, consider these questions: 

  • How much debt am I willing to take on for up to 21 years4 after I graduate? 
  • Will I take advantage of the university’s networking potential for future job opportunities? 
  • Does the career I’m considering require a degree? 

While American society emphasizes higher education, there are many situations where something other than a four-year college is a better option. 

Trade schools5,hygienists%2C%20veterinary%20technicians%20and%20plumbers. or vocational schools offer hands-on training for specific careers such as medical assisting, pharmacy tech, dental assisting, plumbing, electrical, and veterinary tech. They tend to be more affordable than a four-year university. They teach skilled trades, which provide greater job stability during recessions and higher salaries later in a person’s career.   

Trade schools target the curriculum to help their students pass licensing exams so they can start working directly out of the two-year program and often provide a structured apprenticeship program. 

4. Dreamstorm Career Options 

  • Go online and search “career options for…” and add in the top priorities from your self-assessment. 
  • Look for career aptitude tests that evaluate your personality and offer suggestions that match your preferences. 
  • Send an email to friends, family, and co-workers asking for their input. You can say, “I’m thinking about where I want to go with my career, and you’re one of the people who knows me well. If you could imagine me in any type of work, what do you think would be a good fit?” 

If you want to find the right career for the long term, you might consider investing in People School to help identify and develop the skills to get you there.

5. Research Industry and Career Options

Once you have a list to get started, it’s time to research! Proper research can be time-consuming but can save you in the long run by being well-informed and having a clear path. 

The goal of researching the different industries you’ve identified is to narrow your options to ones that will fit those three factors: what you love, what you’re good at, and what pays well.

  • Use the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook to research the job outlook and trends for the careers you’re considering. You’ll also be able to see what kind of training or education is expected for the career. 
  • Check salaries on in your area or the area you’re considering working in. The salary range for a role can vary by region and may be a factor in your decision process later on. 
  • Research education and training. Industries like education emphasize degrees. Health and fitness coaching puts a premium on certifications. The arts tend to focus more on in-field experience. What would you need to be a competitive applicant? 
  • Talk to people working in the field you’re interested in. Ask them what they like about their job and what makes it hard. 
  • Review job descriptions in the industries you’ve identified and see if the descriptions match what you envisioned the job would be. 

You may find in your research that while you love the idea of hosting people as an event planner, it involves a lot of spreadsheets and budgeting (a skills weakness), as well as many nights and weekends that would take you away from your family (a top priority).

If you’ve eliminated most of your options at the end of this process, fantastic! You only actually need one career at a time, right? 

 6.  Do Informational Interviews

Once you’ve narrowed down your potential options to just one or two solid choices, it’s time to gain the relevant experience and skills that will allow you to get a job successfully. You can do this with an informational interview. An informational interview is a conversation with someone in the industry, field, or company you’re interested in. 

Many professionals are willing to talk about their experiences and offer insight and guidance. In many cases, they received similar support early in their career and are eager to pay it forward. 

  1. Start by researching potential interviewees. They may be someone you know personally, a referral from a friend or associate, a contact in a networking organization or a college alum group, or someone you admire in the company or field. Tell them who you are, if you have a connection, and briefly explain why you’re interested in talking to them. Even if you have no personal connection, you can still reach out to people doing what you want. There are many people who will agree to an interview just to help someone new in the field. 

For example: “Hi! My name is Crystal. Jessica gave me your contact information. I’ve been looking into a career as a Disney Imagineer, and Jess said you’ve been working there for 12 years. Would you be willing to have a brief informational interview so I can ask you about your experience?”

  1. Do your homework before the interview. This person is generously offering their time and attention to let you talk to them. Make the most of your time by researching their background and the company they work for and preparing questions relevant to them and specific to their experience. 
  2. During the interview, introduce yourself and explain what you hope to learn and why you’re interested. Be professional and polite. Again, they probably set aside their work and commitments to talk with you. Ask open-ended questions (that can’t be answered in just one word), and actively listen. Take notes of things that you want to remember and research later. 

For example: How was your career path different from what you expected? What advice do you have for someone just starting out? What skills should I develop to be successful in this field? What is the most satisfying part of your job? What is the hardest? 

Bonus Tip: Ask if there is someone else they recommend you talk with to learn more. Not everyone will offer the information, but most people can think of another person who may be willing. If you ask, they may be willing to make an introduction, which makes it more likely the next person will respond. 

  1. Send a follow-up message after the interview thanking the person for their time. Mention one or two things they said that stood out to you, and consider keeping in touch with them as you continue in your career. People often enjoy getting a brief message about how their conversation motivated and inspired someone else’s career.

For example:

Dear Mr. Smith, 

Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me yesterday. I loved hearing about how it took 5 career changes to find your current role – it gives me hope! I went home last night and bought the book you recommended. I’m excited to start reading it! And thank you for offering to introduce me to Patricia. I look forward to meeting her as well. 

Thanks again for your time, and I’ll keep you posted!

Bonus Tip: If you can find their mailing address, send a handwritten letter instead of an email. There are many benefits to handwritten messages6,you%20value%20your%20business%20relationship., including showing you care and setting yourself apart.

7. Consider Shadowing 

Shadowing is when you follow a professional during part or all of their regular work day. It’s an excellent opportunity to see the day-in-day-out work, not just the job’s most exciting or obvious details. 

The process for shadowing is very similar to setting up an informational interview. There are just a few additional things to keep in mind: 

  • Set a time and date that works for you and the person you’re shadowing. Be respectful of their schedule. They may have deadlines or other commitments that would be hard to fulfill with you looking over their shoulder. 
  • Dress appropriately. If you aren’t sure what is appropriate for the environment, ask beforehand. 
  • Be observant of what is going on around you. There may be times when it’s appropriate and encouraged for you to ask questions, while in other moments, it’s better to take notes of what’s going on and ask questions later. Again, if you’re unsure, go ahead and ask. 

8. Find Mentors

A mentor is one of the most valuable resources you can have entering a new field. These can be official mentorships through university or trade school programs or informal relationships with people established in their careers. 

Mentors can provide guidance, advice, and support as you embark on your career and can be a sounding board when you have questions or concerns. 

A mentorship can be as formal as regular meetings to discuss and evaluate career goals or as casual as an occasional phone call or message on Linkedin. 

I have a mentor who I meet up with for hot chocolate or ice cream every few months, and we chat about things going on at my work and how I can keep moving my career forward. 

Finding a mentor is similar to finding someone to interview or shadow, and involves identifying someone who may be a good fit for your needs and interests, then reaching out to request time to talk. If you are an alum of a university or trade school, there may be an alumni organization you can contact to find other alumni in your field. 

Social media platforms often have industry groups you can join and meet others in the local industry. 

Often, the people willing to do interviews and shadowing will be a natural fit for mentoring.

9. Get Experience 

There is a catch-22 in many fields: you need to be in the industry to get experience, but you can’t get experience until you are in the industry. 

One way to handle this is by looking for internship and volunteer opportunities and developing transferable skills, which build your resume and offer practical experience.  

You can research internships online, through universities and trade schools, or directly through a company. Start with a large search engine like Indeed, Glassdoor, or Linkedin and filter by internships in your area. If you are interested in a specific company, check their website for internship openings on their job page.  

You can also network in person or through social media to find leads. Internships can be competitive, so you’ll want to research when the application period opens and apply early. 

Similarly, volunteer opportunities are a great way to develop practical skills and demonstrate your abilities and dedication. If there is a company that you are interested in, but they don’t have positions open, you could offer to volunteer your time to help out with a specific project in exchange for the experience and insight you can gain from the team. 

While volunteering can be a great way to get started, knowing the value of your skills is essential so you don’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of because you’re willing to work for free. 

As you gain more experience, it’s time to envision your future in this career. One excellent option is developing a professional development plan with the skills, strategy, and education you need to further your career and achieve your professional goals.

Ready to start planning your professional development?

Use our free worksheet to get started on your Professional Development Plan.

10. Apply For Your First Job In A New Field

When applying for jobs, here are a few things to keep in mind: 

Prepare Your Industry’s Standard Application Requests

For creative fields like animation, illustration, or video editing, hiring managers are primarily interested in seeing portfolio examples of your work. If your style matches their project well, they will care more about the experience you put on your resume. 

In the consulting field, on the other hand, hiring managers are likely to give priority to applicants with experience working with notable clients. 

For actors, all applications should include a headshot with their experience on the back. 

In education, information is collected in a Curriculum Vitae, or CV, and includes a list of every published article and one’s entire academic history. 

Research how information should be presented, and develop your resume accordingly. For ideas, check out How to Get a Job You Really Want: From Resume to Interview

Tailoring Is Key

Sometimes, it feels like you have to crank out endless applications to get a job. On average, it takes 21-80 applications to get one offer. But taking time to tailor each resume and cover letter to the job description can help distinguish your application and lower the number of applications you ultimately have to send.  

Cover letters are usually the first thing a hiring manager will look at. It’s worth an extra 20-30 minutes per application to carefully review the job description and customize your cover letter to include the specific key works that appear in the description. 

For example, suppose the job description mentions a need for website management. In that case, you might include a sentence that says, “One of the many skills I’ve developed outside my experience in project management is website maintenance, including being the point of contact for a redesign of the company website.”  

A cover letter should be no more than one page (preferably less). The purpose of your cover letter is to intrigue them enough to want to read your resume.

One way to help this along is by including the phrase, “As you’ll see in my resume, I have experience with….” 

You might consider creating a master resume that includes all your work experience, skills, education, relevant activities, and interests. Once you have that, format your resume with a header summary statement (if relevant to your industry) and proper formatting style that you can then populate and modify for each application. 

As long as you’re applying to jobs in the same field, the changes to the resume should be minor, but switching out one or two experiences could be the difference between having an emphasis on project management or web design. 

The purpose of your resume is not to get you a job; it’s to get you an interview. 

Again, for more details on crafting a resume, check out How to Get a Job You Really Want: From Resume to Interview

Give Them Everything They Ask For

When faced with the task of reviewing dozens or even hundreds of applications for a single position, some hiring managers won’t look at an application missing any piece of the requested information. It is an early sign the applicant wasn’t interested enough in the position to read and follow instructions.

Before you submit your application, put it side by side with the job description and make sure it includes any of the following information that was requested:

  • Resume
  • Cover Letter
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • List of References
  • Portfolio (including their preferred format, whether that is a URL link or an uploaded video, or PDF)

Make Yourself Available for Interviews 

If your cover letter and resume did their jobs, you’d be contacted about an interview. It may be a video, phone, or in-person interview. 

Science of People has all sorts of resources for preparing for different types of interviews: 

If you want to stand out, send a message to your interviewer after the fact and thank them for their time. 

Don’t use it as another plug for the job – they know why you are reaching out! But only one in four interviewees sends a follow-up thank you message, yet 80% of hiring managers7,were%20helpful%20when%20reviewing%20candidates. found it useful for reviewing applications. 

It can be as simple as: 

Dear (Interviewer’s Name), 

Thank you again for the opportunity to meet with you yesterday. I loved getting to meet the team! I especially appreciate your willingness to talk about your experience growing your career in the company and our common passion for classic movies. 

I look forward to hearing from you soon. 


(Your Name)

What If You Get A Rejection Letter? 

So, what if you really wanted to work at that company, went through the whole process, and made the shortlist but didn’t get offered the job? 

It happens. 

And it stinks. 

Before you take rejection personally, consider this: 

  • Hiring managers receive an average of 250 applications8,after%20having%20three%20job%20interviews. for a single corporate job. 
  • While the job description will give a general sense of what the team is looking for, sometimes there are specific skill sets that they need to hire in order to balance the team. 
  • Just because they didn’t hire you doesn’t mean they didn’t want to and never will. 

You do still have a few options for how to move forward. If you feel like you could be a good fit for the company, you might choose to reach out one more time. You can send a polite, professional email follow-up to the rejection letter that is something like this: 

Dear (Hiring Manager’s Name), 

Thank you again for the opportunity to meet the team in person. I know the search to fill the role must have been intense, and I appreciate your time and consideration in looking over my application as well as meeting with me. 

Given how quickly I connected with the team, I’m disappointed I won’t have an opportunity to work with them, but if in the future there is a position that I might be a good fit for, I’d welcome the chance to apply again. 

If there is anything about my skill set or experience that I can work on in the meantime to be better prepared for a future opportunity, I would appreciate feedback on where I can focus my energy. 

Thanks again, and I hope our paths cross again. 


(Your Name)

Making Your Decision

What if, after all this effort, time, and nights running on Red Bull to submit applications, you DO get offered a job? 

What now? 

Do you take it without a second thought because who knows when the next offer may come? 

No, not necessarily. 

Or what if you end up with multiple job offers and you have to choose?!?

If that’s the case, congratulations! 

Now, do you remember where we started this conversation – talking about your self-assessment and what are your values and priorities? 

It’s time to pull out that list again. 

  • Make a side-by-side comparison of the job offer(s) you have with how they align with your personality, values, and long-term goals. 
  • Decide which offer best fulfills the Venn diagram of what you love, what you’re good at, and what pays well. 
  • Seek guidance and insight from family, friends, mentors, and career counselors. 

And remember, it’s possible that you make a choice that is good for now, even if it’s not your ultimate career goal. 

Launching Your Career

Let’s go over some highlights of how to choose a satisfying career:

  1. Self-Evaluation: Begin by taking some time to reflect on your priorities, values, strengths, and weaknesses. Use these as guideposts for determining what career opportunities to pursue. 
  2. Research Career Options: Once you know yourself, it’s time to learn about the industry. Write down any career paths that interest you, then research the specifics of that field and compare it to your own priorities from your self-evaluation. 
  3. Prepare For Your Career: Once you’ve narrowed down the options, learn as much as you can about the details of the field by asking for informational interviews, shadowing, and seeking out mentors. 
  4. Apply in Your Field: Learn what is standard practice in the industry and prepare your resume and necessary portfolio examples accordingly. Tailor each application, and ensure that you give all materials requested in the job description. 
  5. Handling Rejection: With so many applicants for every job, chances are good you will end up getting rejection letters. By ensuring you have represented yourself accurately and given them everything they asked for, you can be assured that it’s nothing to take personally. 
  6. Making Your Decision: Once you have that elusive job offer, take time to compare the offer with your initial self-evaluation. This will allow you to make sure your new job will satisfy the most important priorities in your life. 

For an extensive guide to developing your career, check out 13 Career Training Strategies For Greater Success.

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