If you’re very—and I mean very, very lucky—the golden pathway directly from college degree program to career is clear and easy, with few obstacles along the way. For many of us, though, that pathway is a rocky road. A competitive job market can make it difficult to land the position of our dreams. Some of us learn that a profession we’ve been pursuing for years no longer fits our needs and goals because it doesn’t pay the bills or our work–life priorities have shifted. And still others are uncertain from the start about which major or job best aligns with our skills and interests.
Finding a fulfilling career that feels like the right fit can take time and effort, and many of us have to undertake that exploration several times in our lives. So here are some questions to consider so you can gain clarity about which direction to follow. You might consider writing down your responses or recording your answers on your phone so that you can more easily review your reflections to create your career compass.
What do you love to do?
Think about the activities you most enjoy, from classes you’ve taken, extracurricular activities, hobbies, volunteer gigs, or jobs you had 2, 5, or 15 years ago. What energized you in a way and got you excited to focus on the task at hand? Do you get a thrill working with people, things, events, or specific subjects? Try to think narrowly—you may not have loved an entire job or activity, but note the specific aspects that excited and fulfilled you.
You might also survey the books, websites, blogs, podcasts, TV shows, movies, and events you watch, listen to, or participate in most regularly to get a better sense of the patterns in your interests and passions.
What are you good at?
Get honest with yourself: at which kinds of tasks do you truly excel? What are your best hard and soft skills? And don’t underestimate your abilities; we all have strengths! If you’re struggling to name them, ask friends, family, colleagues, classmates, or others who know you well to provide you with insight.
Keep in mind that what you love doing may not always correspond perfectly with your skills, talents, and abilities. However, you can always improve your skills in areas of work that you are passionate about by choosing classes, certificate programs, and other learning experiences to boost your proficiency.
What do you dislike doing?
Which activities leave you feeling drained, bored, or unengaged? You might consider whether these tasks involve people, things, or events. For example, some people really dislike group projects and event planning. Others feel challenged or uninterested in more independent assignments, such as running calculations, working through problems, or researching by themselves. What kinds of tasks are deal breakers for you?
Who do you want to work with?
Reflect on the type of people you most enjoy working with. Concentrate not so much on personality traits; instead, focus on the culture and attitudes that you’d like to surround yourself with or commit your work to. For example, maybe you like working with quirky creatives, go-getter tech savants, or social-justice advocates.
Think also about how you like to work with people. Do you prefer a highly social job with lots of team meetings and events? Or do you like working more independently and in relative isolation? Are you more of a decision-maker or manager? Do you consider yourself a super collaborator or someone who enjoys autonomy with little direction or supervision?
What mission do you want to work toward?
For example, you might want to work with creatives who are mission driven and devoted to serving underprivileged communities and social change. You might be most energized by working with entrepreneurs in a startup that’s invested in innovation or influencing customers. Or you might prefer to work with STEM professionals who are working to advance medical care. Choosing an organization whose mission aligns with your personal values can make work feel all the more fulfilling.
What salary do you need?
Think about the kind of salary you need to feel secure, live comfortably, and support yourself and/or your family. Once you have a ballpark figure of the kind of money you need to earn, you can use sites like the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Payscale, Glassdoor, LinkedIn, Salary.com, or Indeed to get a sense of the careers that fit your financial needs and goals.
What workstyle and lifestyle do you want?
You will also want to brainstorm other quality-of-life characteristics you’d like to have in your career.
For example, do you prefer to devote most of your time and energy to work? Do you thrive under the pressure of deadlines in a fast-paced and even competitive environment? Are you looking for a position that enables you to work remotely or travel frequently? Do you prefer fairly consistent work routines or a lot of variety in your assignments? Do you need a more flexible job that allows you to balance work and life in a specific way?
These are the kinds of phrases you can look for in job descriptions to see whether those positions fit your preferences. You may also need to chat with people in your potential career fields to get a better understanding of their work and nonwork lives to see whether it fits with your plans.
How stable a career field do you want?
Is there growing opportunity and/or competition in your potential career? Considering your desired profession’s outlook can help you decide whether it’s a path you want to pursue. You’ve probably heard or maybe know personally that certain manufacturing jobs are on the decline. Automation may displace other workers in years to come. But there is rising demand for nurses, software developers, and operations managers. Check out the Occupational Outlook Handbook to see where your field might be headed so you can assess whether it’s a stable enough market for you to enter.
What are your priorities?
After you’ve responded to these questions and done your research, you’ll need to prioritize which criteria matter most to you to determine which career might fit best. Granted, finding that job or career that meets all of our desires would be ideal, but it’s also rare.
So rank the above questions from least to most important. You can then get a sense of what will make the best fit for you. For example, you might ultimately care more about doing what you’re good at and the people you’ll be working with than the lifestyle you hope to lead. Or you might need to prioritize salary and job stability over doing what you enjoy most for your family’s sake. You may also decide to pursue what you love outside of work, such as in a volunteer role. Many people dedicate their employment to sustaining a lifestyle that allows them to pursue their passions outside of work hours.
What to do next
Once you’ve established your priorities, talk with friends, mentors, professors, coaches, or campus career counselors about industries and even particular companies that might fit your goals. You can also take a career assessment to help you narrow down your options. If you have a trusting relationship with your supervisor at work, chat with them about your motivations and goals. There might be opportunity to grow into a new role in your organization.
Next, research job descriptions to determine the skills, education, and training that are required so you can shore up your résumé. Start creating short- and long-term goals for shoring up your résumé to improve your chances of landing your desired job. For example, if you can afford the time and cost, seek internships, workshops, courses, or professional organizations that genuinely excite you. Set up job alerts using platforms like Indeed, LinkedIn, or Glassdoor. Then, start applying to jobs, and try contacting human resources departments at companies that intrigue you.
By conducting an honest assessment of your skills, motivations, passions, deal breakers, and salary needs, you can discover a satisfying career—and perhaps even multiple potential professional pathways—that will suit your interests, needs, and wants.
Discover your career pathway!
Every individual’s goals are different, and ReUp Success Coaches can provide the personalized support you need in terms of deciding on a degree program and brainstorming career pathways that make sense for you. They can also provide you with access to PathwayU, our free career assessment platform that matches your goals with specific degree programs and professions. Coaching is available by phone, text, or email. Ready to get started?