Figuring out how to choose a career can be quite intimidating. Even though it’s an incredibly important decision, you’ll often get conflicting advice on how to begin!
This guide breaks down the simple steps you can follow to decide on a career and move forward with confidence.
Table of contents
1. Do Some Self-Reflection
Choosing a career is a big deal, and it requires considerable thought. While nothing is ever set in stone, your decision will have a significant impact on the direction of your life for the foreseeable future.
And you can only make an important decision like that with self-reflection.
There’s a lot to think about, but the ultimate goal is to think about what you want out of your career and what type of work will make you feel most fulfilled. To help you get started with choosing a career, here are a few questions to ask yourself.
Does Anything Jump Out at You?
When trying to decide on a career, one of the first things you should think about is what stands out most to you. There’s a good chance that you have several paths that you’re leaning toward. But which ones do you gravitate toward?
Reflect on the careers that have always interested you. Maybe there are certain jobs that you thought would be interesting to have. Or perhaps there’s a field that you’re passionate about.
Whatever the case, start with these as potential paths to take. Leave out the jobs that others are pressuring you to take. While your career could impact others, what you pursue is your decision and yours alone.
Knowing that piques your interest is the first step in determining what path to take.
Think About What Motivates You
Another important part of self-reflection is considering your natural motivations. Everyone is motivated by different things, and you must determine what pushes you.
For some people, money is a major motivator. There’s nothing wrong with that. Knowing you need a good salary to live comfortably and stay driven will narrow your career choices and guide you in the right direction.
Others have motivations directly related to their future career. For example, you might be motivated by the opportunity to help others in a direct and hands-on way.
Your biggest motivation can also be not related to work. Many people are motivated by the opportunity to have a flexible schedule or take more time off throughout the year to be with their families.
Whatever the case for you, pinpoint those driving motivators. Tapping into what motivates you is a great way to ensure you’ll still feel fulfilled in your career decades into the future.
Consider How You Like to Spend Your Day
Here’s a big factor that can influence what career you choose. You’ll spend a significant amount of time chasing success in your career. The average person spends over 90,000 hours at work throughout their lifetime!
To remain happy and fulfilled, choose a career that allows you to spend your day how you like. Again, this can vary from person to person. Some people thrive in collaborative environments where they can bounce ideas off others and stay socially active.
However, others are natural introverts who would rather work alone or in the comfort of a remote home office (here’s a list of jobs that are great for these individuals).
It’s also wise to consider the physical aspects of a career. If you like to spend your day staying active and constantly moving, a career that requires you to sit at a desk for eight hours might not be the best choice.
Identify Your Values & Long-Term Goals
Finally, you need to identify your values and what career goals you want to achieve in the future. This is important because choosing a career is about finding something that makes you feel good about what you do. It should be a continual march to accomplish goals and be happy about how you spent your working years.
Your goals can evolve, but you should have a clear view of your goals. What will make you look back at your career with a sense of pride?
Do your values push you towards a need to help people? If so, you could pursue a career that revolves around doing good for others. For example, many people with similar goals pursue medicine, social work, and other related professions.
Your goal may be to provide the best life for your family as possible. In that case, your focus would be to find high-paying jobs that allow you to maximize your earning potential.
Alternatively, your long-term goals might not revolve around work at all. Instead, they could be about having the freedom to pursue all of life’s passions or chase a big dream later in life. There are plenty of careers that help you do that.
Understanding what you want to accomplish and how all that aligns with your personal values makes a difference.
Take a Career Assessment
Once you’ve done some self-reflection and figured out what’s important to you out of a career, consider taking a career assessment. Career assessments are a great way to narrow your options and see a list of professions aligning with your ambitions.
There are plenty of options out there. One good choice is the O*NET Interest Profiler. It’s the country’s biggest source of occupational information. The massive database contains information about hundreds of jobs.
The Interest Profiler is an assessment that connects your interests to specific jobs. While not the end-all-be-all of your decision, career assessments are a valuable resource that can make it much easier to decide on a career that you’ll find fulfilling.
2. Start Looking Into Specific Jobs
Next, you can create a shortlist of careers to explore using the information you learned about yourself through self-reflection and a career assessment. You likely have a list of options that interest you, so now is your time to research and learn more about each of them.
Look into specific jobs. Research their salaries and learn more about the day-to-day life of people working those jobs. Think about everything that matters to you and see how these professions stack up.
You should also research growth potential. Entry-level positions are how you get into specific industries. But many have branching paths leading you to other jobs and opportunities.
Your goal at this stage should be to learn as much as possible. The more you educate yourself on your options, the easier it will be to pick a career.
3. Identify Industries That Fit Your Criteria
Now it’s time to open up your research by looking at entire industries. As we mentioned earlier, many jobs will lead to bigger opportunities the further you take your career.
While an entry-level job may not appeal to you now, it could pave the way to what you ultimately want to do.
For example, you may have a goal to help people by running a non-profit. While you could get a job at an existing non-profit organization, non-profits serve almost every industry! There are non-profit organizations that address healthcare, technology, education, and more.
Knowing what industries fit your criteria can guide you in the right direction when choosing a career. Consider what’s important to you and find the industries that align the best. Then, learn as much as possible about those industries to see which ones are worth pursuing to reach your goals.
4. Determine What Education or Training You’ll Need
Educational requirements are a substantial barrier in many industries. You can sometimes get entry-level positions without much education. But if you want to continue growing in a specific field, you may have to invest in a degree or certification program.
Once you know what jobs and industries align most with your goals, research the required education and training. It’s nothing more than a high school diploma and hands-on training for some fields. For others, you have to get multiple degrees.
In some cases, you’ll need a degree to enter the industry and must continue to get additional training and certifications to advance over time.
Whatever the case, understand what you must do to pursue a career path. Then, determine if it’s feasible.
You may find that the educational requirements are a bit too steep in terms of time or money. That’s fine!
At the end of the day, that’s what this entire process is all about! It’s about figuring out what’s right for you, and education is a big investment you should consider before deciding on a career.
5. Get in Touch with Individuals Who are Where You Want to Be
Here’s where you go beyond online research and begin learning from people with in-depth knowledge about the careers that interest you. There’s no better way to gain more insight into a potential profession than by reaching out to those in the thick of it! Think about where you want to be and use that as a jumping-off point when talking with these professionals.
There are many ways to get in touch with others. To start, try your existing network. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you know people in the industries that appeal to you.
Alternatively, you can search through LinkedIn and connect with people that way. You’ll find that many people are more than willing to talk about their careers if you show passion and genuine interest.
You can even send cold emails. Get contact information from companies in the industries you like. While not everyone will respond, there’s a good chance that some will.
Once you connect with people who are where you want to be, ask those burning questions you want answers to. During your conversation, you can ask them how they got into the field, their day-to-day life, or some of these informational interview questions.
Use those connections to learn even more about possible career paths. As always, be respectful and conduct yourself with professional decorum. You may end up working with those people someday!
6. Get Started
Throughout your self-reflection and research, you should narrow down your options. Some careers will become less favorable the more you learn about them. Others will become even more interesting!
Once you’ve decided on a career, it’s time to get started and take steps to begin your professional journey.
Getting started can mean a variety of things. If you need additional education, there’s no better time than now. The sooner you take those steps, the sooner you’ll start your career.
Explore schools, talk to admissions teams, and invest in your future career.
If you don’t need additional education or training, starting your career will require you to craft the perfect resume and apply to jobs.
The job search can take some time. You’ll want to focus on finding the right employer and applying for jobs that meet your needs. But you might need to update your resume before you can do any of that.
If you do, emphasize relevant skills and strengths. If you have work experience, find ways to connect those jobs to the positions you want to land in your new career.
Apply to as many jobs as possible (without compromising on the quality of your applications), and don’t be afraid to use your network to find new opportunities.
7. Never Stop Learning
Choosing a career and landing your first job is an achievement all on its own. But you should never rest on your laurels. It’s just the beginning!
Never stop learning and finding new challenges. Set new goals, expand your horizons to keep learning, and challenge yourself.
Finding a career you’re passionate about is just half the battle. You still need to find ways to stay motivated and feel fulfilled. The best way to do that is to keep pushing yourself in your new profession.
Continuing to grow and learn will help you reach your full potential. It’ll highlight new goals worth pursuing and give you new ways to feel fulfilled and happy with your choices.
Now that you know how to choose a career and pick something that appeals to you, it’s time to start going through the process yourself. Do some self-reflection, look into opportunities, and talk with people who already have the career you want.
Following these steps will give you insight, clarity, and confidence to move forward with the right career path for you.
Hannah Morgan speaks and writes about job search and career strategies. She founded CareerSherpa.net to educate professionals on how to maneuver through today’s job search process. Hannah was nominated as a LinkedIn Top Voice in Job Search and Careers and is a regular contributor to US News & World Report. She has been quoted by media outlets, including Forbes, USA Today, Money Magazine, Huffington Post, as well as many other publications. She is also author of The Infographic Resume and co-author of Social Networking for Business Success.