Learn How to Choose a Career With These 4 Easy Steps

Choosing a career, at any stage in life, has its challenges.

Perhaps you’ve got a fancy new bachelor’s degree (congratulations!) and have no idea where to begin. Or maybe you’re looking for a change of pace, and you need help figuring out what to do next.

Whatever your starting point, making a decision of this magnitude can be intimidating. But remember: There are ways to ease the pressure.

How to Choose a Career Path That’s Right for You

Here’s a guide to figuring out what career path to embark on.

Step 1: Figure Out What You Like

In today’s world, you can make a career out of anything.

Start by asking yourself this basic question: “What do I like?”

At this point, don’t consider salary needs, lifestyle accommodations or any other factors. (We’ll get to those later.)

For now, just think about what you wouldn’t mind doing for a long time. Do you like being in nature? Talking to people? Do you enjoy more creative- or analytics-based tasks?

As you answer these questions, allow yourself time to figure it out.

“You’re not going to find out what you want to do as a career right away. The more you do one thing and the better you get at it, the more you’ll like something,” explains Jason Patel, the founder of Transizion, a college and career prep company. “You’ll have to work a bunch of jobs, perhaps, to find out what career suits you.”

Take a Career Test

To give yourself a boost, try taking a career assessment. These tests are designed to draw out your interests and align you with career options that fit your personal attributes.

“Career assessments can, at the very least, act like a flashlight in a dark force,” says Patel. “It won’t provide you with the exact destination or where to go, but what it’ll help you do is find a direction that you should go in.”

Career tests are great for identifying your strengths. Just because you like health sciences doesn’t mean you’d enjoy being a nutritionist. But, you could be perfectly suited for something else in the health field.

“Once you find what the results are in a career assessment, you can go on to explore the options that you get,” Patel says.

Here are some assessments to help you get started:

You’ll find that these tests can be costly, but there are ways around that.

If you’re still in college, take advantage of the free services that your university’s career development office offers. When you become an alumnus, they’ll continue to offer free or discounted services to help remedy that post-grad anxiety.

But what if you’re jumping back into the workforce? Loren Margolis, the founder and CEO of a global leadership development consultancy Training & Leadership Success, suggests seeking services in your community.

“In every major community, there are locally or nationally based non-profits that are also tied into the federal government that give free career coaching or heavily discounted career coaching or counseling — especially if people are later on in their career and they’ve been laid off,” she says.

For example, she says, the New York-based Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services offers job development programs to those needing a helping hand as they re-enter the workforce.

If community organizations aren’t available, you can find free coaching online. A great example is Goodwill Industries International’s free career navigation platform, GoodProspects. Once you register on the site, it will help you explore career paths, and you’ll gain access to guidance and advice from career coaches to help you determine if what you’re looking for is right for you.

Step 2:  Consider the Important Factors

Think fast: What do you want out of your career? What are your values?

Ideally, a career should sustain, progress and enhance your life for years to come. In other words, the objective is growth — not necessarily wealth.

On the other hand, Margolis advises career hunters to “keep in mind what you need in your life right now.” If that’s money, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s important to be realistic, she says, so finding something that aligns with your lifestyle is key.

While you’re at it, include work/life balance, availability of jobs, training and education (will this career choice land you in lots of debt?) into the mix.

Consider whether your current lifestyle can support your career choice. What are your short- and long-term goals? These answers will be different if you’re just starting out in your career, versus someone who has been in the workforce and is making a change.

If you’re thinking “over my dead body” to the thought of seven or more years of higher education (read: more debt), becoming a psychologist probably won’t be your idea of a good time.

Step 3: Research Potential Career Paths

Thoroughly reading job descriptions is crucial. Take advantage of the insight they provide to assess whether you can and want to do what’s being requested.

As you research, pay attention to what’s piquing your interests. Do this until you have a few career options that really fit your needs, wants and goals.

This is where you start networking. “Don’t hesitate to reach out to people who are working in an area that you’re thinking about targeting,” explains Margolis. “Nothing substitutes for actually hearing from the people themselves who are working in that area.”

Before you know it, you’ll be ready to apply for jobs. That includes preparing your resume and cover letter.

Do Your Research Through the Bureau of Labor Statistics

The Bureau of Labor Statistics. offers useful information on thousands of professions.

For example, the page for radiation therapists has a chart showing that the median wage for this job in 2019 was $85,560 per year (or $41.14 per hour), that there were 18,500 of these jobs in 2019 and that there is a projected job growth outlook of 7% in the next 7 years — and that’s just a sliver of the full scope.

The BLS database can be a bit confusing, so try this Google search method to find direct links to the professions you’re looking up. To get as much information as possible, do both of these searches, and be sure to include the brackets:

  • {job title} bls ooh: This should pull up the appropriate page from the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), which is where you’ll find all the information described above. Look for results that have “ooh” in the URL.
  • {job title} bls oes: This search will lead you to the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) for that position. These pages will share data collected on wage and employment estimates for over 800 careers.

Though the BLS is a good place to start, you can get a better feel of what a job entails by using Google to search for personal experiences, and to gather information on specific niches. For example, BLS information covers electricians, but it’s not broken down by residential versus commercial, and the work can be quite different.

To do this, try a number of searches using search terms like these, with and without quotation marks:

  • “I’m a {job title}”
  • “what a {job title} does”
  • “being a {job title}”
  • “my experience as a {job title}”

Consider Apprenticeships

Apprenticeship programs are a great way to explore a new career, or you can use them to enter a career you’re already interested in.

Considered an alternative pathway, these programs range from one to six years, and they offer individuals an entrance into fields that typically require special licensing and/or higher education. While this model has historically been used in building trades (such as plumbing and carpentry), other industries like IT and health carenow offer a range of apprenticeship opportunities.

A major perk is that you get paid, on-the-job training to prepare for a future in the field of your choosing, so you’re not wasting time and you’re earning money. To learn more, check out how software engineer Shawn Farrow turned an apprenticeship into a full-time position with an annual salary of over $75,000.

Step 4: Beware of These Mistakes

Like most things, choosing a career has its do’s and don’ts. To avoid falling prey to preventable mistakes, beware of these faux pas that could derail the process:

  • Choosing salary over work/life balance: Dollar signs with lots of zeros behind them are lovely, but money shouldn’t be the driving factor of your career choice. What you gain financially could cost you in other areas of your personal life, but it all comes down to what kind of life you envision for yourself.
  • Choosing a career with little to no growth: In your research, look out for indications of growth — and don’t be afraid to ask about it in interviews. Is there a continued path, or is it a dead-end position? If you’re driven by incentives like promotions and salary raises, pay attention to whether some industries offer ladders for you to climb.
  • Not being adequately prepared: Margolis warns that if you’re more senior, or even mid-level in your career, and you’re reaching out to people who are currently in your field of interest, you need to have the answers to questions like, “what does a typical work week look like?” Or, “what does the job entail?” Those questions are more suitable for young professionals just starting out, and the professionals on the answering end of your questions expect you to go in knowing base level information.
  • Not making use of available resources: Sheehy advises that all students and young professionals take advantage of career assessments and strengths tests. “Since they’re free for you, why not receive professional assistance to broaden your view of career options? You could be missing out on some opportunities.

This whole career search thing isn’t so bad, right?

Happy hunting!

Farrah Daniel is a former editorial assistant at The Penny Hoarder. 

This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, a personal finance website that empowers millions of readers nationwide to make smart decisions with their money through actionable and inspirational advice, and resources about how to make, save and manage money.

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