How Do You Know if a Future Career is Right for You? Try it Out!

October 24, 2018
Elena M. SanchezDirection Finding

There are some people that know, from their first day of kindergarten, exactly what they want to be when they grown up. They declare, “I want to be a marine biologist!” on their first day of school (the number one career choice of all fellow dolphin lovers when I was in fifth grade), go through their educational career focusing on natural sciences, and then happily live out their days at a research station on the coast. Most people, however, either have no clue what they want to be or they want to be 200 different things and aren’t sure how to whittle that number down.  

Just like choosing a college to attend or city to move to, the best way to know if a career is right for you is to try it out first. How can you do this?  It’s not plausible to have 20 different, in-depth internships so check out the following things you can do in addition when deciding which career path is right for you.

Do your research

If you’re a student, you probably already have some pretty nifty research skills. Use those in the search for your ideal career! To start, get organized before you even begin. Make a spreadsheet with columns titled ‘Job Title’, ‘Organization Name’, ‘Pros’, ‘Cons’, ‘More Information’, and ‘Contact Person’. Feel free to add any other categories that might be important to you. This way, as you begin researching, you’ll have somewhere to put any interesting information you find instead of leaving 35 tabs open on your browser for the next week.

If you just want to learn the basics about a variety of careers, you can start off by looking at the ‘Occupational Outlook Handbook’. It’s available for free online and contains a wealth of information like the median pay, entry-level education needed, and projected growth rate for the future. There are also plenty of books available that have similar career descriptions and information like this (check your library). Once you have a little list started of your top options, continue gathering information about them. You can check specific association websites for particular professions. For example, if physical therapy interests you, the American Physical Therapy Association website has FAQs and a video providing more information.

All of this basic information is important, but it’s not exactly personal. Once you think you’ve found a job title that interests you, use all of the different platforms at your disposal to learn as much about it as you can. There will undoubtedly be blogs, articles, and YouTube videos made by professionals working in the career of your choice. Searching for ‘A day in the life of an occupational therapist’ on YouTube, for example, brings up personalized accounts outlining people’s schedules, workplaces and more.  It’s nice to watch these and have a clearer mental image of how this career might look for you on a day-to-day basis.

Reach out to people

Now that you’ve done your research and know what careers interest you, find people that work in those careers near you and reach out to them. A site like LinkedIn may be the first option that comes to mind. However, if you’re a college student, it’s unlikely that you have an expansive professional network and if you’re a high school student it’s unlikely you’ve even made an account yet. Before thinking this isn’t helpful for you, remember your own personal network. Ask a parent, older cousin, teacher, professor, or family friend if they know anyone who works in one of the careers that interests you. If you’re a college student don’t hesitate to check the alumni network. Usually this information is available either at a career services office or on their website. You’ve probably heard of a cold emailing, but the benefit of going through your network first is sending out more of a “lukewarm” email. People will generally be really inclined to help you out on your hunt for information, but knowing you through a mutual connection or an alma mater gives it that extra something. Regardless of how you’re finding people, make sure you add their name and contact information to that spreadsheet you started so you can go back to it.

If you are sending a cold email to someone (when you reach out without any prior contact or connections), do the following things to increase your chances of getting a positive response:

  • Don’t just send them a list of questions. It’s better to establish contact and then ask if you may either send them some of your questions, set up a phone call, or even set up a meeting.  Imagine if someone you’d never met before sent you a list of time-consuming questions out of the blue.
  • Do some research about this person before reaching out to them. Find out what you can about their career history or specializations that way your email is more personal.
  • Keep it short and put the most important information at the top.  I would state that you’re a student and your objectives of the email first thing. This email is probably going to be floating in a full inbox and it’s not very efficient if they have to read through paragraphs about your entire school career before getting to the main point of the email.
  • Express your gratitude. Whether this leads to an internship or the person sends you a quick answer, make sure you’re thankful they took the time out to do so.

Don’t become distraught if you don’t get a response to your first, fourth, or even eighth email. Reach out to as many people as you can and something will crop up. Also, follow-up on your initial messages–a lot of the people you’re reaching out to are busy and may have lost track of your email in their inbox.

Ask to meet up

Once you’ve established contact with someone in your (maybe?) dream career, and their response has been receptive, ask to meet up. This is something I didn’t even realize was an option when I was a student, but it is a thing people do and these meetups can be really productive. Even if you’re not technically job hunting yet, this would be called an informational interview. At this stage, though, it will most likely be grabbing a quick coffee or you casually visiting their workplace for a chat. When you do this, make it easy for them. Back when you were doing your research, you probably learned where this person works. Consider choosing a cafe nearby and give them specific times that would work for the both of  you. For example, let them know you’re available on Mondays after 4 pm or Thursdays after 5pm. After all, they’re taking time out of their schedule to help you out. For more details about informational interviews, this Fast Company article has some great tips and insights.

Do you live in a small town or not have anyone around that works in the career you’re interested in? No problem. See if someone is willing to chat with you via Skype, Google Hangouts, or a Whatsapp video call. Or, if you have a trip planned to a bigger city, reach out to a person in that city in advance to see if they’d be willing to spare some time for you while you’re visiting. Regardless of what kind of meeting you end up having, come prepared. Learn what you can beforehand and write a list of questions so that if there’s a lull in the conversation, you have something to refer to. The person you’re speaking with will be impressed and appreciate the effort. As mentioned before, gratitude goes far so be sure to send a thank you afterwards.

Find an internship

As far as trying out jobs goes, you’ve probably heard the most about internships. Once you’ve done your homework and gotten personal insights, you’ll have a pretty clear  idea of which careers still appeal to you. Time to start interning!

Of course, there’s the matter of finding and landing that internship. It doesn’t have to be as elusive as people make it out to be, especially since you’ll be ahead of the game with any homework you’ve done and contacts you’ve made. No, you can’t send them an email saying, “Hey, can you get me an internship at your company this summer??” Before reaching out to anyone you met up with prior, search to see if there is an advertised internship at their company. If you’re interested in it and do email them, it will be much better if that email says you learned about the so-and-so fellowship and have specific reasons for why you think you would be a great match. Even better, have your application/cover letter/resume ready before you reach out to your contacts again so that you have something to show if they offer to help out. Now your email can show you know about the internship in question and are serious about getting it.

Similar to the college application process, set your sights high but also make sure you give yourself options. Apply to internships at organizations of various sizes and in various locations. It would be a shame to only apply to two internships in one city and end up with neither when you could have had an incredible experience at a smaller company in a different city. One more thing to note is just because an internship isn’t obviously posted on a job board somewhere doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If you’re thinking about taking gap year, look into ones that have an internship aspect worked into them so you get valuable work experience out of your time as well.

Throughout your career exploration process, remember not to get too stressed out. As you learn more about yourself and opportunities available, it will naturally become clearer what career is a great fit for you. Whether it’s through research on your own, having a Q&A with a professional in a dream job, or interning somewhere over the summer, all of these things will give you valuable information and this is what’s going to help you define your career path.

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Elena M. Sanchez

Contributing Writing

Elena M. Sanchez is from North Carolina but has been living and working abroad for the past five years. She has lived in South Korea, Spain, and is currently based in Glasgow, Scotland.  She's passionate about education, the outdoors, and loves when the two overlap. Her free time is spent hiking, keeping her Spanish sharp, and making art.

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