How to Choose a Career that is Best for You
By Tzvi Pirutinsky, Ph.D.
Choosing the right career can be a difficult and anxiety-provoking process. Will I enjoy it? Will I be good at it? Will it provide an adequate livelihood? Will my family support this choice? On the other hand, it is also an opportunity to actively explore and discover more about yourself and the world, so picking the right career can be exciting, informative, and even fun.
Of course, since everyone has different skills, interests, experiences and goals, there is no one career that is best for everyone. So how do you choose the career that is best for you?
Here are four steps that will help you through this process:
Put it in context
The first step is to put your career choice in context. While it is an important decision with long-term implications, many people seeking their first job or changing careers place too much importance on this decision. They spend too much time gathering information, asking for advice, and worrying about their choices – all of which makes this process painful and ineffective. Research suggests that people are terrible at choosing jobs. They may think they are picking a good job when it turns out to be an awful fit or vice-versa. According to economist Neil Howe, only 5% of people pick the “right” job on the first try and those that do, tend to make less creative and innovative choices. Psychologist Erick Erikson called this kind of decision “identity foreclosure,” meaning that people quickly commit to a path before fully exploring their options and therefore can make a poor choice. Think of the son of a famous doctor struggling in medical school who realizes that he hates biology and would much rather be an auto mechanic. Moreover, job instability and career volatility has been steadily increasing over the past few decades. In 2008, median tenure (number of years on the job) was 4.1 years, and 23% of people reported that they had been at their current job for 12 months or less (National Bureau of Labor Statistics). So you can expect to switch jobs and careers several times throughout your life, particularly at the start of your career.
Of course, if you are investing a large amount of time and money into pursuing a professional degree, you need to be much more careful. There are several ways you can test out your interest in these fields before fully committing, such as taking perquisite courses, accruing observation hours, lower-level work experience, and volunteer work in a setting that employs these professionals. Keep in mind, however, that even professional vocations, such as medical doctor, lawyer, and speech therapist, have lots of flexibility. For instance, providing early intervention for preschoolers is very different than supervising a team of therapists working at a network of nursing homes. Similarly, an attorney mediating family court cases has very little in common with a hedge fund tax attorney. So while it is important to spend time thinking things through and taking you best guess, don`t overdo it!
Think about your interests
Chances are, you probably want a job that you will enjoy. Besides being happier, you will be more motivated, dedicated and likely more successful. Research suggests that interest in a job or subject predicts roughly 7% of the variance in performance (Perspectives in Psychological Science, 2012). So how can you tell if you will like a job? The best source of information is you own experience. Consider your ideal dream job, think about your hobbies, volunteer or summer work, part-time experience, and even academic classes. Which did you enjoy and what are the themes that characterize these different situations? Do you prefer tasks that involve working with people and creativity (e.g., school play or arts and craft counselor at camp)? Think about social and artistic careers. Do you like organizing things and paying attention to details? Think about a conventional career such as medical billing or accounting. Do you like working with your hands but also enjoy science? How about a career in medicine, nursing, or engineering, which are both investigate and realistic?
It is important to note that individuals often have 2-3 different interests, and careers involve various tasks . You want to find something that includes your unique combination of interests. Psychological testing, when conducted by a qualified career counselor, can also help determine what careers you might like. However, sometimes you just need to take your best guess and try something. You may not be able to try out being a nurse without committing to a few years of school, but you can take a single anatomy class and find a part-time job as a nursing assistant. Any job, class, volunteer opportunity, book, home project, etc. can be an opportunity to learn more about which career you might enjoy.
Finally, it is important to remember that people are not the best prognosticators of what makes them happy. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert studies this extensively and found that people generally misjudge the impact of all sorts of decisions and events. For example, a lottery winner might be very happy for a couple of month or weeks, but will soon return to their baseline. Surprisingly, paraplegics (those paralyzed completely from neck down) are on average just as happy as everyone else. So take you best guess and try something.
Think about your skills and abilities
It is important to be good at your job. You don`t necessarily need to be the best, but you don`t want to choose a career that isn`t a match for your skills. Think about what you excelled at in school. Although it may not be your favorite activity, you can probably find something that you can enjoy that requires these skills. Many of the ideas discussed above about assessing your interests are useful here, too. Think about hobbies, jobs, and projects. Are you good at computers? Fixing things? Math? Choosing colors? All of these can be translated into different careers.
Besides technical skills, it is also important to consider your “soft” skills, which are personal attributes that enhance an individual's interactions and job performance and are shared between many jobs. For example, are you timely and hard-working or like to do things at your own pace? Do you work better when you are following or giving orders? Do you like specific instructions or are you comfortable defining your own goals and methods? Think about your communication skills, your ability to quickly establish positive relationships, and your ability to make others comfortable around you. Can you be aggressive and decisive? Can you motivate and direct others? Different careers require different sets of “soft skills” and these are often more important than technical ability. For example, a business manager needs to be more aggressive, decisive, and good at directing others, while a social worker needs to be more patient, understanding, and good at understanding others. Testing of ability and personality can provide useful information, but any test results need to be balanced with previous experience and other factors. Another option is to ask others. Sometimes it’s hard for to see which areas in life we excel at. Ask your parents, other family members, friends, or teachers what they think. Their ideas might surprise you!
Finally, there are some circumstances in which accurately and precisely assessing ability are very important. If you have struggled significantly in past jobs/classes and are really unsure what your strengths and weakness are, or if you have significant cognitive, sensory, attentional, or mental health needs, find a competent career professional that can help you maximize your chance of succeeding.
Don`t neglect the practical
After all this work, you may have finally found the perfect career. You are interested, excited, and confident that you have the skills and will succeed. One problem: The career is in camel husbandry and the only jobs available are in Sudan…
Practical considerations are very important and often require compromise. Every career has downsides and upsides. If you focus only on the downsides, you can cross everything off your list for a legitimate sensible reason. Nothing is perfect or even close to perfect. You need to balance the pluses and minuses and consider the practical implications of your choice. Talk to several people in the field with various levels of experience and find out: What is the training or schooling like? How easy is it to find a job? What do people get paid at entry-level? What are typical hours and work conditions? What kind of advancement is possible? What do you wish you would have known before you started?
Also, think about personal practical details. Can you afford to spend that much time in school? Will you family be willing to sacrifice for it? Are you willing to commute? Will you be happy with that kind of pay? Do you have connections in the field? Addressing these practical concerns can make or break your career choice.
The most important thing to focus on when choosing an entry-level position is not necessarily convenience, pay, work environment, or advancement in that company. Since you will most likely be switching jobs sooner rather than later, the most important factor in the beginning is personal growth. If a job provides great training or experience (both in terms of technical and soft skills), it will set you up for a more productive and enjoyable career in the long-term.
Help, I’m stuck!
Sometimes even after taking all the steps listed here, you might still find yourself stuck. There are many reasons why this might happen. Anxiety, perfectionism, and indecision can cripple career planning. Lack of self-knowledge, limited exposure to careers, and lack of social connection can hamper fact finding. Unrealistic expectations, severe practical and financial limitations, and lack of motivation can deflate even the most promising opportunities.
So what do you do now?
I recommend that you simply stop. Put your search for a long-term career or job on hold, and focus on the jobs that you have immediate access to. Remember, it is much harder to go from unemployed to employed than to switch from one job to another. So just start something! You will learn more from two weeks on the job than from three years of career fact finding. If six months to a year have passed and you were unable to find any job or course, find yourself a friend, mentor, coach, or professional who can provide ongoing support and guidance.
Career seeking can be stressful, but is also an opportunity for self-discovery and growth. While it is an important decision, do not spend years figuring this out. Career choice is not a one-time event, but rather a lengthy and unfolding process. You can and will adjust things as you go along, so the most important thing is to get started. You need to assess your interests, your skills, and the practical considerations. Look at your past experiences, consult with others, consider professional testing or counseling, but most importantly, gather more data by trying things. Teach yourself a new skill, take an interesting course, shadow someone at work, volunteer, and look for a part-time or entry-level job in the field.
Finally, keep in mind that interests and skills are not simply innate properties waiting to be discovered, but rather they are dynamic characteristics that largely reflect your past experience. Just like in other areas of life, the fastest way to develop career interests and skills is by deliberately committing to a career and working hard to developing them. Good luck!
Tzvi Pirutinsky, Ph.D. is an adjunct professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University. He frequently publishes in professional journals such as the Journal of Career Assessment, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, and Criminal Justice and Behavior. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Need additional information?
ï‚§ Go online:
o Bureau of Labor Statistics: www.bls.gov/oco
o O*NET OnLine: www.onetonline.org
ï‚§ Get a book relevant to your career:
o Ask a librarian
o Basic college textbook
o Handbooks such as “X for Dummies”
o Get online and locate a book with good reviews
ï‚§ Talk to people:
o 3 - 5 people, at various stages of their career. A graduate student or new professional can give you valuable information about current conditions or school which a more experienced professional can`t provide.
o Ask them both open-ended questions such as, “Can you tell me about your job?” and closed-ended questions such as, “In general, what are starting salaries in this field?”
o Remember, you will hear negatives. While these are undoubtedly true, you need to balance these with the positives and also with the negatives of your alternatives.
ï‚§ Try it:
o Take 1 course or a CLEP test, shadow or observe someone, volunteer to work in that setting, get a part-time job that gets you in contact with the career, try to teach yourself a relevant skill, or take on a project with similar characteristics. Remember, not only will you learn through these experiences, but you will also develop skills and connections that will serve you well in the future.
Personal Strengths and Preferences
Examples of strengths that may apply to you Your strengths?
Interests ï‚ Computers
ï‚ Sports/ Exercise
ï‚ Reading literature
ï‚ Current events
ï‚ Helping others
ï‚ Painting or drawing
ï‚ Building or making things
ï‚ Fixing things
ï‚ Math and Science
ï‚ Outdoors and nature
ï‚ Organizing things
ï‚ Theater or acting
ï‚ Working with your hands
ï‚ Caring for children
Hard Skills ï‚ Using and fixing computers
ï‚ Accounting and bookkeeping
ï‚ Working with my hands
ï‚ Computer programming
ï‚ First-aid or medicine
ï‚ Graphics and web design
ï‚ Knowledgeable about a specific subject
ï‚ Online research
ï‚ Excel, QuickBooks
Soft Skills ï‚ Highly motivated to work
ï‚ Good listener
ï‚ Likes doing a job well
ï‚ Can follow orders
ï‚ Solving problems
ï‚ Brainstorming creatively
ï‚ Managing time well
ï‚ Communicating with others
Practical considerations ï‚ Entry-level pay
ï‚ Long-term financial growth
ï‚ Typical hours for this job
ï‚ Job location and commuting
ï‚ Length of schooling
ï‚ Connections in the field
ï‚ Family support for the choice
ï‚ Mentors or friends that can help
ï‚ Lifestyle considerations
ï‚ Halacha or Hashkafa concerns
ï‚ Immediate financial needs
ï‚ Training available