How to Choose a New Career

This article is part of a four part series on the ways to kick start your job hunt. To start this series from the beginning, read the introduction.

When starting a job hunt you first need a career path. A career path can be a wandering winding road. I need to look no further then my next door neighbor for proof, he’s a cattle farmer who started his career as a dental surgeon. Across town there’s a single mom who went back to school to become a lawyer. Years ago I went to school with several friends who upon graduation found their career calling instantly. It seems there are as many paths to finding a career as there are people.

Looking at my own path I see a long meandering road on which I’ve managed to find employment at ten companies within seven different careers. It took me several years to figure out, and honestly admit, what makes me tick. So how is it some people choose the right career instantly while others switch and change constantly?

Job Hunting Series:
  1. Choose Your Career
  2. Find Your Job
  3. Research the Employer
  4. Make Your Match

Here are some ways to choose a new career, wherever you are in life:

Ponder Your Passion.

The most important step in finding a new career is to figure out what you’re passionate about. What do you like? What do you dream? What makes you tick? Getting in touch with what you love in life is of great importance. I believe job hunters fail to find their match not because they lack information about the job market, but because they lack information about themselves. Do take the time for some self-reflection and introspection. I’ve created both an article and a worksheet to help you find your passionate self:

If you don’t know what makes you tick, how can you possibly choose the right career?

Spot Your Strengths

The best career choices for you will incorporate your biggest accomplishments, your favorite subjects, and your greatest transferable skills. Figuring out what you’re good at requires building a skills inventory. Spotting one’s strengths is not hard to do. I think we all have an intuitive sense of our strengths and weaknesses. The trick is to topple tact and quantify your qualifications. I’ve created both an article and a worksheet to help you along the way.

There’s no room for modesty in this activity. A key to choosing a new career is putting yourself in a role that plays to your greatest strengths.

Gather Your Goals.

Now that you know what makes you tick, it’s time to make some decisions based on the lifestyle you wish to lead, the compensation you wish to earn, and the kind of job satisfaction you want at the end of the day. How many hours do you want to work? What type of people do you want to work with? How much money do you need to earn? These questions can only be answered by you. It’s not easy. To help, I’ve written an article and worksheet:

Without knowing your goals it’s hard to get where you need to be.

Talk the Talk.

Things may be coming together now. You know your passion, your strengths, and you’ve got your goals. The next step is to get talkative. Before jumping into a new career you would be wise to speak with others already on that path. By meeting with or interviewing experts in a particular field, you get a much better understanding for what the work entails. Find out if the career is as great as it seemed at first impression.

Back when I was in school I would invite the career professional out for lunch or coffee and ask them “day in the life” questions. This was basically an informational interview where I would ask these questions:

  1. What do you like best about your work?
  2. What do you like least about your work?
  3. How did you get into this field?
  4. Do you have any advice for someone starting along this path?
  5. Would you choose this career again?

Don’t be shy about interviewing someone about their career choices. Most people like to talk about what they do for a living. Many will be flattered you asked their opinion. You may just be surprised with your findings. Perhaps you’ll love the answers. Perhaps the discovered work hours and compensation don’t align with your goals. Whatever the answers, you’ll be further ahead by knowing more about a particular career path.

Walk the Walk.

Ever “try” something before “buying” into it? We consumers do this daily. We buy a pair of shoes, walk in them for a bit, and if they rub the wrong way we return them. Just like a pair of shoes, I like to try a career before buying into it. Walking a mile along a career path can open your eyes and help you decide if the road ahead is for you. Here are some ways to walk a mile or two in a new career:

  • Cooperative Education: If you’re a student then be sure to enroll in cooperative education. There’s no better way to try a new career than with a semester or two in the actual workforce earning an income.
  • Internships: Don’t have a semester to spare? Done with school? Then try a week or two in an internship program. There are several government programs available for those interested in taking the time to try a new career.
  • Job Shadowing: Try following a friend for a day along a particular career path. Job shadowing can give you a glimpse into various career cultures and work environments. Shadowing takes just a day but can be the push you need to move into a new direction or to steer clear.
  • Part-Time Work: Get some experience and income while getting some hands-on insight. Many companies look for seasonal or part-time employees to fill a gap or provide temporary relief during busy months. Finding a part-time position in a new career can really open your eyes to new possibilities while feeding your wallet.
  • Volunteer: Offering your time in exchange for learning the ropes is an awesome way to gain insight into a new work experience. Many companies will gladly accept your generosity when appropriate.

So get your walking shoes on and try walking the walk along a new career path. Keep your eyes open to any forks in the road, you never know where or when the choicest career will reveal itself.

Ignore What’s Hot.

I made this mistake big time. I let the media hoopla and mania guide me down the wrong path during the hot “dot com” days around 1999. Sure, the pay was awesome and jobs were plenty. But the work just wasn’t me. I would have been better off sticking to my strengths, pondering my passion, and guiding myself by my goals. Be sure to stick with what YOU want to do in your life, not what the job market dictates or what seems hotly hyped in the media.

Change can be Gradual.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and there’s no need to choose or change careers today, this second, now. The key to making a successful career choice is to look before you leap. Be sure to consider all aspects of a change and understand how those changes can impact all areas of your life. Sometimes easing into a change and keeping some sense of continuity in your life is what’s needed to make a smooth transition. If your new career path requires taking a leap, then plan out the steps to get you there in time without losing your mind.

Sometimes the more time you give yourself to transition, the better the ultimate choice will be. There often is a penalty for the seemingly “quick and dirty” fixes.

Perfection is Phooey.

You don’t have to get it right the first time. It’s OK to take a walk down the wrong career path. Many people, regardless of their age, study the wrong major or find employment in the wrong career and start over at some point. Many of us will find employment in at least 3 careers throughout our lifetimes. Sometimes working in the wrong field can better lead us to what is right. There are no mistakes, just opportunities to acknowledge what path to take next.

Have Fun.

Be sure to enjoy the journey. Life is freaking short. So don’t stay in a career that makes you unhappy or even miserable. Have some fun and try some new experiences along the way. Sometimes a simple smile is a surefire way to making a successful career choice.

Do you love your career? Have you changed gears a few times already? What are your tips for choosing a new career path?

Your two cents:

  1. I think one of the most important things is finding the inner strength to take the leap into an unknown territory. You need to remain focussed on why you want a career change and what the benefits will be for you.

  2. Jules May 31st, 2008

    Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt: I left an MD/PhD program because it was making me miserable. I now work as a “lowly” lab tech, doing the exact same kinds of experiments I did during graduate school, with a commute from hell, in a country whose language I can’t speak (and can just read)–and I’m loving it. It may or may not be a career for me; veterinary school is still pending, awaiting my mastery of the Dutch language, but I like it enough that I wouldn’t mind this being a career.

    What prompted the move was a combination of things, mostly due to the fact that I’d never had any real time off from school, and certainly not enough time away from family (a very strong influence in my life) to get an idea of what *I* wanted. If I’d taken a year between I don’t think I would have ever gone to medical school. Being forced into nine months of vacation also gave me plenty of time to think about what I wanted, what made me happy.

    The most important thing to do if you’re contemplating a career change, I think, is to be healthy. The second most important thing to do (and I just started this, and I think it’s amazing) is to actually put down, on paper, the sort of life you want for yourself five, ten years from now. It can be a list, it can be drawings, it can be magazine cutouts and newspaper clippings. Don’t worry about whether it’s feasible, how you’re going to pay for it, or whether you’ll actually be able to find a spouse that looks like the one you’ve pictured. Just get it down. Eventually you’ll work past the false expectations and external pressures to conform and arrive at what you really want. And then it’s just a matter of doing it.

  3. Kerry May 31st, 2008

    @Turn One Pound It does take inner strength. LOTS of inner strength. Change is not easy..but really, change is the only constant in life.

    @Jules Your path has some very strong similarities to my own. I too found myself in an academic program which made me miserable. Walking away seemed like failure to me at first, but in hindsight is was the smartest decision. I moved clear across the country to get away from all sources of family opinion. I wanted a huge change and went for it. I too built visual tools with magazines, newspaper clippings, and writings. I actually talk about this process in my first career series called Your Career is Calling: Five Paths to Job Perfection. Not worrying about “how to get there” was also key with me. It’s funny, when I stopped worrying about the future and just focussed more on the now, the later took care of itself.

    Thank you for sharing your story…I kinda feel like I’m looking into a mirror. :)

  4. Erica June 5th, 2008

    Well, I know what my career is… unfortunately the stability of my current position, as well as my marketability if i have to find the same job somewhere else is in serious question. The company Im with hasn’t really moved ahead with the times and the software out there. And out of curiosity I started looking around to see what else I can get. After 10 years with the same place, I am almost obsolete in the job market out there. Doesn’t help our main software is built with other software which is now 3 versions behind.

    So now I have to catch up on my own because the company wont do it for like 3 years, and by then i really will be obsolete! So from 10 to midnight in the evenings, after my kids are all in bed and i have some time to myself I have to self-learn php, mysql, vb.net, and a few other languages, or face having to go from Sr Programmer to Jr Programmer at a new company! aaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

    But I could rant for hours on this subject, it’s been a sore spot for a while. But I know if I dont take it into my own hands, I will just end up a non hireable programmer.

  5. Mike July 15th, 2009

    My career WAS manufacturing engineering for 20 years, but lost my job in the Big 3 downsizing. What I WANT to do is culinary arts and become a chef, but once I finish the schooling, I can only earn about 20% of my previous salary, if I’m lucky, and have to fend for my own benefits and insurances to boot! But my PASSION is cooking, so do I sell myself out and augment my engineering resume with learning CAD software programs, or chase my passion and have a huge bake sale to pay my mortgage?
    Any recommendations would be nice. I’m torn to bits.

  6. Tanya May 3rd, 2011

    Mike,I am quite curious what path you have chosen, being 2 years since your post, I think there are a few things to consider..have you tried cooking in a food service establishment, as a chef for 10 years, I can tell you it is not all what it is cracked up to be, but depending on the type of service, food etc, it can be much more! My very 1st recomendation would be to get a job, even if you only peel potatoes for a few weeks, see what the enviroment is like, as it is like no other, then research options of how you might work for yourself to make enough $$ for that morgage..
    and speaking of the morgage, do you really need it, or is it just a huge expense society says you need??
    I personally have chosen the path of interest free living,exept the interest I earn, instead of the “look at me I fit right in with the shine of the (very broke) Jones!!!” and chose career happiness over owing my life to my bank. I do have beautiful things, 4 vehicles, the newest being a ’97 but most importantly, a smile on my face ever day I come home from my low paying job because it takes care of all my wants and needs..sometimes those wants and needs just need to be reevaluated.

  7. Kikkatar October 28th, 2012

    I am currently a graduate student with a bachelors in biology who was aiming to be a geneticist. Then after a several searches for jobs I came to a… shocking conclusion. There are just not that many jobs looking for a biologist with training in genetics. And the jobs that do come up are college professor jobs! I don’t like teaching! I’m seriously bad at teaching!! So I decided to reanalyze why I pick to be a geneticist in the first place and found out that I just love lab work! Call me weird but I love pipetting and seeing just what those little tubes of whatever contain! So when I looked into getting a laboratory technician job, I didn’t qualify for it. I need certification and training. So later I’ll be meeting with a technologist to ask some questions. Regardless, I’ll be quitting grad school. In any direction I’m going a masters in biology is pointless unless I’m going to be teaching. Bleh. My parents blessed me with graduating with no student debt since they know how to budget and manage money and I thought they’d be angry with me choosing a different career path. Turns out they were thinking the same thing and didn’t mind if I needed to go elsewhere to gain more education to get a job! So yeah, I’m still nervous since I don’t know what the future has in store for me but I’m rather excited as well since I may be on my way to a job that I’ll love!

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