by Molly Tracy and Zac Cesaro
Recruiters often give great advice on making yourself more attractive to their company, while lending little focus to choosing the right career path for you. Finding the right career path can be confusing - but that’s to be expected! There are so many options available to you that making a decision can feel intimidating. How do you weed through the world of careers to find a career you’ll love? First, understand your own preferences. Next, understand your options.
Understanding Your Career Preferences - Reflect
Time for some serious reflection. Start by digging deep to understand what you do and do not want in a career. What is most important to you and must be in any career you choose? What do you want to ensure that you avoid at all costs? What kind of work do you want to be doing every day? Make a list ranking your preferences, using the series of questions listed at the end of this article as a starting point.
When you go through this exercise, be honest with yourself about your priorities. Don’t focus on what other people will think of your choices. This is your life; you are going to spend a lot of it working, and you should enjoy that work. For example, if having a significant amount of personal free time is the most important thing to you, then a career with an 80+ hour work week and very limited vacation is not for you – regardless of what your friends, parents, or other acquaintances think about the prestige it might bring. Park your concerns for money at least initially so that you can truly focus on your preferences separate from financial motivation.
Becoming aware of what you want in a career should take some time. If you take weeks to make a new car purchase, expect a career decision to take longer. You should also plan to revisit this list every so often because your preferences may change, especially as you gather more data with increased life experience.
Understanding Your Options - Gather Data
Once you have a functioning understanding of your preferences, it’s time to look at what’s out there! You should read about the difference between academia and industry, between various industries, and between companies. There are even online quizzes you can take (offered by sites such as The Princeton Review, OpenColleges, and LeanUp).
When doing your research, look at both industries and individual companies. Perceptions of an industry are usually driven by a couple of very large players within that industry. For example, the initial career path for a consultant at Stroud is quite different from one at Bain, BCG, or McKinsey, and yet we are all in the consulting industry. Also keep in mind that at any given time, there will be certain industries and companies that are currently “the place to work.” These may be great opportunities, but they may not be right for everyone.
However, reflection and research can only get you so far. After that, you just have to start trying things out! Testing your options will give you data you can use to calibrate your preferences and expectations of what your options have to offer you.
1. Ask around
The closest approximation to gathering life experience without actually working for a company is to ask someone who worked there about their experiences. University alumni networks are exceptionally useful for this purpose. Ask your university’s career services office for information on how to get in touch with alumni who are working in the industries you are interested in.
LinkedIn is also a great platform for reaching out to employees. Interested in a company? Message a recruiter on LinkedIn and ask to be put in touch with someone in a position you might apply for.
2. Take a tour or shadow an employee
Many junior and senior level college courses finish the semester with company tours or guest speakers. For example, one class I took offered tours of biomanufacturing plants at the end of the semester. If there’s a company you’d like to check out further, be proactive! Reach out to your professor(s) at the beginning of the semester and ask if the class can take a field trip.
If that doesn’t work out, reach out to an employee (see step #1 above) and ask if you can shadow them for a day. It’s a quick way to both express interest in the company (which will help when it comes time for the career fair) and learn a great deal in a short amount of time about what your actual experience would resemble.
3. Do an internship or a co-op
Internships are the new, low-commitment way for college students to experience work life at several companies before ever filling out an application for a full-time job. Want tips on how to ace your internship? Read “Get the Most Out of Your Internship/Co-Op.”
4. Continue to hone your perspective once you’ve started working
Are you in your last year of college and feel like the time to do internships is over? That doesn’t limit you from exploring your options. In fact, many entry level roles are structured so you can continue exploring career options. Rotational programs allow you to experience multiple roles within a larger company. Generally, these rotational programs last anywhere from 2-5 years with 3-6 month rotational assignments.
There are also industries that interact with a variety of other industries, such as consulting. Stroud in particular has worked with clients in energy, food and beverage, mining, chemicals, healthcare, defense, and more! Within a few short years, consultants are able to get a first look at what working in multiple industries is like.
Making a Decision
Decision points can be challenging – and career decisions are some of the most agonizing decisions we have to make. Should I go to med school or consulting? Grad school or industry? Job A or Job B? New York or LA? Oftentimes it feels like there is not enough information and we desperately wish we could see the alternate futures in a crystal ball. Ruth Chang, professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, explores this subject in her very popular TED Talk: “How to make hard choices”. Prof. Chang argues that hard decisions are situations where there is no right or wrong answer, and trying to scientifically determine one is completely futile. But don’t be discouraged! Making hard decisions empowers us and gives us the opportunity to shape the people we want to be. So make the tough decisions, try something, and learn about yourself along the way! The subject of decisions is further explored through a series of experts in the TED Radio Hour: Decisions, Decisions, Decisions.
Understanding Career Preferences Question List
What do I enjoy doing?
What am I good at doing?
What do I want to get better at?
What specifically do I want to be doing every day – do I want to be doing analysis, design, solving problems, leading people, writing computer code, etc.?
Do I want to work with people on a regular basis or mostly on my own?
Do I want to be in a lab, in production, in an office?
Do I want the comfort of doing the same thing every day or the variety of doing different things?
Am I satisfied contributing a piece to a larger team, or do I want to have specific responsibilities and recognition?
Do I like the responsibility of leading others?
What kind of an impact would I like to make in my work?
Do I love getting stuck into the details of a problem or am I an 80/20 person?
The Career Path
What do I think I want to do in the future - become a Fortune 500 CEO, a professor, start my own business, be a technical guru, etc.?
What do I value most in determining a career – accomplishments, learning, relationships, prestige, leading others, personal development, upward mobility?
Do any of the “typical” career paths appeal to me?
What doors do I want to open up in the future?
Benefits and Lifestyle
What level of compensation will be required for my lifestyle expectations?
How important is compensation to my sense of success?
Where do I want to live?
What sort of work schedule and intensity am I expecting?
Would i be willing to (or like to) travel?
How often would I be willing to relocate?
Use these questions to create a list ranking your priorities and preferences. Discuss this list with a close friend before beginning your job search. When you are clear on what you must have or avoid in a job, your search becomes much clearer. While not every job is perfect, understanding what preferences do or don’t align with a company’s values and policies can make your expectations for a job more accurate and increase your ability to choose the best career option for you.