Discovering Your Next Career

Maybe you're finding yourself thinking of a career change, perhaps for internal reasons, those that are up to you, such as changing interests, new priorities, or current job and/or supervisor dissatisfaction. Or maybe your motivation is for external reasons, those up to someone else, such as being downsized, laid off, fired, or other related dilemmas. Even though you realize that you might be dissatisfied with your current work situation, you may not be clear on what to do about it or even what new career to pursue.

As a potential career changer, it is important to realize that the first step in the career planning process is to identify what it is that you want to do in your next career. If you do not know this, all other steps in the process will suffer; your researching of career options will lack focus, your resume will lack direction, your networking contacts will be confused as to how to best help you, and your interviewing/oral presentation skills will be weakened. Therefore, when this crucial first step of knowing what you want to do is accomplished, all the other steps fall into place more readily for a coherent job search effort. Now let's take a look at how to best accomplish this task.

Self-Awareness and Career Awareness

Good career decision-making involves the combination of self-awareness (knowing your strongest interests, skills, personality preferences and values) and career awareness (how your particular set of personal criteria translates into career options and what those careers involve as far as education, training, experience and skills required, job duties, places of employment, job market outlook, benefits and related information).

I've encountered many adults in career transition who feel somewhat ashamed for not knowing exactly what career to pursue, when considering a possible change. After all, they say, how can anyone at age 30, 40 or older not know what they want to do career-wise? This type of confusion is often related to changing interests and values related to adult developmental transition periods, especially the age 30 Transition and the age 40 Mid-Life Transition. Even when one is clear about his or her interests, values and related personal criteria, he or she still may not know how that translates into career options.

Most of us are really somewhat career illiterate -- that is, we're basically unclear about many career fields and what related jobs entail. If you've seen the new O*Net Dictionary of Occupational Titles and tried using it without some sort of systematic approach, it's quite overwhelming, with 1,200 job descriptions representing over 90% of the workforce (recently downsized from 12,000). With so many possibilities, is it any wonder that many potential career changers are confused as to what are their best options?

First Steps

I've spent the majority of my 25 years as a career counselor helping college students and adults identify relevant career options for themselves and their particular make-up. Here's the approach I've found most effective, most often. I believe that when people are trying to identify a career to pursue (whether a first career or a change) they need to look at all areas of their lives for clues. In an exercise that I call an Analysis of Life Experience (AOLE), clients identify enjoyable experiences, ones where they also felt a sense of accomplishment. These areas to consider include education (activities both in and out of the classroom), work (even though a job may have been somewhat dissatisfying, there may have been projects or activities at one time or another that were enjoyable to you and that gave you felt a sense of accomplishment), family, leisure (activities you tend to do on your own) and social (activities you tend to do with others). There are techniques to aid clients in generating this list of life experiences. On average, clients identify between 20-40 experiences.

The next step is to prioritize this list of experiences according to which the client enjoyed the most. Once this is completed, we focus in on the top 10-12 experiences and ask the questions: Why are these experiences rated so highly? What interests are involved? What skills are used? What values are reflected? and What personality preferences are exercised?" The resulting insights become the nuts and bolts for formulating career ideas. Usually 4-5 (or more) career ideas are suggested based on the information generated from the exercise.

What I like to add to the process, at this point, are two well-known inventories: the Strong Interest Inventory (compares your interests to those of satisfied workers in 110 jobs and tells you who you're most similar to) and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (which serves a similar function to that of the SII, but with regard to personality preferences, comparing yours with those of satisfied workers in 208 jobs).

I've been using this approach now for 15 years and, on a highly frequent basis, the jobs on the two inventories whose workers score the highest (in similarity to the client's interests/preferences) are the very same jobs that we generated from the Life Experience Exercise. This usually has a strong impact on the client. It's like a light bulb blinking you're on the right track. It's a powerful one (the AOLE), two (use of two key inventories; the SII and the MBTI) punch. Often, testing alone can leave one "hanging" but, it's been my experience, that when used in conjunction with the AOLE, it can result in greater clarity.

At this point, the client needs to research the options suggested by the assessment and testing process to be clear with regard to what's involved. This can occur through the reading of career resource books (such as the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, the Occupational Outlook Handbook, and Careers in "____" type books, all available in libraries), checking related Internet sites and by talking (information interviews/networking) with people actually working in the fields of interest, in as many different types of work settings that can be identified. The more work settings related to your career objective that you can identify, the more opportunities to possibly consider, thus increasing your odds of getting hired.

Once all the necessary information has been gathered, the client needs to prioritize the various options according to which interest them the most. If the client currently qualifies for his/her top choice, he/she can then begin the job search. However, if additional education or experience is necessary, then opportunities in these areas need to be explored.

This type of self-awareness and career awareness helps to lessen the fear of change/failing that often afflicts potential career changers. The more you can transform the unfamiliar (new career and skills required) into the familiar (knowledge of skills required and to what degree you fit), the more you'll be able to cope with, and rise above, your fears.

For further discussion of the Analysis of Life Experience Exercise, through the use of an actual case study, see Chapter 6 of my book Career Change: Everything You Need to Know to Meet New Challenges and Take Control of Your Career.

So, if you're a potential career changer and you feel confused about what direction to head, I suggest you allow yourself to be confused, but also to do what you can to alleviate your confusion, either on your own or with the assistance of a career counselor.