Choosing a career can be a difficult task. College students and seasoned professionals alike often seek out the advice of career counselors to get them on track for a fulfilling and enjoyable occupation. You might have an idea of what you're good at and what you're passionate about, but where do you begin the search for a job that lets you do both?
Whether you're an entry-level candidate who's unsure of where to apply or an older worker who wants a career change, follow these steps to help you decide your ideal path.
Determine if you're really in the wrong career
If you're considering a career change, chances are you already know you may be on the wrong track. You first need to determine if you're in the wrong field or just the wrong environment.
"Many people who contact me don't need a career change but just a move to another company," said career coach Phyllis Mufson of Catalyst for Growth. "What was bothering them was their relationship with their supervisor, or the need for a new challenge, or perhaps they need a change of culture."
However, if you frequently find yourself feeling anxious, bored or stressed at your current job and struggle with or dislike your daily tasks, a career transition may be necessary. Dreading going to work, constantly watching the clock and daydreaming about leaving your job are other telltale signs that you're not where you should be.
People end up on the wrong career path for many reasons. They may choose a job to please a friend or family member, to achieve a certain status or salary, or simply because it seemed like a good idea at the time.
"We are taught that if we are good at something, we should do it as a career," said Joanne Sperans, owner of Volo Coaching. "The problem is, we're often good at several things, and we're passionate about several things. It's where those two meet that we should look. I know many people who followed a career because they were told they were good at it, and 20 years down the line, they found themselves miserable."
Figure out what you want — and don't want
Once you arrive at the decision to change careers, your next step is to ask yourself what you really want from your next job. Jane Sunley, CEO of employee engagement company Purple Cubed and author of "It's Never OK to Kiss the Interviewer" (LID Publishing, 2014), said it's best to be specific about your end goals when deciding on a new career direction. You can discover those goals by asking yourself questions such as:
- What do you enjoy doing?
- What skills do you use when doing the things you enjoy?
- What means a lot to you?
- What are you good at?
- What do others admire about you and why?
- What things do you do that you're better at than others?
Once you've answered these questions, where you want to be and what you need to do to get there will become clearer, Sunley said.
You also need to consider what type of role you want. David DiMartile, president and managing director of DiMartile HR, said there are three generic roles in any given career: individual contributor, manager of people and executive. Based on your individual preferences and capabilities, you should determine which of these roles best suits you before settling on a specific career discipline.
"Each path requires different competencies, and not everyone is skilled in or can develop the required competencies," DiMartile told Business News Daily. "Some of the questions that individuals need to ask themselves related to their competency skill level and job fit are: Am I most comfortable when others rely on me to solve problems, or when I am given solutions to implement? Would I rather lead a team or be a team member? Do I want recognition for my personal accomplishments or for the accomplishments of my team? Would I prefer dealing with the here and now or anticipating what challenges are ahead?"
Assess your background and personality
When you know what you want out of your career, evaluate your qualifications for jobs in that field. Two of the most important factors in choosing your ideal path are your background (education, previous experience, practical skills) and your personality (character traits, interests, values). Both should be taken into consideration, but depending on your desired career, your personality may be more important than what's on your résumé.
"Obviously, for highly technical careers like engineering, medicine and law, training is very important," Sperans said. "However, for the 'softer' roles, including executive management, personality traits — like a commitment to one's workplace and employees, a strong work ethic and empathy — are as important if not more so. You can teach skills, but you can't teach attitude and ethics."
Holding a degree in your chosen field can certainly help, but not having one won't necessarily bar you from getting a job. A person with the right aptitudes and a willingness to learn can be a good fit for a position, without having formal education in that field. Ideally, your career should be a place where your personality and background intersect.
"People who are thriving in their careers are easy to spot because there is such consistency — they are living what they do, and it shows," said Lisa Severy, career services director at the University of Colorado and past president of the National Career Development Association. "People who are dissatisfied and stuck in their careers are usually experiencing some disconnect between what they are doing and who they are."
Before you search for potential workplaces, Sunley advised defining your own personal values, so you can find an employer whose values align with yours.
"If you're looking for a workplace where you can progress, make a contribution and enjoy yourself, it will help if you know in advance what the employer stands for and how they do things," Sunley said. "If you know your own personal values, then you can compare these to those of the employers, telling you how they run their business and whether there will be any conflict. You can learn a lot by looking at [an employer's] website, [but you can also] ask interviewers what's important to their company. If you find that they don't have an answer, then that should tell you a lot."
Ask for advice, but don't always take it
The people closest to you often take an interest in your success and want to offer their advice when you're taking your life in a new direction. These individuals may know you fairly well and have nothing but good intentions, but ultimately, the decision about your career needs to be based on your own self-assessment.
"Suggestions can always be welcomed as a courtesy, but it is unlikely for friends and family to know all the dimensions of the person who is making a career choice," said Jane Roqueplot, owner of JaneCo's Sensible Solutions. "Most people don't even realize their own total person until [they are] assessed to reveal the information about their style, aptitude and values. Family and friends can be far more important in helping one get a job after the appropriate career path has been determined."
Similarly, Mufson noted that outside advice can be very helpful, but only if you take control and ask specific questions that will assist in your self-discovery and career research.
Be open to all possibilities
No matter what stage of your life or career you are in, the most important thing to remember when choosing a job is to keep your options open. If you're just entering the job market, take the time to explore your interests and learn about different career paths.
"Trust your own instincts, and refrain from being swayed by naysayers," said Joellyn Wittenstein Schwerdlin, owner of The Career Success Coach. "Know that trial and error in choosing a career path is part of the process."
The same can be said for individuals making a career change. It's never too late to achieve your professional goals. Even if you've been on the wrong path, you can still switch to a job that you may not have considered but that will make you far happier than the one you have now.
"Career development is a lengthy, deep process," Severy said. "I think of it like writing an autobiography from the present, rather than looking from the past. The person in career transition is the author, taking all of the themes in his or her life and crafting the next chapter.
In addition to owning independent coaching businesses, Jane Roqueplot, Joanne Sperans and Joellyn Wittenstein Schwerdlin are member coaches of TheCareerExperts.com.
This article was originally published in 2013 and updated Sept. 30, 2015.