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Career Exploration

After meeting with several students over the last few years about the same things, I’ve determined that “freaking out” about their career-related future is a completely normal experience (seems to be worst for sophomores and seniors). “I don’t know if I chose the right major.” “Should I switch majors?” “How do I know what I’m supposed to do for the rest of my life?” I’ve had at least 20 students in my office in the last few months (no exaggeration) asking me these very questions.

This website is more about professional development, and we don’t generally focus on career exploration as a part of professional development. Yet, career exploration is certainly a part of the path. I’ve found that I keep giving students the same responses to each of these questions, so I wanted to share.

First, opportunities are all around you, but you have to play an active role in seeking them. This is true for professional development and career exploration. Research has shown that a proactive personality throughout college, or being proactive about career exploration, significantly influences employment success following graduation (Brown et al., 2006). So, how can you be proactive with your own career exploration?

I tell students to, first, think about what their “ideal job” might be. Many of them don’t even know where to start to find what this is, or they limit themselves based on who or what they know.
So, if you don’t know what your ideal job is, start researching. Start by creating a list of your long-term goals. Which of the following are most salient to you? 1) making a lot of money, 2) location, 3) job security, or 4) doing a job that doesn’t feel like a job? Personally, I am overjoyed with my career choice because I am so passionate about what I do, and I am so grateful to do work that doesn’t feel like work to me. At the same time, I know some of these decisions and how they are weighted vary by gender and personal values. But, you don’t know until you evaluate your own long-term goals and become proactive, doing everything you can to make certain you end up with a job that doesn’t feel like a job.

How can you be proactive with career exploration?

Find people who share similar interests. What do they do? Where do they work? What kind of educational background do they have?

Reach out to the people who you believe share similar interests. Ask if you can interview them. This is part of networking…don’t be afraid to find their emails via the Internet and reach out to people you don’t know. Ask them if you can job shadow them, if there are internship opportunities or other ways that you could learn about what they do. It may feel borderline “stalker-ish,” yet you may find that most professionals are flattered and love to talk about themselves. And, the worst they could say is “no,” forcing you to move on and find someone else like them.

Identify strengths and weaknesses of certain jobs. When you are interviewing or job shadowing, ask people about their perceptions of the advantages and disadvantages of their jobs. As you are interviewing and or observing, think about your own career goals; analyze how that position would help you to pursue your own goals, and think about how the opportunity may limit you. Inquire about their daily activities. The more you know about your different options, the more empowered you will be throughout the career exploration process.

Find quality mentors. Identify professors or individuals who work in community agencies who are willing to mentor you through this process. These could be individuals who are in career paths that you believe are “a fit” with your interests. They could be individuals who are approachable and thus, make you feel comfortable about expressing your strengths and weaknesses. I’ve been in the field awhile now and have had mentors at ALL stages and view learning as a lifelong process. Thus, I believe you should never be without a mentor, regardless of what stage of your career you are in. So, start now.

Find work and or volunteer opportunities. Will a good GPA help you? Certainly! Is it everything? Not even close. Whether you want to be a graduate assistant throughout grad school or land your dream job straight out of your undergraduate training, you will be more successful if you have some experience under your belt. Work and volunteer experiences look great on your resume. In addition, these experiences help you to learn about yourself; they can help you to know the type of work you may enjoy, and you may also identify roles that you know you can’t or don’t want to do. For example, I volunteered at a domestic violence shelter as an undergrad. I was very passionate about this issue, yet working there helped me to realize that actually working in the shelter was too emotionally difficult for what I wanted to do on a daily basis. I’m still passionate about helping domestic violence survivors, so I hope to continue to help advocate for survivors through research and other forms of volunteering where I am not in a position to provide direct service. These are the types of things you could find about yourself through work and volunteer experiences too.

This is my personal advice, yet it’s also supported by the literature surrounding college-to-career success (e.g., Callanan, & Benzing, 2004; Ng et al., 2005). Here are a few resources for information on career exploration:
Quintessential Career Blog
Berkeley Career Center

If you have had success with other career exploration resources, please send us a message and tell us about them!

Brown, D. J., Cober, R. T., Kane, K., Levy, P. E., & Shalhoop, J. (2006). Proactive personality and the successful job search: a field investigation with college graduates. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 717-726.

Callanan, G., & Benzing, C. (2004). Assessing the role of internships in the career-oriented employment of graduating college students. Education+ Training, 46, 82-89.

Ng, T. W., Eby, L. T., Sorensen, K. L., & Feldman, D. C. (2005). Predictors of objective and subjective career success: A meta‐analysis. Personnel psychology, 58, 367-408.

About Jill Bowers

Jill is a certified family life educator (CFLE), certified family and consumer scientist (CFCS-HDFS), and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Human and Community Development at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She developed the idea for this project when she was working on a research project where she interviewed emerging adults (18-20 year olds). Work and career related content was something about which the emerging adults were most interested in learning more, and many of the issues that were at the center of their daily concerns were those surrounding their career plans and navigating the job market. Although some of the emerging adults in the study were aware of the fact that they could find information on the Internet to answer their questions or that there were resources available through their college or University, most of them could not recall being required to participate in any professional development courses that helped them with career-related skills and most of them suffered from “information overload” related to their Internet searches for information that would help them with their career paths. For example, some of them had been told about the importance of networking (e.g., at Career Fairs), but they did not really understand what this was or how to do it. Therefore, as a result of her experiences working with emerging adults, Jill initiated this project to help FCS students by providing them with information that will help ensure their success as they navigate the job market.

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