Where I mix career information and career decision making in a test tube and see what happens

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

My Generic Career Decision-Making Advice

Every so often, I get an unsolicited e-mail from a total stranger, asking me for advice with career decision making.  Following is my response to such messages. If you know someone who is facing a career decision (maybe you), the following suggestions may be helpful:

Thank you for your interest in my work. I’m not a counselor, but I can recommend the exercise that I personally used 35+ years ago when I needed to make a career change. (The exercise is modified from one that was in What Color Is Your Parachute? in the late 1970s.) Set aside about an hour for this exercise.

On a piece of lined paper, draw three vertical lines to create three columns. In the leftmost column, list any role you have played that is at all like work. This can include academic programs and hobbies, because they involve some work tasks. In the middle column, list the major tasks for each role that you played. Put a star next to each task that you enjoyed and were good at. Then, in the rightmost column, try to identify the skills that were required for each starred task. You should start to see patterns emerging: skills that you’ll want to use in your work.

This list of skills may already suggest certain occupations that are worth investigating. But you may also want to visit http://www.myskillsmyfuture.org/. Although it asks you to enter an occupation name, it also works well if you enter the name of a skill. It will suggest occupations to explore. On the other hand, you may want to keep your options open and not narrow down your thinking to an occupation title. Perhaps there’s a niche job out there that isn’t listed in any reference book. I didn’t know there was such a thing as occupational information expert, but that’s what I became.

There are many excellent books and websites, such as the Occupational Outlook Handbook, for exploring occupations and for learning where the economy is growing. However, once you start getting a clearer idea of your goals, there is no substitute for speaking with actual working people. Ask them what a good day is like on the job and what a bad day is like. Ask them how they got into their field and what they would recommend for someone starting now. Ask them where their field is offering the best opportunities.

A lot of career advice also is available from education and training providers, but you must be wary of recruitment pitches, which may be deceptive. Working people can steer you toward the best entry routes and away from the programs that run up debt with little payoff.

If you are shy or introverted, it can be difficult to do the networking that I am suggesting, but you must force yourself to overcome your hesitation. Set a goal of x number of contacts per day. If you make it clear that you are only after information, not a job opening, people will usually be very open and helpful.

Good luck with your career decision making. I hope you’ll write back sometime in the future, when you have made some progress.

Laurence Shatkin, PhD


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