7 Tips on How to Choose a Career

Alexandra RiceOctober 23, 2014

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Graduation is just a few months away, and you still have no idea what you want to do after college. Well, you can take solace in the fact that you are not alone.

The feeling is common, especially for students whose major doesn’t directly align with a career path. In fact, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, baby boomers held an average of 11.3 jobs from ages 18 to 46.

So “don't feel like you are deciding what you will do for the rest of your life,” Dale Austin of Hope College in Holland, Michigan, says. But do start to seriously weigh your options and map out a plan.

To help you get started, we asked the experts what advice they had for rising juniors and seniors on how to choose a career. Here’s what they had to say:

1. Shadow someone in your field of choice.

“I suggest that students shadow someone whom they admire for a day,” says Nicole Rabalais Hubbs, coordinator of the Junior and Senior Experience and Internships at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville. “Spending time in this person's world gives the student insight into that career field and can either solidify or eliminate that career path. When all the options are overwhelming, taking action like shadowing a professional can help ease anxiety.”

2. Conduct informational interviews.

Research your dream job and talk to someone who has the job you want,” says Gabriel Razo, director of career planning and placement at Harold Washington College in Chicago. “I had a student who aimed to work at a large technology company, until he learned a master’s degree was required for an internship, and he wanted to finish with a bachelor’s degree.  For him, this company wasn’t a fit. To save time, do the research early.”

3. Complete an internship—or two or three.

“You’re not going to truly know what type of work or atmosphere suits you until you do it, so target at least one internship prior to graduation,” Razo says. “This will inform your actual preference. Then, be agile and remember there is more than one route to any destination."

[Read more on how to write an internship cover letter.]

4. Go to graduate school.

Graduate school can open doors to jobs that aren’t available to those with just an undergraduate degree, says John Roeder, assistant dean of graduate admissions at Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. But given that it can be a large investment on top of paying for undergrad, it’s important to make sure your next degree is in a field you want to pursue.

Even if students don’t decide to go to graduate school right away, Roeder recommends all juniors and seniors consider taking the GMAT and/or GRE tests.

“The best score that a student is going to receive on these tests is likely going to come closest to their undergraduate years, when the student still remembers what he or she has learned during quantitative coursework,” he says. Depending on the test, the scores are good for several years.

And for some professions, such as certified public accountants, and physical, occupational and speech therapy, a graduate degree is a requirement, adds Nancy Dachille, director of career development at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.

5. Try travel or service.

“Who doesn't want to see the world? Why not have a career that allows you to see the world and work at the same time?” asks Austin. Take a gap year and teach English abroad, Austin says. Ask your college’s career center to connect you with any alumni who may be living in your country of choice.

“For those not really sure what they would like to pursue in a graduate degree, participating in a year of service is invaluable,” says Dachille. “They may be exposed to experiences and fields that they would not have encountered if they did not do the Peace Corps, Teach for America and various other programs.”

6. Identify careers that align with your skill set.

“Reflect on the collegiate experience, including classes, internships, part-time jobs, community service and involvement with student organizations and identify themes of skills development. Focus on searching for opportunities that align with those skills and experiences,” says Ryan Brechbill, director of the Center for Career and Professional Development at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.

7. Make a five-year plan.

“Know where you want to be in five years. A decade is too far ahead to plan; two years is too easy,” says David Yang, an instructor at the coding bootcamp Fullstack Academy in New York. “If you want to start your own company, become middle management or work in a particular field,” it will take you five years to get there, he says. And in the meantime, “align yourself with the trends. Keep learning — learn to code, learn to work with your hands and learn to manage a team — these are skills that will last.”

Pick a path illustration via Shutterstock.