By Brandon Bowen
Director, Learning Resources
Once I grew out of the “I want to be an astronaut” years and into high school, adults I knew (and even some I didn’t) would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Many can relate to this situation; it seems to be an easy conversation starter between well-meaning guidance counselors and young people the world over. Inevitably, I’d have to answer honestly.
“I don’t know,” I’d reply.
“That’s fine; you still have a lot of time to figure it out.” They would respond.
One day, however, something switched. “That’s fine,” was replaced with a worried look and, “What? You don’t know! You have to decide!” Overnight society decided I was at the tail-end of the “I don’t know” phase of life. I realized that I needed a better answer. Finding a fitting career can be difficult, but I learned that some good tools in your research tool belt could make things much easier. Here are four common mistakes that everyone from college freshmen to established professionals are guilty of when researching a new career. Avoid these potential pitfalls, and you’ll be on your way to a shiny, new career in no time!
1: Relying on your own (mis)conceptions
As a college librarian, you would be amazed at the number of students who tell me they want to be “a consultant.” Often, these students saw this career in their own family; maybe their father was a consultant, and they saw it as career path where you can earn a good living. What the students didn’t see were the hours of toil their father put into a regular job, honing his expertise in a way where one day someone would pay him extra for his knowledge and experience. No one is born a consultant; professional expertise is typically something that occurs only after many years of dedicated work. When you initially peek your head out the window at possible careers, you may only see the results of years of hard work, and not the starting point where they began. Inquire into what a job is like, what the environment is, and the level of personal interaction needed. People love to talk about themselves, their career, and how they got to where they are. A little information goes a long way toward combating misconceptions.
2: Not leveraging your contacts
I learned too late that no one understands a career better than a person who is currently working in that career. They are first-hand knowledge for any questions you may have, and not utilizing all the people around when learning about a profession can be a costly mistake. Professional organizations exist for nearly every career under the sun: librarians flock to the American Library Association for professional development, paralegals join the National Association of Legal Assistants, interior designers have the American Society of Interior Designers, and so on. If you don’t have many friends yet in your future field, try finding them through LinkedIn. Chances are a friend-of-a-friend can point you in the right direction. When I initially thought about becoming an academic librarian, I reached out to a family member who had contacts in a university library. I sat down with these librarians and they were able to tell me what they did on a daily basis, the challenges they had, and what it was actually like to be a librarian. Turns out they don’t just sit around and read all day long. Who would have guessed!
3: Not looking at good data
When you start to research a profession, there’s a lot of places you can go. Googling your career and trusting the first two links that come up can be a mistake. I’ve already mentioned that professional organizations can be a good start since they often have information about how to join the profession and what a career is like in that field. You can check both national and state level professional organizations for job postings and tips on beginning that career, including preparing for any exams or certifications. If you haven’t narrowed it down to one career, or want a national-level snapshot of a career, the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes the Occupational Outlook Handbook online, which lays out wages, job outlook, job growth, and other factors. Are you concerned with getting a degree that will net you the most money? They have a list of the highest earning professions, and what it takes to get there. Hint: librarian isn’t on the list!
4: Rushing your timeline
Look, I get it: being unemployed is great for the first week, tolerable for the second, and absolutely horrendous for the third. However, unless you have some solid responsibilities (mortgage, children, crippling Dungeons & Dragons addiction, etc.) don’t settle for just anything that comes your way. Many people forget that it’s just as important to research the company as it is to prepare for the interview. The recruiter has taken time to look into your background, and you need to do the same. If you rush through this step you could find yourself in a new entry-level job that’s not a good fit, and in six months you’ll be back to where you started. If you are committed to becoming a medical assistant, taking a job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office isn’t the same thing. Be cautious and don’t jump at the first thing just because you’re tired of eating ramen every night. That initial paycheck tastes mighty sweet until you realize it comes with an endless side order of Monday morning regrets.
Heading into a new career is an exciting time. It’s one of the few times in life where the future is wide open and the possibilities seem nearly endless. If you search smart, you can ensure that your new career is one you’ll be happy with for many years. We all want that job that will leave your former guidance counselor not speechless, but using you as an example of someone who had it together all along.