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What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

Tips for Choosing a Career

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Here’s a question you probably hear a lot: “So what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Choosing a job or career is one of the most important decisions of your life. If you’re like most young people, you don’t know the answer to the big “what do you want to be” question, and you’re stressed about it. You might have a few ideas about what you’d like to do, but you don’t know whether these ideas are realistic or not. Is it best to follow your dreams or is it best to be practical?

Deciding on a career isn’t easy. If you haven’t yet figured it out yet, you’re not alone. Take a look at the answers to our survey on student career plans - most of them say they don’t know. Among college students, over 75% of incoming freshman haven’t picked a major, and more than half of college students will change their major at least once. Being undecided or changing your mind is normal, but even if you’ve got your future all planned out, here are some ideas that might help you decide whether your job choice.

It Doesn’t Hurt to Dream

If you’re lucky enough to have a passionate interest, it’s a good place to start exploring the options. Maybe you love to sing, but you know that your chances of making it as a singer are slim because there’s so much competition. What about other jobs where you can take advantage of your musical talents -- maybe as a teacher or as a sound engineer? If you love to perform, you are probably an outgoing personality who enjoys being with people. These qualities are essential for most sales jobs. Cool jobs might be hard to get, but some people are lucky enough to get them. Why not you?

On the other hand, skills pay the bills. You don’t need a Ph.D. to get a good job, but most of the “best jobs” in the fastest growing fields require specialized training, beyond what you’ll get in high school.

Getting Started

1. Make a list of 5-10 jobs that you’ve thought about. If you need more ideas, here’s a long list of different job possibilities.

2. Now organize the list, putting your favorites at the top. For your top three choices, list the positives and negatives. For example, if “veterinarian” is at the top of your list, a positive reason for choosing this field is that you love working with animals. On the negative side, it takes eight years of college to become a vet, and it’s not easy to get into vet school. Listing positives and negatives will help you start figuring out what’s important to you. For example, starting your own business is a big commitment. Is it more important to you to be your own boss, or would you rather have more time for your family?

3. Now that you’ve got your list, take some career tests. Compare the results to the list you made. If you find a match, it’s a good place to start digging deeper. Don’t worry if you get a result you don’t like at all. The tests aren’t perfect, and you can just cross off the jobs that have zero appeal to you.

4. Talk to a teacher or guidance counselor. This might sound like a weird idea, but a good teacher should have some smart things to say about your ideas and your talents. Start the conversation by bringing in your list. It will show your teacher that you’re serious. If you don’t like what the teacher has to say, you don’t have to follow the advice -- but it won’t hurt to hear it.

5. Learn more about the job by doing some online research. Here are some places to find detailed job descriptions.

  • What kind of training do you need to get the job?
  • Does it require a college education? If it does, what kinds of classes would you need to take? Can you handle the courses?
  • If the job doesn’t require a college degree, does it require specialty training? Are there programs in your area or would you have to move somewhere else? If you joined the military, could you get the specialized training you’d need for the job?
  • How much does the job pay? If the answer is “not much”, is that important to you?
  • Would you work regular hours?
  • Does the job sound too stressful or too boring?

Things Change

Over time, you’ll discover that some doors close, but other doors open. For example, you really wanted to become a doctor but you got a B-minus in organic chemistry. With that B-minus, you won’t be able to get into medical school, but there are hundreds of health-related jobs that don’t require organic chemistry or won’t hold that grade against you. Some of these jobs are just as fulfulling as being doctor, pay well and leave more time for a personal life.

People change over time, and so does the job market. Your grandparents would never have planned for a job in computers because there weren’t any. Now millions of people have jobs that are part of the computer industry - whether they work for an internet company, write code or sell products in the Apple store. You can’t plan for jobs that don’t yet exist, but you can bet that most jobs in new industries will require that you know some basic computer skills and can write a typo-free note or email. The more skilled you are at the basics (reading, writing, arithmetic), the better your chances at whatever comes along.

Journey of a Thousand Miles

There’s a famous Chinese saying : “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” If you follow all these recommendations, you still might not have found the answer to the question of what you want to be when you grow up, but you will have started the journey. And if someone asks you what you want to be, you can answer the question truthfully: “I’m exploring my options.”

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