Launching a Career Search: How to Determine What You Really Want to Do

A man in glasses peers over a newspaper page that reads "Jobs" and "Find your career"

Many people start thinking about what kind of career they want while they're still in school. For some, the field they want to pursue leads them to their college major. This foresight isn't true of everyone, though.

You may have begun exploring which jobs would make the best match for your skills and interests as a result of interactions with teachers, subjects and other students. Once outside the school structure, however, you may struggle to continue that career search. The challenge of deciding what path to take can quickly become overwhelming.

The good news is there are people who can help you with your career search, and there are things you can do that will give you a better chance of landing that first job. Here are four tips for launching a career search:

1. Meet with a counselor

Career and guidance counselors use a variety of tools and techniques to help those engaged in a career search. Some of these coaches are retirees who rely on their experience in a particular industry to help job seekers determine their path. Others have credentials in psychology, social work or human resources.

Some college career centers provide counseling to alumni. If you belong to a professional organization, check to see whether the local chapter recommends career coaches or counseling services.

No matter their background, counselors usually begin by discussing your values and interests. Many administer a personality inventory or aptitude test to explore your natural abilities and how they can be applied in workplace settings. Counselors and staffing specialists can also review your resume and cover letter and help you improve your interview skills.

2. Conduct informational interviews or job shadowing

As you explore new fields, contact someone who is doing the job you think might be a fit for you. Ask about what a typical day is like. Find out what that person likes or dislikes about the profession.

If you are still in school or you've just graduated, request referrals from your instructors. For those already working, ask your colleagues if they know someone you could talk to. Attend a few meetings of the local chapter for a trade association and network there.

3. Be smart about where you apply

Once you've decided what type of job you'd like to pursue, it's time to identify specific jobs and employers. What kind of workplace culture would you be likely to thrive in?

For example, if you think you'd prefer settings with clear chains of authority, consider applying to a large company. Large firms tend to have entry-level openings emerge on a regular basis and more types of jobs within a given career path. Deciding at some point to change jobs within your field may also be easier to do at a big company.

If you want a more dynamic work environment, consider taking a closer look at small to midsize companies. With fewer employees, these firms may offer a quicker route to career advancement and a greater chance to learn on the job and tackle new duties as the business grows.

4. Think about your salary needs

No matter where you are in your career search, you have bills to pay. You need solid information about how much your desired job pays now and some insight into how much you might expect to earn as your career progresses. You can learn more about the range of salaries in different career paths by reviewing recent salary guides.

Finally, remember your first career search may not be your last. Many workers change directions after they've started down a particular professional path. Staffing specialists in many industries can help if you are ready to make a mid-career shift.