Choosing a Career Path

bev-3aby Beverly Baskin, Ed.S, MA, NCCC

Director and Career Counselor, Baskin Business and Career Services
Marlboro, Princeton, and Woodbridge, New Jersey

How do I choose a career?

Since a person’s career is a very personal choice and reflects his or her personality, creativity, interests, and goals, it is sometimes beneficial if one begins by choosing a career path, instead of a career.

Often career counselors conduct career pathing sessions with their clients to assist in matching innate skills and abilities with short and long-term goals. For example, if a person demonstrates an interest in the field of biology and also enjoys dealing with people, the following is an example of a sample career path he or she might consider: If the person wanted to enter the workforce immediately upon graduating from college, he or she may explore the areas of pharmaceutical or medical sales, working for a medical or scientific publishing company in which there are research, copywriting, or editing positions, or he/she may seek an alternate route as a biology teacher. All of these positions would serve as rungs on his/her career ladder.

As the person continues to climb the ladder to a successful career, the prospect of additional promotions within or outside his company, continued educational opportunities, and the eventual possibility of starting his or her own business are also career pathing options.

Now, for another scenario. If the same person who demonstrated an interest in biology decides to become a medical doctor or research biologist immediately after graduation, that person will need to obtain an advanced degree in order to complete his or her chosen career path. After the required post graduate education is completed, there are a number of options within the specialty for the person to climb the ladder of success. He or she can go into private practice as a physician, become a senior research biologist, a professional manager within a research or scientific environment, or work for a state or federal government. These are only a few examples of career pathing. With the help of a career counselor, one can explore many more career paths.

The career counselor often talks with the person at length to explore the subjects the individual liked in school, what he or she considers to be personal strengths and abilities, as well as what other people have said through evaluations at work or volunteer activities. The counselor will ask about the person’s daydreams, his or her ideal job, and aspirations. Clients often feel that the time spent with the counselor leads to more insight and investigation regarding several possible career paths.

Matching Interests with Careers

There are several instruments that counselors utilize to match interests with careers. One of the most popular career/interest inventories is the Self-Directed Search by Dr. John Holland, a noted psychologist and career theorist. His research concludes that people with the same interests often seek similar work environments. One can think of the metaphor “birds of a feather flock together” and how it applies to different work environments. If we think of employees working in a particular occupation, they usually have similar vocational and outside interests.

Dr. Holland says that people can be loosely classified into six different groups or personality types labeled Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising and Conventional. After a client completes the Self Directed Search inventory (it takes approximately 30 minutes), he or she will have a three letter code corresponding to the three highest interests. For instance, if a person receives a score with the code SAE, his or her strongest vocational personality type is Social (S), then Artistic(A) and then Enterprising (E). The counselor and client then review the code and its variations in the Holland Occupations Finder for the purpose of investigating careers that correspond with the client’s interests.

If a person has a strong R (Realistic) type, he or she may like to work with his/her hands and use physical skills. The person may like to use tools, repair things, work outdoors, and have a desire for adventure. Possible career paths include Engineer, Military, Mechanic, or Skilled Trades Person.

The Investigative personality (I) tends to focus on ideas, investigation, research, and technical activities. Occupations such as Physician, Analyst, Technical Writer and Medical Technologist are found in this code.

The Artistic Type (A) person is usually creative, intuitive, expressive and a non-conformist. Typical occupations include Musician, Writer, Interior Decorator, Photographer, or Actor/Actress. Artistic people are the most creative of the six personality types.

People who are a strong Social Type (S) like to engage in Care-Giving activities, Group Activities and Social Events, Teaching, and Leadership. Career paths include preparation as a Counselor, Teacher, Religious Worker, Psychologist or Speech Therapist.

If a client thinks he/she would like an enterprising job, such as a Salesperson, Manager, Business Executive, Television Producer, or Buyer, the client will probably score with a high Enterprising (E) type. E types are found in the business world and include jobs in corporations and small businesses.

The Conventional (C) vocational personality likes conventional jobs such as Bookkeeper, Financial Analyst, Banker, Accountant, or Tax Expert. They have arithmetic abilities are organized and efficient.

Codes can vary over the years. Very often a recent college grad will have an Enterprising (E) code at the end of his or her score, but when the person gains a few years experience , the Enterprising code may become the highest letter which means the person might be ready for a career in management or possibly starting his or her own business. The opposite can happen to an executive in mid life who wants to become involved in more altruistic activities. If the Social code (S) is very high, the individual may want to change his or her career path towards teaching or counseling for the purpose of helping others.

The point is that change is a constant, and people are always forming career paths. What they really do is they take some aspects of the job that they presently hold or some aspects of their college coursework and parlay those favorite work functions into their new or anticipated job. Some people can market themselves to employers and communicate their skills and abilities so effectively they eventually wind up creating their “ultimate job.”

Career Paths

Now, getting back to the question of “How do I choose a career? The answer is — today, people do not choose one career. They choose career paths that can twist and turn to meet the changing economy. Statistics show that in recent years people change careers at least three to four times in their lifetimes, and they hold an average of seven jobs. Remember, when we say average, that also means that 50 per cent of the people hold more than seven jobs.

Building career paths and practicing the art of personal marketing will be an invaluable tool in choosing flexible career options in the 21st Century. In addition, becoming a generalist in one’s field, keeping a flexible outlook regarding the workplace, and taking advantage of the continuing learning opportunities will be critical to one’s survival in the workforce.

Marketing Transferable Skills

A common barrier facing the recent high school or college graduate is that many times the person is not aware of his or her own strengths and abilities that translate into marketable skills. The key to a successful job search is marketing transferable skills to prospective employers and contacts. A wide variety of jobs do exist in today’s marketplace for general and liberal arts graduates in such fields as sales, management, and government. In order to be hired into these positions, recent graduates must be able to communicate their transferable skills developed through college courses, internships, professional organizations, work study programs, and part-time jobs.

If the job seeker expresses his or her skills in terms of specific achievements, he or she becomes more credible in the eyes of an employer, and it will make a significant difference in procuring employment.

The key transferable skill for the 21st Century is the ability to work as part of a team. There will be cross-functional teams and flexible work centers organized around projects and processes. The United States has become a service economy with emphasis on quality customer service. Those graduates seeking professional employment will need the ability to work in a variety of organizations with many types of employees.

American industry is outsourcing many of its services that were previously performed internally, so flexibility in work styles will be important for recent college graduates. New work styles include telecommuting (working out of one’s home) and serving as a temporary and contingency employee.

Thinking creatively and globally, as well as demonstrating the value of the experiences gained in studying abroad are definite advantages in securing employment. Other transferable skills cited by human resource professionals as being highly desirable include:

Budget Management: Managing how funds are dispersed.

Supervising: Taking responsibility for the work of others.

Public Relations: Meeting or relating to the public.

Coping with Deadline Pressure: Producing work under external deadlines

Negotiating/Arbitrating: Dealing effectively with people in ambiguous situations.

Speaking: Speaking publicly to get your ideas across to others.

Writing: Experience with newsletters, class term papers, yearbook copyrighting, writing school newspaper articles.

Organizing/Managing/Coordinating: Taking charge of an event or project.

Interviewing: Acquiring information from other people by asking appropriate questions.

Teaching/Instruction: Explaining things to others in an accurate and easily understood way.

Computers: Word Processing, Spread Sheets, Data Bases.

Planning Ahead

As Microsoft’s Bill Gates says, “Employers want trainable, not trained workers. Jobs are, after all, fixed solutions to changing problems. Society needs college graduates who have the knowledge, skills, abilities and values necessary for continuous problem solving and lifelong learning, not people trained for a particular job.”

Planning ahead is advisable while one is still in college. Even if a person is an accounting major, he or she may find it advisable to take various electives in liberal arts in order to be viewed as a well rounded and a trainable employee. One can investigate internships and foreign study programs offered by the college. Look for creative college courses that partner actual business people with students, either inside or outside the classroom.

Albert Bandura, a noted behavioral psychologist talks about the concept of self efficacy. Setting high expectations for oneself yields high results. Playing it safe and setting low expectations often leads to discouragement and low self esteem. Hands-on learning and on-the-job training are the best ways to try out the skills related to a particular occupation, build valuable self esteem, and obtain a sense of professional identity. Sometimes it is just as valuable to find out what one dislikes in terms of a job or career as it is to find something that one loves. Knowing what a person doesn’t like to do actually brings to the surface the skills that really interest him or her . It becomes a process of elimination.

The Concept of “Shadowing”

The best way to prepare for a career is to talk to as many people as one can in the profession. In career counseling, this process is called “shadowing.” When a prospective job seeker shadows a person in the field of computer programming, he or she spends an entire day or more with that person at the work site, and observes the day to day activities associated with the job. The person might ask questions about what the employee likes about the job and some of the things that the employee dislikes. Shadowing is also helpful to explore salary ranges and the potential for growth and advancement.


Studies show that 65 to 75 percent of jobs come through network development. The cardinal rule of networking is “never ask for a job.” The best way to network is to ask people for advice and suggestions. The contact person will not be put on the spot and very often desires to help the career seeker with job search information and career marketing strategies. After the person communicates some advice and suggestions to the job seeker, then it is time to ask for two other names of people the contact person knows who might be able to help the job seeker with information. These two names become referred leads, and the same networking process is repeated again. Eventually, the job seeker will talk with someone who is looking to hire a new employee. This is what networking is all about. One uses the advice and suggestions of friends, family, and business acquaintances as “safety nets” to assist in obtaining meetings with influential decision makers.

Once a person networks with contacts and obtains results, it becomes a valuable skill–but it must be practiced and refined to be effective. As mentioned, the best way to network is to ask for information about the particular field because the proper information will get the person closer to the goal of securing employment. It is not advisable to ask for a job because the contact will usually state if he or she knows of an opening.

Another productive networking activity is talking with college alumni. An individual can obtain an alumni list from his or her college career placement office. Alumni want to help fellow graduates and can be a source of many referrals.

Shotgun Approach

I often tell my clients to use the “shotgun approach” for securing a job. This includes performing networking activities, sending targeted resumes and cover letters to classified advertisements, and utilizing the services of employment agencies. Names of employment agencies can be found in the local Yellow Pages and many career counselors have extensive data bases of recruiters in specific fields with corresponding salary ranges. Research indicates that 25-30 percent of jobs are found through employment agencies and newspaper advertisements as opposed to 65-70 percent of jobs found through networking.

The third way of finding a job is by soliciting one’s resume and targeted cover letter to specific companies of interest. This takes research on the job seeker’s part but it is worth it. Even though there is only a 2 percent return on this type of career marketing, targeting specific industries, timing, and good karma may be on one’s side, and a company receiving the resume packet may be planning to hire a new employee.

A Nationally Certified Career Counselor (NCCC) or a Certified Professional Resume Writers (CPRW) can assist clients in writing and developing professional resumes and cover letters. It is a wise investment in one’s career.

Formal and Informal Job Market

The Formal Job Market consists of classified advertisements in the newspapers, job listings and announcements, and job orders from employment agencies. Richard Bolles says that the Formal Market is the preferred method of searching for employment for the average job seeker. Unfortunately, it is not the preferred method of the manager who is looking to fill a position. The last thing a company usually does is put an advertisement in the newspaper. That is done only after other methods are exhausted using the Informal Job Market. The Informal Job Market consists of jobs that are not yet advertised and usually found through informal networking procedures. First, the employer asks other employees if they know anyone who can fill the particular job opening. If that does not produce a candidate, then he or she goes to Human Resources to see if there are any applications on file or if there are any other referred leads through industry contacts, salespeople in the field, or distributors. It can be very advantageous to secure employment through the Informal Job Market because there is very little competition; the job opening has just been created. The job seeker can even create his or her own job title if there is a need for a particular service. Employers are always willing to listen to ideas regarding new or proposed positions that will increase profits and productivity.

Job Search Planning

Planning a job search will soon become a full-time job! The quickest way to find a job is to devote at least 25 hours a week to an individual search and to obtain two interviews per week. The word interview can mean an informal informational meeting or a formal job interview for a particular job. A contact is also a person who can refer you to more resources, not necessarily the one who has a job available.

Job Search Research

Conducting research in the library and utilizing the services of the librarian can be very helpful. Basic reference books related to specific careers include MacRAE’s Industrial Directory (individual states), Directory of Corporate Affiliations, Dun and Bradstreet Million Dollar Directory, National Directory of Addresses and Telephone Numbers, and the National Trade and Professional Associations of the United States and Canada Labor Unions.

Helpful books include What Color is Your Parachute by Richard Bolles, The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America Robert Levering, and The American Almanac of Jobs and Salaries by John Wight. There are numerous other reference books and every year the list is updated.

Going for the Gold–Choosing the Right Career

When looking into career choices, a person must realize that he or she spends more time at work than at home. Personal identity, competency, status, and self esteem are all tied into the type of work a person does. An individual’s career is the totality of his or her life’s work. If one chooses the right career path, it can be creative, fun, challenging, lucrative, and a source of great pleasure and accomplishment.

Robert F. Kennedy said in Promises to Keep “….if this is the vision of the future—if this is the direction in which we want to move—the next thing we must consider is how we want to get there, and what obstacles lie in our path. For such a vision is never self-fulfilling. We cannot stand idly by and expect our dreams to come true under their own power. The future is not a gift, it is an achievement.” Good Luck!

Work Cited:

Holland, J (1994) Self Directed Search. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

BBCS Counseling Services
Offices in Marlboro, Iselin, Freehold, and Princeton, New Jersey (NJ)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s