Job Searching & Self-Discovery, Part I: The Best Question for Clarifying Your Career Goals

Job Searching & Self-Discovery, Part I: The Best Question for Clarifying Your Career Goals | Applying for jobs can be a frustrating and discouraging process, but it can also present a wonderful opportunity for reflection and self-discovery. Here's the best question I asked myself in order to clarify my life and career goals.

I’m currently looking for my first full-time job out of graduate school, and I’m beginning to understand what people mean when they talk about the difference between the “academic bubble” and the “real world.”

In school, you’re given a syllabus that clearly outlines what is expected of you. In most cases, if you adhere to the guidelines, submit your work on time, and generally try your best, your efforts will be rewarded. And if your work isn’t quite up to par, you can easily request feedback on what you need to do to improve. In the job search arena, on the other hand, you can follow every tip and trick out there for formatting your resume, you can pour your heart and soul into your cover letter, and you can spiff up your LinkedIn profile until you’ve reached “all-star” status–and you can still be met with total radio silence.

Bubble = popped.

Yet despite its many discouraging aspects, the job application process can also present a wonderful opportunity for self-discovery. I know that personally, it has prompted me to explore some of my greatest fears about the future and clarify many of my life and career aspirations.

About two months ago, a series of conversations with my therapist revealed how terrified I was of getting stuck in a job that I’m not passionate about, that offers little room for growth and creativity, that constantly drains my time and energy and compels me to live for nights, weekends, and those few precious vacation days each year. The reasons underlying these fears were numerous and complex, but a huge factor was that I simply didn’t know what I wanted to do, and it’s pretty hard to find something if you don’t know what you’re looking for. I love my field (public health), but it’s so broad and interdisciplinary that the career possibilities are almost endless. That’s awesome, of course, but also seriously overwhelming.

Once I realized this need for greater clarity, I took a break from the job apps and focused instead on research and exploration. After many hours of reading, listening to podcasts, journaling, conversing with trusted mentors, and taking a hard look at what I really have to offer the world based on my knowledge, skills, and experiences, I have arrived at a much clearer picture of what I want my career–and life–to look like. Within my broad field, I have discovered several niches that I believe make a truly good fit, and armed with this knowledge, I have begun applying for jobs once more.

Because the purpose of this blog is to detail a journey toward living a more vibrant and authentic life, and because I know that a lot of other students and recent grads are facing similar struggles, I’d like to share two key strategies that have helped me achieve greater clarity in my career goals.

Today I’ll discuss the first one: Asking the right questions.

It seems that one of the most common questions adults ask of young people is some variation of What do you want to be when you grow up? And I totally get it–it’s a reliable conversation starter that demonstrates interest in the individual’s personality and aspirations. I’ve posed this inquiry plenty of times myself, and always with good intentions. However, in attempting to discern my next steps, I have found this question to be unhelpful at best and downright counterproductive at worst.

We live in a world where lifelong careers with the same company or under the same job title are becoming increasingly rare, where many people study one subject in college and then end up working in an entirely different field, where technological advancements seem to create new positions–and render others totally obsolete–on a daily basis. Thus, asking young people what they’d like to “be” when they grow up encourages them to conceptualize their career path in a way that often doesn’t coincide with reality. There are exceptions, of course, but even relatively straightforward jobs can involve twists and turns–a teacher may decide to move into an administrative role, or a doctor may choose to start seeing fewer patients in favor of pursuing research. And personally, I recall hating this question as a teenager because it made me feel like, at the ripe old age of 15, I had to have the rest of my life figured out. Rather than knowing where I might want to start after college, I had to know what I wanted to “be” for the next 40+ years.

Instead, I have found it far more useful to reflect on what kinds of societal problems and questions most intrigue me. For example, I am fascinated by the fact that despite the plethora of health information available today, many people still do not adhere to basic recommendations for diet, physical activity, sleep, stress, alcohol and tobacco consumption, sun protection, food safety, and more. Identifying and addressing the reasons underlying this reality–including poor health literacy, a lack of access to necessary resources, competing priorities, or inaccurate perceptions of outcome severity and susceptibility–is literally the kind of thing that makes me want to get out of bed in the morning (public health nerd alert). It’s the place where my passions and the world’s needs collide, which has to mean something in terms of finding a career that’s flexible, fulfilling, and in demand.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the second key strategy I’ve used to clarify my career goals. Until then, I’d love to hear about your job search experiences (success stories and horror stories both welcome!) and thoughts on asking What do you want to be when you grow up?

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