How to choose a career

Daniel Higginbotham, Editor
June, 2023

If you're stuck for job ideas and you're unsure where your skills might best be served, it's worth coming up with a career development plan - simply follow these four steps to choosing a career

A career plan is a strategy you'll continuously develop to manage your learning and progression throughout your working life. Consisting of four stages, its purpose is to help you visualise the actions you need to take to achieve your career goals, and how to put these actions into practice.

The four stages of a career plan are:

  1. identify your skills and interests
  2. explore career ideas
  3. make a decision
  4. set achievable goals.

Career planning is important for a number of reasons - having a career development plan in place reduces the risk of you making impulsive decisions, and it helps you to recognise when you're ready to look for new career opportunities and develop new skills.

This model can be used by anyone - from school leavers to students, graduates and career changers.

Learn more about what the process involves and how to map out your career journey.

1. Identify your skills and interests

Choosing a career is a big deal. You'll spend a significant amount of your life at work and so in order to enjoy your job, remain motivated and fulfil your potential, you need to choose wisely.

You first need to know yourself. This means taking stock of your skills and assessing your interests and values.

It's important to understand your range of skills and knowledge, so you can see if they're a good fit for the job you'd like to do. Being aware of the skills you have also helps to highlight any gaps that may need to be filled to achieve your career goals.

Make a list of all your transferable and specialist skills, with examples of when you've demonstrated each. An honest assessment of your skills, values and interests will prove useful when narrowing down your options in the next step. You can also see where you measure up in terms of the skills employers are looking for.

Consider where you are now, where you want to be and how you're going to get there. If choosing a career has left you feeling lost, start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What am I good at?
  • What are my interests, motivations and values?
  • What did I most enjoy at university?
  • What kind of lifestyle do I want?
  • What do I want from my career?
  • What is important to me?

If you're struggling to identify your strengths, weaknesses and character traits, taking practice psychometric tests could bring them to light.

By the end of this step, you'll have identified the sort of jobs that will suit you, but won't yet have enough information to make a decision on which to pursue.

2. Explore career ideas

This is all about researching the job market and career pathways that interest you and narrowing down your options.

Consider what your ideal job sector would be, and discover its key trends by researching the local, national and global jobs market. This will help you to discover more potential career paths, and understand which roles are expanding or declining.

There are three overarching job sectors. These are:

  • Private - sole traders, partnerships and limited companies
  • Public - local and national governments, plus their agencies and chartered bodies
  • Not-for-profit - often referred to as the third sector, or the charity and voluntary work sector.

Browsing job profiles may introduce you to some less obvious career paths where your skills and qualifications could be useful.

Compile a shortlist of around five to ten jobs, before considering the advantages and disadvantages of each in terms of:

  • career development
  • employment outlook
  • entry requirements
  • job description
  • related jobs
  • salary and conditions
  • training.

You must also consider which size of employer best fits with your personality and work ethic. Are you more suited to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), large companies or self-employment?

This is the perfect time to consider work experience and internships, work shadowing and volunteering opportunities. They'll help you to gain an insight into the areas you're interested in before committing yourself to a certain career path.

3. Make a decision

Now you're ready to start making decisions. Combine what you've learned about yourself with what you've discovered about your options and the graduate jobs market.

From your job ideas list, decide which role interests you the most and select one or two alternatives to fall back on if you're not able to pursue your first choice.

To help make a decision, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will I enjoy doing the job every day?
  • Does it meet most of my preferences?
  • Do I have the right skills?
  • Does the company fit with my values?
  • Are there any location/financial/skills limitations I need to take into account?
  • Is the job realistic in terms of salary?

If you're struggling to reach a conclusion, there are a number of exercises you can try to aid the decision-making process. Listing the pros and cons of a particular job or career is often useful, as is completing a personal SWOT analysis:

  • Strengths - What skills, traits, certifications and connections would you bring to the role that nobody else could? What makes you unique?
  • Weaknesses - What areas could you improve on? Do you lack any skills holding you back from excelling in the role you'd like to pursue?
  • Opportunities - Is your industry growing? Could you take advantage of your competitors' mistakes or gaps in the market?
  • Threats - Could your weaknesses slow your progression at work? Is there anything else that may stand in the way of your development, such as changes in technology?

There's plenty of support available to help you decide. Look to:

  • company websites
  • family and friends
  • newspaper articles
  • professional bodies and industry conferences
  • tutors
  • university careers and employability services.

Keep in mind that you'll probably be suited to more than one career and today's jobseekers usually change career direction more than once in their working life. The key to being employable is having the ability to adapt and learn new skills.

Learn more about making a career change.

4. Set achievable goals

Your career plan should outline how you'll get to where you want to be, what actions are needed and when, and separated into your short, medium and long-term goals. Constantly review your progress, especially after each short-term goal is reached.

You must also establish a backup career development plan, in case your situation changes. Map several alternative paths to your long-term goal, considering how you'll overcome the types of problems you might encounter - such as training requirements - at each step.

Your first short-term goal may involve improving your CV and cover letter. Other short or medium-term targets could include undertaking relevant internships, gaining volunteering experience or attending careers fairs.

Make an appointment with your university's careers service to ask an adviser to check over your career action plan and discuss your career choices and goals for the future, if you feel you need some professional reassurance. Discover where to find help at university.

Finally, don't forget that career planning is a continuous process. Revisit and review your aims and objectives throughout your career, and don't feel constrained by the goals you've set - the structure of a career plan should help you clearly map out the route to trying something new.

Find out more

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