The Career Planning Process

4 Steps to Choosing a Career

A career counselor and client
A career counselor works with her client.. Cavan Images / Iconica / Getty Images

Choosing a career is a big deal. It's about so much more than deciding what you will do to make a living. To start with, think about the amount of time we spend at work. We are on the job approximately 71% of every year. Over our lifetimes, this comes out to roughly 31 1/2 years out of the 45 years most of us spend working, from the beginning of our careers until retirement. You should not underestimate the importance of selecting a career that is a good fit for you.

While some people are lucky enough to just know what they want to do and end up in satisfying careers without giving it much thought, most of us are not. Many people don't put enough effort into choosing occupations or pick them for the wrong reasons. Maybe they select careers that seem secure or pay well. Job outlook fluctuates,  making security fleeting, and high pay isn't correlated with career satisfaction. Choosing an occupation based only on those criteria can leave you unhappy with your choice. 

The best way to increase your chances of finding a career with which you will be satisfied is to make a well-thought out decision that follows, in order, the four steps of the career planning process: self assessment, career exploration, match, and action

You can attempt to go through the career planning process on your own, or you can hire a career development professional who will help facilitate your journey.

The way you decide to undertake this process—with or without assistance—is less important than the amount of thought and energy you put into it.

1. Self Assessment

During this first step, you will use a variety of tools to gather information about yourself. You will learn about your:

You will identify occupations that might be a good fit for you during this step, but you do not yet have enough information to make a decision.

Learn More about Self Assessment

2. Career Exploration

  • Read about the occupations that appear to be a good fit based on the results of your self assessment and learn about any other occupations that interest you.
  • Use labor market information to gather more data about these occupations and about the industries in which you might work.

After your preliminary research, you can start eliminating professions that don't appeal to you and get more details on those that do. This is a good time to conduct informational interviews and arrange job shadowing opportunities. On an informational interview, you will ask people employed in an occupation that interests you questions about his or her job. Job shadowing involves following someone around at work in order to learn more about a career.

3. Match

During this phase of the career planning process, you will decide which occupation is the best fit for you based on what you learned during self assessment and career exploration.

  • Identify the occupation in which you are most interested and one or two alternatives on which to fall back if, for any reason, you can't pursue your first choice.
  • Give serious thought to how you will prepare to enter your chosen career, the costs associated with education and training, and whether you will face any barriers. Barriers include family responsibilities, financial difficulties, and disabilities that may interfere with pursuing your goals.
  • Go back to the previous phase if you find you need to explore your options further before making a decision. 

Once you have chosen a career, you can go to the next step.

4. Action

Now it's time to put together a plan to reach your goals and start moving forward. First, write a career action plan which will serve as a guide that will help you achieve your goals.

It is important to note that the career planning process is a circular one. You may have to go back to the beginning, or to any phase, at some point in your life as you redefine yourself and your goals. For example, you may decide to change your career. You may even have to do this more than once.

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