Simplifying the mammoth task of picking a career path

Deciding what you want to do after graduation can be daunting, but it’s easier when taken one stage at a time. Find out how to map out your career with our four-step guide

Career planning is a continuous process that helps you to manage your learning and development. It’s made up of four stages, designed to help you achieve your career goals.

The four steps to choosing a career are:

  1. know yourself
  2. explore your options
  3. make a decision
  4. take action.

This career-planning model can be used by all – including school leavers, students, graduates and career changers. Discover more about the process and how to make the right career choice for you.

1. Identify your skills and interests

Choosing a career is a big deal. You’ll spend a significant amount of time at work and in order to enjoy it, stay motivated, and fulfil your potential, you need to choose wisely.

To make a smart choice, you first need to know yourself and this means auditing your skills and assessing your interests and values.

It’s important to understand the skills and knowledge you possess, so you can match them to the jobs you’d like to do and see if they’re a good fit. Being aware of the skills you have also helps to highlight any gaps in your knowledge that may need to be filled in order to achieve your 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 in the next step when narrowing down your options.

Consider where you are now, where you want to be and how you’re going to get there. If you’re lost as to what career to choose, take a look at what jobs would suit me? and ask 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, consider taking psychometric tests.

By the end of this step, you’ll have identified which occupations suit you, but won’t have enough information to make a decision.

2. Explore career ideas

This is all about researching the job market and career paths of interest to you and narrowing down your options.

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

There are three overarching job sectors.

  • 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.

Once you’ve assessed which areas of work suit your skills, values and interests, research what careers other graduates in your discipline enter by visiting what can I do with my degree?  Also, think about less obvious alternatives by browsing job profiles.

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 suits 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.

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 job market.

From your shortlist of options, decide which occupation 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 that 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 SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis. Instead of just looking at the pros and cons, this method enables you to look at the decision from a number of perspectives. You list all your strengths and weaknesses and all the opportunities and obstacles that come with the job.

There’s also plenty of support available to help you learn more about your options and make a decision, including:

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

Bear in mind, 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 is being employable and possessing the ability to adapt and learn new skills.

4. Set achievable goals

During the last step of the career planning process action is required.

Your career plan should outline how you’ll get to where you want to be, what actions are needed and when, and 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 – training requirements, for example – at each individual step.

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

Visit your university’s careers service and ask an adviser to check over your career plan for some professional reassurance.

It’s important to remember that career planning is a continuous process, which should be revisited and reviewed periodically throughout your career.