I’ve seen a lot of career advice out there lately that includes something along the lines of “Figure out what you really loved to do as a child and then turn that into your job.” You can’t see me right now, but I’m making a total dead pan face as I write that. I’m pretty sure that as a child I enjoyed nothing that mirrored rehabilitating violent offenders back into the community. Conversely, I have not found a way to make money climbing trees and concocting weird potions out of my leftover lunch. It’s just not that easy sometimes.
Now, I can think back to about high school and, at least at the time, I felt that a lot of my friends trusted me with their problems. Some who weren’t even particularly close to me valued my listening skills and confidentiality. So it’s easy to look back in hindsight admittedly say, I had some of those strengths that I use now in my career as a psychologist. But if you have read how I came to be a psychologist in one of my earlier posts, you know that it wasn’t even on my radar until late in the game. Once you pick the field you in which you want to work, there are still so many decisions to be made about specific environments, specialties, and areas of expertise. Here’s how to bring it into focus.
1. Be negative!
You probably have pretty strong feelings towards what you do not want to do and who you do not want to work with or what projects you definitely do not want to be a part of. Sort of like when seeking a relationship. We generally have things on our lists that are total deal breakers; people you would never choose to have as a long-term partner. In much the same way, if you figure out what you don’t want to do for a living, the viable options (based on your interests) will rise to the top.
How I applied this step: I knew that I didn’t want to work with children or with a particularly “boring,” run-of-the-mill population. Sitting in an office listening to a desperate housewife sounded so boring to me.
You are going to need a way (other than the internet) to find out what jobs are available to you after you graduate or as you dive further into your job hunting process. There are so many careers related to specific disciplines! Jobs you didn’t even know existed. Being a part of a professional organization or school association is the best way to gather that info. Many professional organizations at the state, national, and international levels have student member options. This would allow a student to attend trainings and seminars and give them the opportunity to network. Again, to use the relationship analogy, this would be where you might identify places where you could meet potential partners.
How I applied this step: In undergrad, I was an active member of the Criminal Justice Student Association and we had speakers come in every month to talk about their job duties. This is how I learned that the California Department of Justice existed and that they had a number of Special Agents with Bachelor degrees.
3. Talk the talk.
After the options start to materialize, the best way to go about figuring out where you fit best is to talk to people in the field. Gather as much real information from them as possible. What they like, what they don’t like. What would it take for them to walk away from their job and what keeps them there. Realize that these may not align with your values 100% but there’s nothing like getting candid information from someone who’s not trying to recruit you. They often have sound bits of advice that can get you to your goal faster. Learn from their mistakes!
How I applied this step: Early on in graduate school, I began picking the brains of my professors. So many of them worked 2-3 jobs at a time to keep diversified, so this gave me a wide spectrum of information. When I finally became an intern, I would make time to sit down with various members of the staff to find out what they had learned in their career paths. A great prompt is to simply ask, “How did you end up working here?”
4. Walk the walk.
In order to see how you truly feel about a specific field of work, you really just have to try it out. Hopefully this is through such means as a practicum or internship where you have mentorship, guidance, and are committed to the position as part of your academic livelihood. I often have interns who figure out very quickly that our work is not for them. How wonderful to know this when you are only committed for a short period of time and you are not financially reliant on the position. I commend each student who is honest about their reservations. A solid supervisor will help you build your strengths regardless of your intentions to stay. If you have multiple opportunities for internships (in psychology we usually do three), variety is the key. Take the opportunity to be exposed to as many different sites in order to build your skills and your network!
How I applied this step: I immediately went for a practicum in which I would be working with offenders, but then I switched it up to neuropsychology for a year to strengthen those skills and find out how I could merge the two in the future. I returned to working with offenders at a different site in my final year and became more involved with professional organizations.
5. Evaluate and be realistic.
You can only gather information, talk to enough people, and try out different jobs for so long. Eventually, you need to evaluate all of the experiences you have gathered and compare it to your overall goals and priorities. Compare and contrast your options with things like location, flexibility for family, how far can you go in the job with that particular company, and of course pay. Be realistic about your limitations or what (again) you are not willing to do. Above all, do not try to shape unrealistic expectations to fit a mold that you will be miserable with later. Denial will keep you stuck and probably wasting precious time and money.
How I applied this step: When I was faced with two job offers, I turned down the one that would have required me to move out of state temporarily, even though it was the more stable choice and had better benefits. I had to be real about where my heart was and I chose to continue with the work I was doing at my internship.
I hope the personal examples helped to illustrate the practical nature of these tips. What was the best piece of career advice you ever received?