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A career can be defined as a person's progress within an occupation or series of occupations. However, a career is more than just a job, or working, or your occupation. It also includes your progress through life, your growth and development in vocational and avocational areas of life.

Many of us think that there is only one occupation that is best suited for us, but there are really several that may be good choices. The secret is to identify those occupations in which you have a high probability for success and happiness. As a college student, whether your career goals are accounting, theatre arts, or environmental sciences, there are general skills which will be required regardless of the career you pursue. These skills include the ability to read, write, compute, think critically, and communicate in an effective manner. For the most part, these skills are developed and/or sharpened in general education courses. These skills, along with effective career planning techniques, and the ability to cope with ambiguity in a changing environment, will enable you to overcome obstacles throughout your work life.


Deciding on your initial career may present a stressful and frightening prospect. Many tend to perceive career decision-making as complex or even mysterious, only because they tend to concentrate on the outcome and overlook the decision-making and planning process. Successful career decisions are based on current and accurate information. Today, career information is abundant and easily accessible. While this is exciting and potentially helpful, it can also be overwhelming. Nevertheless, one major fact emerges from the mass of data and literature available: effective career planning is a process that involves the total person. Comprehensive career planning stresses the importance of knowing enough about your unique attributes, about specific career fields, and about your life priorities.

Career planning is an individual activity that occurs throughout a person's working lifetime. In American society, the career that you enter will influence your entire lifestyle, self-concept, income, prestige, choice of friends and living location. Career planning is indeed a subcomponent of life planning. It is influenced by many of the same factors, but it focuses attention on work tasks and work environments.

The career planning process is ongoing and sequential. Since it is fluid rather than chronological, you move to the next step only when you are ready to do so, and you may move back and forth between steps at any given time. The career planning process is also cyclic. When career change is desired anytime during your work life, you may repeat the process once again. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the majority of members of the labor force will make three to four major changes in their career during their 35 to 45 years of working. Because human beings are complex, each of us has unique aspirations, goals, potential for development, and limitations. Although we can follow the same process, career planning outcomes must be individualized.

By working with a CDO counselor on the career planning process described below, you can arrive at your own decisions, set your goals and actively plan for the career in your future.



STEP 1: Self-Assessment

What you will do for a living depends a lot on who you are. This may sound obvious, but many people neglect considering this important side of selecting a career. You can avoid joining the ranks of people who are dissatisfied with their work by making a conscious effort to assess yourself. There is no way you can be absolutely certain that a career will meet all of your needs, but there are things you can do very easily that will help you learn more about who you are. Once mastered, techniques of self-assessment can be repeated throughout your life.

What is self-assessment? Essentially, it is a way to enhance self-understanding. It is being able to describe your unique characteristics clearly and accurately regarding what you do well (skills), what is important to you (values), and what you like to do (interests).

Since there is no better source of information about you than yourself, the easiest method of increasing self-understanding is to review and analyze your past and present experiences with a career counselor. Increasing your knowledge of your skills, values and interests will help determine the type of work which fits you best.

Skills. Skills are sometimes thought of as general talents/strengths or specific knowledge/abilities acquired through training. Your skills, however, also include a variety of attributes and personal characteristics which give you your greatest potency. An undergraduate education is more than just learning the subject matter of your major. It also involves acquiring and developing transferable skills in a wide range of fields outside your major. You are the best judge of your skills if you take an accurate reading of your own experiences. Consider the skills which have contributed to your successes, and you will likely notice areas in which you excel.

You may wonder how knowing about skills can help you choose a career. Simply look at any job description. A job is made up of a series of "tasks" for which the person in that position is responsible. In fact, most jobs are described in terms of duties or responsibilities. If you closely examine each of these tasks, you will discover that it requires a specific set of skills to perform them. For a partial list of skills, refer to the Action Verbs handout.

Values. A value is a vague, global concept, sometimes difficult to understand. Essentially, a value is something that is important to you or that you feel has worth, such as marriage, family, religion, or education. What has little value for one person may be of great value to another. Values tend to permeate and influence all aspects of our lives. As values are acted on repeatedly, they become the basis for our lives. For example, a person who strongly values service to others may choose to become a counselor or social worker. In this instance, the likelihood of job dissatisfaction is decreased because the person's career choice is consistent with his or her personal values. Just as life is ever-changing, so are values. Values evolve and continue to develop just as the individual grows and develops.

Work-related values encompass a wide variety of specific elements. Here is a representative list: advancement opportunities, affiliation on the job, autonomy, benefits, change and variety, creativity, decision making, excitement and adventure, flexibility in work hours, helping others, high earnings, independence, influencing others, intellectual growth, job security, location of employment, moral fulfillment, physical challenges, power and authority, prestige, professional accomplishment, public contact, recognition, working alone, and working conditions.

Interests. The meaning of interests is straightforward. What kind of activities do you like? What types of work do you enjoy? What subjects do you enjoy studying? What kind of people do you enjoy being around? Specifically, your interests are those things that grab your curiosity, the activities that give you pleasure. They are the sum of your preferences that give definition to who you are. Exploring different courses or types of activities are great ways to try out new interests.

There is an infinite number of subjects or activities in which you might develop an interest. Here are a few examples: animals, art, books, business, computers, engineering, entertainment, environment, fashion, gardening, health, history, law, machines, mathematics, media, museums, music, outdoors, people, photography, school, science, sports, theatre, travel, and world affairs.

At first glance, assessing and identifying your skills, values, and interests may seem to be a simple method for matching people to career fields. Ultimately, your career choice will involve a complex evaluation of many factors about you including personality traits and aspirations. The CDO offers a number of resources and assessments, including MyPlan, an online career decision-making program, that will help you gain more information about yourself and various occupations.


STEP 2: Career Exploration

It is difficult, if not impossible, to make a rational decision or to evaluate and consider specific careers without an accurate information base. Career information gathering is an integral step in the process of career planning. Initially, you will need to generate a list of careers which you may want to consider. The federal government lists more than 31,000 career fields. Most students admit they have limited knowledge about careers and find it difficult to list or describe more than 40. Sources of career alternatives include the results of computer assessments such as MyPlan, paper and pencil assessments, career publications and suggestions from other people such as faculty and staff, parents and friends. Don't forget to take into account those careers you are merely curious about exploring. After developing the list, you will need to briefly research each career alternative and judge which of these seem potentially suitable for future employment. Determine for each: typical on-the-job duties, qualifications, outlook, salary, methods of entry, etc. How do your skills, values and interests correspond to the types of work you are considering?

Exploring Career Information. There are generally four ways of gathering career information: (1) reading everything you can about careers, (2) talking to people, (3) participating in field experiences, and (4) enrolling in key courses. Caution should be exercised in assessing career information that is inaccurate or that has become obsolete. Explore Career Pathways at Fredonia.

Reading About Careers. The CDO maintains an extensive collection of printed and media-related career materials, and there are many web sites with career information in the Career Links section of CDO Online. Some academic departments also have materials available for students. In addition, career information may be obtained from public libraries; the Internet; federal, state, and local agencies; trade and professional associations; and commercial sources.

Begin by skimming the Occupational Outlook Handbook. This book is published by the U.S. Department of Labor and is available in most libraries, in the CDO, and electronically in the Careers/Majors section of CDO Online. It is a general listing of career areas with information on the nature of the work, working conditions, places of employment, training required, employment outlook, earnings, related occupations, and sources of additional information. MyPlan also has extensive information about careers. Use the CDO resource area bookshelves for general career information, assistance in making career choices, and specific information about various careers. As you locate relevant career materials, keep a thorough annotated bibliography. You may want to photocopy some of the more useful information and begin a special career-related file.

Talking to People.
People can be excellent sources of career information. Interviewing for information is a nonthreatening means of learning about careers. By asking explicit questions of a person currently working in the field you are considering, you can receive the most up-to-date, detailed description of that job's responsibilities and the qualifications you must have. This will also provide an opportunity for you to comprehend the vocabulary of the particular career field. By conducting an interview of this type, you gain exposure to the work setting and to the kinds of people with whom you would work. To learn about how to conduct information interviews, refer to the Interviewing for Information; and Information Interview Questions handouts, to get ideas for specific questions to ask.

Individuals such as campus faculty, staff, or administrators are easily available for informational interviews. They can also serve as a good source for referrals to individuals in the public or private sectors. There are probably many Fredonia alumni working in careers you may be interested in learning more about. An ideal source of contacts can also be obtained through professional associations, some of which have student chapters on campus. Many professional associations provide a membership directory which will enable you to locate experts to talk with. Attending conferences or career fairs are other great ways to learn about careers.

Key Courses. An obvious method of exploring careers is to enroll in specific courses which are directly related to the field of knowledge used in certain occupations. Through use of general education and electives, you have the opportunity to explore several career options. General education is intended to give all college graduates comprehensive skills and abilities (i.e., oral and written communication) and a foundation of knowledge in a variety of disciplines regardless of the ultimate major. While some careers require a specific college major, many are not tied to any specific degree. Therefore, in choosing course work and finally a major, examine your skills, values, and interests, along with academic requirements and potential career choices.

Internships or Applied Learning. The best method of exploring careers is to actually perform work related to the occupation you have in mind. This provides you with firsthand information as to the possible fit between your skills, values, and interests and those required by the occupation. This method is the ultimate reality test to determine your suitability for a particular career. A field experience may be accomplished through full-time, part-time, or summer employment; volunteer work; or internships. Many opportunities for field experience are also available through academic departments. Check the FREDNetwork listings and the Internships section on CDO Online, the Internships resource area at the CDO, as well as the internship coordinator in your academic department for opportunities.

Internships are extremely popular with students and, as a result, tend to be very competitive. Internships require a commitment of time, performance of assigned job duties, and sometimes involve academic credit and perhaps financial compensation. Internships are typically awarded for a particular time period and may be either full-time or part-time. Often, interns work on specific projects or carry out teaching or research tasks at a professional level. Internships are ideal because they permit students to pursue a college degree and acquire experience simultaneously.

Obviously, some of the aforementioned career exploration techniques can be quite time consuming. It is advisable to reserve participating in field experience and taking key courses for those options about which you are most serious. As you become clearer about what it is you want and what the job situations are really like, then you will be ready to go on to the next phase of career problem solving: narrowing the alternatives.


STEP 3: Targeting

If you have investigated a number of career alternatives, you are now ready to target a primary career goal. Initially, it may be easy to rule out several choices as obviously inferior or inappropriate. With the remaining alternatives, it may be very difficult to select the one that fits you best. Additional research regarding the career options, your skills, values, and interests may be necessary. Any decision, career or otherwise, should be approached with sufficient information. The problem now lies in how to process the information and render a decision. There is a good deal of variability among us as to how much prior deliberation we invest in a given decision and the strategies we use. The probability of making a decision with a favorable outcome can be increased with careful consideration and a logical approach. A systematic method uses a framework with which you can effectively analyze and evaluate the data you have gathered for your career decision.

Anyone can learn the technique of systematic career decision making. It can be described as a series of five tasks. In order, they are: (1) define the decision to be made, (2) identify all choices to be considered in the decision, (3) gather information on each option, (4) evaluate the potential outcome of each option considered, and (5) make a selection of the most appropriate option. By following this approach, the likelihood of making good career decisions is increased.

STEP 4: Career Preparation

Once you have made a career decision, the next task is to begin planning how to prepare for the career, how to get experience in it, and how to actually enter the field. In this step, you should identify the degree of effort and all the things which are required to be successful in your chosen career. What are the specific educational and experiential requirements? Of the qualifications required by that career, which ones do you currently possess, and which ones do you need to acquire? How will you best obtain the qualifications: additional education, internships, special courses or training? Answers to these questions will help you identify and set relevant goals. Having established the career goals and defined the tasks to achieve them, you should then set up a timing and sequence outline. Obviously, you cannot accomplish everything at once. Certain activities logically precede others. Try to put it all on paper, identifying activities which must occur, their proper sequence, and the time that it will take for each. Finally, put into action the long- and short-range goals and monitor your progress as you work. For a general college career planning timeline, refer to the Career Planning Timetable handout.


STEP 5: Marketing Yourself

There is a great deal to be learned regarding obtaining employment, even after you have prepared for a career field. Are you graduating with a major where there are few positions that appear directly related to your studies? Graduation from college with the right credentials offers no guarantee of an appropriate position. Your degree will open many doors, but it's up to you to obtain the type of employment you desire. Finding the job you want, at an attractive salary and in the desired geographic location, is the result of using effective job search techniques. Each requires the same conscientiousness, discipline, consistency, and commitment. Job hunting is in itself a full-time job, and should be treated as such.

The job search process is analogous to conducting a marketing campaign. Consider for a moment that you have a product (your skills and training) to sell and the potential employer is the consumer. As a salesperson, you must identify potential consumers of your products and learn how they can use your product. You must be aware of your competition and know the product you are selling. To successfully close a sale, you need to carefully prepare your advertising tools (resume, cover letter, interviewing skills), target a specific consumer group (potential employers), and determine the best mode of marketing (approaching employers).

For years, job seekers have used marketing tactics which can be classified as the traditional job search approach: responding to advertisements, using employment agencies, and participating in on-campus recruiting. Lately, employment experts have been advocating a nontraditional approach. This strategy requires the job seeker to become more assertive in contacting potential employers. Government studies show that only one in five job openings is likely to be advertised. In fact, 48 percent of job hunters ultimately find employment through people they have met (i.e., friends, alumni, faculty, professional association members). This is known as networking. As you expand the circle of people who know your abilities and interests, more employment opportunities will present themselves. Ultimately, the best search strategy for a specific situation may be one which combines methods.

Whether you're applying for an advertised vacancy or using a contact directly without knowing if an opportunity exists, there are several ways to proceed. You can write a cover letter enclosing a copy of your resume, make a phone call to the employer, appear in person, or apply electronically using the Internet. Which methods you use to generate an interview will depend on the type of jobs, industry, and person you are contacting. It's a personal decision, and you've got to experiment to see what works for you. It is important to be adequately prepared prior to making your contacts and also essential that you keep accurate records.

Finally, the last step in waging a successful job search campaign is timing. Begin with realistic expectations. It may take more than six months to get your initial career position, so you must start early. Since it is often difficult to stay motivated for that length of time, an emotional support group is helpful. This informal network can be composed of friends, family members, the CDO staff, other job seekers or individuals of your choosing who can help motivate you when you need it. Even though there may be many rejections, it takes only one "yes" to get hired. Be persistent, patient, and positive! For more information about conducting a good job search, refer to the series of Job Search Basics handouts.


STEP 6: Career Management

By this point, you will have hopefully obtained the career position you desire--one that utilizes your skills and satisfies many of your personal values and interests. Keep in mind that one job cannot offer everything you seek. Whatever needs are not met by your paid employment can be actively satisfied away from the job. Likewise, an ideal job should be one that educates and prepares you for an even better one.

Going to work as a professional is very different from attending school. As a student, you completed identified assignments for specific grades. As an employee, evaluation procedures are often vague. In many situations, you are expected to produce results with relatively little direction or feedback. Your understanding of the world of work, networking efforts, and contributions on the job will directly affect your career security and advancement opportunities. Keep track of your accomplishments and log them in specific terms. This data will assist you in negotiating the performance appraisals, salary, and promotions you desire.

In times of rapid change and rampant obsolescence in occupation fields, you must remain flexible. The "one-job, one-career worklife" of a generation ago phenomenon has been increasingly replaced by a "12-jobs, four-careers worklife." At some point you may begin to ask questions of yourself about your present employment. You may wonder whether there is something better available; or as your skills, values, and interests change, whether another position would better meet these factors. If and when this occurs, the career planning process has completed its cycle. You can return to Step 1: Self Assessment and begin anew the process, anytime during your working years as often as you desire. Remember, the key to success is being prepared. Make an appointment to talk with a CDO career counselor today!

Career Development Office

  • Gregory Hall, 2nd floor State University of New York at Fredonia Fredonia, NY 14063