Getting a grip on what to be when you grow up

by Ashleigh Viveiros

It's a question we've all been asked before: what are you going to be when you grow up?

And while our childhood answers might have ranged from astronaut to circus clown, a more adult plan can be hard to come by.

Even if you're in the midst of a university or college program, you still might not know what you're going to do with that hard-earned diploma once you graduate. But there are a range of resources out there to help you find that perfect career.

The first thing you need to do is figure out who you are, says Randy Kroeker, a counsellor at the University of Winnipeg.

Doing a self-assessment of your interests, skills, values, and past experiences is key to choosing a career path, says Kroeker, and a school counsellor can help you take stock of your personal inventory.

"Our focus is two main streams," he says. "Exploring one's own interests and examining what's out there in the world, and helping the student take responsibility for the future."

By exploring lots of different interests, you just might stumble upon the right career path, says Kroeker.

"Try to experience as many things as you can," he says. "Get out there and do stuff because eventually something will take hold."

"Basically, everything one does, you could say in life, develops your career strategy."

So everything you've ever done - from volunteer work and past jobs to hobbies and recreational activities - all come together to form a sort of blueprint for the kind of job you might enjoy most in the future.

Another big step in choosing a career is determining just what you want out of one. Is money and status more important to you than flexibility or a laid-back work atmosphere? Do you see yourself wearing fancy business suits or would you rather be sporting T-shirts and khakis?

Every job will have certain aspects that you could do without, says Kroeker, but the goal is to find that one career that will fulfill you as a person in whatever way is most important to you.

"There's no career that's 100 per cent right," he says. "That's the reality of work. The key wording is personally meaningful."

Once you've sorted out your personal goals, another tool you can use to guide you in your career quest are aptitude tests.

Aptitude tests, available in most schools for a small fee, are designed to give you a general idea of what type of career category you best fit into.

Some tests will suggest groups of occupations based on your likes and dislikes. Others, like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, take a look at your personality type and match you up with similarly-minded careers.

But while these tests can help you get a clearer picture of what kind of a career you might be suited for, they shouldn't be the final word on your career strategy, says Kroeker.

"I'm always leery of...students putting too much emphasis on a test that's 40 minutes to decide what they're going to do with the rest of their lives," he says. "There's no magic pills to doing this stuff."

When you finally do have a list of potential careers, the next step is to find out everything you can about them. Head to your school's career resource or planning centre for information on how much education you'll need, skill requirements, salary expectations, and more.

"It's a place for students to find information on career planning," says Karen Sawatzky, librarian at the Career Resource Centre at the U of W. "If you know what you want, I can help you find the information you need."

Centre staff can point you towards career fact sheets and employer directories or books on resume writing and interview skills - everything you'll need to start planning for life after school.

Once you've whittled your list down to one or two possible careers, you'll also want to find out if your school has a mentorship program. Alumni associations in schools across Canada - from Concordia University in Montréal to the University of Calgary in Alberta - have set up such programs to connect students with professionals in a number of fields.

In just a few meetings with a mentor, you can find out a lot of inside information on what your potential career is really like. In some cases, you may be able to take it one step further and check it out first hand by following your mentor around for a day on the job. Either way, you'll come away from the experience with a whole new appreciation for your future occupation.

Throughout your search for the ideal career, it's important to realize it's okay to make mistakes - you're not necessarily making a lifelong decision.

Today, most people go through several different jobs or careers in their lives, says Kroeker, so be prepared to change your mind if you find out your first career path really isn't for you.

"Keep open-minded," he says. "What's the worst that happens? That you waste a few months? The plus is you learn something valuable."

"You make your best decision based on where you are," says Kroeker. "If you realize it's wrong for you, you switch careers."

And with a post-secondary education under your belt, switching careers is easier than you might think.

"Once you've gone through (school), you've learned how to learn," says Kroeker.

Modified on April 23, 2009