At certain points in our lives, we have all had others ask us the difficult question “What are your career plans?” The answer to this question is not a simple response but a lifelong process. This process can feel overwhelming without some structure and guidance as well as resources to enable meaningful action steps. Career exploration can be an exciting process of learning about oneself, discovering a vast array of career possibilities, talking to others about their roles, and trying things. So let’s ask the question, “What’s next?” and discuss tools to support intentional career exploration. Guest Blogger Ali Erk, Associate Director of Graduate Student Career Development, shares strategies and resources for navigating the career exploration process at any stage of one’s career journey.
What is career exploration?
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that individuals held an average of 12.4 jobs from the ages of 18 to 54, and nearly half of these jobs were held before the age of 25. Individuals may move from job to job especially early on in their careers to find a role that is a “fit”. What this data reveals is that it is common for individuals to take time to figure out what they want their career to look like, and pivots, changes and redirection happen throughout one’s lifetime.
Put simply, career exploration is the process of taking steps to explore career paths to find your “fit”. There are three main parts to the career exploration process which are self-assessment, investigation of career options, and career choice to pursue options that are the best fit for you.
Self-assessment allows for a greater understanding of self by identifying your values, interests, personality, and skills (VIPS) in relation to career. Values are the beliefs that are important to you which guide your actions. Interests are the things that you enjoy doing. Personality encompasses social traits, motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. Skills refer to the abilities that you have developed through education, training, and practice.
Investigation of career options involves learning about professions through available resources, talking to professionals in fields of interest, and connecting to opportunities to gain firsthand experience of career paths. This could include a zoom chat with an industry professional, job shadowing, networking calls or events, short-term virtual projects, online research about a job or industry, volunteer work, joining a campus club or community organization, and many others.
Identification of a match between your VIPS and particular career options requires career decision making and adaptability. You will have to take a proactive approach to understand how to best prepare for your chosen job role and take advantage of opportunities to gain experience to learn more about the field that you are interested in. Career decision making involves thoughtful research, careful planning, gathering insights from others, and taking steps to confidently advance on your career path. It is wise to allow yourself to consider multiple pathways as part of the career exploration process and to even have an alternative or two to the career path that you have chosen. Adaptability is key to recognizing career opportunities that may present themselves along the way as job roles evolve and develop over time.
When should I engage in career exploration?
It is never too early or too late to explore careers - this is an ongoing process! Career exploration is a process that individuals can engage in at all stages of their career trajectory, though the action steps, timelines, and resources utilized in this process may vary. For example, an undergraduate student in a four year degree program may approach the process on a separate timeline from a doctoral student and may utilize different resources. However, the key components of the career exploration process are relevant for all - from individuals just beginning to think about their career path to seasoned professionals considering opportunities to advance in their careers. Understanding how to engage in the career exploration process is critical for intentional career planning and confident career decision making throughout one’s entire career.
Where do I begin?
There are many free online tools to get started with the career exploration process. These tools can help to guide your self-reflection through self-assessments and connect this information to career paths for further investigation. The online resources listed below can be used to find valuable information about job roles, qualifications, job outlook, and ways to learn more.
Kick start your career exploration with the tools listed below to reflect on your values, interests, personality, and skills in relation to career options:
Additional resources to check out:
Undergraduate students can find more information about potential options within career fields using What Can I Do With This Major?
Graduate students in the Humanities/Social Sciences can find values, interests, and skills assessments along with a wealth of resources to explore as well as pursue career paths at ImaginePhD
Graduate Students in STEM fields can find values, interests, and skills assessments as well as information about career paths and planning at MyIDP
All Lehigh students can utilize Handshake to conduct company research and connect with employers through events as well as messaging
How can I gain insights into career paths that I am interested in?
Although online tools can provide a wealth of information, the best ways to gain insights into potential job roles are to talk to professionals in those jobs and take advantage of ways to gain related experience. Consider your existing networking and those in the Lehigh alumni network to find individuals in professions of interest to gain more insights as you explore your options.
Conduct informational interviews
Invest your time in conducting informational interviews which are just career conversations with individuals who can share their firsthand experience. By conducting informational interviews with those in positions or companies of interest, you will source insider information about the daily job tasks, tips for entering the field, and so much more. Plus, informational interviews are a powerful way to expand your network connections in a particular field which can be tremendously helpful in advancing your career.
You can identify professionals for informational interviews by:
Considering contacts in your existing network
Referrals from family, friends, classmates and colleagues
There are a myriad of ways to gain experience to explore job roles and industries of interest. Shadowing professionals can provide perspectives into the responsibilities and tasks of a particular role. Volunteering and campus involvement are two other ways to build relevant skills, connections, and experience related to areas of interest. Short-term projects, externships, internships, and research also provide hands-on experience in a particular field or industry.
Lehigh students, leverage these opportunities:
Get involved through campus organizations
Search Handshake for internships
Check out remote work and virtual skill building opportunities including LinkedIn Learning which is free to current students
Finding your “fit”
As you engage in the career exploration process, I encourage you to take a learning approach to the process as you narrow down your options to find your career path. You might cycle through the different steps of the career exploration process throughout your life especially as your priorities shift and your skills, interests, and values continue to develop. Ask questions. Research. Talk to people. Gain experience. Recognize that the career exploration process is not linear.
On a personal note, I completed both my undergraduate and graduate study at Lehigh University. I took advantage of many of the wonderful opportunities afforded to me while at Lehigh, but there is one thing that I would tell my younger self after navigating several career transitions of my own which is to take time to reflect. It sounds so simple yet it is easy to neglect. I have found that taking time to self-reflect on all of the career-related information that you have gathered through the lens of your own experience produces impactful results. Give yourself time and space to be fully present as you explore career options and enjoy the process!
Need additional support for career exploration?
About the Author
Ali Erk is the Associate Director for Graduate Student Career Development in the Center for Career and Professional Development since 2019. She is passionate about equipping graduate students to take a proactive stance in navigating their career development journey. Ali provides individualized career coaching, collaborative programming, and customized resources to build skills and connections for career success. She is certified as a Certified Career Services Provider through the National Career Development Association (NCDA) and as a Global Career Development Facilitator through the Center for Credentialing & Education (CCE)