Many of us fly somewhat blindly into the postsecondary arena with expectations that we’ll somehow find our way through the education maze and into gainful employment. However, the decision on a career and a college major isn’t one to take lightly. This is true not only for a traditional student who is finishing high school and looking at future options, but also for non-traditional students who may be facing a situation such as a career change or the need to build upon existing credentials. To be successful, research and exploration is needed.
Below is a list of the top seven resources to assist you with this process. I’ve also tried to arrange them in a suggested chronological order to provide further guidance.
The best resource in defining a good education and career opportunity is you. Shut out all distractions and the information overload of advice from media, family, friends, and other such sources and spend some time reflecting on what you would like to do with your life.
Once you’ve done some initial brainstorming and jotted down some ideas, consult some sites that may help you further narrow your interests. A career planning guide may help you with some guiding questions. Also consider some of the online career profiles and personality assessments that may give you some insights into where your interests and talents lie.
Occupational Outlook Handbook
Once you have some ideas about what majors and careers interest you, try generating a list of questions about each. Some examples include:
• What skills and qualifications are needed?
• What education must be achieved for this position (e.g., a one-year certificate or a graduate degree)?
• What is the pay scale and employment outlook for this job?
To find answers to these questions, consult the Occupational Outlook Handbook, put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics within the U.S. Department of Labor. This extensive online database may be searched by field or other such factors as median pay or expected growth rate. Again, consider which factors are most important to you and work to narrow your list of possible careers and educational options.
Job Posting Sites
This may seem like an odd choice for researching careers and majors; however, the goal most of us have is to find a job we love that allows us the benefit of lifelong gainful employment. Therefore, take some time to review your list of possible careers on current job sites. This list of the 100 Top Career Sites will take you through some of the largest job databases that exist online. Look for the frequency and currency of postings for specific jobs, their locations, salaries, and other factors that are important to you.
While you’re on these sites, see what variations exist in job titles and places to work. For example, all nurses do not work in hospitals or in doctors’ offices. Would being a school nurse or a home health aide be of more interest to you? Do you need any special qualifications or education for these?
Finally, see if what other assistance may be available on these job posting sites. For instance, some allow you to post a resume or the opportunity to network with others.
As you continue to narrow your career options, search for professional organizations and information they may provide on their websites or in other venues. Often such organizations offer career guidance resources, recommendations for colleges and programs, and other types of information that is valuable to a career search. Concept Marketing Group provides The Directory of Associations, that is organized by fields (e.g., education) and contains contacts for over 50,000 groups. You may also be able to find some organizations with online searches or by networking with friends, relatives, and other associates. Ask which organizations they would recommend.
Once you find some organizations in your field of interest, reach out to them for guidance on career options, education, and other areas of concern for you.
Another recommended resource is job shadowing. This basically means you would find someone who is currently working in your field of interest or job of choice and tag along with him or her for a few hours or a day. The goal would be to observe and take note of everything this individual did and to consider if such a position was right for you. Although some consider this an activity for younger K12 students, an increasing number of adults are taking advantage of this option.
Katharine Hanson of Quintessential Careers also describes how job shadowing can be a useful activity for other reasons. For example, it can allow prospective applicants to check out companies of interest for future employment, and it can help them with networking for possible career opportunities.
If you’re interested in setting up a job shadowing opportunity, Hanson provides a list of suggested steps and considerations you will find valuable.
Colleges and Universities
Once you’ve decided upon a field of study or career, it’s time to start looking for colleges or universities that offer the education you need. The resources listed above can be helpful here as well. You could, for example, see find out what schools professional organizations recommend or where most of the people currently working in the field completed their education.
Another resource can be databases like the ”Online College Finder” on the BestCollegesOnline website. Here prospective students may search by degree, category, and subject. It would also be helpful to search local and regional institutions to see which ones offer a program in your desired area. You may also want to consult some of the ranking lists for best colleges offering certain degrees.
Once you find some schools and programs, contact them for specific education and career information. See if they can offer a clear career ladder approach, meaning some guidance on how you can proceed with your education while working your way into your new profession. For example, a student with a goal of becoming an attorney could start by working as a receptionist in a law office while pursuing an associate degree in paralegal studies. Once completed, the student could find work as a paralegal, while completing a bachelor’s degree, and so on.
One final concern is making sure a college and program of interest are accredited. Basically, accreditation means that an external organization has visited and reviewed the school and/or program to make sure it meets or exceeds certain expectations and that it is a well-managed institution that will provide a stable learning environment for students. Although this is not a guarantee of student success or a pleasant learning environment, accreditation is a good indicator. It should also be noted that there are quality schools and programs that do not seek accreditation for legitimate reasons.
Additionally, there are different accrediting organizations. You will want to check to see which organization’s approval is needed for your degree to be accepted in your desired profession. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) provide a list of accrediting organizations as well as a searchable database of schools and programs that have been approved. These are the best resources to consult for finalizing your decision about what school to attend.
One final thought to keep in mind is that our careers last for most of our adult lives. They also exist on a shifting platform of economic conditions, technical innovations, changes in personal lives, and other such factors that are unpredictable. Therefore, it is best to view your career as something worthy of frequent review, reflection, and adjustment if you are to continue to grow professionally and achieve long-term success. Remember that you are the best resource for your own education and career success.
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