How to Figure Out What You Want to Do

Author name
Jennifer Agor, Assistant Director, Duke Career Center

Elana Lyn Gross wrote this article for Skill Crush, I’ve excerpted it and added some Duke- specific thoughts on the dream job search. Gross has great advice on how to explore careers, talk to people to find out about the day-to-day of an industry, and know that it’s totally normal not to have a clear cut path to retirement right now.

How to Find Your Dream Job (When You Don’t Know What You Want)

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Do you remember being eighteen and worrying that you didn’t have an answer (or even an idea) when people asked you what you were going to do for a career? That’s totally normal—you don’t just decide on a dream career right out of high school or settle on a college degree and stick with it for life…
…According to Forbes, these days you could end up having as many as fifteen to twenty jobs in your lifetime, and according to Fast Company you could be changing jobs every 4.4 years. So thinking, “I don’t know what career I want” or even “I need a career change but don’t know what to do”? That’s totally normal…

How to Figure Out What You Want to Do: A Career Change Guide

1. Lead With Your Strengths

Just because you don’t know what career you want doesn’t mean you don’t know what you’re good at. Write down a list of your top strengths. (I recently read StrengthsFinder 2.0 for a book club at work and this advice really resonated with me.) Another self-analysis resource that can help you figure out exactly what kind of career and work environment will best fit you is the Myers-Briggs personality test. Being actively confronted with what you’re good at and what makes you tick personality-wise is a powerful way of assessing a career path that will fit and compliment those strengths.

Of course you can be good at anything if you try hard enough or put in enough time—but you can save a lot of that time and avoid a lot of frustration if you simply let your strengths be indicative of what you should be doing instead of forcing yourself into a career that doesn’t really fit. I’ve taken both the StrengthsFinder and Myers-Briggs tests and found that they each helped me understand my values, strengths, and what I should look for in a work environment.

For example, you might have convinced yourself (or let others convince you) that you’re not a math person, only to find out that you love using logic to solve problems. In that case, you might actually have a passion for something like web development that you would have totally written off beforehand. It’s easy to let preconceived ideas stop you from something like a successful tech career, but take some time to listen to your strengths and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what they tell you.

(JA) Come to the Career Center to talk through your skills, what you like and dislike, and how those pieces might fit into an industry or career path. Self-Awareness is a huge key to happiness in your job setting…and until you explore, research and reflect on yourself and your experiences, you won’t know yourself well enough to confidently make these decisions.

2. Evaluate Your Past to Avoid a Dead End

Answer these questions about every place you’ve worked: What did I like the most and the least about the company? What did I like the most and the least about the industry culture? What did I like most and least about my boss? What did I like most and least about the people I worked with? What was the most challenging thing about working there? When was I the happiest or the proudest? What was my biggest accomplishment? What did I like the most and the least about my responsibilities?

Your answers will help you clarify your feelings about previous workplaces so you can look for similar or different characteristics in the future. Evaluating your past can also help recall pivotal moments you might have overlooked that make it clear you’re not happy with what you’re doing career-wise. If looking back starts to uncover negative patterns around a certain kind of job or career, it’s a good way of recognizing that it is in fact time to move on and that you may very well be missing out on opportunities that would be much more complimentary to your needs and abilities. Analyzing your past work is a key component to discovering the kinds of situations that will bring out your best work and happiest self.

(JA) You may not have had a bunch of jobs yet to reflect back on, but think about courses you’ve enjoyed (and why), internship or volunteer experiences which provided environments or tasks that you enjoyed, how much you like or dislike working with people, at a desk, with autonomy, etc.

3. Talk to as Many People as Possible to Learn What That Dream Job Looks Like

Start taking some time to request and schedule informational interviews with local workers in fields you’re interested in and learn about their career paths and advice. Ask about their job, industry, and professional aspirations. Always come with questions in advance so that you get the most out of these meeting or phone calls as possible.

And don’t limit yourself to people you know or have connections with. Use resources like to find relevant conferences and workshops in your area that you can use as networking opportunities. Go on LinkedIn and read people’s job descriptions or go online and read interviews and articles about people in jobs you admire. For instance, if you’re curious about what a day in the life of a WordPress developer looks like, do a quick Google search and you’ll likely be able to find an informative account. Before you set your heart on a career—or completely rule it out—make sure you get a sense of what the job is like on the day-to-day.

(JA) There are over 100,000 Duke alumni on LinkedIn. The Duke Alumni Directory has many others.  Search for connections and set up informational interviews with multiple people to explore different facets of the same industry, learn what skills to master to prepare for a certain job, or to find different and creative ways to use your skills—combining tech and the arts or engineering and impact careers.  If you don’t know how to go about setting up an informational interview, start with our Informational Interviewing guide.

4. Take Classes and Try Something New

Do take classes, attend workshops, read books, watch YouTube tutorials, and try something new whenever the opportunity presents itself. By taking these chances as they come you may find out that you’re passionate about coding, website design, graphic design, writing, or something else entirely.

Technology makes it so easy to learn new skills, and a new hobby can lead to an entirely new career like it did for me. The resources to dive deeper into those hobbies and skills are right at your fingertips—websites like Coursera, for instance, offer free classes in fields like arts and humanities, computer science, math and logic, life sciences, personal development, and more.

(JA) Do not pigeon-hole yourself!
Explore as many different topics and skills as you have time and energy for.  As the world becomes increasingly interdisciplinary, a wide range of skills will become more important, as will global mindset, diverse perspectives, and creative approaches to common problems. LinkedIn Learning is free as a Duke student, and there are literally hundreds of lectures, mini-courses, exhibits and info sessions just waiting to impart knowledge on you, so take advantage!

5. Consider the Type of Work Environment Where You Will Thrive

Are people in the workplace you’re considering competitive with one another or collaborative? Are they friends outside of the office? Do they work as a team or work primarily on their own? Can people work from home or are they expected to work in the office? What is the work-life balance like? What are the salary expectations? These are all important questions to ask about potential workplaces and employers when you’re searching for that dream job to jump start a new career path. It’s also good (and easy) to do some initial research on your own—both about industries in general and employers in particular—using career websites like Fairygodboss and Glassdoor.

And once you’ve started gathering this information? If you know you work best as part of a team then it’s important to find a company that prioritizes a team approach. If you’re more productive working alone then you might be better served by freelance or contract work that allows you to manage yourself and set your own terms. The same thing goes for scheduling and flexibility concerns—if you thrive in a structured environment and prefer reporting directly to a manager for guidance then you’ll need to find work that takes place in a traditional, 9-5 office. But if you prefer the freedom of working from home or on the road as a digital nomad and you’re more comfortable being your own boss or supervisor, then looking at flexible job sites to find non-traditional careers will be key to your career happiness.

If you aren’t sure where you stand with these things you can always try taking up work on the side to help you figure it out—if you work in a collaborative office, try doing some solo freelancing and see if you notice an appreciable positive or negative difference to how it makes you feel. And the same thing goes if you spend your workdays by yourself—try making some peer connections and work on a collaborative side project.

6. Do What Makes You Happy

People gave me two critical pieces of advice when I was considering my career path. One was to think about what you love doing so much that you’d be willing to do it for free. Think about it—if you love the idea of something so much that you’d do it without being paid, wouldn’t getting paid for it be the definition of a dream job? Try to picture what that “job you’d do for free” is and then start connecting it to paid possibilities in the same field.

The other was a piece of advice from my dad. He said that you shouldn’t necessarily choose the most prestigious job just so you could impress people at cocktail parties. Instead of choosing the most impressive offer—something I had been prone to do in the past—choose the one that will make you happiest and allow you to grow and learn. Again, think about what interests you, not what necessarily sounds the most lucrative or high-powered on paper. Try to pin down those things that engage you in a such a way that you’re always able to muster at least a spark of passion about them and use those interests to guide you toward an applicable career path.

Finding a dream job should never mean compromising what you stand for or what you want out of your work life—and the good news is, it doesn’t have to. By following the steps I’ve outlined and developing a clear sense of what makes you tick, career-wise, you’ll be able to find a career path that fits your wants and needs without asking you to fit into someone else’s. You may think you don’t know what you want, but with a little reflection and determination you’ll soon realize what you need is actually right within reach.

(JA) Yes–you will spend the majority of your adult, awake life at work.  Don’t do something because your parents want you to.  Don’t do something just to make money.  Do something you are interested in, you enjoy, and that gives you satisfaction.  And put in the work to figure out what that thing (or things!) might be now, so that you can place the first stepping stone on your path when you graduate.

Elana Lyn Gross is a content strategist, freelance writer, and the author of the career advice and lifestyle blog Elana Lyn. Her work has appeared in Time, Business Insider, Mashable, Refinery 29, The Huffington Post and more.