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"What are you doing after graduation?"

During graduation season, new grads get countless questions about their post-diploma plans. But the reality is, deciding on a career or finding a job is difficult and strenuous, and all too often, people make quick decisions based on opportunities easily available to them—instead of what’s right for them.

If you're walking across a stage this weekend and still unsure of what lies on the other side, don't fall into the trap of just taking whatever job comes along. There's still time to target your job search based on who you are, what you're good at and what you like to do.

Here are some easy tips that will get you on the path to finding your career fit and a job that actually brings satisfaction and joy!

Tip 1: Clarify What You Want in a Career

There are four basic questions that help uncover a good career fit:

  • How do my natural preferences and tendencies impact what I love to do and how I do it?
  • Where am I strong and what talents do I love to use?
  • What motivates me to feel satisfied about what I am doing?
  • What types of people, work and organizations appeal to me?

When you take time to honestly answer these questions, you will start to see patterns and clues that indicate where to focus your career. You will begin to understand why certain tasks, people and environments drive you crazy—they don't align to your preferences or values. You will begin to understand why certain assigne are the ones you tackle first every day, because they align to your strengths and interests. These clues and themes are powerful factors that make a big difference in your career happiness.

Tip 2: Reflect on Your Daily Work

Identify a time each day to reflect on how the four questions above were present for you in your work—whether that's an internship, homework or general to-dos. By day three, you will already start seeing trends emerge. Here are some specific questions for daily reflection:

  • Who was easiest to interact/work with today and why?
  • What were the most satisfying parts of my day and why?
  • What were the most dissatisfying parts of my day and why?
  • What tasks were easy for me? Why? What skills did I rely on most?
  • What tasks were difficult for me? Why? What skills are harder for me?

At the end of the week, you should have a pretty clear picture of what you want and don't want in your future career!

Tip 3: Get Information and Ideas From People You Trust

You may be inclined to ask other people you trust, “What career do you think I should pursue?" And you've likely received some very opinionated responses, such as:

“You should be an engineer because that's where there are a lot of jobs."

"You should go into teaching so you can have the summers off."

"You shouldn't go into teaching because teachers don't make money."

Even with the best of intentions, statements like the ones above are clearly reflective of the other person's values and interests—not your own. Change the conversation by asking these questions:

  • What do you see as my greatest strengths?
  • What are my best traits and qualities?
  • When do you notice I look frustrated or unhappy? What am I doing during these times?
  • If you were assigning work to me, what projects or tasks would you most likely assign? Why?

Do some research on three careers that align with what you've learned about yourself. A great on-line resource for researching career paths is O*Net, and sites like CareerBuilder can guide you in setting up and conducting informational interviews.

Tip 4: Don't Leave Your Career Decisions to Chance

Just because there might be an opportunity in front of you doesn't mean you should take the easy route. Take time to really consider if the opportunity aligns to what you've learned about yourself through the first three steps. Think about your career choices in terms of “must-haves" and “nice-to-haves" by creating a decision-making framework.

First, make a list of five or so things that are “must haves" in your next role—things that are non-negotiable. For example:

  • I must make $45,000.
  • I must have a flexible work schedule.
  • I must work for a great leader.
  • Writing makes up a large portion of my responsibilities.
  • I must get to work on team projects.

Then, make a list of “nice-to-haves" in your next role—things you would sacrifice for a must-have. For example:

  • I want to commute less than 25 miles to work.
  • I want to work from home occasionally.
  • I want to earn at least two weeks of vacation.
  • I want to work for small- to mid-size organization.

I believe everyone can find a career that brings them joy and purpose by articulating what is important to them and factoring in those details as they make decisions. Once you come to a conclusion, that formerly dreaded question, "What are you doing after graduation?", will actually be exciting!

Photo: Creative Commons