Before you commit to a career, you need to have a clear picture of what you're getting into. You need to get accurate information and evaluate it critically.
Start by reading about the careers that interest you. The Occupational Outlook Handbook offers detailed descriptions of almost 300 careers. It covers much more than just their outlook: Work activities, education and training required, and earnings, among other topics, are all included. You can find the handbook online. The website CareerOneStop.org is another excellent source of career information, including figures for local earnings and outlooks. For many careers, it has links to informative videos.
Get a taste of certain careers
But there's a limit to how much anybody can learn about careers from reading. You also should explore careers through experiences, which can be very vivid and can allow you to explore the issues that matter most to you. Because experiences are time-consuming, you generally want to use experiential learning after you have narrowed down your choices of potential fields to work in.
A useful strategy is to do some kind of work in the same setting as the career you're considering. If you can't get a regular job in that setting or don't have that much time to invest, you still can experience the setting while working as a volunteer, part-timer, temp worker, or intern. You'll learn what the work site looks, sounds, and smells like. You also may do some work tasks related to the career you're exploring or at least see them being done.
The next-best strategy is simply to observe a work site. Students sometimes have the chance to do this as a "job shadowing" experience. If you're an older worker or such a program is not available, you may be able to make arrangements through personal contacts or by talking to the human resources department at your employer. In some cases, insurance requirements or safety concerns may stand in your way. But if you do get an appointment, be sure to ask what style of clothing is appropriate, and then dress accordingly. Show up on time and take notes on what you see and hear. Don't burden the workers with excessive questions, idle chatter, or the sound of your cell phone. Afterward, send a hand-written thank you note, not an e-mail.
Talk to people in the know
If you can't actually visit a work site, you can at least talk to someone who works in a career that interests you. This is called informational interviewing. People are often happy to talk about their work. The conversation can also help you to build a network that will be valuable when you hunt for jobs later. Schools and colleges often have networks of alumni or other workers who are willing to talk to students or other alumni about their jobs. Take notes on the conversation and be sure to ask how they prepared for their career. Again, a hand-written thank you note is appropriate after such an alumni meeting.
Next, you need to evaluate the career. Consider the pluses and minuses of all important aspects, not just the earnings. Make a list of the most important issues, such as the suitability of the work tasks, your comfort level with the work site, and the amounts of variety, opportunities to work with others, stress, responsibility, creativity, and other factors. Set priorities, so trivial matters don't take on too much weight. As you evaluate the career, try to find out what is actually typical. Be especially careful if you judge the career on the basis of personal experience. Sometimes conditions at one work site are unusual and give a mistaken impression of how the career feels to most workers.
Next: 10 Smart Options for a Second Career
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