How to Find the Right Career Path for You: 10 Practical Tips

Image shows a photographer taking a photo on a beach at sunset.

With A-levels and at least three years at university stretching out before you, the start of your career may seem at the moment to be so far in the future that it’s scarcely worth giving a second thought to.

Think again! For a start, that time will fly by and before you know it, you’ll be walking out of your last university Finals exam without a clue what to do next. Secondly, how can you lay the foundations for a successful career if you don’t know what you want to do in the long-term? Your chances of succeeding in a particular career may be heavily dependent on what you studied at A-level and university, and on the work experience and part-time jobs you undertake now. That’s why, however far in the dim and distant future it may seem, it’s never too soon to start thinking about what you want to do for your career. In this article, we give you some practical tips to help you narrow down the vast array of career options to one that would best suit you.

1. What are you interested in and good at?

Image shows the ruins of Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the background.
Are you fascinated by history?

Not everyone grows up with a vision of what they’ll be “when they’re a grown-up”, and when the world’s your oyster, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Before you do anything else, ask yourself whether there’s anything in particular that you’re passionate about, that you could make a career out of. For example, if you’re heavily into music, there are plenty of careers out there that would allow you to put this passion to good use, such as working for a music label or organising concerts. To be truly happy with your career, you need to be doing something that genuinely interests you, so your hobbies are a good place to start when you’re career planning. Write down a list of all your interests, hobbies and things you care about. From there, you can pick out a particular interest and brainstorm all the possible careers that might be compatible with it. For example:
Interest: History
Careers: historian, lecturer, school teacher, archivist, author, tour guide, museum curator, manager of a stately home, conservator, history librarian
Doing this with each of your interests will give you a big list of possible careers to start exploring further, and at this stage no idea is too outrageous. In another column, write down what things you think you’re good at. This may overlap with your interests a little, but should also include more general qualities, such as talking to people, writing, listening, organising things, dreaming up new inventions, and so on.

Image is a button that reads, "Browse all Careers articles."2. Write out a list of what you think you might want from a job

Image shows a mansion of a house.
Is being rich important to you?

Keeping your list of interests, talents and possible careers in mind, have a careful think about what kind of things you consider important in a job and write them down on a separate page. Everyone has different priorities, and if you’re honest with yourself about what you want, you’re in with a much better chance of finding a suitable career. Your own priorities may be incompatible with the interests we just discussed; for example, you might be interested in archaeology but want a big salary, while the two are incompatible for most people! Some examples of priorities with regard to jobs could include:
– A big salary/a salary over a certain level
– Lots of travelling opportunities
– The ability to help people
– Prestige
– Drama and excitement
– The quiet life
– A company car
– Being able to write for a living
– Working for a good cause
– Being outdoors
– A good work/life balance
– Working for yourself
– Managing other people
– Selling
This list will form a checklist of priorities against which you can measure each of the career options you come across from now on.

3. Figure out other things you want to do in life

Image shows a huge extended family in Spain.
Family is the priority for many people.

Having a rough idea of what other (non-work) things you want from life should also be a consideration in deciding what career is best for you. We’re not saying that you need to map out your entire life, but there will doubtless be some of you who have a clear idea of the kind of lifestyle you want or things you want to achieve that aren’t to do with work but that would have an impact on your working life. For example, if you’ve always wanted lots of children, it would be wise to consider a career that might work well around that, and that won’t suffer too much from taking regular career breaks. If you’re very keen on sports, and want to take part competitively but not professionally, you’ll need a job that doesn’t eat into your spare time too much so that you can devote enough time to training.

4. Find out what other people who studied the same as you went on to do

Another good source of inspiration for coming up with career ideas is to find out what other people who studied the same thing as you went on to do. We’re not really talking about A-level combinations now, but about university courses. You probably have at least a vague idea of what you want to study at university by now, so take a look at various university websites and investigate some courses you might consider applying for. Many universities will give you information about what graduates of each course went on to do, so jot down any you find interesting. Not all of them will be directly related to what the person studied, but this is a good thing because it will open up your mind to further possibilities.

5. Take a career quiz

Image shows a young woman on a laptop.
Online quizzes can be hit and miss, but it’s worth doing one or two to see the results.

The sheer number of quizzes that exist on the internet that supposedly tell you which is the right career for you is revealing – it shows that there are many, many people out there who have no idea what’s right for them! So you’re not alone. Some of these quizzes are better than others, but if nothing else, taking such a test may give you some further inspiration about what kind of careers might be suited to you. Here’s one of the more detailed ones, which has 68 questions and claims to match jobs to your personality type: This one from Buzzfeed is a little more fun (and it correctly identified my ideal career as being a writer!).

6. Go to the school careers advisor

Many schools employ the services of a careers advisor, and if your school has one it’s worth setting up an appointment with them. You’ll be able to talk through your options with someone impartial, and they’ll be able to offer you a fresh perspective on careers you may have been thinking about for a while. They’ll pose questions you hadn’t thought of and give you further ideas. They may also have a questionnaire or aptitude test that you can take to spark even more possible options for you.

7. Read some job descriptions

Image shows the view from the cockpit of a plane.
The practicalities of being an airline pilot are not hugely different from being a bus driver.

You’ll have a good list by now of possible career options, and it’s now time to start narrowing down your list into a smaller selection of your favourites. It’s worth bearing in mind that many jobs or careers sound more glamorous than they actually are. For example, being an airline pilot may sound very prestigious and jet-setty, but those ‘in the know’ will often tell you that this role is essentially that of a bus driver. It’s therefore important to approach career planning with your ‘Realistic’ hat on, and not get swept up by a romantic ideal of what a job might be like. So, it’s time to start building up a realistic picture of what each of your career options really entails.
Head to a recruitment website such as Indeed or Jobsite and search for jobs relevant to the careers you’ve written down. Read the job descriptions in detail and you’ll start to get a sense of the kind of tasks you’d be expected to perform in that role. You’ll also see salary details and a list of essential and desirable qualifications and attributes, so you’ll be able to see whether or not you’d be temperamentally suited to such a job and whether it’s realistic for you to gain the requisite qualifications. The Job Profiles section of Total Jobs is a really useful resource at this stage of your search, as it tells you “the nitty gritty” details of numerous jobs, their good and bad points and what you need to do to succeed in each.

8. Read ‘day in the life’ interviews

Of course, job sites like those we’ve just mentioned aren’t a comprehensive resource for information about jobs, as they don’t include things like running your own business, and they don’t give you any real insight into what the job is really like. To get some more in-depth information, try reading some ‘day in the life’ interviews with people who work in each of your possible career options. Google ‘day in the life of a [job role]’ and you should get plenty of useful articles like this day in the life of an English teacher.

9. Apply for internships

Image shows a NASA intern investigating some earth.
As NASA interns discovered, an internship needn’t be all about making coffee and doing the photocopying.

By now you should be getting closer to having a clear idea of what kind of jobs might be suitable for you, and you’ll hopefully have narrowed down your selection to a shortlist of perhaps two or three possibilities. But in order to make any kind of decision about which career path to take, however tentative, you’ll need something a bit more concrete to go on than the often vague language used in job descriptions, or the anecdotal experiences of a small handful of individuals. This is where internships come in. The stereotypical image of an intern may be ‘the person who makes the tea’, but internships are a great way to get a flavour of what a job would be like and to experience a little of life in a company – and not all companies treat interns as general dogsbodies. As well as introducing you to the everyday reality of a job you’re interested in, internships are also a good opportunity to ask questions about this possible career, and to see those who have picked this career doing the kind of things you might one day be doing. Inspiring Interns and Internwise are both websites dedicated to helping you find a suitable internship in a variety of different industries.

10. Arrange to shadow someone

Image shows an employee of the US Department of Agriculture showing students around a facility.
Some companies will have established job-shadowing schemes; others will allow job-shadowing on an informal basis.

If you’ve not been able to find a suitable internship, another option is to arrange to shadow someone who’s doing the job you’re interested in. If you ask nicely, you’ll probably find that plenty of companies are willing to let you do this. Doing so will give you an insight into the day-to-day reality of a job, so that you can see what sort of tasks you’ll be doing and how your possible career slots into wider business activities. Seeing someone at work in the career you’re interested in doesn’t just help you decide whether this is really what you want to be doing; it will spur you on to achieve what they’ve achieved. And we all need a little inspiration at times like these!
Of course, you may well change your mind about what you want to do as you go through sixth form and university, and that’s fine; the main thing is to give some thought to it now so that you at least have a direction to follow and you can start building up some experience that will come in useful even if you decide to go a different way later on. The important thing to remember is that nothing is impossible. It doesn’t matter how unusual a career you opt for, or how unattainable it may at first seem; if it’s what’s right for you, you can achieve it. All it takes is hard work and determination – and if you’re reading this article, we’re willing to bet that you’re more than capable of this. Good luck!

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Image credits: banner; Pompeii; mansion; family; laptop; pilot; intern; job shadowing