8 Ways Not To Choose Your Career

Some people know from primary school which career is right for them.

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It’s true that some careers like medicine require you to make your mind up as early as possible, in order to lay the right foundations to get into top universities. But in others, you can decide much later, as long as you keep your options open. And most people change career at some point in their lives, whether that’s because they fancied a fresh challenge, or wanted a career that fit better around a change in lifestyle, such as having children.
When you’re at school, it can feel like there’s a lot of pressure on you to make up your mind about what career you are going to choose (and this goes double at university). That can push students into making decisions for the wrong reasons; the worst way to choose a career is to pick something solely so that teachers and parents will stop nagging you about it. In this article, we take a look at some ways not to choose your future career, and how you should go about finding the career that’s right for you instead.

1. Don’t choose a career based on family tradition

The family career may suit them, but does it suit you?

One of the most widespread pieces of career advice out there is not to choose a particular career just because it’s what your family wants you to do. Of course, this is much easier said than done; families can be persuasive and hard to argue with, especially if they’re going to be paying for your university fees.
It’s important to draw a distinction between the careers that your family knows about and the ones that they don’t. If your family desperately wants you to be the first among your relatives to pursue a high-status job like medicine or engineering, think very carefully about whether you want to follow advice that doesn’t necessarily come from any experience of the job in question. There may be other jobs that would satisfy them and make you much happier. On the other hand, if your family are all barristers and they think you’d make a great barrister, that may be worth greater consideration. Similarly, if you have the opportunity to inherit a family business, you can be sure that your family members know exactly what’s involved in that career choice.
Your family can help a great deal with choosing your career, but it’s not necessarily about asking their advice; it’s about gaining experience. If you have family members who are doing the job you’re interested in, see if you can shadow them at work for a couple of days to find out what the job is actually like.

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2. Don’t choose a career based on what’s easy to explain

“So, um…what do you do again?”

An easy and lazy way to choose a career is to pick one where popular culture means that you know exactly what’s involved. If you decide to become a teacher, then you’ll never have to explain what it is that you do all day, and you’ll get some measure of social respect automatically. You may well already know what you have to do in order to get the right qualifications. Your friends and family will understand the career you’ve chosen.
If you instead decide to become a penetration tester, you’ll spend a lot of time explaining what on earth your job actually is. (In case you’re curious: penetration testers are basically good-guy hackers, looking for vulnerabilities in computer systems that criminal hackers might exploit, and so that any weak areas found can be fixed, keeping the system safe). Friends and relatives might not understand what it is that you do all day long, why it’s valuable and what sort of career progression you might have. You can expect to call your parents about a promotion and have them ask, “Oh – is that good?” You might find that at family occasions, your parents saying proudly that your sibling is a teacher/doctor/nurse, while you do “something with computers”. You can see the pressures towards choosing the career that everyone understands, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the right career choice for you. And the range of jobs that most people don’t know about is vastly greater than the range of jobs that everyone understands.

3. Don’t choose a career based on what all your friends are doing

If it feels right, it will be worth it in the end.

It shouldn’t surprise you if lots of your friends end up choosing the same career. After all, you’re probably friends with them because you’re like-minded; you may have met in the first places because you were taking the same classes. It’s not unusual to find that several people in a group of friends are all planning to go into the same career when it’s a natural default from the subjects they’re studying.
If this sounds familiar, you might be tempted to join them and pursue the same career. There’s obvious appeal in that you’ll all continue to have something in common, it’ll be easier to support one another, and it’s good to know that your career choice comes with an inbuilt set of friends. All of these are good reasons if and only if the career is a good choice for you in its own right. But choosing a career based on your friends’ choices alone is misguided. Aside from the obvious point of needing a career that appeals to your strengths and interests, you’re unlikely to all carry on working in the same place – some will switch into other career paths, others will move to different cities or even countries. Ask yourself: if in ten years’ time none of your friends were still in that career, would you still choose it?

4. Don’t choose a career based on stereotypes

Don’t let stereotypes stand in your way.

We’re all aware of stereotypes in career choices, mostly operating along gender lines, but also other factors such as race. Even if we are past the point of consciously thinking along stereotypical lines, they can still impact our choices.
It’s true that in some careers, stereotypes no longer hold true. There’s an old riddle about a man and his son ending up in a car crash. The man is in a coma and the son is rushed into surgery. The surgeon enters the operating theatre and cries out, “But that’s my son!” The riddle is how this can be possible; the answer is, obviously, that the surgeon is the boy’s mother. In the modern world, the assumption that the riddle is based on (that the surgeon will be a man) no longer holds. 60% of UK medical students are women, and the number of female doctors in the NHS is set to overtake the number of men this year. But in other areas – even in medicine – the stereotypes hold. It’s still the case that only 12% of nurses in the UK are male.
It can sometimes be worth considering the reasoning behind the jobs that are stereotypically male or female. In particular, if you want to have children – regardless of your gender – jobs that are female-dominated can be more sympathetic in terms of accommodating maternity or paternity leave and letting you work from home if the kids are ill. But if it’s just that you aren’t a typical candidate for your dream job, for whatever stereotypical reasons, don’t let it put you off.

5. Don’t choose a career based on chance remarks

Your career is what you make it; forget what your teacher says.

We’ve all heard stories of people whose career plans were derailed by a chance remark, whether from a teacher or a parent. It can be from someone who intends to be helpful (“are you sure you’ve got the right personality for a customer-facing job?”) or who is passing on their mistaken ideas to you (“someone as short as you can’t be a police officer!”) or who is trying and failing to let you down gently (“I don’t think you’re bright enough to be a scientist”). Usually, these stories are told when the person in question proved their detractors wrong, but there are plenty of students out there who are put off from a great career because of a comment by an ill-informed person at a bad time.
We all say things without thinking, and it’s important to consider whether the person making the comment actually knows what they’re talking about before you take their words to heart. Even careers advisors won’t know everything, particularly if the career you’re interested in is relatively unusual for people at your school (for instance, if most students don’t go to university, or if you’re interested in humanities focused career while most of your peers are interested in STEM). Make sure to do your own research, rather than listening to hearsay.

6. Don’t choose a career based solely on the salary

The lifestyle might seem tempting, but how long will it take to attain it?

It’s very tempting to make salary a top priority when choosing a career. It’s certainly worth considering long term; while earning a lot of money may not be worth it for its own sake, if your ideal future includes a lot of exotic travel or a large house, you’ll want to target careers that leave you with the salary to afford such things. But some students go further, looking only at top-earning careers and choosing solely on that basis.
That’s a bad approach, for several reasons. One is that many of the highest-paying jobs do so only once you’ve progressed sufficiently. For instance, becoming a top-earning lawyer or strategy consultant involves many years of working long hours and earning much less before you get to the stage where clients will pay top rate for your time. You need to be interested in and good at your job to get to that stage. Another reason is that it can be easier to work your way up in a job that you’re interested in rather than trying to jump in at the top in a job that doesn’t really appeal to you. It’s best to look not at typical or starting salaries, but instead to think about your plausible progression within your chosen career.

7. Don’t choose a career just because of the work you’ll be doing

How will the work affect other aspects of your life?

We’re often encouraged to choose careers based on the job itself, and not the associated lifestyle. Do you want a physically active career that lets you see the world and defend your country? You might think that the Army is right for you. Or you might love the idea of working on the railways, ensuring that passengers are kept safe and journeys completed on time, and therefore decide to become a signaller. Or you might like the idea of a dangerous, high-pressure career that draws on your knowledge of engineering, and decide to work on an oil rig.
But all three of these careers have a very significant impact on your lifestyle beyond the hours you spend at work. Joining the Army means being wherever your work requires you to be, sometimes at short notice, away from family and friends. Working on an oil rig means being in a small space with a limited number of people for some weeks or months on end. Being a signaller means shift work, where you might be working at all the times when your friends are available to socialise. It might be that the lifestyle associated with your dream job is right for you, or it might be that you’d prefer a less ideal job that lets you work 9 to 5 and know that evenings will always be free for spending time with friends and family.

8. Don’t choose a career based on quizzes or non-expert assessments

You’re better off quizzing a mentor than a computer.

If you’re really uncertain about your career choice, you might choose to do an online quiz or even a more formal assessment. These can be useful in that they might highlight your suitability for careers you’d never otherwise have considered, or otherwise give you new ideas. But you should use these tools to expand your options, not limit them.
Don’t rule out a career just because a personality quiz says you’re not right for it or discard a job opportunity because it wasn’t listed in your school’s careers guide. Most of these tools will not have been created by experts. Online quizzes, in particular, are created to get the maximum amount of traffic, not to provide you with useful advice. Ultimately, if you want to know if a job is right for you, you’re almost always better off finding someone who is already in that career and asking them.
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