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How to choose a career path in 6 easy steps

How to choose a career path in 6 easy steps

Many people reflexively think of career paths as linear — you finish schooling, land an entry-level position, and progressively move up from there. In reality, career paths, like geographical paths, aren't so clear-cut. You might encounter impediments, veer onto arterial trails, change your destination midway, or decide to move on once you reach your initially intended terminus.

The difference between theory and reality is probably more pronounced given that work has changed drastically in just the last decade. Younger employees, especially, prioritize alignment between career goals and personal comfort, which has altered the terrain on which career paths cross.

The point here isn't that you can't chart the course of your own career. It's that we have to be brave, embrace the unknown, and embark with as many tools as possible to help on the journey.

With that in mind, let's talk about how to choose a career path.

What is a career path?

A career path is the trajectory that you want your professional life to take. Every move you make — each class you take, job you work, raise you earn — represents a milestone along the way. An aspiring academic administrator, for example, might chart their career path like this:

  • Get a bachelor's degree in education.
  • Get a job as a teacher at a public school.
  • Take on more responsibilities as a department chair.
  • Get promoted to an assistant principal role and improve school performance.
  • Snag that principal job.

Some people have a singular vision for their career path, knowing exactly what they want to do, where they want to do it, and how to get from here to there. Others — and this is probably more common — don't know where they're going until they reach a certain point or digress on a meander.

How to choose a career path that's right for you

You don't have to map out your entire life from birth to death to get started on a career path. Let's take it one step at a time.

1. Reflect on your passions

Ideally, the career you pursue relates to something that interests you. Interesting work is engaging work, and engagement certainly makes the time pass better. So ask yourself:

  • What am I passionate about?
  • What do I want to learn more about?
  • What fascinates me?
  • What could I do practically every day and never get tired of it? 

Of course, the job that becomes your career may not have any direct association with your passions, but your passions make for a terrific starting point for examining trees of career options.

Imagine, for example, someone who's really into true crime. The most directly related occupation for that would probably be law enforcement, but the choices go on and branch off. Forensics, medicine, life sciences, journalism, entertainment, and academia all have at least tangential connections to the subject, and any one of them could be a fascinating career pursuit.

2. Assess your strengths and weaknesses

The next questions to ask yourself are: 

  • What am I good at?
  • What am I not so good at?

Your answers, in conjunction with realizations about your passions, may help you narrow down your choice of career path. After all, these days, skills are the most important factor in getting hired.

To play further off of the example above, let's say a true-crime enthusiast has a knack for analysis and a keen eye for detail, but memory isn't so much a strong suit, and public speaking is anathema. In that case, they can knock entertainment and academia out of the running, but everything else remains a viable career choice.

3. Define your personal boundaries

Step three has to do with your personality. If we're to rephrase it as a question, it would be "What do I definitely not want to do?" The idea here is to steer away from paths that could lead you to an unhappy situation.

For example, a true-crime enthusiast who isn't keen on long hours probably wouldn't care for a career in medicine, seeing as medical shifts can be quite lengthy, so maybe lab work, law enforcement, or journalism would suit them better. 

"Some people have a singular vision for their career path, knowing exactly what they want to do, where they want to do it, and how to get from here to there. Others — and this is probably more common — don't know where they're going until they reach a certain point or digress on a meander."

4. Consider the barriers

This one is sort of an extension of the boundaries thing. Many professions call for formal qualifications. An academic degree is a common one. Certifications and licenses are others. Each of these is a barrier to entry, requiring investments of time, energy, and money.

To embark on your ideal career path, then, determine whether you're willing to do what's necessary to earn the right of consideration for the job. To that end, you'd do well to weigh the costs — of education, of training, of continuing education — against the benefits of your prospective careers. 

5. Think long term

Another matter to think about is the question of career advancement. A lot of careers may be appealing to you at first, but how long can you sustain your engagement if your profession isn't leading you where you want to go? 

There's also the matter of job outlook. You want to be sure that you'll be employed in the long term, and the movements of the job market and the economy have significant influence over that.

Let's return to the possible career paths we've identified for our hypothetical true-crime fan — lab work, law enforcement, and journalism. Sad to say, the last option, especially as the age of postjournalism stretches on, could be a poor choice if we're thinking of long-term job stability and satisfaction.

6. Don't overlook your compensation

Salary and benefits are probably the biggest motivating factors related to careers. In fact, a 2022 Gallup poll of 13,085 U.S. employees showed that it's the number one motivator in taking a job, with 64% of respondents highlighting it as "critical." And whether you consider it the same, the compensation you receive from your career is crucial because of its relationship to your job satisfaction and quality of life.

How much compensation is good compensation? That depends on your circumstances and needs. Say that you intend to live in a bustling, competitive city. Compared to those living and working in less populated areas, you'll probably need a higher base salary plus stronger retirement benefits to afford necessities and build a nest egg. 

More tips for choosing the ideal career path

Whether you're ready to set out on your career path or you're still at the drawing board, CareerBuilder has all the tools you need to succeed.

Use our resume-building service to optimize your resume and get it in front of hiring managers.

Want to know how your pay stacks up? We make it easy to compare average salaries for any job anywhere in the United States.

Cover letters are scary, but they don't have to be. Here's how to write a cover letter the easy way.

Already got a job offer? First of all, congratulations! Second, make sure you negotiate for the benefits you want so that you get the most value from your career.