3 Career Prep Steps for Students

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Some of us are natural planners. One time on a flight I sat next to a man like that.

In his mid-twenties, this man worked for the government. He explained that after ten years in his position, he would receive a pension and then move into private consulting as his own boss. I remember being struck by how far into the future he was thinking and strategizing.

Some folks are adept at considering what’s next, looking at things from a big-picture perspective, and planning their moves like a chess game.

Others of us…don’t do that. We might tend to live more in the moment. We adapt as we go and experience the unfolding of life with fresh eyes. For better or worse, we’ve never traveled the territory in our minds before!

Regardless of which way we naturally lean, there’s value in looking ahead and forming a rough plan of action.

This is especially true when we’re just setting out on our work journey. The best time for setting goals is when we have that much more time to head toward them.

When we’re students, whether in high school or college, at first we might not think ahead like this. But when it comes to career, the efforts we put in up front get paid back with interest later on.

With that in mind, here are three areas to work on as we’re preparing for and just getting into our work:

Know What’s Out There

Depending on the school we go to, as students we more or less live in a small, enclosed world. Our daily activities — classes and friends and meetings and meals — take place within the boundaries of our school community. There’s safety, community, and identity there.

If we never left our school community, there wouldn’t be much more to it. But of course, we hopefully will!

Remembering that our schooling is leading us to a ‘commencement’ — a beginning or a start — it’s important to think of what our education might be preparing us for.

At some point in our time at school, the question comes up: ‘What’s next?’ To give an answer, we’ll need to have some idea of what’s out there.

If you decide to find out, your school may have a career services office that can help. And keep in mind, your school wants you to succeed in finding and transitioning to what’s next!

As we do our research on jobs and careers, we can learn so much about various options and pathways. At this point though, we must be careful.

A friend of mine talks of ‘choosing from the menu’ when it comes to the work we do. It’s a bit like this:

Say you walk into a restaurant, get seated, and look at a menu. It’s very possible (and pretty normal) to figure out what we order by using the menu as our list of options. How many of us would think to order something not on the menu if that’s what we knew we wanted?

The same effect can happen in our work.

We might look at a list of jobs people with our degree or background are likely to have, and limit our options to what we see there.

If we do that, we won’t ever be in a position to create a uniquely-fitting job. We’ll choose from what’s already been defined rather than combining income-producing activities in a new way.

As long as we’re aware of the risks of looking at lists of already-existing jobs, it’s a helpful, eye-opening thing to survey that material and get a sense for some concrete options.

Take A Course on Yourself

In many career services offices, you can learn how to write a resume and cover letter, and how to prepare for a job interview.

What’s much less common is the opportunity to learn about yourself — what your gifts, values, and personality are, and what they point to.

Why is this important?

I once heard a mid-life crisis described this way: a mid-life crisis is when you get to the top of the ladder you’ve been climbing and realize that it’s leaning against the wrong wall.

It’s possible to be very efficient, to know the right tactics and strategies, and yet be moving in a direction that goes completely against our intended purpose.

I teach a course called Discover Your Design that covers foundational topics such as a person’s skills and passions. Participants come away with a well-rounded idea of how they’ve been designed and what that means for their work and life.

You don’t have to take this exact course, but something along these lines can be very revealing and have a big impact on the type of work you find.

It’s possible that you already know what work you’d like to pursue after school. If so, you owe it to yourself to understand why that work appeals to you. What’s the reason behind it?

If the future is less clear than that, if you’re undecided about what to do after graduation, look into a way to uncover all these signs that we’ve already mentioned that point the way: personal values, gifts, etc.

The basic work we come back to is connecting who we are with what we do. Taking this step sets our direction, and everything else follows.

Debt Changes Things

I remember a conversation with a friend I’ll call Ted. We were talking about student loans, and it was clearly not a comfortable topic for him. Soon I realized why.

Lowering his voice, Ted named the amount he owed in student loans. $120,000.

That was the weight he was under to pay back.

Ever since graduating, Ted was understandably looking for the quickest way to pay off his debt.

After we had worked together for several months, he got a better-paying offer elsewhere. He moved out of state to pursue it and we lost touch.

Ted’s debt was a major driver in his job choice. Other factors, like how close he was to family, or how well the work aligned with his career vision, were demoted in the face of paying off that loan.

The tricky thing about student loans is that we can get into them so easily, but then they’re so hard to get out of. Ted was eighteen when he signed the papers that would affect his job choices for years after graduation.

So it’s good to understand as early as possible how debt constrains us. And on the flip side, how free we really are when we don’t have any.

When we don’t have debt, we can take a job with a non-profit we love. We could spend time traveling. We could find work that fits best, instead of looking for the job that pays best.

That’s freedom and flexibility, and it can be yours when you aren’t paying off debt.

As students, we have unique opportunities to set a career direction in line with our design. In the long run, that’s the kind of work we’ll find most fulfilling and meaningful.

If you’re a student, which of these three areas would you most like to learn more about? If you’re out of school, what’s one piece of advice you would give your younger self about career?

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Author, learner, career-changer

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