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How to choose a career: working out who to be when you grow up

We’re urged to start career planning from almost the moment we learn to talk. Think about how many times as a kid you were asked the question: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’

Although you might have stopped answering with ‘pro athlete’ or ‘astronaut’ years ago, the question doesn’t go away as your career progresses. It simply morphs into its adult-equivalent, which dominates barbeque and school drop-off conversations: ‘So … what do you do?’ Once you reach your teenage years, the pressure builds up to make a realistic decision – complete with a career plan – to answer the ‘What do you want to do?’ question.

The options can seem endless and overwhelming. And many high school students worry about choosing the wrong career. So what do you want to be when you grow up? What future do you want? And, most importantly, how can you go about working it out?

How can you work out what you want to do?

Rather than starting by trying to answer what you want to be in the future, start by thinking about who you want to be. That’s the advice from Rebecca Fraser, senior talent development consultant in Deakin University’s Graduate Employment Division. What lifestyle would you like? What type of work environment/location would suit you? What achievements are important to you?

‘You can do this by looking at the experiences in work and life that your friends and family have, as well as the information you are provided from career expos and during school about different careers,’ Fraser advises.

‘It is always beneficial for a student to consider where they would like to go in the next 10 years and use that to make their most immediate decision,’ Fraser adds. ‘Trying to put yourself in the shoes of your 50-year-old self can be very overwhelming and confronting.’

Is it really a good idea to follow your passion?  

You’ve probably been given the advice to ‘follow your passion’. That can be fabulous if you have a passion for surgery or nanotechnology. But we’ve all seen movies about struggling, starving artists and failed sportspeople who didn’t make the team and didn’t have a backup plan.

The good news is, if you have a passion you want to follow, you don’t necessarily have to do it within your career. Instead, you might choose to use a well-paid job to finance your hobby.

‘When looking at your passion it is important to consider whether or not you will remain passionate about it if you are doing it full time, for money,’ Fraser says. ‘Being passionate about sport does not mean that you have to have a career in sports management. You can get a career that provides you the flexibility and the money to be able to follow your favourite team to local and interstate games each week as that truly is your passion!’

'It is always beneficial for a student to consider where they would like to go in the next 10 years and use that to make their most immediate decision.'

Rebecca Fraser,
Graduate Employment Division, Deakin University

If you can’t choose a career, should you still go to uni?

Wherever you end up, it’s likely your employer will want you to have skills such as resilience, adaptability, flexibility and the ability to challenge the way things are done in a productive and engaging way. No matter what you study, university can help you hone these important skills of the future, says Gavin Walker, Graduate Recruitment Services manager at Deakin University.

‘University doesn’t just provide you with a qualification, it provides you with an opportunity to develop life skills, networks (both social and professional) and core employability skills,’ he says. ‘Universities offer you the chance to develop these skills through coaching, mentoring, volunteering and internships. Other avenues are sporting, music, academic and cultural societies and clubs and access to peers and experts that can offer you support and guidance.’

Fraser adds that, by gaining a university degree, you can demonstrate a commitment to learning and an ability to work independently outside the ‘safe structure’ of high school. ‘You will need to consistently be learning and developing as the world of work will continue to change,’ she says.

What if you make the wrong career choice?

If you really can’t decide on where you want to go, don’t let yourself be paralysed by the paradox of choice. It’s a good idea to start studying something rather than nothing so you can work out what suits you best. Never think you won’t have options to alter your path if you change your mind later on, Fraser advises.

‘Everyone will find themselves at a point of transition during their career,’ she says. ‘Whether it is during your studies or after your studies, there is never actually a wrong pathway. Whatever decision you make, the experience you get from that decision will help you identify what you like and dislike, and furthermore, help you confirm for yourself who it is you actually want to be.’

‘Many people come back to study later in life as they are looking at a transition and see the study as an effective way to get this; some people commit to ongoing study for their entire life!’

How can you set yourself up for career success?

‘Success is intrinsically hard to define but people who are passionate about what they do often find themselves progressing their careers as they don’t see what they do as “work”’, Walker explains.

He suggests using the following ‘three Ps’ to career success:

  1. Planning: ‘Take time out to think about where you want to go and the “steps” it will take to get there. Career planning shouldn’t be a one off, it should addressed throughout your life as you change and acquire new skills; you need to understand what motivates and drives your sense of success and happiness.’
  2. Prioritising: ‘Stay focused, remove distractions, do the hardest task of the day first and prioritise those commitments that give you the biggest return.’
  3. Personal and professional development: ‘Learn to network and collaborate with a wide range of people to stretch your own thinking and broaden your knowledge. Don’t be fixated by a job title, look at the core skills required and set about obtaining them and take every opportunity to learn.’

Ready to get started working out which career will suit you best? Check out this handy tool that will help you start exploring.  

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Rebecca Fraser
Rebecca Fraser

Senior talent development consultant, in Graduate Employment Division, Deakin University

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Gavin Walker
Gavin Walker

Manager, Graduate Recruitment Services, Deakin University

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