How to Choose a Career: 7 Ways to Narrow Your Options

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Here are an array of tools and questions to help you determine what careers might suit you best.

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A career is the sum of your professional journey. Many people embark on a career because it can help them achieve their goals, such as acquiring more knowledge and experience, taking on more responsibility, or earning higher salaries. 

But finding a career that best suits you takes time—and your career will likely shift throughout your working life. You may end up changing roles or industries as your interests, motivations, and needs change. One survey from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that those born between 1957 and 1964 held an average of 12.4 jobs between the ages of 18 and 54 [1]. Data from a separate survey conducted in 2020 found that people now stay in each job for around four years [2]. Those facts, combined with the growth of automation, the rise in gig employment, and even underemployment, suggest that careers evolve over time.

We’ve compiled seven ways to begin thinking about the best career options for you. These are tools and questions meant to structure your thought process, so you can determine what careers might suit you best—and help you achieve your goals. 

Choosing a career: 7 ways to explore your options 

The average person spends around one-third of their life working, so it’s no surprise that many people want to find a career that will be a good fit for them. Choosing a career first means learning as much as you can about yourself, your goals, and the larger context of work. Use the list below to help you begin that process.

1. Examine yourself. 

What you enjoy doing and what you value can be helpful indicators about how you’d like to spend your working time. We’re not talking about finding and following your passion—that approach tends to be misleading and confusing. But it’s common to want to feel energized and even excited about what you do. Think over the following questions about your interests, values, and traits, and consider how you might answer them: 

Interest-based questions: 

  • What do you enjoy learning about?

  • How do you like to spend your time? 

  • Do you enjoy manual labor or mental labor? 

  • Do you enjoy working outside or inside? 

Value-based questions: 

  • What is most important in your life? 

  • What are your priorities in life? 

  • Where do you find meaning? 

  • What change would you like to be a part of?  

Trait-based questions:

  • What does success mean to you? 

  • What do you want more of?

  • Which of your strengths do you enjoy the most?

  • Which of your skills are you most proud of?  

2. Reflect on your motivations. 

Once you’ve put together a list about you, turn to your motivations for working. Perhaps you want a career that will pay a higher entry-level salary than comparable occupations, or one that promises more flexibility so you can work from anywhere. Most careers won’t feature everything you’d like, so it’s important to understand your priorities. 

Below, we’ve detailed a sample priorities list. Think over what you’d include on your list and how you’d organize your priorities. 

  • Salary  

  • Benefits

  • Autonomy

  • Work/life balance

  • Flexibility  

  • Career growth  

3. Think about your long-term goals. 

What does your most perfect life look like? Make a list of your long-term goals, both personal and professional, to help you understand what it might take to reach them. For example: Do you want to rise past the managerial ranks and advance to the C-suite of a company? Do you want to own a house? Do you want to be able to travel—and how often? 

The list you put together can also help you approach a job search more specifically. For example, if you want to work in the same industry 10 years from now, research which industries are poised to continue growing over the next decade and which to possibly avoid due to increasing automation or other factors. 

4. Take different self-assessment tests.

There are a number of tests you can take to evaluate everything from your personality to your strengths—and even what career might be a good fit. But tests can be overly prescriptive, meaning they tend to impose categories on you. Rather than rely on them for a definitive answer, use them to continue learning more about yourself and your underlying motivations. If they present helpful answers, fold that knowledge into the larger picture you’re compiling. 

5. Explore sectors. 

Learning more about each sector and its respective goals may help you determine where you’d be a strong fit. Think about which goals sound most interesting to you.  

Private: You’ll be employed through a privately owned company or corporation, which typically aims to increase growth and revenue. 

  • Benefit: Greater potential for growth 

Public: You’ll be employed through a local, state, or federal government, which aims to keep public programs and institutions operating.   

  • Benefit: Greater potential stability

Non-profit: You’ll be employed through an organization not associated with private or public sectors, which is dedicated to addressing or fulfilling a public need. While it does not aim to make revenue the way private businesses do, it must earn enough to achieve its mission and cover overhead. 

  • Benefit: Greater potential for meaning 

6. Explore industries. 

Along with sectors, researching different industries may help you identify a few that could be a good fit. Search for established industries to see if any seem worth investigating further. (In the US, common industries include energy, consumer goods, and media and entertainment [3].) Make a list of any that sound interesting and conduct additional research to find out about major roles, career trajectories, and projected growth,  

7. Seek out professional resources. 

In addition to thinking through the areas mentioned above on your own, you can also turn to various career resources for more guided help.

College career center: If you’re still in college, take advantage of the career resources your college or university may offer. You may be able to meet with a counselor or advisor trained to help you transition from college to a career. 

Career coach: You can find a career coach trained to help clients learn more about what kinds of work would best suit them. Career coaches are an additional expense, so make sure to research their credentials, experience, and background to make sure they will be a good fit for your needs. 

Researching career options 

You’ve likely gathered a lot of information by now. Once you have a bigger picture about yourself, start to conduct research on various career possibilities. You can use the list you made regarding your interests, values, and traits, combined with your top motivations, to begin looking for careers or industries that might be a good fit. 

For example, do you really like drawing? Look at careers or industries requiring that talent to some extent. Are you interested in the issue of income inequality? Research organizations that work to improve that issue and browse their job openings site. Is one of your biggest strengths creative problem solving? Look for careers and industries that need your skill set. 

Write down each option that sounds interesting, and pay attention to the results that will help you achieve your biggest priorities. For example, if flexibility is important to you then focus on remote roles rather than ones that require you to be in an office. 

Explore career options on your list 

Once you’ve come up with some career ideas that sound interesting, follow the next steps to help you explore each option. 

1. Use job search sites. LinkedIn, Indeed, and Monster are just a few sites dedicated to posting job openings. As you peruse roles available in your area, read more about the responsibilities for each one. Highlight the job titles that sound like a good fit. 

Helpful questions: 

  • Does the job meet my needs and many of my preferences? 

  • Does this career align with my values? 

  • Will I accomplish one of my short-term or long-term goals with it? 

  • What does it feel like to think about these career options?

2. Cross-reference company reviews. Use Glassdoor or other sites to learn more about a particular company you’re considering, or conduct more general research on the industry in which they’re situated. Pay attention to any current issues being discussed in that industry. 

3. Set up informational interviews. If you’ve found a role at a specific company that sounds interesting, look to see if you have any connections you can ask for an informational interview. If you want to find more general information about a role, look for any connections you have—or connections of connections—who are currently doing that work. Asking about a career before you pursue one can help you gather useful information. 

Explore further

Choosing a career is a process that unfolds over time. You can discover more with the Career Discovery specialization from the University System of Georgia. Over three classes, you’ll learn about exploring different career paths and planning your career. If you’d like to strengthen many transferable skills that can feed a successful career, try the specialization Career Success from UCI Division of Continuing Education, which covers project management, finance, and communication, among other subjects. 

Related articles 

Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Number of Jobs Labor Market Experience Marital Status and Health, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/nlsoy.pdf." Accessed January 25, 2022.

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Employee Tenure in 2020,  https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/tenure.pdf." Accessed January 25, 2022.

3. SelectUSA.gov. “U.S. Industry Spotlights,  https://www.selectusa.gov/industries." Accessed January 25, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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