How to Begin Career Exploration When You Have No Idea What You Want to Do Professionally
Updated: May 31, 2020
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“My career path hasn’t been linear” -every marketer
As a student who had no idea what I wanted to do professionally, this was reassuring. But it didn't answer my question: how do I find a direction before I graduate?
What do you want to recruit for, really?
Sophomore fall brought the first talk of professional recruiting. With 70% of my undergraduate business school going into consulting or financial services, I was quickly introduced to these previously-foreign industries and swept up in the stress of deciding whether to pursue their respective recruiting processes. I’m pretty sure most students have at some point felt the overwhelming pressure to follow the recruiting targets of the majority. *(Note: there is nothing wrong with these industries if that’s where your interests lie). But it didn’t feel right for me. Cue the anxiety and self-doubt that I wrestled with for a year.
I never questioned my love for my marketing and management majors, but I did doubt my professional options. I was the epitome of what can only be described as “professionally insecure”—cringing at the mention of jobs and avoiding professional activities at all costs. After two semesters of fear and worry, it became evident nothing would change the situation for me.
With the start of junior fall, I reached out to marketing professionals in various fields for weekly informational interviews to understand what was out there.
Although my excitement to keep learning grew with every interesting conversation, so did my frustration.
Despite my commitment to working towards my professional goals, I had no direction to pursue without specifics
I wasn’t aware of my progress at the time, but I slowly identified trends in my professional interests through process of elimination. In the moment, I interpreted the “not for me” conclusions as dead ends. But knowing what you don’t want is essential for finding what to pursue.
I increased my involvement with free General Assembly talks, Groupon and Eventbrite listings, local Facebook events, and company visits related to marketing. To cut down my search time, I signed up for notifications and newsletters that shared relevant articles and even more events. In total, I spent an average of 1-2 hours a day reading, connecting, or event-attending.
At this point, I didn’t feel any less professionally insecure. I was struggling to stay optimistic, pouring hours into research that didn’t reveal answers. But, results or no results, I enjoyed my dramatic increase in educational sources. My strategy: maximizing my information intake to explore different niches. If there existed a company whose products, culture, and mission matched my values, I’d find it.
In December 2019, I received an email promoting a Boston career trek to visit HubSpot. What was supposed to be a quick company name Google search turned into a 3-hour investigation.
A product I’d love to use, values that aligned with mine, and an innovative culture...could this be real? An anomaly that crossed my path by chance? I searched related companies and found Buffer, Greenhouse, Tableau, Marketo, and other SaaS (software as a service) companies that fascinated me. Even crazier? They all had marketers on their teams.
The big picture, beyond my particular deep-dive, is that a random email (among many) and decision to research a new company revealed a promising lead—marketing in tech (potentially for marketing tech companies! #marketinginception).
“Tech” isn’t any more specific than “marketing,” but from there, I had a direction to my research. I determined what size, location, and software types interested me most and narrowed my list to a cohesive group of companies. Previously, I had never been able to achieve this level of specificity. But remember, it all started out with a decision to engage, broad research, and process of elimination.
I don’t have a full-time job in tech and it might not be the only industry I explore during my career. But for now, it feels right. To all of you still looking for a good fit: it takes time and a lot of saying “yes” to learning experiences.
Seek out and engage with all sorts of professional development resources. That career trek email wouldn’t have arrived in my inbox if I hadn’t subscribed to the list (and then read every email for opportunities to take action). Yes, it takes time. I maintained my ~7 hours a week commitment August - December before I found a true starting point. But, if you enjoy the process of self-discovery and learning, it’s an exciting endeavor.
If you’re feeling lost, start with making three lists
What you like doing: What do you spend your time on that energizes you? Hobbies, favorite classes, projects, events... anything counts.
How you like to work: What is your preferred work style? Do you like to work in groups, silent environments, high levels of structure, standing up?
Characteristics of your ideal workplace: What qualities would your ideal company/workplace have? Think about types of people you want to work with, geographical location, culture, commute time, dog-friendliness level, etc. Be specific but include everything that comes to mind. Once you have 20+ characteristics, rank them in order from “must-have” to “would-be-nice.”
Now you have some new, important keywords to continue your research, informational interviews, and event attendance. Be honest during the list-creation process and use it as a tool to evaluate potential opportunities. Having a solid sense of what you want (even if you’re not sure where your mix of ideal characteristics exists) is essential—it’ll save much time and effort and grant you an element of control in the otherwise random process.
If you need a sounding board to develop your lists or work through next steps, feel free to get in touch—I’d be happy to be one of your resources along the way.