​How to choose a career path in three easy steps

Choosing a career path doesn’t have to feel like staring into a crystal ball. Try our step-by-step guide.

If you ask someone to sketch out an ideal career path, they’ll probably draw a straight line, rising upward like a backslash. You decide what you want to be when you grow up, go to vocational school or college or snag an entry-level job, and then hop up the professional ladder rung by rung, promotion by promotion, like some kind of business-savvy Super Mario.

But that’s not what a typical career path looks like anymore; work has changed. Nowadays, our career paths take us on scenic strolls through meadows, daring passes over ravines, winding climbs to majestic mountain peaks. And, yes, sometimes they take us down a rocky road, and we trip, only to regain our footing with a little more experience to carry down the trail. (By the way, here’s how to explain those job slipups in a job interview.)

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

With that in mind, let’s talk about how to choose your career path.

What is a career path?

A career path is the broad course you want your professional life to take. It could begin with a destination — like a dream job or a personal goal related to work, such as home ownership or owning your own business — or start with something clear, like an interest in a certain field, and then wind into the mist ahead of you, leading somewhere you’ve yet to discover. Each professional move you make — every class you take, job you work, raise you earn — is a milestone in the story of your career path. And usually, the best stories surprise you.

Some people have a singular vision for their professional lives. They know exactly where they want to live and work and set about getting there like a dad with an old-fashioned atlas planning the route to the family vacation. Say you want to work in administration at a school. If you’re one of these lucky, clear-eyed people, you might chart your career path something 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.

  • Finally, snag that principal job.

Congrats to this talented educator! But for most of us, things aren’t so clear-cut. Planning a career path can feel like staring into a crystal ball, wondering where life will lead. So let’s talk about how we can take the lead in our own lives.

Choosing a career path

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 a step at a time.

1. Start small

If we were to ask your best friend what makes you happiest, what would they say? OK, so watching baseball might not seem like the most helpful answer. But what can you learn about yourself from it, other than the obvious fact that you like sports? Do you enjoy the social aspect of the game? Maybe you like organizing the watch parties, getting all the snacks together. Maybe you’re all about the math — where we see athletes running around a diamond, you see equations, formulas, possibilities.

The point is, even if you don’t have a dream job in mind just yet, you do have interests, skills, inclinations. Ask yourself, ideally, would you rather work on a team, or hole up on your own? Would you like to work with numbers, or food, or creative people, or your hands?

You can’t know what your dream job would be until you know yourself. Start there. Make a list of all your past jobs, education and experience. Then list all the skills you learned from them. Which skills felt the best to use? These days, skills are the most important factor in getting hired.

All you need to do is focus on what makes you, well, you. Start this journey with a small step.

2. Look down the road

By now, you’ve identified your core abilities, mapped out your values and explored your general interest in this or that field. Now it’s time to do some concrete research.

What kinds of jobs are available in the field you like? Read job descriptions carefully to see which roles sound right for you. If a certain job catches your eye, it’s time to reverse-engineer the process of getting there. These questions will help you chart your course:

  • How many years of experience does someone need to do this job?

  • What kind of education is required to do this job?

  • What does this job typically pay, and does that align with my life goals?

  • What jobs did people in this position work previously?

  • With the answers to these questions in mind, try to answer that dreaded interview question: Where do you see yourself in five years? Make a rough sketch of how long you’ll need to study, or work in other roles, before arriving at your destination.

3. Think big-picture

Remember everything we said about how a good hike doesn’t just beeline to a destination, but takes detours? How that’s what makes it a good hike? Here’s where that really comes into play.

Odds are, you are not going to decide what kind of job you want today and walk right into it tomorrow. That’s OK. You’re playing the long game. If your dream job means you need to go to school, and going to school means you need to get a part-time job, look for a part-time job where you could flex some skills you’d use in your ultimate goal — even if the job seems unrelated. If you want to be a realtor, you can gain plenty of experience in communication, persuasion and economics by working as a sales associate or customer service representative.

Don’t get discouraged if the road is long. Even if it feels like you’re walking in the wrong direction, you’re ultimately taking steps toward your goals.

Let’s job it up!

If you’re ready to set out on a career path of your own — or even if you’re still at the drawing board — CareerBuilder has all the tools you need to succeed. We like to say we’re here to help you job it up!