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Careers Café

Bite-sized experience


In a recent workshop I did with a group of graduate students in the humanities, participants were keenly interested in knowing whether it was too late to embark on a career shift. Most were in their mid-20s to early 30s and had invested some time, effort and sense of self in studies that might not lead to academic careers.

Some of the urgency people feel about deciding whether to switch career goals comes from pressing material needs: people accumulate debt or anticipate taking it on in order to retrain, or they need a job now and want it to advance their career rather than take them in a direction that appears to be off track. Some of the urgency comes from the unpleasantness of ambiguity. Some comes from the weight of our own potential — the sense that we have latent capabilities that may never be realized in our professional lives, unless we hurry and start racking up achievements.

If you’re doing graduate work now, do you need to decide right away whether a different path is for you? As much as it would be convenient and reassuring to come to an immediate answer, a decision that feels painless and quick may be only superficially thought out. Industrial-organizational psychologist Herminia Ibarra neatly captures the anguish of career decision making in her book, Working Identity — and why that anguish is both normal and productive.

But a blog about career decision-making anguish isn’t much of an upper. What if you’re wondering, right now, how to gather more information about whether a career change is right for you? If you don’t feel like immediately reading any of the books that help guide people through career chaos (like Ibarra’s, Mitchell’s Unplanned Career, or Katharine Brooks’ You Majored in What?), you could just start gathering experiences.

There’s a good reason to do this. Many career guides (not the ones mentioned above) suggest that introspection is more important than experience. That’s too bad, since career development research by folks like John Krumbolz suggests that we’re bad at predicting our future interests. More hopefully, the same research shows that diverse experiences help us accurately assess our interests and can lead to unplanned career opportunities.

The experiences you gather don’t have to be long-term commitments. For the sake of your academic work, it’s probably ideal to take on shorter-term experiences instead, like organizing a conference, volunteering a few hours a month in an area of interest, attending a public lecture in an area of curiosity, job shadowing, conducting an information interview or two, taking that online Camtasia tutorial you’ve been considering, or writing a couple of blog posts on a pet topic — even if you never make them public.

Create an inventory of experiences you’d like to have, and list ways to get at least a piece of each experience. Then, tackle them one at a time, starting with the most exciting or least time-consuming. Did the experience leave you wanting more, or feeling like you can scratch that experience off your list?

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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