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Careers Café

To explore career options, try this autobiographical exercise


Exploring career options assumes that you have some. So, of course, people sometimes avoid exploring career options because they assume they don’t have any.

Becoming very specialized, whether through career growth or very focused study, can exacerbate that sense of having few options. Facing family or peer pressure to follow a certain path can, too.

That’s why my teaching colleagues Laurie Barlow and Debbie Nifakis worked an autobiographical sketch into the course they designed for a very career-focused group of students. Going into the exercise, students assume it will be quick and easy. That’s surely the coursework equivalent of a horror movie character checking on that noise in the attic.

The outcomes of the exercise are much happier. Mainly, people start to recognize that they have a range of skills, and that they’ve used those skills to make things happen. If you’re going to create an autobiographical sketch, I’d encourage you to write things down, rather than to leave the information in your head, and to continue adding to it over the course of a week or so.

Aim to review at least the last five to 10 years of your life. Start with whatever obvious clusters of activity come to mind, such as education, employment, volunteer activities, leisure – whatever makes sense for you. For each category, wrack your brains for what you did in each year of the past five to 10 years that fits. Write them all down.

For each of these experiences, note the kind of environment you were in, who you were with and what responsibilities you had. You might end up creating some sub-groups at this point. For example, you might consider your courses as one type of experience, unless some of the courses you’ve taken felt unique.

Write down what you enjoyed or found particularly satisfying. What seemed like it ought to have felt meaningful, but was actually a letdown? What was just plain unpleasant?

What did you achieve, create or learn? When it comes to your learning, consider both knowledge and skills. What did others notice or praise you for? If you were given new responsibilities, why did people think you could handle them?

Reflect on what you’ve written. What trends do you see? Try to look for patterns in broad range of areas: in the environments you were drawn to, the people you enjoyed working with, the responsibilities you took on and the things you accomplished and contributed, learned, earned praise for and found most meaningful.

This exercise alone will not plan a career for you. Its face is turned firmly to the past, and it won’t necessarily suggest what to do next. But it can show you just how much you’ve already done – possibly during a time in your life when you’ve felt as though your accomplishments have had a narrow focus. It can remind you of what you’d like to avoid in the future. And it can help you tease out the people, places and tasks that have brought out your best.



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