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Careers Café

“What do you do?”


Shortly after you tell a new acquaintance your name, you typically get the opportunity to share what you do as a career.  Or, less comfortably, you get to avoid eye contact as you mutter something about a job you dislike, or admit that you don’t know what you want to do with your life.  Good times!

“What do you do?” and its cousin, “What are you going to do after you graduate?” cause such discomfort, that clients in my office sometimes confess to having a fake career goal.  They’ve landed on an answer that they readily give in response to the question, but they don’t really know whether the career interests them.

It’s hard to give up a fake answer when it receives so much more praise than admitting to uncertainty.  Say that you want to be a software engineer when you graduate, and people relax and smile.  Say that you’re investigating career options, and people get nervous.  Are you going to teach?  Are you going to waste your degree?  Should you have gone straight to college instead of university?

Why is it more praiseworthy to have a one-word answer than to admit that your career, like most, is bound to be a meandering path?  It’s a status issue – not just regarding whether you’ll land in a professional career, but also regarding certainty itself.  We ascribe status to those who have a specific career goal.

So, what do you do if you aren’t in the high-status group of the career-certain?

First, know that the status conferred on career certainty is goofy.  Really and truly goofy.  There’s nothing wrong with having a career goal and working towards it, and it certainly helps you to navigate professional development and the world of work.  But it’s hardly a character flaw or a sign of weakness to examine your goals openly.  And you can’t examine your goals – or create them in the first place – without experiencing ambiguity first.  Uncertainty is an inevitable part of planning.

Second, accept that not everyone is going to love ambiguity, especially those who love you.  They may have plenty of goals for you (professional and material success, happiness) that seem at odds with career uncertainty.  So, they want you to get out of that stage as quickly as possible, even if it’s more quickly than is actually useful to the whole process of identifying meaningful career goals.  (By the way, if you feel like you’re letting people down by not matching your priorities to theirs, Jo Van Every’s other blog has wisdom to offer).

Finally, take heart in the courage you’ve shown by admitting uncertainty – even if only to yourself.  It’s heartbreaking to meet with a client who knew – just knew – that they wanted to be, say, a vet, devoted their time and energy to following that path, and then discovered that they hate the job.

If you find yourself using an admirable but fake career goal when people ask what you plan to do, consider sharing a bit of your career exploration story, without apology.  You never know – you may receive helpful information.  Whether you admit to ambiguity or smooth over career discussions with an answer that will allow you to move on to another topic, keep on with your own career exploration.  The status briefly conferred by naming a job title doesn’t hold a candle to wrestling with your options and finding some that work for you.


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