How to Pursue the Career You Want

Generally, the questions I’ve heard over the years fall into a couple of categories:

  1. I want to get a job doing X/in Y industry. What do I need to do/learn/know to get there?
  2. I’m unhappy doing X, but I don’t know what to do next.

I’ll take these one at a time and see if I can provide some more generalized advice (realizing that not all of you want to be writers in the space business).

I want to get a job doing X/in Y industry. What do I need to do/learn/know to get there?

The people asking question 1 are usually asking how to get my job or something similar, but not always. Say you have no interest in working in aerospace. You want to work in the automotive industry, or biotech/medical, or (Deus protect you) banking regulations. The approach, I would argue, is similar regardless. Your first step, of course, is to learn about the job.

Research: Before you dive into a new field, you might want to get a better look at what the job actually entails and how healthy the market is. The Occupational Outlook Handbook assembled yearly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is a great starting point. The OOH might or might not have your specific title in mind, but you might find something similar.

Check the want ads:,, whatever suits you. The job descriptions, experience qualifications, and other background are usually all right there.

Talk to people: There are a few ways you can go about this, from face-to-face interviews to email to going to conferences and speaking with people there.

Your next step in the process is to determine your best angle for getting where you want to be. Is your gap degree-focused (i.e., do you need a specific type of degree to get the job)?

See what you can do/learn to minimize transition costs: Given the ridiculous cost of colleges and universities these days, it’s better to seek the path that requires the least time, effort, and money so you can get into your chosen field as quickly as possible. If you have a comparable degree, for instance, you might be able to get smart on the subject through online research, reading, or short (free) classes.

Do volunteer work related to your chosen path: In my case, I did a lot of writing for the citizen space advocacy community, doing letter-writing campaigns, running conferences, and writing policy papers related to space exploration. Yes, I did this in my free time, and no, I didn’t get paid. However, I did get that marvelous addition for the resume: “experience.” As a bonus, that experience demonstrated my interest in and commitment to the industry.

Get smart about the industry: Again, regardless of your chosen path, you can find any number of resources online or in your local public library to help you learn what’s going on and what the big issues are in your preferred industry or line of work. Take the time to read what’s being said in trade publications, traditional news outlets, and blogs so you can be up to speed.

Swing for the fences: If you’re passionate about working in a particular industry and your resume doesn’t quite match the requirements (yet), you might try writing a really snappy cover letter sharing your enthusiasm for the work. You might get an interview anyway.

I’m unhappy doing X, but I don’t know what to do next

This will delve a little bit into personal analysis (a subject, again, in which I am not a licensed professional), but experience still counts for something, so people ask my opinion. Often, you have to start with the basics, which includes healthy doses of honesty and introspection.

Figure out why you are unhappy: Ask yourself what is making you unhappy. Are there other problems in your life outside work that are causing you stress/frustration? Is the problem your work environment? Problems at home? Your chair? Your boss? Your office culture? Your work content? Your working hours? Your lack of promotion or career development opportunities? Your benefits? Your work-life balance? Your location? Your pay? Your commute? Because we spend so much of our time at work, it engages many parts of our lives. You might try listing out each of the items above and rating them 1-10 and see if you can identify your “pain points.”

Take action where you can: You might find that, overall, your job is pretty good, but the two-hour commute every day is kicking you in the rear and draining your energy. Maybe you just need to ask your boss if you can telecommute or work in a location closer to home. The point is, if there are little or big things in your job that would greatly increase your quality of life, take those steps first before throwing your life into upheaval.

Find help: If the problems you’re facing are moral or ethical, you might need to speak with a mentor, spiritual advisor, or even a lawyer. If they are cultural, you might talk with friends inside or outside of work. If they are management-related, well, given our litigious society, you might want to think through any formal complaints very carefully…again, perhaps by consulting a lawyer. If the problems are related to violence or illegal activity, you need to talk to law enforcement…lawyers…and maybe a counselor for yourself and anyone involved. Your level of assistance should reflect the realistic nature of your problem.

Identify what bugs you: Let’s say you’ve taken what steps you can to improve your work situation. You got a new chair for the office, your computer got upgraded, you’ve been given permission to telecommute, and the office culture is on the whole friendly and supportive…and you’re still unhappy with what you’re doing. In other words, let’s say you’ve got a good thing going and you just don’t like your job. Now what? It’s at this stage that you need to start looking at the specifics of your work rather than the circumstances surrounding your work, as noted above. Is it the level of detail you’re asked to handle? Do you dislike working in large groups of boisterous people who might be typical of your industry? Does the content bore you? Do you seek more autonomy? 

Identify what you want: This is sometimes trickier for people than identifying what they dislike about their work. It’s like you’re hard-wired to complain but speechless when it comes to stating your desires. One quick way to identify the type of work that you do want is to invert your complaints: if you dislike micromanagement, you probably prefer more autonomy; if you dislike loud environments, you might want to consider a quieter industry; if you dislike detail work, perhaps you’d be happier working with management-level material, which can be more “big-picture” and abstracted.

Finally, as I’ve written on this blog before, you need to be able to find a line of work that interests you and maybe even combines your hobby interests with your talents. It’s been said elsewhere that if you love what you do, you’ll never “work” a day in your life. That phrase is somewhat incomplete. It’s not that you won’t ever work; you will, but it won’t feel like work because you enjoy what you do.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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