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Plot Your Career Path

You are on your way to a party at your friend's place across town. While cruising down the highway looking sharp in your new outfit, you suddenly realize you forgot to ask your friend for directions.

You know the neighborhood the house is in, but you don't know the exact address. You end up driving around in circles for what seems like forever. You finally give up and head home grumbling and wishing you had mapped your route before leaving.

Entering the workforce without mapping out a career path first can leave you feeling just as lost and disappointed. It may take you an eternity to land your dream job. Or you may never even get it. Recent research shows that half of all Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs. Beginning to map out a career path while in school can help you avoid such unhappiness.

Terry Wasylak is a professional recruiter. "A career path is something you plan and lay out so you have some kind of occupational focus and direction," he says. "Have a dream and lay out the goals that will take you to that dream."

Before you can plot a career path, you need to decide what career is best suited for you, says Wasylak. "If it's not grounded in who you are, what your skills are, what your attributes are, what your personality is and what your priorities are, then you run the risk of making a bad career choice."

Choosing a career requires lots of self-awareness and self-assessment. Students often choose majors and eventually careers that their parents want them to pursue -- like medicine or law -- instead of those that really interest them or suit their skills and needs.

"You really have to pick something that you enjoy doing," says Christina Miranda. She is a human resources professional in New York. "That's something a lot of people forget when they are picking a career path."

There are a few ways of discovering what you enjoy doing as well as your abilities and values. Miranda suggests asking yourself what they are and making a list.

If you are still clueless, Miranda says to visit career counselors. They can conduct tests that evaluate your personality and predict which fields are right for you.

There are also a number of similar inventories and quizzes on the Net, according to Mary Beth Peterson. She is the director of a career development center.

Peterson says after assessing your personality, choose a career that best suits it. For example, if you discover you love sports, you are an efficient writer and you want a career with a decent salary, consider working as a public relations officer for a major league sports team.

Once you have decided on a career, follow the appropriate schooling for it. In other words, enroll in a major that will train you for that field. That's the easy part.

Next comes researching the career to make sure it is really for you, adds Peterson. Many websites offer detailed information and statistics on careers. Shadowing a professional in your field and doing summer internships are good ideas, too.

"Go out and talk to people in your field as you're training," says Wasylak. "Try to get some practical experience and work within your realm. If you have an undergraduate degree in science with a major in biology and you want to apply to med school, then get a job working as a lab assistant."

Miranda agrees this is a great way to make contacts who can get you a job in your field once you graduate. She adds that by test driving a career, you can also find out if it is something you are willing to do on a long-term basis.

Don't worry if you have to try out more than one career before you find your niche. In fact, studies show that college students change their majors approximately three times.

"Don't be afraid to make a change, even if it means you have to go back to school or you need to switch your major," Miranda insists. "Life is too long to be unhappy at your job every day."

Wasylak agrees. "Even though you made a wrong occupational choice, it doesn't mean you didn't develop a lot of skills in that endeavor that you can then use in another occupation."

When do you finally graduate, you need to map out a career plan. Write down the major goals that you want to accomplish at different points in your career.

"Your plan can't be too long range," says Peterson. "You can have an immediate graduation plan, a five-year plan and even a 10-year plan. You have to keep some of it open-ended because you never know what circumstances may change. Your interests and values may even change."

A career plan is all about taking baby steps toward an ultimate goal or dream. For example, if you want to become the CEO of a major department store, you have to work in all the company's departments first, explains Miranda. She warns that recent graduates should not reach for the stars when starting out on their career paths.

"You're definitely not going to be the CEO of anything as soon as you graduate," she laughs. "Students who are coming out of school now want much higher salaries and they want a lot of responsibility. Companies are getting tired of this 'I want to run the company' attitude from college students."

Consequently, a wise first move in any career path is to look for an entry-level position in your field. That means scanning the classifieds and visiting company websites that advertise job postings for beginners in your profession.

How do you know when it is time to move up a few rungs on the ladder?

"When you're not learning anything anymore," says Miranda. "When you can do your job while daydreaming, it is time to move on."

Moving up and onward towards the goals you set out is fantastic. Yet you should revisit your plan every year to make sure those goals are still important to you, according to Wasylak. If you find your values and interests have changed from year to year, you might have to adjust or rearrange your goals. However, if your original plan and dreams are still appealing, stick with them.

"A career path often has a lot of forks in the road and a lot of U-turns," says Miranda. "It is not necessarily a straight path. There will always be changes."

No matter how many times it may change, having a plan to help you stay focused on your goals is better than letting chance drag you down a career path.

"Life is too short to let your career be decided by a whimsical crystal ball," says Wasylak.

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