Career Planning Basics
When I write articles or essays as a professional writer, I almost always write the introduction last or last except for the Conclusion section. I leaned this early on in my career. A professor who was particularly influential over the course of my undergraduate career stated in one of the classes of his that I attended: “How can you introduce something when you don’t know what it is you are going to introduce?” That was my introduction to writing the Introduction to most written pieces as close to the tail end of the writing process as possible. (As an aside, in my web content work I’ve seen the occasional exception when either the step-by-step flow was so clearly envisioned at the outset that the Introduction was clear at the outset as well; and even more frequently though still not particularly common a case where a ‘chunk’ of text one originally thought to belong in the body proved to stand our partway through as an ideal Introduction to an article. But generally this rule works best in 9 out of 10 written articles or essays.)
As I start writing on the Programs and Degrees topics, it stands out to me that for college students and even for those preparing for college, the logical place to start in terms of career planning is to spend a certain amount of reflection on a key initial aspect of the career planning process. Career planning is indeed an evolutionary process, but it seems obvious to me with the legendary 20-20 hindsight perspective on the college (or any in-the-past) experience that the fundamental level at which to begin career planning within a college or even preparing for college setting is this: by defining what we mean by ‘career.’ Rather like that professor’s comment about introducing an unknown, how can we ‘plan’ something without having defined that something?
There are stages of life at which this definition process will have greater or lesser importance, but I think it’s one that will serve any individual best the things we need to define in this regard start gaining recognition early and get revisited periodically throughout a lifetime. You will notice I emphasized that I think college, or even college prep, constitutes a stage of life that this definition process with regards to career has particular significance. And why do I say that?
Here’s the thing: to greater or lesser degree, at most times in most people’s lives, it won’t be a matter of having “a career.” At least not if one takes a medium-to-long range view.
Goal-setting is another of the topics I write on regularly. I won’t get extensively into that in this post, but insofar as it relates to the topic I will touch upon it here. If you’ve ever studied up on a formal goal-setting program, you’ve likely encountered a format wherein you set goals for a series of different times into the future. The traditional one uses three months, six months, one year, three years, and five years. Some start as quickly as goals for the upcoming week; some run out longer to ten years or more.
Those same programs also typically divide goals up into various categories. For example, a goal-setting system might suggest you set goals for finances, for your family, for health-related activities, and for business – or whatever life areas are important to you.
So, in the college or entering college context, look at those aspects of setting goals. I’ll pose the question in such a way as to force you to answer it. Unless you’re in your last semester as a senior in college, which of your pertinent goals-setting areas do you expect NOT to change over the next one-to-five year basis?
For that matter, which do you expect NOT to change over the next six months?
You expect almost everything to change during those intervals, don’t you? Six months incorporates the end of whatever semester you are currently in. When that semester ends, your academic goals for this semester will end with it. When you enroll in next semester’s courses, you’ll have a new set of goals based on those course’s objectives. If you are a sophomore in a Bachelor’s program, most likely you’ll have another mental orientation shift based on the change in status from all, or nearly all, required courses to all, or mostly all, courses within your Major and Minor areas of study. And with that shift, very likely, you’ll also shift your attention towards seeking out courses that will help you in an upcoming professional career.
Effectively, in my view, most college students have multiple “career” considerations going on.
You’ll notice in my initial paragraph I referred to my “undergraduate career.” This is where defining what we mean by “career” comes into play. If you enter “career definition” into the Google search engine, here is the result that comes up from Google’s own search tag for ‘career’ as a noun:
“1. an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person's life and with opportunities for progress.”
Well, now. That sounds a bit like college, doesn’t it? Even for an Associate’s Degree, assuming you enrolled right out of High School or even after a one-year ‘gap year’ interval, two years at your age is “a significant period,” isn’t it? You are going to get graded on your coursework, aren’t you? Does that not represent “opportunities for progress”? And depending on how you are structuring your degree program, you may have opportunities for progress other than academic ones. You may be involved in athletics at a competitive level. You may decide to get involved in other areas that interest you, such as student government or in things like peer tutoring or other paid on-campus work experiences.
So, the first step of successful career planning from this perspective is to recognize that one ‘career’ with which you are dealing just now is that your college program itself – in all its component parts – in itself is “a” career for you. That’s the first step of solid career planning within the undergraduate context.
The next step may seem a little contradictory to that in terms of logic, but in programs of this sort I always find that after defining the first step it’s best not to apply a strictly linear approach to planning – be it career planning as discussed here or a more general goal-setting program. I typically would next take an end-goal phase to define. In other words, once I’ve recognized that there is a sense in which my student status in and itself constitutes “my career” (or one of them) at this point, then I would chose a post-degree conferral interval of time to assess: ‘by six months (or one year) after I receive my diploma, to what do I want my college career to have fed into in terms of a post-degree career?’
If your plan includes post-graduate study, you will find that relatively easy to define. If you want to go into business and not go on to graduate school first, then you’ll likely need to do a more detailed assessment upon which to base your career planning.
So . . . why do we do the planning in a first step/last step way at the outset?
Here’s where you get to see the logic more clearly: by defining Point A and Point Z, you have a much better basis for filling in the points in between with solid, relevant steps to propel you towards your long-term goals.
Say you’ve recognized that college is a career. By defining that in itself, you’ve defined that you need to perform well in your ‘current’ career of undergraduate student. Obviously, ‘perform well’ in terms of reasonably proficient academic performance then becomes self-defining. But, now you also have an end-goal out of that career. You will start now to ‘bridge the gap’ by looking at what other activities might serve you well in transitioning from your undergraduate career to your professional career. Will involvements like Student Government look good on a Resume? Are there opportunities you will have to do work related to a future career within the college campus environment and-or within the nearby community? Perhaps peer tutoring or working in the campus library. Or, if you’re in a communications-related Major, something like reading books for blind students within the college community. If there are, can you successfully balance the obligations of work and study without sacrificing performance in either one?
See the general flow, here? You first define ‘career,’ then you have a ‘career planning’ framework for your in-college career. Then, you define an end-goal of a professional post-degree career, and that allows you set interim semester-by-semester and-or year-by-year goals for what we might call subset careers. Your undergraduate career may incorporate several subset careers: your academic career, your athletic career, your campus work experience career, and so on.
Such a framework gives you a framework for planning each of your subset in-college careers to maximize the effectiveness with which they move you towards your professional career plans.
I would recommend that you do this ‘from the beginning’ career definition process as early in the college experience as possible. This will give you a foundation to review and adjust your overall career planning process throughout your college career. I would recommend you do a career planning process at the beginning and end of each semester. At the end of the semester, assess and evaluate what realization of your early-in-semester career objectives you have accomplished. At the beginning of a semester, based on your new course enrollment and any new extra-curricula opportunities present themselves to you, assess your career plan to date for any necessary adjustments to keep you moving forward towards your long-range professional goals.