What To Do When Your Career Path Is Unclear

Updated November 1, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team|Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA

Working can provide you with the money you need to support yourself as well as a sense of achievement and fulfillment, in some cases. There are many different career paths, and choosing the right one for you can be daunting. Though some people may change their career paths completely throughout their life, each one is often a commitment of time and energy. It takes time to build your skills and experience in a new field, so many try to choose a path they plan to stick with over time. So how do you make the right choice for you?

Choosing A Career Path Can Be Stressful

Jobs Vs. Careers

First, it can be helpful to understand the difference between getting a job and embarking on a career path. Jobs will be part of any career path, and a career definitely involves jobs—but these two terms are not interchangeable. While there are different definitions depending on your perspective, a job can be viewed as something you do to earn money that may or may not have a long-term trajectory or opportunities for growth. A career, on the other hand, usually involves a long-term vision for reaching a goal(s) in one’s field, which often consists of an orderly, increasing progression from one position to another over time.

A job is typically about how to make a living, whereas a career can involve a plan for how you’ll make a living over the course of your working life.

Why Having A Career Path Can Be Valuable

Whether you’re just starting out in the job market or are considering developing a new career path, choosing one a career path may benefit you in the long run. First of all, the stability of having a plan to support yourself and achieve goals can help you feel less stressed. While not everyone desires this type of structure or planning in their lives, many people find that it helps them feel more secure and in control.

Next, choosing a career path can help you build a strong skill set in a specific area. While taking different jobs in different industries over time can allow you to build a broad range of skills, sticking to a career path over the longer term can allow you to build depth in a few key skill areas. In addition, staying in one field or industry for a significant amount of time can allow you to build professional and even personal relationships that can be fulfilling. These might include mentorships or connections with coworkers. Finally, one study found that working can promote growth and stability in those with bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions. It stands to reason that a more stable, well-planned career path could potentially increase these benefits that come from stable work.

Choosing A Career Path Can Be Stressful

How To Choose A Career Path

An obstacle for many is deciding which career path to choose. Social psychologist Barry Schwartz discusses how we can actually become paralyzed in the face of too many options in his popular TED Talk. In his research, he found that the availability of more choices can result in more difficulty making (and being satisfied with) one choice. However, the number of options can also be comforting, because it means that there’s likely a career path out there that’s a good fit for you. If you’re having trouble deciding on one, there are resources to help making this decision.

Consider Your Abilities And Interests

One study aimed to identify the factors that contributed to how students approached career-path decisions in Australia. The study found that ability and interest have a significant effect on students’ educational and vocational plans, which can provide a solid starting point for others in this situation. First, consider your abilities. Are you particularly good with numbers, or do you have a highly creative mind? Are you a master of detail-oriented work, or more of a big-picture thinker? Are you naturally skilled at interacting with people, or do you prefer independent work?

The abilities a person has can change over time with effort, experience, and practice, so lacking a skill required for your field may not be a reason to avoid pursuing it. However, it can help to look at your natural talents for indications as to what direction you might go.

Next, consider your interests. If you’re going to commit to a career path that you may stay in for years to come, it’s typically important to choose something that interests you in some way. 

An industry or job function that you find interesting, fulfilling, challenging, or otherwise stimulating can help you maintain job satisfaction over time, which research shows has a positive correlation with life satisfaction.

After all, it’s easy to see how going to a job you dislike every day could take a toll on your overall happiness and mental health. Following your interests can help you narrow down the potential career paths you’re looking into.

Take Advantage Of Career Services

There are also career resources and services out there that can offer guidance in this area. The choice of what career to pursue is ultimately yours, but a professional may be able to help you understand and weigh your options. Many universities and community colleges have career-service counselors who specialize in this. Note, however, that the options they propose are likely to require higher education. You might also seek out a career counselor in your area who is not affiliated with an educational institution. They may require payment for their services, but they can offer a more objective point of view plus access to a variety of tools and methods for helping you decide.

Take A Test

There are many different tests available that can help you crystallize what you may want in a career or what you might be suited for. Once you receive your results, some of these tests or the institutions that offer them, can also help you choose educational or training programs and ways to develop job-related skills. Tests you might consider for this purpose include an aptitude test, an interest inventory, or a career personality test. A quick internet search for any of these will return a variety of different options for you to explore.

The goal of an aptitude test is to tell you where your natural skills lie. However, if you have a deficiency in an area that's vital in the kind of career path you want to follow, many of these skills can often be learned or improved.

It's a good idea to take an interest inventory test if you're not sure what kind of career would appeal to you. Career personality tests can help you better understand your attributes. Even personality traits can be changed to a certain extent. A test, then, can't tell you what career path you must choose. Instead, it's a starting point to help you assess potential careers.

How To Cope When Career Decisions Feel Overwhelming

Choosing a career path is a big decision. It’s often a long-term one and can have significant effects on your future, from your life satisfaction to where you live to how much money you make. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or frustrated, you might find speaking with a therapist to be useful. They can help you make sense of your emotions and get to know yourself and your future goals better. They can also help you work through any obstacles that may be making the process more difficult, such as low self-esteem, family pressure, or mental health conditions. 

Some people find online therapy to be a more accessible, convenient option for connecting with a mental health professional. With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can speak with a licensed therapist via phone, video, and/or in-app messaging from the comfort of your own home. Research suggests that online therapy is “clinically efficacious” and roughly equivalent to in-person therapy in terms of benefits.

Takeaway

If you decide to select a career path, you might feel overwhelmed and not know where to start. Examining your abilities and interests, seeking the help of career counselors or tests, and looking to a therapist for guidance on navigating your mental health throughout the process can all be helpful strategies.

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