Career Exploration



By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define the difference between a job and a career.
  • Identify the primary types of work and which you are best suited for.
  • Learn how to explore work options.


text of a job offer letterA job: yes, it’s something you would like to have, especially if you want to pay your bills. A job lets you enjoy a minimal level of financial security. A job requires you to show up and do what is required of you; in exchange, you get paid. A career involves holding jobs, but it is more a means of achieving personal fulfillment. In a career, your jobs follow a sequence that leads to increasing mastery, professional development, and personal and financial satisfaction. A career requires planning, knowledge, and skills. If it is to be a fulfilling career, it requires that you bring into play your full set of analytical, critical, and creative thinking skills to make informed decisions that will affect your life in both the short term and the long term.

What Do You Want to Do When You “Grow Up”?

The Department of Labor defines 840 occupations in its Standard Occupation Classification systemU.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor: Standard Occupational Classification User Guide 2010, (accessed July 13, 2010).—and new occupations are being created at an ever-faster rate. Just ten years ago, would anyone have imagined the job of a social media marketing specialist? How about the concept of a competitive chef? As new careers develop and old careers morph into almost unrecognizable versions of their original, it’s OK if you aren’t able to pinpoint exactly what occupation or career will be your lifetime passion. However, it is important to define as best you can what field you will want to develop your career in, because that will help dictate your major and your course selections.

The process of career exploration can be a lot of fun, as it allows you to discover a world of possibilities. Even those students who have a pretty clear idea of what they want to do should go through this process because they will discover new options as backups and occasionally a new direction even more attractive than their original choice. The career exploration process involves four phases.

Phase A: Who Am I?

Woman looking in mirrorGetting to know who you are—who you really are—is the first step. As in Exercise 1, be careful to base your self-discovery on what you think, not what Auntie Ethel always said about you or the hopes that Dad had for you to join in the family business. This is all about you.

You are a unique individual with a distinct combination of likes, dislikes, personality traits, and skills. But you are not so different that you can’t be identified with certain personality types, and those types may help you narrow your career choices. Visit your campus career guidance or placement office. They will likely be able to offer you a variety of tests to define your personality type; you can also find tests online at Web sites such as SuccessHawk ( or many of the job board sites.

Many of these tests are based on the career theory developed by Dr. John Holland. Holland defined six categories of people based on personality, interests, and skills:

  1. Realistic. These people describe themselves as honest, loyal, and practical. They are doers more than thinkers. They have strong mechanical, motor, and athletic abilities; like the outdoors; and prefer working with machines, tools, plants, and animals.
  2. Investigative. These people love problem solving and analytical skills. They are intellectually stimulated and often mathematically or scientifically inclined; like to observe, learn, and evaluate; prefer working alone; and are reserved.
  3. Artistic. These people are the “free spirits.” They are creative, emotional, intuitive, and idealistic; have a flair for communicating ideas; dislike structure and prefer working independently; and like to sing, write, act, paint, and think creatively. They are similar to the investigative type but are interested in the artistic and aesthetic aspects of things more than the scientific.
  4. Social. These are “people” people. They are friendly and outgoing; love to help others, make a difference, or both; have strong verbal and personal skills and teaching abilities; and are less likely to engage in intellectual or physical activity.
  5. Enterprising. These people are confident, assertive risk takers. They are sociable; enjoy speaking and leadership; like to persuade rather than guide; like to use their influence; have strong interpersonal skills; and are status conscious.
  6. Conventional. These people are dependable, detail oriented, disciplined, precise, persistent, and practical; value order; and are good at clerical and numerical tasks. They work well with people and data, so they are good organizers, schedulers, and project managers.

Exercise 2: What’s My Type?

Using the descriptions above, choose the three types that most closely describe you and list them in order in the following table. Most people are combinations of two or sometimes three types. Then list the specific words or attributes that made you think you fit in that type description.

Occupational type Words and attributes that closely describe me
Primary type (the one I identify with most closely)
Secondary type
Tertiary type

Note: Your Holland occupational code is made up of the initials of the three personality types you selected, in order.

Phase B: What’s Out There?

Woman sitting in front of windowOnce you have determined your occupational type, you can begin to explore what types of careers might be best suited to you. Exercise 2 is a rough beginning to find your occupational type, but you should still seek out more detailed results through your career guidance or placement office or by taking the Self-Directed Search (SDS) online through sites such as SuccessHawk (

The SDS will provide you with a profile of careers you might want to consider, but if you have not taken the SDS, your career guidance or placement office is the best place to start, as is the Department of Labor’s Occupation Exploration site at

The SDS and other career guidance tests are based on Holland’s work. Holland studied people who were successful and happy in many occupations and matched their occupations to their occupational type, creating a description of the types of occupations that are best suited to each personality type. Just as many individuals are more than one personality type, many jobs show a strong correlation to more than one occupational type.

Table 12.1 Occupational Options by Type

Ideal Environments Sample Occupations
  • Structured
  • Clear lines of authority
  • Work with things and tools
  • Casual dress
  • Focus on tangible results or well-thought-out goals
  • Contractor
  • Emergency medical technician (EMT)
  • Mechanic
  • Military career
  • Packaging engineer
  • Nonstructured
  • Research oriented
  • Intellectual
  • Work with ideas and data
  • Pharmacist
  • Lab technician
  • Nanotechnologist
  • Geologist
  • College professor
  • Nonstructured
  • Creative
  • Rewards unconventional and aesthetic approaches
  • Creation of products and ideas
  • Advertising career
  • Architect
  • Animator
  • Musician
  • Journalist
  • Collaborative
  • Collegial
  • Work with people and on people-related problems/issues
  • Work as a team or community
  • Teacher
  • Geriatric counselor
  • Correctional officer
  • Coach
  • Nurse
  • Typical business environment
  • Results oriented
  • Driven
  • Work with people and data
  • Entrepreneurial
  • Power focused
  • Sales manager
  • Banker
  • Lawyer
  • Business owner
  • Restaurant manager
  • Orderly
  • Clear rules and policies
  • Consistent processes
  • Work with systems to manipulate and organize data
  • Control and handling of money
  • Auditor
  • Insurance underwriter
  • Bank teller
  • Office manager
  • Database manager

Use the occupational code you defined in Exercise 2 to identify careers you might want to consider. Your career guidance or placement office should be a good resource for this activity, or you can check out Gottfredson and Holland’s Dictionary of Holland Occupational Codes in the reference section of your library.

Use the Department of Labor’s O*Net ( to get a deeper understanding of your occupation. For each occupation, O*Net lists the type of work, the work environment, the skills and education required, and the job outlook for that occupation. This is a truly rich resource that you should get to know.

Phase C: What Factors Might Affect My Choice?

You may now have a list of careers you want to explore. But there are other factors you will need to take into consideration as well. It is important to use your creative thinking skills to come up with alternative “right” answers to factors that may present an obstacle to pursuing the right career.

  • Timing. How much time must I invest before I actually start making money in this career? Will I need to spend additional time in school? Is there a certification process that requires a specific amount of experience? If so, can I afford to wait?
  • Finances. Will this career provide me with the kind of income I need in the short term and the security I’ll want in the longer term? What investment will I need to make to be successful in this field (education, tools, franchise fees, etc.)?
  • Location. Does this career require me to relocate? Is the ideal location for this career somewhere I would like to live? Is it somewhere my family would like to live?
  • Family/personal. How will this career affect my personal and family life? Do friends and family members who know me well feel strongly (for or against) about this career choice? How important is their input?

Phase D: Where Do I Go from Here?

It may seem odd to be thinking about life after school if you are just getting started. But you will soon be making decisions about your future, and regardless of the direction you may choose, there is a lot you can do while still in college. You will Directional signpostneed to focus your studies by choosing a major. You should find opportunities to explore the careers that interest you. You can ensure that you are building the right kind of experience on which to base a successful career. These steps will make your dreams come to life and make them achievable.

Start by developing a relationship with the counselors in the career guidance or placement office. All too often students engage these counselors only near the end of their college days, when the pressure is just on getting a job—any job—after having completed a degree. But these counselors can be of great help in matching your interests to a career and in ensuring you are gathering the right kind of experience to put you at the top of the recruiting heap.

Keep in mind that deciding on and pursuing a career is an ongoing process. The more you learn about yourself and the career options that best suit you, the more you will need to fine-tune your career plan. Don’t be afraid to consider new ideas, but don’t make changes without careful consideration. Career planning is exciting: learning about yourself and about career opportunities, and considering the factors that can affect your decision, should be a core part of your thoughts while in college.


  • The right career for you depends on your interests, your personality, and your skills.
  • Defining your occupational type may confirm career choices you have already made and open entirely new options for you.
  • Career planning is an ongoing process involving knowing yourself, knowing about career options, and understanding the context in which your decisions will be made.


  1. Using your occupational type, identify a career opportunity you might be suited for that you have not yet considered. Now write a paragraph on what life might be like if you were to pursue that career.
  2. Name the six Holland occupational types, and then circle what each type likes to work with:
    1. data ideas people process tools
    2. data ideas people process tools
    3. data ideas people process tools
    4. data ideas people process tools
    5. data ideas people process tools
    6. data ideas people process tools
  3. Visit O*Net ( and look up one of the careers you may be considering. What kinds of things does O*Net tell you about a career?