Just Choose a Career Already!

A fast yet effective way to choose and prepare for a career.

Posted Jun 26, 2016

Dan Moyle, CC 2.0
Source: Dan Moyle, CC 2.0

It's odd for a career counselor to say the following but it's a major takeaway from my having been career counselor for 30 years, 5,000 clients:

Most people would be equally successful and contented in any of a number of careers. So, sure, if you’re a detail-oriented introvert, you don’t want to be in sales. Sure, if you’re people-centric, you don’t want to sit in front of a computer all day. But beyond such obvious screens, it’s usually wiser to just choose something already. Further exploration beyond a few weeks in hopes of the career descending like manna from heaven is more likely to result in waiting for Godot.

It's akin to this analogy: If I dropped you on top of a frigid mountain and you just sat there, you'd die. But if you quickly picked the path down that looked best, you'll have picked a good path, or quickly found it was a dangerous one and scrambled back up to choose another, or found a good side path you couldn't have seen from the top. And if you get down off the mountain, you can get on with improving your life, in this case starting to become expert in your career.

In this article, I offer a self-help approach to choosing a career quickly.

First, a few principles I believe in:

“Cool” careers are overrated. The emotional problems, drug addictions, and deaths of many celebrities only hint at the reality that "cool careers" often have hidden disadvantages. For example, the competition for jobs in entertainment, environment, journalism, academia, fashion, etc., is so fierce that salaries are often poor and oodles of applicants apply for every good position. And if you beat the odds and get hired, you're often treated badly, for example, paid poorly as a temp, because the employer knows that oodles are salivating in the wings for the opportunity to work for low wages or as an "intern," for free. You're always worrying that if you screw up, you can easily be replaced.

Ironically and surprisingly, it's easier to find career satisfaction if you choose an unpopular career or niche within a career, one that few top candidates vie for, for example, Tourette’s counseling rather than relationship counseling. estate law than entertainment law, industrial acid sales rather than solar panel sales. Importantly, most people’s career contentment depends far less on a career’s “coolness” than on the basics: work that's only moderately difficult, ethical work, good boss, coworkers, pay, and commute.

Treat your career choice like a suit of clothes: For it to work best, you must tailor and accessorize it. Most careers can be adapted to your strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. For example, I chose to be a career coach because I value helping people to be productive but I don’t like that the typical counselor spends most of the time listening and asking questions. Perhaps my best strength is coming up with ideas. So I talk more than the typical counselor. Also, I enjoy an audience so I write articles like this one and got myself a radio program in which people call in with their worklife problems.

Be honest about your self-employment potential. Wanting to be your own boss is far from enough. Consider self-employment only if you’re a good practical problem-solver, are good at and care about buying low and selling high but ethically, people usually say yes to you, and perhaps most important, you’re not a procrastinator. If you meet those requirements, do consider self-employment because ever more hiring will be part-time/temp with race-to-the-bottom pay and the specter ever looming of your job being automated or offshored. For more on figuring out whether you should be self-employed, read this..

Consider a career tweak rather than a career change.  Rather than changing careers, it may be wiser to try to tweak your current one: get your job description changed to replace tasks you do poorly with tasks you well, upgrade your skills, change your boss or workplace.

Changing careers is much harder than some gurus would have you believe. You need the time and ability to retrain, can afford the lost income during training and in your first job(s) in the new career, and be able to convince an employer that it's worth hiring you, a newbie, over experienced candidates. And, ironically, many career changers aren't happier in their new career. They bring their issues with them: poor reasoning skills, procrastination, difficult  personality, etc.

A fast way to choose a career

Here is a list of careers that have interested a significant subset of my clients. For many, I list one or more under-the-radar niches. Is there one or two you’d like to investigate?

Accountant: specialize in psychologists or other profession

Administrative assistant: court clerk, personal assistant

Allied medical professions: physician assistant, patient advocate, nurse anesthetist, surgical technologist, cosmetic surgeon assistant. (I deliberately omit physician. I believe that, moving forward, that profession will have too many disadvantages to justify the long, expensive training.)

Analyst: program evaluation, risk management, compensation, employee benefits

Attorney: bankruptcy, adoption, tax, estate, hearing officer, judge


Bus or train inspector

College administrator: student affairs, housing

Court reporter: closed captioning

Crane operator

Dentist: orthodontist, periodontist, reconstructive dentist

Elevator technician: adjuster

Engineer: electronic, materials, nuclear

Event planner: professional conferences/conventions, fundraising events

Fundraiser: planned-giving specialist

Genetic counselor: personalized medicine

Haircutter: house calls


Imaging technologist: sonography, MRI

Land surveyor

Landscape architect

Librarian: special libraries such as corporate, university, medical, or music

Loan officer: loan underwriting



Occupational therapist: aging in place


Personal coach: career, money, dating, life, wellness

Pharmacist: hospital or research

Proposal writer

Psychologist: white-collar felons, anger issues, school psychology, eating disorders.

Sales: boats, aircraft, venues, government property

Self-employment: industrial maintenance, child care center operator, toxic waste disposal

Social worker: parole officer, adoption specialist

Teacher: English-as-a-second language, health educator, corporate trainer, tutor


Now what?

Let's say you've now found one or more careers worthy at least of a bit of investigation. In earlier years, I would have suggested you try to informational-interview and job-shadow people in your target profession but I’m less likely to do that now. People are busier and unless they know you well, they're likely to ignore your request or say no. And if only because of that, job seekers tend to, at most, do one informational interview. There’s too much variation within a field and in how an individual practitioner would describe it to make one or two informational interviews worth the effort. Sure, if you know someone you respect in the field, ask for an informational interview or job shadow but don’t kill yourself to get those. Today, I more often encourage career explorers to Google your target career, for example, [“eating disorders” career] to find articles and videos. 

Next, find good places to get trained in locations you’re willing to live:

  • Google the name of your career and perhaps your planned specialization and the word “training.”
  • Or visit the website of the professional association for that career (for example, American Psychological Association) and see if it lists accredited training programs.
  • Or look at LinkedIn profiles of people in your proposed field. Their profile should list where they trained.
  • Then visit training programs' website to see if the course requirements and electives are enticing and if there’s a professor you might like as an advisor.
  • If a program appeals, Google it and the word “reviews.”
  • Finally, if possible, visit the campus including sitting in on one of the program's advanced classes. That allows you to ask nearly graduated students what they think of the program and the employment prospects it provides.

Once in the program, tailor it to fit you by choosing a well-suited advisor and by asking to do papers, projects, and fieldwork that would prepare you for your niche.

Do that and you’ll have done much to help ensure your career contentment.

Marty Nemko’s bio is in Wikipedia. His new book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.