So Long School: 6 Things to Know As You’re Developing Your Career Identity

  • Copy by: Sarah Seung-McFarland, Ph.D.

You’ve spent most of your life in school. And the routine was pretty much the same. There were classes to take, papers to write, and finals to study for. Some of it was drudgery, and you fantasized about what life would be like on the other side of graduation.  But some of it was stabilizing. The path to graduation was clear, and you knew which classes to take and what you needed to do to pass them all. You managed to do volunteer work and internships to make yourself more marketable to the outside world. But even those experiences were highly regimented with a clear beginning and end.

Now graduation is over, and the excitement you felt after finally completing it all has been replaced by excitement’s alter ego—anxiety. You’re entering a world that isn’t as nearly as neatly packaged as the previous one, and there are so many questions. Did I choose the right career path? How do I know which job is the right one? What should my starting salary be?  The sense of uncertainty is an age-old dilemma, but it may help to know it’s all a part of vocational development, that’s the ongoing process of matching our vocational self-concept to occupational choice.  And you may have figured out that this generation has far more career options than ever before. It wasn’t too long ago that you were expected to choose one career path. If you wanted to be a nurse, doctor, lawyer, or teacher— great! That was the path you took, and it’s pretty much what you did until you retired. But with changing values and a little help from the internet, graduates entering the work force have the opportunity to be much more creative with their career.  You can combine careers (hello multihyphenates!), you don’t necessarily have to return to school to pursue them, and you can work from home, thanks to online jobs.

But I’m not sure that decreases the anxiety. There are so many choices that it is easy to feel overwhelmed, and career anxiety can be a beast if you don’t know how to manage it. It often shows itself in the form of negative or self-defeating self-talk like “I can’t do that job because I’m…”, or “My skills aren’t…”, or even “I can, but I’m not as good as…” And before you know it, you’re making unwarranted (better yet, inaccurate) overgeneralizations about yourself that cause you to have a rigid attitude about your career options.  This can stunt the formation of your career identity which becomes evident as you translate your vocational self-concept into occupational roles. Your career identity is formed as you discover what you are good at, what you’re passionate about, and your career aspirations.  This requires an accurate assessment of skills, interests, and career goals, and the ability to find a job that allows these to flourish. So as your diploma is fresh off the press, and you are working towards a solid career identity, here are six things to know to help you minimize the gap between your current work situation and the career you desire.

1. Be Aware Of Your Reaction to Change.

How graduates handle the transition from graduation to career is impacted by how they have handled transitions in other areas of their lives. If you’ve had anxiety around transitions and used debilitating coping skills to manage it such as avoidance, refusing to make a decision, or falling back on vices such as food, drugs, shopping, etc… it may difficult for you to handle building a career path. Not because you aren’t capable, but because you haven’t learned a better way of dealing with fears. But while old habits die hard, they can die. Coping with ups, downs, and unexpected turns in the face of fear takes tenacity and the ability to manage negative feelings well. And once you begin to do this, you will be in a better position to make healthy career decisions.

2. Do Something.

So you went to college and still don’t know what you want to do with your life. It’s not a pleasant feeling, I know. But the worst thing you can do is nothing until something better comes along. While you might reason that you don’t want to waste your time working towards a career you may not like in five years, it is in the doing that helps you find your career path. And if you take that job you are not sure of, and grow to hate it, at least you know to cross those types of jobs off your list, and focus on other job options.  Instead of thinking of it as a defeat, make each failure and success mold you and push you towards the career that’s right for you.

3. Apply To Jobs You Don’t Qualify For.

Many people only apply to jobs they are certain they qualify for in hopes of increasing the chances of finding a job. And this certainly makes sense. The only problem is that if you don’t like any of the jobs you qualify for then you are increasing the chances you will be stuck in a job that makes you miserable.  This leads to demeaning attitudes towards work. And there are few things worse than going to work every day in an environment you perceive to be oppressive and stifling with little reward. One way to offset this conundrum is to apply for jobs you desire, although you may not have all the qualifications. This may seem counterintuitive, but aligning your actions with your desires is a powerful way to change the course of your career.  And don’t just stop there. Figure out a plan of action for acquiring the skills you think you need so that if you miraculously get that interview (or not) you have improved your prospects of landing the job you want. Each time you expand your skill set, your resume should be altered to fit the demands of the job you are seeking. This will get you closer to landing “that cool job,” and being in a work environment where you feel your creative potential can be realized.

 

4. Don’t Beat Yourself Up For What You Didn’t Know.

So you took the “Do Something” advice and now you feel stuck in a job you don’t like and can’t get out for financial or other reasons. If you are not careful dislike can turn into resentment, and the very thing you feared—wasting good years that could be used for a much more fulfilling purpose, begins to happen. Avoid beating yourself up during these moments. You took the job because you felt it was the best decision based upon the information you had. Focus on what you are learning from where you are, and think of ways you can use it to push you into the career direction you want to go. Figure out a plan of action for how to get out, and implement it.

 

5. Be In The Mix.

Once we become acclimated to a particular work environment, we become part of the social landscape. And like with any social setting, we are influenced by those around us. When I got my first clinical job out of graduate school, everyone around me was licensed with a private practice. And frankly, it pushed me in that direction. I thought, I want to have my license and a private practice too. But once I got it, it didn’t feel as great as I thought it would. I realized I didn’t like full-time clinical work, and needed a creative outlet. So I started seeking out people who were doing creative things, and a funny thing happened. I realized new goals and dreams from being exposed to people who were in creative fields. Although I was not in a formal academic environment, I started learning again, and still am. But I wouldn’t have known to build a career that reflected my varied interests if I had stayed in one social group.

 

6. Get A Little Help.

If you are feeling stuck and can’t seem to establish a solid career you feel proud of, it is possible that other emotional issues may be impacting your ability to develop a healthy career identity. And unresolved, complex emotional issues can make it really difficult to manage career issues on your own.  A career counselor can help you work through it so that you can gain some clarity on your career aspirations, improve your career decision-making and problem-solving skills, and achieve a fulfilling career.

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