Launching a new career can be an exhilarating process, but also a complicated one. One of the most important steps is the first one—choosing which career to pursue. Whether you’re a college student getting ready to join the workforce for the first time, a mid-career professional looking to make a career switch, or someone returning to the workforce after time away, the challenge is the same—how do you know which career to pursue, and how do you get started?
This article is designed to help you explore potential careers in an analytical way. You’ll learn how to choose the career that’s right for you, and determine exactly what’s required to land your first job in your new chosen field. You’ll do this with a process called Project Career Research.
Project Career Research Overview
In Project Career Research you’ll speak with five professionals working in the career you’re exploring. This will help you develop a well-rounded overview of the field, and a plan for approaching different companies in your job search.
The goal of Project Career Research is to answer three big questions.
Question #1: What is it really like to work as a [job title]?
A particular career might sound exciting when you see it featured in a press article, or when you read the job description, or when you see the salaries highlighted on a hiring site. But if you’re going to actually work in the field, you need to understand the day-to-day realities of the role. Conversations with industry professionals can tell you what articles and career sites can’t—what it’s really like to have that job.
What percentage of time do you spend in meetings, focusing on your own projects, writing emails, planning, etc? Who are the people you work with the most, and how do you interact with them? What skills and personality traits are required for success? What time of day do you usually eat lunch? What’s your stress level? Do you talk to lots of people every day, or are you on your own all the time? Do you collaborate often, or very rarely? How much freedom do you get to decide which projects you work on? How do promotions happen?
These “real life” concerns can make the difference between loving a job, and just going through the motions. Talking with someone who is already in the field is a great way to understand the actual reality of life as a data scientist, a marketer, a social worker, or whatever role it is you choose to pursue.
Question #2: What skills do you actually need to succeed in this job?
Job descriptions can be very helpful, but they can also be very overwhelming. It’s unfortunately all too common for people to abandon pursuing a particular role, because they look at the long list of requirements in the description, and conclude they’re not qualified. The truth is, these sections are often just laundry lists of every single thing a hiring manager might wish to see in a candidate. They don’t necessarily reflect what’s actually required to succeed. Talking with people working in the field is an excellent way to learn what really does and doesn’t matter.
Questions #3: What do you need to land that job?
There is a difference between being able to do the job, and being able to get the job. As an applicant, it’s your responsibility to prove that you’re qualified. So, it’s important to know what hiring managers are looking for from a candidate. Being credentialed for a particular skill can be very beneficial for some jobs, but not matter at all for others. Some jobs require that you have a portfolio of pre-existing work to show, while other jobs will ask you to complete a new task during your interview, and prioritize this above your portfolio. Some roles require very specific technical skills, while for others the ability to learn quickly and soft skills are much more important. Before you fully commit your time and energy to your job search, make sure you know exactly what it will take to get the job, so you’re ready when the opportunities come.
At this point, you may be wondering why you have to speak to real people—can’t this all be researched online? While there are many great online resources available, there is no substitute for the real insights and opinions that emerge in direct conversation with industry professionals. Take this step, and you’ll enter your job search well-prepared, and with confidence. Avoid it, and you risk everything from resume missteps and inadequate interview preparation to spending money on the wrong classes or training programs. As an added bonus, when you make contact with industry professionals, you’re expanding your network in your future field, which will be especially helpful once you begin the actual job search process.
How to find people to speak with
Your existing connections. An important first step is to consider your own existing network. This could be your LinkedIn network, other professional circles, or people in your shared community spaces—parent groups, civic groups, volunteer organizations, sports teams, and more. Is there someone you know who’s already in the field? Before you became interested in, say, mobile development as a possible career, you might not have consciously registered the fact that you actually already know a mobile developer! Auditing your own network is a great way to quickly discover people with whom you might be able to schedule an informational interview.
Professional groups. Search LinkedIn, Facebook, and Meetup for groups connecting professionals in your target field and reach out to individuals within those groups. Generally, you’ll find that people who are proactive enough to join professional groups are also the kinds of people who enjoy talking about their careers, and are eager to share their knowledge and their experience.
Here’s a task for you. Search professionals on LinkedIn by your target job title, and your geographic location. Review 100 profiles, and from there, choose 20 who feel most relevant to your career objectives. Reach out to all using the template below. If they respond, follow up right away with a thank-you note, and reiterate your interest in a conversation.
LinkedIn outreach template:
Hi <name>, I discovered your profile while researching digital marketing. Your experience at <company> is very interesting and I’d appreciate an opportunity to ask you a few questions, as I am exploring a career change from office management. Thank you in advance for connecting with me!
Tip #1: Make scheduling easy for the other person by suggesting a specific time to speak, and offer to work around their calendar.
Tip #2: If they don’t reply, don’t take it personally. Just move on with your list.
Tip #3: On LinkedIn you can only access profiles of people who are in your network (i.e., your 1st-degree, 2nd-degree, and 3rd-degree connections), as well as fellow members of your LinkedIn groups. You can expand your network by adding more 1st-degree connections and joining groups.
Preparing for your conversations
To make the most out of each conversation while being respectful of everyone’s time, do your research in advance, so you can ask valuable questions that only they can answer for you (as opposed to those you can get answers to through an online search). Not only does this help ensure a productive conversation, it demonstrates your respect and appreciation for the other person’s experience, and their generosity in taking the time to meet with you
I know you transitioned from teaching high school to a role as an instructional designer, and I’m trying to do the same. But also noticed that most people in similar roles tend to have formal training in instructional design. How were you able to get recruiters to notice you?
There are many ways to do research but you should always include:
- LinkedIn – review profiles of the person you are speaking with (and potentially their colleagues) to understand their backgrounds and experiences.
- Website of the company the person works for, to get a sense of everything from product catalogues to company culture.
- Industry associations and organizations – staying current with industry trends demonstrates your active engagement with your chosen field and its community, and helps to ensure your career questions are specific and relevant.
Tailoring your questions to be specific to each individual is essential, but it’s also important to prepare a set of core questions you can ask in every interview, in order to gather baseline information. For example:
- Can you describe a day in the life of a [role]?
- What are the on-the-job skills required to be successful in this role?
- Are there similar roles I should look into as well?
- How does someone with my background land a first job in the field?
During and after each conversation
Set the context for the meeting. Begin with an overview of why you reached out and what you are hoping to learn from the conversation. This enables the other person to focus on what’s relevant and will make them feel comfortable, as they’ll understand the goals. Remember: as the one who initiated the conversation, it’s your responsibility to establish both the tone and agenda.
Introduce yourself. To ensure a productive conversation, it’s important that they understand who you are—this helps to establish context for your questions. Spend a couple of minutes in the beginning explaining why you reached out and what your goals are. Remember that while you are there to learn, this person might be able to connect you to a professional opportunity at some point. Be prepared to speak about your skills, accomplishments, and personal qualities that can bring value to an organization. You might not know how your experience transfers onto this new role but you should demonstrate passion and confidence that you can learn and grow quickly. Keep it short and focused.
Let them speak. Since you are there to learn, the primary focus of the conversation should be on the other person. Some people might be more talkative, while others may need more input from you in order to engage. Ideally, they should be speaking for 50% to 80% of the conversation. Don’t be afraid of short pauses, and be respectful and patient if they need time to gather their thoughts.
Send a thank-you email. You have created a valuable connection, so stay in touch! A thank-you email is a great way to strengthen the connection by reiterating your appreciation for their time and following up on any action items that came out of the discussion. Also, be sure to think through ways you might return the favor, and, as appropriate, share resources, connections, or thoughts they might find valuable.
Wrapping up your project
Now that you have completed five conversations with professionals working in your target career, it’s time to go back to your main three questions and provide answers based on what you’ve learned.
Upon completing that step, you should have a clear sense of whether your target career is actually the one that you want to pursue. You should know if there are opportunities in your area, and you should have a good sense of what skills are required for the role.
If all that is in place, then you’re ready to proceed!
Your next steps will involve addressing gaps related to job requirements (skills, credentials, degrees, experience) and building an optimal resume. We’ll cover those topics in future posts. Until then, good luck choosing a great career path, and we’ll look forward to seeing you on Coursera when you need to learn new skills!
About the author: Vera Fishman
Vera Fishman a Career Services Program Manager at Coursera and a career coach. Over the past 5+ years she coached hundreds of professionals from major Silicon Valley companies and ran workshops on every step of the job search process at Lee Hecht Harrison (resume writing, career discovery, interviewing – you name it!) and created an innovative job search curriculum at Udacity. Prior to becoming a coach Vera had a whole different career in marketing, and a shorter one in non-profit community management – so she is no stranger to career-changing herself. A native of Saint Petersburg, Russia, Vera has spent her adult life in Silicon Valley, where she feels most at home and comfortable – aside from not liking to have to drive everywhere.67