The story is told of an undergraduate sociology student who pursued his lifelong dream of being a pilot. After learning, studying, practicing, and investing nearly $10,000 toward the accomplishment of his goal, he was finally ready for the certification exam. Unfortunately, as he took the physical portion of the exam, he learned that the severity of his colorblindness rendered him ineligible. He was forced to pursue other options and has since been very successful at much lower altitudes.
College of Business advisors here at Idaho State University, often tell this story to illustrate the realities of life in terms of career planning. Like the pilot in this true story, advisors suggest that many times college students can be short-sighted about their career goals. The career lifespan typically covers 40 years, but students will often only think about the first two or three. For those seeking their target pay and the ideal job right out of the gate, they remind students that they need to be realistic about their salary expectations and to see themselves in the context of their entire career. If the dream job isn't coming right away, be willing to take a less desirable job in order to gain the necessary experience for that dream job. Often, opportunities arise at career fairs hosted at universities but what if your dream company wasn’t there? Does that mean if was a good choice not to attend? Aspirations are good to have, but they may hold us captive if we are not careful. Life events, changing interests, and unforeseen opportunities will all weigh in at some point.
Take it from me: during the last year of my undergraduate degree, I spent at least ten hours a week defining my career aspirations by researching career options. I scoured websites, visited career centers, took personality and aptitude tests, read job postings, interviewed working professionals and even cold-called total strangers to figure out what they do and why they do it. In all of this searching, I believed that I was calculating for myself the ideal career path that would meet my financial needs, challenge me professionally and give me the perfect work-life balance. I was setting myself up for personal and social rewards ultimately leading to the coveted state of self-actualization.
The problem is, I was going about it the wrong way.
Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness is quick to point out the failed logic in what I was trying to do. He explains that because predictions about what we will enjoy in the future are based on the inputs of the present, we fail to incorporate for the variable of change. We mistakenly think that what we want now is what we will always want, and unfortunately there is no crystal ball to tell us how our circumstances and interests will change in the coming years.
Applied to the job search, it is great to have a "dream job" in mind, but there must be room for adapting the strategy to the circumstance. How many companies do you know that set a strategic vision only once and never evaluate their performance and adjust to capitalize on unrealized gains? If there are, they won't be around for long. Let me illustrate with an example from my own search for the dream job.
I was halfway through a year-long internship in the field of HR at my dream company. I felt like I had hit the jackpot: I was in a great job that utilized my skills, the work was challenging, my projects were impactful, and I felt that I personally was critical to the success of the business. I also had the support of world-class mentors and high-quality coworkers. I knew that the unicorn dream would soon come to an end, however, as my employer had expressed that although they would like to hire me into a full-time position after my internship, there were no positions available in that division. My best bet to stay with the company was to look into job postings of entry-level HR positions in other business units. As I did so, I was totally underwhelmed. The available jobs seemed uninteresting, unexciting, and unfulfilling. I looked at the job descriptions for the next level up, hoping to find something better. They were mildly interesting but required a master's degree.
Around this same time, I was strongly encouraged by an internal manager to apply for a technical position as a functional analyst. The manager was in a bind and quickly needed to hire someone of almost my exact experience working with PeopleSoft, the HR information system that we used. I thought about that prospect for a day but it clearly didn't align with my goals so I said no and went on my merry way down the yellow brick road.
That was the job I wish I had taken. Instead of considering it as a viable option, I reasoned that only further education would open up the jobs I truly wanted, so I quickly jumped into the search of HR graduate programs. I never stopped to consider why these HR job postings were not interesting to me. After all, I had completed a comprehensive career research overhaul less than a year ago, and all results led to HR. Not just an HR internship, but a career in HR all the way up the chain—from HR Intern to HR Associate, to HR Generalist to Specialist, Business Partner, Senior Business Partner, Director, Vice President, Chief Human Resource Officer. Why not then jump right up the ladder and get my graduate education going as soon as possible? I consequently applied to graduate school and ended up in New York as an HR Intern at Colgate-Palmolive before joining a master's program at Cornell University.
All the while, I had an itch inside that HR wasn't my main interest, but I couldn't put my finger on why. And now that I was halfway across the country in a prestigious program, it didn't make sense to my strategic outlay to quit while I was ahead. As recruiting season came, I patiently studied the list of HR openings posted by recruiters from Fortune 100 companies that would be coming to campus. Unfortunately nothing seemed to "wow" me as it did other people.
Eventually my dreams hit reality when I received job offers that would have been "perfect" according to my undergraduate projections: high pay, prestigious companies, promising career progression, high-impact work– and I felt sick at the thought of accepting any one of them. The job descriptions just didn't reflect the work that I truly wanted to be doing. I had worked myself into a corner by pursuing a strategy without revision, without being aware of how my interests had changed.
Well, my interests had changed. Over the space of just one year, the experience I gained during my first internship working in a global enterprise completely changed the way that I view business, the way that I view my skills and the way that I see business challenges. I became exposed to a new world of work by interacting with people whose job titles I had never heard of before. I was filled with curiosity at new problems and new questions. And these were all outside the realm of HR.
I eventually rejected the job offers, returned to Pocatello, and am rethinking my career goals and rebranding myself for a different market, a different industry, and a different career. Consequently, my interests have led me to seek a business analyst role very similar to the one that I was strongly encouraged to apply to a few years ago. Would I have been better off by taking the opportunity that fell into my lap instead of pursuing the dream that was eventually a dead end? I believe so.
This time as I evaluate my career projection, I am taking into account the fact that I can't plan for everything and that my interests will continue to change as I learn and experience new things. I'll also be open to taking chances for opportunities that come my way while working hard to gain the experiences that I need to grow a successful career.
Career planning is a major piece to your education. Idaho State University has numerous tools to help make that process easier. The Career Center features counselors and testing opportunities to help you figure out what career fits you best. The College of Business also has a uniquely designated Professional Development program meant to help guide business students through the career finding and securing process. Stay posted with the Professional Development program for upcoming workshops and career fairs as well.