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When it comes to careers, we tend to pay attention to what’s right in front of us. And for most graduate students, that means academe. In graduate school, you are surrounded by other graduate students and faculty using similar kinds of skills to engage in similar kinds of tasks with similar kinds of goals. Immersed in all that similarity, it can be difficult to imagine or examine alternatives.

So how do you actually do that? How do you explore jobs that no one you know works in, jobs that you maybe haven’t even heard of yet?

My colleagues and I in the Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign developed a method for doing just that, to provide graduate students with an easy way to identify and explore new career possibilities. We have used this method with groups of humanities Ph.D. students and with individual graduate students in fields as varied as human development and family studies, environmental engineering, psychology and mathematics.

We often have students begin with this sample job ad for a nonprofit consulting position, and I recommend you do the same. Throughout this essay, I will refer to parts of this ad in order to further illustrate the process and help you use it. I also suggest that you take the following steps.

Figure out what matters to you. It doesn’t do you much good to start looking at potential jobs or career paths if you aren’t equipped to evaluate whether they would make you happy or satisfy your needs. So start by doing some formal or informal self-assessment, identifying your core values or even just sitting down with a notebook to free write about what you like to do and what you want out of a career.

As you move forward and start engaging with job ads, you will continue to refine this understanding of your needs and values, so nothing needs to be concrete or fully fleshed out at this point.

Reframe your relationship to job ads. Most of your interaction with job ads so far has probably been in a job search context. As a result, you probably tend to approach them by asking questions like “Am I qualified for this job?” or “Am I interested in this particular job right now?” Those are great questions for a job search, but they are barriers to creative career exploration. They keep you tied to the specifics of a certain job or certain workplace and discourage broader thinking. In particular, try not to fixate on the educational requirements of the job. If you limit your exploration to only jobs that require a Ph.D., you are closing off interesting and fruitful avenues for discovery.

Imagine yourself in the job. In order to learn as much as you can from ads, you need to open yourself up and engage your imagination. As you read the job ad, try to immerse yourself in it. At this stage, try not to get too caught up in analyzing how you feel about it.

Instead, start by picturing yourself doing each of the tasks described in the job ad (from the sample ad: “conduct quantitative and qualitative research,” “analyze data and draft clear and compelling presentations,” “work as part of a diverse team” and so on). Now picture yourself using each of the skills mentioned in the ad (“analytical skills to assess large volumes of qualitative and quantitative data,” “verbal and written communication skills,” “project management and organization skills,” “humility”). Then picture yourself pursuing the goals of that organization and working to advance its mission (note that if the job ad is somewhat vague, you may need to poke around the employer’s website to get a clearer picture).

This step can be particularly challenging for graduate students who are just starting to consider career possibilities beyond the professoriate. Imagining other possibilities in concrete and specific ways can be difficult and disorienting but also incredibly productive. Lean into the unfamiliarity -- and avoid responding negatively just because it’s unfamiliar -- to see where it takes you.

Ask yourself, what do you like? Now that you have imagined yourself doing the job, the next step is to figure out how you feel about it. Start with a broad reaction to the job as a whole. Do you like the idea of doing this job? But don’t stop there. Instead, break down and assess different aspects of the job, which allows you to learn specific details about your career preferences.

Here are some categories to think about, with notes about how graduate students have reacted to the sample job ad as a model.

  • Tasks and Skills: Some students reading the sample ad love that the job seems to involve more human interaction than they get currently in graduate school. Others really like the idea of analyzing both qualitative and quantitative data. Ask yourself: Do you enjoy using the skills this job requires? Are you drawn to the variety of tasks, the level of interaction, the challenging problems, the collaboration, the opportunities for leadership or some other aspect of the job?
  • Values and Mission: Many students like the idea of helping nonprofit organizations, and some find the emphasis on building shared bodies of knowledge appealing. Ask yourself: Would a job like this let you make the kind of contribution you want to make? To what extent does it align with your core values?
  • Organization and Sector: For some students, the requirements of “humility to recognize that we are learning all the time” and “hunger to use challenges as opportunities” are particularly attractive, because they align with their reasons for pursuing graduate education in the first place. Ask yourself: Would you like using your skills on this kind of content every day? What about in this kind of context? Would you feel motivated to achieve the goals of an organization of this type? Is there something about this particular organization that excites or interests you?

Ask yourself, what do you dislike? While many students love how much the associate consultant in the job ad works with people, some are also put off by the heavy levels of interaction. Others may feel somewhat skeptical about the idea of “human capital management” or find the humility requirement peculiar or off-putting.

These reactions are just as useful as positive ones. Review the tasks, mission and organization, and learn from what you find challenging or concerning. Think through what this tells you about yourself and what you want out of a career.

What’s Next?

Now you need to expand your career exploration beyond this single job ad. The guiding question for your next step is this: What are some other potential careers with more of what I like and less of what I don’t?

To answer this question, identify keywords in the job ad that relate to aspects of the job you like (“quantitative and qualitative research,” “project management,” “political navigation,” “leadership development”). Then go to a job board like Inside Higher Ed’s, plug in some of your keywords, and see what happens.

Fair warning: this may be overwhelming and frustrating at first. As happens at the beginning of any research project, you’ll probably end up sorting through a significant number of job postings that don’t seem very relevant. Approach this like doing a literature review. You’re beginning to identify how some people in a subfield talk about something and using databases to find others in that subfield. And just as you would with a database of journal articles, try different combinations of keywords and continue to refine your search terms. Once you find another ad that seems interesting in some way (remember, you don’t have to want this particular job right this second), start the process over again.

Career exploration is an iterative process of development and insight. In order to learn as much as you can from your engagement with job ads, you need to record and reflect on your responses. Create a document where you can take notes about how your thinking about potential careers is shifting, as well as copy and paste aspects of job ads you find appealing. Later on, you can revisit this document and look for patterns, gaining more insight into what you want out of a career and helping you propel your exploration forward.

Job ads are, of course, not the end of the line. Your goal in using job ads for career exploration is to identify job types, sectors or organizations that interest you. But you’ll never learn enough from a job ad alone to know if a particular job would let you build the career you want, or if you would find that career fulfilling. For that, you’ll need to talk to people. Conduct some informational interviews with people in jobs similar to those you have found appealing. Ask them questions that help you understand that kind of job or that kind of organization.

Once you have gone through this process -- from self-assessment to job ad to reflection to further research--a few times, you will have a richer, more expansive and clearer sense of what kinds of careers may be in your future. Also, once you start an active job search, you will also be better prepared to communicate with employers about your skills and potential contributions.

And through it all, just remember: approach job ads not with skepticism and trepidation but with curiosity and an open mind.

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