Should I pursue my dream career?

When deciding on career options, there’s often a ‘push-pull’ between the ‘push’ of wanting to pursue a ‘dream’ career, and the ‘pull’ caused by fear it isn’t achievable. This can be complicated by worries that regardless of ability, having a disability could be a barrier to achieving an aspiration. Below are some suggestions to help with this decision.

Identifying if your dream career is a good fit

Before pursuing a career path, how do you know if you’re focusing your energy in the right direction? You might want to consider the following:

  1. It seems intuitive that a job that ‘fits’ your personality and interests will make you happy. However, empirical evidence shows moving from something you’re reasonably interested in to something you’re very interested in only marginally improves your job satisfaction. (Yates 2010: 48-49)
  2. As human beings, we’re not very good at predicting what will make us happy in future jobs.
  3. People change over time, including what they are interested in.
  4. Jobs evolve over time. For example technology has replaced some of the numerical work that accountants have traditionally done and instead customer-relationship building skills are more important.

All of this may make it seem like making effective career decisions is almost impossible, but giving a little thought to the sections below can help greatly.

Part 1 – Understand your motivations

A lot of our decisions are made emotionally using mental shortcuts and then justified rationally in our brains afterwards, so it’s important to understand what is ‘driving’ your decisions.

Subtly changing ‘what job do I want to do?’ to ‘what do I want from a job?’ is a good place to start. Think of your ‘dream’ job. What do you hope to get from doing this, i.e. how would it make your life better than if you got a different job? Make a list of all the things that come to mind.

From your list, look at anything you can ‘have’ or ‘do’ (e.g. money, travel) and ask ‘what would that give you?’ (e.g. freedom, making an impact, love/respect, fun). If you have a long list, consider prioritising it by which are most important. What have you learnt about yourself? How does this affect your career choices?

For example, many students I work with want a job that ‘makes a difference’, even if they’re not initially sure exactly what job they want. Other people want a job that earns a lot of money because it gives them a feeling of recognition.

Be aware of ‘conditional’ thinking, such as ‘if I get this job, I will be a success, but if I don’t I’ll be a failure’ or ‘people will like me more’. If you feel this is something you need help with, speak to your student services department.

Part 2 – Your career is not in a vacuum

The next step is to consider your career in the context of other people and extend the question ‘what do I want from a job’ to ‘what people do I want to help solve which problems using which skills?’ In other words, thinking of your dream career focuses on you, but to do well in the labour market it’s important to focus on what you can offer the world. Work that you are good at and makes a difference are also two key factors in job satisfaction and achievement.

  • ‘People’ can include customers, service users, colleagues and so on.
  • ‘Problems’ includes anything that is the focus of a job, e.g. helping people find the right product for their needs or helping people be happy.
  • ‘Skills’ are what you are good at and what you could potentially become good at, and most are transferable between jobs.

For example, someone exploring roles in education outside of teaching could say ‘I want to help young people to achieve more in their lives through using my research and presentation skills’ or an art student ‘I want to give people a thought-provoking, uplifting experience to make their lives richer using my fine art skills’.

Don’t worry if you can’t answer all three of these, start with what you can answer for now.

Job satisfaction

The following factors also greatly influence job satisfaction. Think about how they relate to you. Below are some prompts to help get started.

Factor What does it mean to me?
Variety of work tasks E.g. what would I like variety in and what things would I like to do consistently? For example, as an artist using the same skills but working on commissions for different types of clients.
Good colleagues E.g. What sort of people do I want to work with?
Working conditions E.g. working environment, travel/commute, location, hours, organisation structure/culture.
Workload E.g. time pressure, deadlines, amount of work.
Autonomy E.g. how much responsibility/accountability do you want for work, and how much freedom to complete tasks
Educational Opportunities E.g. how far do I want to go in my career? What jobs will give me the opportunity to develop the skills and experience needed to do this?
No major negative factors E.g. How do I want my job to fit in with the rest of my life? Are there any other significant factors for me personally that I need to consider?

While your disability(s) may influence your answers to this activity, try to focus on your strengths and what works well for you rather than any perceived disadvantages. Remember that employers are obligated to consider reasonable adjustments for disabled employees, and Access to Work may cover additional assistance beyond these.

Part 4 – Labour Market Information (LMI)

LMI is the latest information about the economy and employment. Researching current and projected employment trends is a starting point for researching how many job opportunities there potentially will be in different areas. For example, in the UK there are a shortage of engineers, meaning there are more jobs; whereas the majority of paid art therapist jobs are within the NHS which is possibly unlikely to receive funding for lots of new vacancies in this area.

Websites such as Prospects and Targetjobs have sector and job profiles that are a good place to start.

LMI can also tell you more about what skills are needed now and potentially in the near future. From this you can make some educated guesses about how jobs will evolve and where you can focus your professional development. Consider how this influences your opinions on career options, e.g. is a job you’re interested in going to possibly involve skills you would not like to use?

Part 5 – Research

If you have decided to explore other options but are unsure where to start, reading job profiles (as per above) can help. You can also conduct informational interviews with people who work in different roles to find out more details about jobs. Your careers service can help you with this.

Making a plan

Once you are clearer on options, the next step is to create an action plan and see how realistic it is to achieve your aspirations:

  1. Listing the actions needed to get into your career, including developing skills and professional contacts. How realistically achievable do you feel this every step of plan is? Why (or why not)?
  2. What skills are required in my chosen career(s) now and in the future? Job profiles can help here. Are these skills you can develop and would like to use?
  3. What other concerns or worries do you have about trying to achieve your ‘dream’ career?
  4. What resources do you have to help you achieve your aspirations, including addressing the above concerns/worries? This includes university careers and disability services, friends/family to offer moral support and a listening ear, specific reasonable adjustments, Access to Work and so on.
  5. Is there anything you can do now to find out more about my choices, such as work shadowing or informational interviewing?
  6. What are your thoughts now on career options? Why?

 Final thoughts

Don’t put pressure on yourself to find one ‘true’ job that will make you happy for the rest of your working life. It’s obviously great if you achieve a career aspiration that you’ve always wanted, but it’s fine if you don’t – it doesn’t change your ‘worth’ as a person. By focusing on who you want to help with which problems using which skills you’ll have a good understanding of where you’ll do well in the workplace, have more job satisfaction and be more aware of suitable opportunities as they arise.

Regardless of what you decide to do, investing in yourself early in your career through developing skills, confidence, professional contacts and will put you in a better position for the future, even if you completely change industries. Remember that it’s normal to change jobs throughout your career. Even if you start a job that you don’t like and decide to leave the experience is never wasted as you’ll learn more about yourself and have gained skills that can be transferred to other jobs. Generally, prospective employers won’t think negatively of you for changing jobs early on.

Finally, your university careers and disability services should be able to assist you with every stage of choosing, applying for and starting suitable employment.

– Christian Jameson-Warren


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