Plenty of people don’t know how they’d like their careers to map out. Maybe you’re one of them: you don’t know what to do with your life, so you’re considering grad school. If this is the case, applying to grad school is among the last things you should do. A graduate education can be an invaluable tool to help you accomplish what you want to do with your life, but it will not resolve any confusion or uncertainty about your career or life’s purpose.
The first and most important thing to do is to figure out what you do want to do. Luckily, you’re in a good place to start that exploration for nonprofit and public service careers. Idealist.org offers many resources to help you determine what it is that you enjoy, are passionate about, and do well.
Some great ways to begin the process of self-discovery include:
Self-assessment and research
Figuring out what you want to do with your life can be daunting. You may find that you prefer assistance from a career counselor to help guide you through the process. If you are in school or have access to a local community college or state university, professional assistance may be available for free or very affordably. Some career counselors and organizations that provide career counseling services have posted profiles on idealist.org.
If you are unable to afford professional career guidance, there are many things you can do by yourself. Most career counselors will start you off with self-assessment tests, of which the two most common are the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Strong Interest Inventory. You can pay a fee to take either of these online.
The Idealist Careers resource page contains a variety of exercises and activities that can help you focus in on positions and fields that you’re passionate about. Another highly recommended resource is the book, “What Color is Your Parachute?”.
Once you have taken these tests or read some books or worked with a career counselor to narrow down your possible fields of interest, you’ll be better prepared to take advantage of our own resource, the Idealist Nonprofit Career Center.
Explore your options
There are so many ways to consider which career field is right for you. Job boards can be a great, introductory tool for getting a feel for what’s out there. Some industries have sites that list positions specific to that field, so if you have an idea of the area you’d like to work in, ask around to discover which sites employers use to post openings that might interest you. For example, aspiring writers can find relevant openings on Media Bistro or JournalismJobs.
If you have no clue as to what kind of job might be right for you, you’re better off exploring the general listing sites like:
By simply searching keywords that relate to your interests, whether those are “music” or “web design” or “French,” you’ll get an idea of the kinds of positions that exist in areas in which you have some experience. Maybe you never thought there could be a way to combine your passion for music with your interest in working with kids or people in low-income areas.
Don’t forget to get offline and do some soul-searching by talking to people in real life. If you have family members with interesting careers, if you know an acquaintance who posted about an intriguing professional experience on social media, invite that person to grab a cup of coffee. Ask them how they chose the path they ended up pursuing. It can be a more formal informational interview, or it can take a more casual tone. Either way, try to come away from the conversation with one concrete piece of advice you can apply to your own life.
Volunteering and interning
Giving your time and energy as a volunteer or intern not only helps the organization you are with but can also help build your skills, resume, and networks in the organization, field, or community that interests you. Moreover, these positions offer you a chance—with minimal commitment—to “test-drive” (determine what you enjoy about) a particular position and organization and can help you clarify your own job search and career path. Although volunteer positions and some internships are unpaid, the self-knowledge, hands-on-learning, and connections you gain can be invaluable.
Much like volunteering and interning, working can provide you the valuable opportunity to learn more about yourself—plus you’ll be earning money! (If you haven’t read it already, see the discussion above about difficulties in the job hunt.)
Even in a less than ideal position, working will provide its own learning and growth opportunities and help shape your career interests, potentially changing your graduate education considerations down the road.
Additionally, there are options between volunteering and working in terms of pay and time commitment. A few include Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and the Fulbright fellowship. Their program structure, application requirements, and objectives vary widely but they all provide an opportunity to further explore your personal and professional interests with some financial and institutional support.
For example, AmeriCorps is a one-year term of service with a modest living stipend and great hands-on learning in the nonprofit and public service sectors. Peace Corps is a two-year program spent assisting communities outside of the United States. The Fulbright allows you to teach or research a topic of interest for a year in another country.