Written by Naomi (she/her), student
Deciding on a career can be daunting, but we have plenty of experience guiding students through the process. Learn how to choose the right career for you.
High school graduation is around the corner, and it’s time to make the ultimate decision of choosing a career path. You’re undecided, and everyone around you seems to know exactly what they want to do. It’s almost time to apply to university, but you’re not even sure about what direction you want to take your education.
Don’t stress! Current university student here: I can help you out.
Let’s get one thing straight – your entire life doesn’t have to be figured out before you turn 18. Deciding what you want to do for the rest of your life can be nerve-racking and putting unrealistic expectations on yourself will only stress you out. Take it step-by-step. You don’t need a 10-year plan, but it’s good to get a head start and to begin thinking about these things.
Finding the right career path for you
We’re looking for the right career path for you. What constitutes an amazing job to someone else could sound like a nightmare to you, and your dream job might not be someone else's cup of tea.
First things first – drown out those other opinions and focus on yourself. You don’t have to follow in your dad’s footsteps, you don’t have to become a doctor because your grandma said it’s the only way to be successful, and you don’t have to build your career path solely to outshine your older siblings.
At the end of the day, it's your life, and the only person directly affected by the decisions you make is you.
So, how do you narrow it down? There are three main things to focus on: passion, success, and expectations.
Pinpoint your passion
I don’t know about you, but I hate the cliché “What are your top strengths and weaknesses?” interview question. Nonetheless, we’ll be using that question as our guiding point.
You don’t want to end up doing something you hate, so you have to find out what works for you. What are you good at? What’s your best subject in school? What do you absolutely never want to do again? Basically, what are your strengths and weaknesses?
These are all questions that will kick-start the process of narrowing down what career is best for you. Take time to explore your interests and values and think about your strongest qualities. Then, write it all down, and figure out what jobs align with those. If you love crunching numbers and you aced your math classes, try looking into financial jobs. If you’ve always been into marketing and selling, consider a career in business. Self-reflection and research are necessary steps in this journey because they’ll ensure you end up doing something that you’re passionate about.
Visualize your success
Everyone’s definition of success is different – what does it mean to you? It could be securing a job with a great pension so you can retire early. Maybe success for you is a job where you get great benefits and lots of paid vacation time, or a job with international work so you get to travel. It could mean working flexible hours, so you can create your own schedule and spend lots of time with your family and friends. Do some research to see what’s out there! You can look at websites that offer insight into different careers, like Glassdoor, which allows employees to review companies. Internships are also a great way to gain first-hand experience and learn more about an industry. Figure out what your version of success looks like, and then figure out what jobs can give you what you’re looking for.
Doing informational interviews with people who are currently working the jobs you’re interested in can also be helpful, and LinkedIn is a good place to look for professionals. Let’s be real – people love talking about themselves! Take advantage of that while simultaneously learning something and immersing yourself in what could be your future careers’ environment.
Examine the expectations
So, you’ve done some self-reflection and looked into the types of jobs that exist for someone with your passions. Now it’s time to figure out what you can expect in those workplaces, and whether that career aligns with the lifestyle you want for yourself.
Figure out the amount of time that goes into getting that career, and the type of environment you’d be in. Not all companies operate the exact same, but there are still common aspects about jobs that could make or break it for you.
Do you want to work in a 9 - 5 office setting? Or would you rather stick to mainly remote jobs so you can wear pyjama pants all day? Do you have to travel or move a lot for this job? What do the hours look like, how flexible is the industry, and is it easy to move around and climb up the corporate ladder, or do you need 10 years of experience before you’re respected by your colleagues? Asking yourself these questions will help you determine whether or not the careers you’re interested in are worth it for you.
Is university worth it?
Once you’ve figured out what you like and if it works for you, it’s time to narrow down exactly how you can get into that field, and if you have to go to school for it. Keep in mind that while post-secondary education isn’t always required, 80% of top jobs require a university degree.
I know what you’re thinking: after going to elementary school and high school, I’m expected to go back to school again, but this time pay thousands of dollars for it? Yeah, it sounds like a rip off, but hear me out.
Currently, Canadian students enrolled in full-time undergraduate programs pay, on average, $6,693 in tuition. Although that might sound like a lot, it pays off in a few years.
While high school graduates earn an average of $38,792 annually, the average undergraduate in Canada earns $53,630 annually, with entry-level positions starting at $39,337. More often than not, higher education equals higher earnings. Lawyers might have to do three years of intense law school, but their average starting salary is $70,000.
If you do decide to attend university, consider doing co-op. It’s one of the biggest perks and best ways to test-drive your career path. With co-op, you get hands-on experience in your fields of interest, which can help you hone in on what you like doing before you’re even finished school. Waterloo students typically earn between $8,400 to $15,000 during their first work term. Plus, seeing as how 92% of Waterloo’s co-op grads are hired six months after they graduate, you could be earning $40,000+ in your early 20’s.
More schooling after high school might not be the most appealing thing in the world to everyone, and that’s completely okay. Weigh out the pros and cons, identify your goals, and find out if you need more schooling to get to where you want to be.
Careers in demand
Let’s face it – it would suck if you spent time figuring out what jobs you like only to realize that the choices left on your dwindling list were dying career options. It’s worth looking into how in-demand your area of interest is, and what careers might be the most popular in the future.
If you look at the top in-demand jobs for the next decade, careers in health, environment, and technology will be the most popular. This ranges from registered nurses, to software developers, to home health aides, to solar photovoltaic installers. Teachers, financial managers, and physicians are also at the top of the list. Plus, there’s jobs out there that don’t even exist yet. Think of the careers and fields that are bound to expand soon! Just do your research so you’re not out of the loop.
I’ll say it again: your idea of a dream job can be completely different from your friends’ idea of a dream job.
There are plenty of fish in the sea
Yes, we’re back to the clichés, but bear with me. If I tell you to name five occupations, odds are you’ll name one of the few I’ve already mentioned so far – doctors, lawyers, teachers – that’s simply because those are the most talked about. If you're genuinely interested in being a doctor, lawyer, or teacher, go for it! But if these careers aren't of genuine interest to you, there are tons of other options you could explore.
The truth is, there are thousands of jobs, which means there’s one out there that’s suited just for you. You don’t have to pick a “mainstream” career if you don’t want to, especially one that requires you to be surrounded by people all day if you’re someone that’s more introverted. It’s okay to stray from what other people might like – if you hate group projects and the idea of daily socialization from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. makes your skin crawl, then don’t worry, because there are lots of careers out there that don't revolve around these things.
Architects and accountants are examples of occupations that involve lots of independent work. Although architects and accountants meet with clients as part of their job, most of their work is done on their own. There are also quite a few jobs that many employers offer as remote work positions, including jobs like application developers, content managers, graphic designers, or editors. There’s even flexible schedule jobs that don’t require you to work the standard 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Flexible schedule jobs can range anywhere from social media-based jobs to fitness-related jobs, to jobs like a translator, or a photographer.
It doesn’t matter what your personality type is, whether you’re an introvert, an independent worker, or a free spirit who doesn’t follow the societal norm. Bottom line is: there’s something out there for everyone.
If you're still undecided
So, you’ve gone through all the steps, and you’re still absolutely clueless.
Deep breath! I’m here to help, not to stress you out.
Not having a current or future plan doesn’t mean you can’t still build your resume and your character. Take time to learn about your values and develop your soft skills. These are the things that will truly help you succeed in life. You might have the periodic table memorized and know the value of Pi like the back of your hand, but if you throw a tantrum when you receive constructive criticism from your boss, you might find it hard to navigate your future workplace.
Skills like successful communication, collaboration, critical thinking, time management, adaptability; strengthening these will benefit you in the long run. These are skills we’ve all picked up over the years, through working with peers in the classroom, or volunteering, or balancing academics and extracurriculars. Luckily, these are skills that can continue to be improved all the time. You can take specialized courses for the things you really want to work on, or you can do something as simple as trying out a new hobby to get yourself comfortable with change.
Figure out what’s important to you and what you want to work on, then do what you can to become the best possible version of yourself.
Your life, your rules
Like I said, no one’s affected more by your decisions than yourself. Go at your own pace and figure out what it is you want to do. Creating suffocating deadlines for yourself won’t help you. I know people who have taken gap years to travel before going to university and said it was the best choice they ever made, and I know people who did back-to-back schooling and are happy and stable.
I also know it can be scary – I was in the same boat myself just one year ago. I also spent months agonizing over the career path I wanted and did hours of research. Now, I’m happily studying my major and working jobs relevant to my future career. Even if I change my mind in a few years, I know that my degree provides me with the foundation that I need to continue thriving and achieve my version of success. There’s no one way to start your journey, and people arrive at their field of interest via different, unique paths. Your distinctive background, skills, and experiences are the tools that will ultimately lead you to success.
It might not always be the easiest process. Sometimes, you go through all the steps, only to realize you need a little more time to work your way through them. Sometimes, you backtrack and have to start again at square one. That’s completely okay. Big decisions take time, especially if you want to do it right. The work you put into this choice is going to pay off in the long run, trust me. Regardless of where you are in your decision-making process, you’re going to figure it out and pick the right career for you.