Chapter 24: Career Paths

Lumen Learning; Linda Bruce Hill; and Linnea Spitzer

“I started my campaign out of a Trader Joe’s bag with a bunch of printed palm cards and an idea.” 

– Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Pursuing Your Professional Interests

One name that almost every household in America has heard of is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Even if you don’t live in the 14th district of New York, the area she represents, you have probably heard of her because of her outspoken politics and unlikely success story.  Ocasio-Cortez’s website (https://ocasio-cortez.house.gov/about/biography) describes her journey to politics in this way:

“Throughout her childhood, Representative Ocasio-Cortez split her time between the Bronx and Yorktown. While visiting her extended family in the Bronx, she saw a stark contrast in opportunities based on their respective zip codes.

After high school, Alexandria attended Boston University and graduated with degrees in Economics and International Relations. During this period she also had the opportunity to work in the office of the late Senator Ted Kennedy. Her role in Senator Kennedy’s office provided a firsthand view of the heartbreak families endured after being separated by ICE. These experiences led the Congresswoman to organize Latinx youth in the Bronx and across the United States, eventually, she began work as an Educational Director with the National Hispanic Institute, a role in which she helped Americans, DREAMers and undocumented youth in community leadership and college readiness.

Following the financial crisis of 2008, tragedy struck when her father, Sergio Ocasio-Roman, passed away, forcing her family to sell their Westchester home. Alexandria pulled extra shifts to work as a waitress and bartender to support her family during this time, deepening her commitment to issues impacting working-class people.

During the 2016 presidential election, she worked as a volunteer organizer for Bernie Sanders in the South Bronx, expanding her skills in electoral organizing and activism that has taken her across the country and to Standing Rock, South Dakota to stand with indigenous communities, then back to New York’s 14th Congressional District to launch her people-funded, grassroots campaign for Congress.”

In this section, we explore strategies that can help you chart your professional path and also attain ample reward. We begin by comparing and contrasting jobs and careers. We then look at how to match up your personal characteristics with a specific field or fields. We conclude by detailing a process for actually choosing your career. Throughout, you will find resources for learning more about this vast topic of planning for employment.

Job vs. Career

What is the difference between a job and a career? Do you plan to use college to help you seek one or the other?

There is no right or wrong answer, because motivations for being in college are so varied and different for each student, but you can take maximum advantage of your time in college if you develop a clear plan for what you want to accomplish. The table below shows some differences between a job and a career.

JOB CAREER
Definitions A job refers to the work a person performs for a living. It can also refer to a specific task done as part of the routine of one’s occupation. A person can begin a job by becoming an employee, or by volunteering, for example, by starting a business or becoming a parent. A career is an occupation (or series of jobs) that you undertake for a significant period of time in your life—perhaps five or ten years, or more. A career typically provides you with opportunities to advance your skills and positions.
Requirements A job you accept with an employer does not necessarily require special education or training. Sometimes you can get needed learning “on the job.” A career usually requires special learning—perhaps certification or a specific degree.
Risk-Taking A job may be considered a safe and stable means to get income, but jobs can also quickly change; security can come and go. A career can also have risk. In today’s world, employees need to continually learn new skills and to adapt to changes in order to stay employed. Starting your own business can have risks. Many people thrive on risk-taking, though, and may achieve higher gains. It all depends on your definition of success.
Duration The duration of a job may range from an hour (in the case of odd jobs, for example,) to a lifetime. Generally a “job” is shorter-term. A career is typically a long-term pursuit.
Income Jobs that are not career oriented may not pay as well as career-oriented positions. Jobs often pay an hourly wage. Career-oriented jobs generally offer an annual salary versus a wage. Career-oriented jobs may also offer appealing benefits, like health insurance and retirement.
Satisfaction and contributing to society Many jobs are important to society, but some may not bring high levels of personal satisfaction. Careers allow you to invest time and energy in honing your crafts and experiencing personal satisfaction. Career pursuits may include making contributions to society.

In summary, a job lets you enjoy at least a minimal level of financial security, and it requires you to show up and do what is required of you. In exchange, you get paid.

A career, on the other hand, is more of a means of achieving personal fulfillment through the jobs you hold. In a career, your jobs tend to follow a sequence that leads to increasing mastery, professional development, and personal and financial satisfaction. A career requires planning, knowledge, and skills, too. If it is to be a fulfilling career, it requires that you bring into play your full set of analytical, critical, and creative thinking skills. You will be called upon in a career to make informed decisions that will affect your life in both the short term and the long term. A career also lets you express your unique personality traits, skills, values, and interests.

Whether you pursue individual jobs or an extended career or both, your time with your employers will always be comprised of your individual journey. May your journey be as enjoyable and fulfilling as possible.

Video: Your Career

The Five-Step Process for Choosing Your Career

As your thoughts about career expand, keep in mind that over the course of your life, you will probably spend a lot of time at work—thousands of hours, in fact. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average workday is about 8.7 hours long, and this means that if you work 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, for 35 years, you will spend a total of 76,125 hours of your life at work. These numbers should convince you that it’s pretty important to enjoy your career.

If you do pursue a career, you’ll find yourself making many decisions about it. Is this the right career for me? Am I feeling fulfilled and challenged? Does this career enable me to have the lifestyle I desire? It’s important to consider these questions now, whether you’re just graduating from high school or college, or you’re returning to school after working for a while.

Choosing a career—any career—is a unique process for everyone, and for many people the task is daunting. There are so many different occupations to choose from. How do you navigate this complex world of work?

The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office has identified a five-step decision process that will make your career path a little easier to find. Below are the steps:

  1. Get to know yourself
  2. Get to know your field
  3. Prioritize your “deal makers” and rule out your “deal breakers”
  4. Make a preliminary career decision and create a plan of action
  5. Go out and achieve your career goal

Step 1: Get to Know Yourself

Get to know yourself and the things you’re truly passionate about.

  • Gather information about your career-related interests and values
  • Think about what skills and abilities come naturally to you and which ones you want to develop
  • Consider your personality type and how you want it to reflect in your work

Before moving on to Step 2, you may wish to review the online surveys in the Personal Identity module, especially the Student Interest Survey for Career Clusters, which is available in both English and Spanish. The career center at your college or university might also offer tests that match your personality with possible careers. Make an appointment at your career center to see if they offer these services! All these kinds of tests cancan help you align career interests with personal qualities, traits, life values, skills, activities, and ambitions.

Ultimately, your knowledge of yourself is the root of all good decision-making and will guide you in productive directions.

Step 2: Get to Know Your Field

Get to know your field. You’ll want to investigate the career paths available to you. You should also see what services your college Career Center offers to help you find a good career. You could also start conducting informational interviews to find out more about your field.

Watch this video on informational interviewing to learn more about how this strategy:

Step 3: Prioritize Your Deal Makers

Whether you pursue individual jobs or an extended career or both, your time with your employers will always be comprised of your individual journey. May your journey be as enjoyable and fulfilling as possible.

Prioritize your deal makers and rule out your deal breakers. Educational requirements aren’t the only criteria that you will want to consider. Do you want to work outside or in an office? In the country or a city? In a big or small organization? For a public organization or a private company? What type of industry is interesting to you? What role do you see yourself playing in the organization? Do you want to be your own boss?

Step 4: Make a Preliminary Career Decision

Make a preliminary (or first) career decision and create a plan of action. It is not set in stone and you may have multiple careers in your lifetime, but everything starts with that preliminary career decision and plan of action. As a student matures and gains experience, more career opportunities will present themselves.

Now that you have an idea of who you are and where you might find a satisfying career, how do you start taking action to get there? Some people talk to family, friends, or instructors in their chosen disciplines. Others have mentors in their lives with whom to discuss this decision. Your college has career counselors and academic advisers who can help you with both career decision-making and the educational planning process. Nevertheless, be advised: You’ll get the most from sessions with your counselor if you have done some work on your own.

“Find a career that you love and you will never work another day in your life.”

– Barbara Sher

 Step 5: Go out and Achieve Your Career Goal

Go out and achieve your (initial) career goal! Now it’s time to take concrete steps toward achieving your educational and career goals. This may be as simple as creating a preliminary educational plan for next semester or a comprehensive educational plan that maps out the degree you are currently working toward. You may also want to look for internships, part-time work, or volunteer opportunities that help you test and confirm you preliminary career choice. Your college counselor can help you with this step, as well.

Your work experiences and life circumstances will undoubtedly change throughout the course of your professional life, so you may need to go back and reassess where you are on this path in the future. However, no matter if you feel like you were born knowing what you want to do professionally, or you feel totally unsure about what the future holds for you, remember that with careful consideration, resolve, and strategic thought, you can find a career that feels rewarding.

This isn’t necessarily an easy process, but you’ll find that your goals are more tangible once you’ve set a preliminary career goal. Don’t forget: There is always support for you. Ask for help from family, friends, co-workers, mentors, and available support services at your university. Very often, college career centers offer free counseling for alumni, even years after students have graduated. .

The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the average worker currently holds 12 different jobs before their mid-50s [1][1] This number is projected to grow. While many people changed jobs most frequently before they were 24, they still averaged 2 job changes between their 40s-50s [1]. What jobs are in store for you? Will your work be part of a fulfilling career? What exciting prospects are on your horizon?

What jobs are in store for you? Will your work be part of a fulfilling career? What exciting prospects are on your horizon?

Licenses and Attributions:

All rights reserved content:

  • “Your Career.” YouTube.com, uploaded by Centennial College. 2018. Located at: https://youtu.be/K2mP36DoekA. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.
  • “Informational Interviewing.” YouTube.com, uploaded by GCFLearnFree.org. 2018. Located at: https://youtu.be/Y62E_f3p_e8. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.

Lumen Learning authored content:

Adaptions: Relocated learning objectives. Removed image of outdoor information fair. October 2021: Removed three videos. Added two different videos. Removed story about Steve Jobs and replaced it with story about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez


  1. "NUMBER OF JOBS, LABOR MARKET EXPERIENCE, MARITAL STATUS, AND HEALTH: RESULTS FROM A NATIONAL LONGITUDINAL SURVEY." 2021. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/nlsoy.pdf

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Blueprint for Success in College and Career by Lumen Learning; Linda Bruce Hill; and Linnea Spitzer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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