No matter what your personality type, a career search is a big deal, whether you’re planning a professional career or just looking for a job. This article can help you learn about various careers from a uniquely informative source – people already in them.
Real-world experience is often the missing piece to a puzzle composed of hopes, ideas, assumptions, and conceptual discussions about potential careers. Grounding your thoughts with some hands-on exposure is very wise. Seeing the everyday realities of a job can help you solidify or revise your career goals.
To that end, you can approach people in jobs that you are considering. See what they can tell you – or maybe even show you. It’s amazing what doors will open when you offer people your attentive interest. Who knows, you may get more than a chat – a solid professional contact could become an ongoing mentor or even lead to an internship.
These exercises might seem long, but the core concepts and methods are pretty simple. We’ve just mixed in lots of ideas to help inspire your efforts.
Exercise #1: Meet a Professional
This is an active, real-world exercise in social interaction and inquiry. The goal is to learn about a career from the inside by interviewing or maybe even job shadowing someone in the field. Here are some basic steps to follow.
If you have an individual in mind, speak with them directly. If you’re interested in an organization, talk to its public-facing personnel. If possible, make your inquiries in person (which makes it much harder for them to say no). Also, bring materials to take notes, just in case you get a spontaneous chance to briefly interview someone.
It’s often the job of front-desk folks to shield other employees from the public. But unless your intended career is a front-desk position, you’ll need to push for contact with someone deeper in the organization.
This is a great time to practice your professional networking skills, so it wouldn’t hurt to read up on that first, especially if you’re not a naturally outgoing personality. Here’s a cool article on networking for Introverts and some general networking tips. Embrace the basics, at least: good dress and grooming, eye contact, and friendly conversation.
It’s also important to use your best communication abilities, with an emphasis on clarity and brevity. You must convey three things quickly: who you are, what you want, and that you are very courteous.
Here are some ideas for this (that you can customize):
- Describe who you are. “Hi, my name is ___. I (am a friend of Jim Smith’s; am a local student at___; think we met at that art show last week; work across the street; etc.).” In a few words, put yourself in a context they will understand.
- Explain why you are talking to them. “…and I am considering (a career in ___; becoming a ___; making a career change into your field; etc.).” Make it obvious that you’re talking about their profession.
- Show complementary interest. “You seem (to be an accomplished ___; to know what you’re doing; to like your job; etc.), and I’d be grateful if you’d be willing to share a little of your experience with me sometime.”
- Example. Altogether, those steps might look something like, “Hi, my name is Sam. I’m considering medical school, and since you’re an experienced doctor, I was wondering if you’d be willing to meet sometime to share your insight into the profession? I’d really appreciate hearing your wisdom and advice.”
Be friendly and engaging, but strictly professional. It’s good to make it clear you are interested solely in work matters.
Give people a moment to digest anything you’ve asked. Politely listen to their response before proceeding. Be persistent and friendly, but don’t expect them to agree immediately or to be able to talk right at that moment. Some helpful phrases you might keep in mind are:
- “I really appreciate whatever time you can spare.”
- “I can work within your schedule.”
- “I can meet you wherever is convenient for you.”
- “If you’re too busy to meet, would you possibly have time for a phone call?”
Your request can also include a respectful, genuine personal appeal, something like:
- “I know you don’t know me, but your guidance and perspective could make a big difference in my life. I’m trying to make good decisions about my future.”
And you can also shoot for the biggie if they seem receptive:
- “Is there any way I could shadow you at your job for a day, or even a few hours, to see what it’s like?”
A common reason given for not allowing nonemployees to job shadow is “liability.” This may be a genuine restriction, or it may simply be a convenient excuse.
Be warm, sincere, and maybe just a little bit cheerfully pesky. Many people (especially routine-oriented personality types) take a while to accept something unexpected. So, while ultimately you must respectfully take no for an answer, you don’t always have to do so immediately.
And you’ll probably hear no plenty of times. Don’t worry, just pick a new place or person and keep trying. Optimistic persistence is your friend. If someone agrees to be interviewed, immediately set up a time and a place.
Do the thing.
Here are some helpful ideas you can use for conducting the interview:
- Write a few questions in advance. Base them on your hopes and concerns about the specific career.
- Be professional. For goodness’ sake, dress nicely and stick to the agreed time frame, unless they offer you more time.
- Focus. Put away your phone and take notes on paper, so it’s clear you’re giving them your full attention.
- Ask, listen, and learn. Make more inquiries than comments and don’t do more than half the talking.
- Stay open-minded. Things may not be what you expected. Objectively record what’s said, even if it’s not what you wanted to hear.
- Be grateful. Offer profuse and sincere thanks, not just at the end, but once or twice during the conversation. (“Thanks again for doing this – I’m learning a lot!”)
If you manage to get the opportunity to shadow a professional in their work environment, all of the above steps apply, and a couple more:
- Clarify expectations. Be respectful of their time and work obligations. Ask what your level of involvement will be – when you should quietly observe, talk, or even participate. Ask questions, but try not to distract or interrupt them.
- Observe interactions. Note how the person relates to others on the job. This can show you important social aspects of their work. Try to determine whether what you observe is potentially universal to that career, or specific to that workplace.
Reflect and digest.
After you’re done, and on your own time, think about the experience. Go over your notes. Discuss what you learned with trusted people in your life. Let external perspectives inform and inspire your own – that’s the whole point of this exercise.
As you reflect, think about what the job seems to be versus what you expected it to be. Ask yourself whether the career is likely to offer you the following:
- Symmetrical values. Do most aspects of the typical work and workplace align well enough with your beliefs and principles?
- A sense of purpose. Is there a good chance that you’d feel an ongoing sense of accomplishment and engagement in that career, as if you matter and can make a difference?
- Opportunities to improve. Is the career likely to let you advance and grow in the ways that you want?
- An acceptable social environment. How well does the career match your preferred amount and manner of social interaction?
It’s very important to understand that not everything has to be ideal for you to have a great career. A job that’s a perfect match in every way with your interests, preferences, and personality type is unlikely, but you can have a “good enough” match to be happy and fulfilled.
Seek whatever threads of connection may exist between you and a potential career. Enough threads make a rope, and enough rope makes a ladder you can climb successfully – and joyfully.
Follow up with a thank-you.
A few days later, send the person you interviewed a simple, sincere thanks. This could be anything from a short email to a beautiful card to a letter. Let the style and method reflect your personality type.
It’s important to practice professional courtesy, but also personal mindfulness and gratitude. Consciously appreciating others strengthens you as a person, as well as contributes to relationships that may positively impact your future. You deserve good things, and you encourage them by showing that you value them.
Exercise #2: Write to a Professional
Our second exercise is a variation on the first – a remote, written version of an interview. You can use a short questionnaire to learn from people in careers you’re considering. And it’ll need to be short if you want people to fill it out and return it.
Think of this method as a supplement, not a substitute for the previous exercise. An in-person exchange likely offers superior communication and learning. You can get a much better feel for things – and the kinds of people you might end up working with – in person.
However, a written interview does have certain advantages:
- Distance. You can write to someone you can’t easily meet.
- Quantity. You can write to more people than you can visit.
- Comfort. It’s easier for those who may not like much social interaction.
- Convenience. Those who don’t have time to talk might have time to fill out a short questionnaire.
- Conversion. After corresponding with you, someone might agree to an interview, as in the exercise above.
In this exercise, you’ll still have to go through the previously mentioned steps for creating contact, albeit likely via email or text. Be prepared for people to agree but not follow through. You may have to prompt them with polite reminders, or simply give up on them.
When someone agrees, send them a blank copy of your questionnaire sheet. We’ve provided some starter questionnaire ideas that you can use or alter as you see fit. We advise simplicity. Stick to one page and general questions about the work and career – nothing too personal.
- Would you tell me a few things you like best about your work itself?
- Would you tell me a few things you like best about your workplace?
- Would you tell me a few things you like least about your work itself?
- Would you tell me a few things you like least about your workplace?
- If you could go back in time and give yourself advice about the career you’re in, what would you say?
- What do you most wish you could change in your field/industry/profession?
- What everyday work-related thing most satisfies you? Why?
- What everyday thing do you least look forward to at work? Why?
- What kind of training or education would you recommend for this career, especially anything beyond the obvious?
- What advice would you give someone who’s considering your career field?
Once you get your response, you can digest and reflect, just as in the first exercise, and likewise follow-up with your thanks, as we mentioned earlier.
See the Picture through Your Own Lens
As you learn about people’s careers, try to read between the lines, and consider how you would feel in that professional role or workplace. The shape of the puzzle may change from different angles. Others’ perspectives can inform you, but won’t define your experience.
You may be a different personality type, and your unique beliefs and preferences will undoubtedly color your professional future. That’s a good thing.
Good luck! We hope these exercises help you investigate potential careers. And hey – if you use them, we’d love to hear about it. Did you find out something surprising? Was a job better or worse than you expected? Let us know in the comments below.