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For Love or Money: Choosing the Right Career for You

For many college graduates, choosing a career or occupation is as much about finding something they love to do and are passionate about as it is about earning a good paycheck. Certainly, financial security is an important factor in any career decision. Fortunately, choosing between something you love and a stable income is rarely a huge tradeoff.

Let’s take a look at some of the factors that you might want to consider in helping you find a career that you will love and look forward to working on.


Look for careers that take advantage of your natural abilities

Many people find a great deal of satisfaction in careers that fully utilize their natural talents and abilities. When you follow the flow of things that you love to do, your career can feel less like work and the tasks you complete seem less of a list of things to be checked off of a to-do list. Do you love photography, painting, music, or have some other artistic talent? You certainly may gravitate toward a career in the arts. Are you a people person who also is good with numbers? Working in a financial consulting capacity may be fun and rewarding. If you happen to be naturally talented and capable in many areas -- and good for you! -- look closely at the skills you truly enjoy and find fun. Then, tailor your career search to fields that will allow you to take full advantage of them, and even develop them over time.


Consider your work environment

The type of office environment you want to work in -- or lack of office at all -- is also a good indicator that can point you in the direction of the right career for you. Would you be happy in a large office working with a vast team of people? In a small, intimate office in which you interact with the same small group of people most days? Perhaps the idea of travel excites -- or repels -- you. This is good to note. Perhaps the idea of working in an office at all is a turnoff. Perhaps you’d prefer a career you can work on from home, or even something that would allow you to be in a different research location often to keep things fresh. If you’re not sure what type of environment would be best for you, think back on any and all employment situations you’ve had so far. If you’ve had to sit in a desk or move around talking to people, which did you prefer? This is a good place to start thinking in terms of the type of work environment you’ll flourish in.

Think about flexibility versus structure

Some careers offer a lot of flexibility in terms of working hours, where you work (in an office, various research locations, in a studio, from home, etc.), how many hours per week you work and how much you can integrate your work life with your home and family life. Other careers are far more structured, with set hours and locations and set guidelines about when you can and cannot work from home (if at all). Keep in mind that some of this structure versus flexibility is also dependent on the type of company or organization you work for, not just the field you work in. If you are a self starter and highly self-motivated, a more flexible working situation will probably be well suited to your working style. But if you need schedules and set guidelines to remain focused and productive, a more structured career environment and work style will likely be better for you.

Consider whether your want a career, a job, or a calling

As you think about the occupation you want to look for after graduation, know whether you’ll be looking to pursue a career, a job, or a calling. There is a difference. Many people find that a career is something they truly love doing, are passionate about, and want to develop and nurture over time. Just as you would enjoy watching your child grow and would feed and care for him or her to help them become a well-developed adult, you would also care for your career, making decisions and adding to your skill set in order to enhance the growth of your career over time. By contrast, a job is typically viewed as a means to an end, with that end being a paycheck. Having a job may be just as rewarding as a career, depending on what you do and how comfortable you are with the limited nature of a job versus a career. Still others find that the occupation they choose is an answer to a calling for higher service or purpose in life, whether spiritual or not. Often these people choose occupations in the arts, religion, medicine, or philanthropic causes such as social advocacy and the environment.

Understand how well you work under pressure

Do you work well with deadlines or do they make you freeze? Do you enjoy the adrenaline that comes from presenting your work in front of large groups of people, or would you rather crawl into a corner and hope no one finds you there? How well you respond to certain pressure situations can be a good indicator of the type of career or occupation you want to pursue, but it by no means should deter you from something you are passionate about. The good news is that people can develop good stress-coping mechanisms with practice and with the confidence that comes with experience. So, if you tend to be a wallflower, but yearn to be a college professor teaching in a large lecture hall, don’t be discouraged. The passion you have for your career is likely to outweigh the pressure that comes with it. Awareness of those high-stress aspects of your chosen path is valuable to have in advance, however.

Know how much you want to earn

While a paycheck certainly does not equal happiness, it is important to know how much you want to earn in your occupation. Some people are comfortable earning a modest income while others find that any less than a certain amount of money saved each month causes undue stress. It’s important to know where you fall in this spectrum, and narrow your occupational options accordingly. Keep in mind, however, that if you are drawn to a certain career that typically does not earn a particularly high salary, there may be other ways for you to earn more. For example, if you want to work with your hands and enjoy carpentry, becoming a carpenter may not be a path to wealth. However, if you also have a mind for business you may choose to start your own carpentry company, allowing you to work on your craft while potentially earning more money than you would working for someone else.

On the other hand, if you know for a fact that earning a very high salary is near the top of your priorities for choosing a career, you’ll want to keep in mind the highest paying occupations* as options to consider:

  • Oral and maxillofacial surgeons: $166,400
  • Physicians and surgeons: $166,400
  • Orthodontists: $166,400
  • Chief executives: $165,080
  • Dentists: $141,040 - $161,020
  • Judges and magistrates: $119,270
  • Architectural and engineering managers: $119,260
  • Prosthodontists: $118,400
  • Podiatrists: $118,030
  • Natural sciences managers: $116,020
  • Computer and information systems managers: $115,780
  • Petroleum engineers: $114,080
  • Marketing managers: $112,800
  • Lawyers: $112,760
  • Pharmacists: $111,570
  • Air traffic controllers: $108,040
  • Political scientists: $107,420
  • Physicists: $106,370
  • Financial managers: $103,910

* 2010 annual median income, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

A word of caution, however: If your primary motivation for choosing a career is the high earning potential that comes along with it, be aware that your priorities in this area are likely to change over time, and that high salary will not necessarily lead to a more blissful existence. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently conducted a study on the intersection of earnings and happiness and concluded that, beyond household income of $75,000 per year, money “does nothing for happiness, enjoyment, sadness or stress.”

If you want to earn a lot of money, by all means pursue a lucrative career. But make sure you narrow your options to fields you are truly interested in beyond the paycheck. Incidentally, your genuine interest in any field will help ensure your earnings potential.

Know that the answer may be different 10 years from now

As you weigh all your options for career paths and jobs, it may seem like a lot. Many options, many working styles, many salary ranges, many geographic locations to choose from. The pressure to choose a career can be high. It doesn’t need to be. Many people change careers at some point during their working lives, and often their life and their work benefit from a new challenge. If you choose a career path that interests you right now, it will likely lead you on a journey to other complementary interests. And if you’ve gotten at least a bachelor’s degree, you are well-armed with a well-rounded education and a broad base of knowledge that will prepare you for a career change down the road, when -- and if -- you choose to pursue a new path.

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