Some students enter college with a strong sense of which career path they want to take. Others may have a general sense of what they’d like to do, but may not be sure how to choose the best option from among their many interests.

No matter where they currently stand in the process of selecting a potential career, they undoubtedly recognize the importance of making that decision. For this reason, they may appreciate some pointers that can help them choose wisely. In their book FOCUS on College and Career Success, Second Edition, Dr. Steve Staley and Dr. Constance Staley offer students advice for choosing a career path that suits their interests, skills, and knowledge base. We’ve summarized their suggestions below. Feel free to share or discuss these suggestions with them!


1. Start with your interests. In this first step, focus on what naturally appeals to you. Consider your interests from a variety of angles, noting which majors or degree programs might provide you with the background you need to obtain a career in that area. Want to work in the great outdoors? If so, you may be interested in studying forestry, geology, or environmental science. Or, perhaps you have a passion for helping other people; you might pursue social work, clinical psychology, or health care.

Once you’ve identified some careers and courses of study that pique your interest, begin to weigh the pros and cons of these pathways. For example, you may wish to become a lawyer, but the time commitment involved in following that path is not realistic for you at this stage in your life. As another example: you may hope to become a chef, and your experience working in restaurants could be to your advantage in that arena.

Be honest with yourself, and realize that no matter which paths interest you, success in your chosen field will take skill, perseverance, and a willingness to take hold of the opportunities that open up to you.


2. Gather information on your top three choices. Now that you’ve identified a variety of potential career paths and related courses of study, seek out information that will help you better understand all that’s involved in committing yourself to each of those paths. Select the three options that hold the strongest appeal to you, then take the time to research the critical factors that can help you make a wise decision.

Staley and Staley recommend answering the following questions as you work through this process. Though you might find much of this information by using your college catalog, you’ll gain even more if you set up an interview with an instructor who teaches in each of the three course areas; he or she can help you explore the answers in greater depth.

1. What is the major or certificate?
2. Who is the interviewee?
3. What is the name of the academic department where this major is housed? Where are the department offices physically located on campus?
4. Which introductory courses in this major would give you information about your interests and abilities?
5. Which specialized courses in this major interest you? (List three.)
6. What courses do you have to complete before you can major in the subject?
7. How many students major in this discipline on your campus?
8. Which required course in the major do students usually find most challenging? Which is most engaging? Which is most valued? Why?
9. How would the interviewee describe the reputation of this department on campus? What is it known for?
10. From the interviewee’s perspective, why should a student major in this discipline? (Staley and Staley, 295-296)


3. Take your personal strengths and opportunities into account. Take time to evaluate yourself honestly in light of what you’re learning about the career paths that interest you. Staley and Staley recommend conducting a personal “SWOT Analysis”—take note of your strengths and weaknesses, and weigh the opportunities and “threats” that might have an impact on your ability to succeed. Think about the following:

  • Strengths: What personal attributes (motivation, knowledge, skills) might indicate that I could do well in this particular profession?
  • Weaknesses:  What attributes might hold me back from success in that arena? (And can I work to eliminate or minimize their effect?)
  • Opportunities: What external factors could support my goal of success in this area? (For example: does the job outlook appear positive? Am I living in a location with plenty of opportunity… or am I willing and able to move?)
  • Threats: What external factors might hinder me from succeeding? Is there a way for me to counterbalance or overcome these issues? Am I willing to persevere until I reach my goal?


4. Recognize the relationship between your career and your coursework. If you’re hoping to follow a professional career path such as nursing or engineering, you’ll likely need to declare your major fairly early in your college experience, in order to ensure that you complete all the necessary coursework.

However, in other cases, you may decide upon a major that suits your interests and skills, and then discover a career path along the way. For example: perhaps you’ve chosen to major in History. Your friends and family may assume that you want to become a teacher—and perhaps that’s the case. However, people who choose to study History may end up in any number of professions, such as law, librarianship, communications, or government, as the skills and knowledge gained in that course of study can be applied to those fields as well. (Granted, some additional skills or training may be needed in order to progress in one’s career.) (Staley and Staley, 293-302)


We wish students all the best as they seek and pursue their desired career paths!


Reference: Staley, Steve and Constance Staley. 2015. FOCUS on College and Career Success, 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

© 2015 Cengage Learning.


What advice would you offer to students who are in the process of choosing a career path? Share your thoughts in the comments.