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How early is too early to start planning your career? And what should you do to prepare for seeking a job? In this lesson, we’ll look at a typical career planning timeline, as well as the different stages of career planning.

Career Planning

Lily is starting college, and she’s a little worried. Her parents want her to already be thinking about her career, but she’s not sure what she wants to do. Besides, her friends are all about hanging out and just having fun in college. They’re not thinking about their careers, so why should she?A career, or occupational path, is a major part of most people’s lives. It is the way that most people will be able to earn a living, and it requires significant time and dedication.

When people go to college, it is usually so that they can make a good living in a career. But, when is the right time to start planning your career? Are Lily’s parents right? Should she be thinking about it now?There is no right time to begin career planning, but earlier is usually better. This doesn’t mean that people who are at the end of college (or even finished with college) should just give up, but if Lily starts her career planning now, she increases her chances of being successful in whatever career she chooses.

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Let’s look at the four stages of career planning: exploration, identifying options, building skills, and targeted job search.


Lily’s parents want her to be thinking about her career, but Lily just isn’t sure what she wants to do for a living. And how can she know now, at 18, what she should do at age 30 or 40 or 50?The first stage in career planning is the exploration stage, when a person tries to figure out his or her strengths and interests. High school and the first year of college are good times to do this. Like many people at this stage, Lily isn’t sure what she wants to do, and that’s okay. She should look at this time as an opportunity to explore what she likes and doesn’t like to do, as well as her strengths and weaknesses.

There are some specific things that Lily can do during this stage to help her figure out what her likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses are. She can volunteer, join clubs, take a variety of classes, and attend workshops. She can also talk to others about what careers are out there. Professors, other students, and alumni are all good sources. Lily may discover a career that she didn’t even know existed!During this time, Lily should also develop transferable skills. That is, she should develop skills that transfer to a variety of careers and settings. Things like good writing and communication, study skills, and computer skills are all important things to know in almost any job that she ends up taking.

This is a good time to take classes or workshops and hone those skills.

Identifying Options

As Lily moves into her sophomore year, she has one or more years of exploration under her belt. After the exploration stage, the next phase that Lily will enter is the identifying options stage of career planning.

During this stage, a person evaluates their experiences and figures out a general career path. For example, Lily might discover that she’s really good at math, but not really interested in it. She might find that she really loves social science classes though. She thinks that she might like to work in one of the social science fields.Notice the interests that Lily uncovered in the exploration phase are still pretty general. There are a lot of things she could do in the social sciences.

She could be a psychologist or a sociologist. She could work for the government, as a college professor, or in corporate America. Even if she narrows her interests down to just psychology, for example, she has a lot of options: she can be a psychology professor or treat patients or work in advertising and marketing or a host of other careers.During the identifying options stage, Lily’s going to want to narrow her focus a little more. She still wants to keep some options open, but this is a good time for Lily to decide between psychology and sociology or history, for example.

For many people, the sophomore year in college is a good time to identify options.People, like Lily, in this stage will want to continue to take a variety of classes, but they will also take a few classes in their area of interest. They will also likely choose a major. Beyond that, Lily can start exploring careers in her field of choice by conducting informational interviews and getting a summer job. She’ll also want to craft a resume that highlights skills and experiences in the general field that she’s interested in.

Building Skills

As Lily moves into her junior year, she knows that she wants to major in psychology, and she knows that she doesn’t want to see patients.

She wants to do research, either at a university or another research institution. The next stage in career planning is the building skills stage, which involves gaining experience and skills that will propel a person into the career he or she wants. During this time, Lily will want to gain experience through internships and build skills through workshops.Not only that, but Lily will also want to network with people in the industry she’s interested in: psychological research. She can attend networking events, go to workshops, and meet with alumni at events put on by the college.

Another thing that Lily will want to do is set realistic career goals. She might dream of being a Nobel Prize winner, but this is the time for her to set the goals that will get her there. She will want to understand what goes on day-to-day in her chosen field.A good way to understand what realistic career goals are and to understand what goes on day-to-day is to shadow people at work. That is, she can talk to people in the field, and ask to follow them around for a few days. This will give her the chance to network and ask questions, but it will also let her see what it’s really like to work in that field. She might discover that it’s not right for her after all!

Targeted Job Search

As Lily finishes the building skills stage, she may discover that her resume is starting to fill up with good skills and experiences.

Further, she has a good idea of what her career will be. During her senior year in college, she will want to be in the targeted job search stage of career planning, which involves looking for a job in the field that the person is interested in.Lily will want to start this phase by finalizing goals so that she can figure out what the best job for her is.

For example, if she wants to work in a government research facility, the jobs she looks for will be very different than if she wants to get a job as a researcher for an advertising company. Both of those career tracks are in research psychology, but they are vastly different!Once she has finalized her goals, she will want to prepare for her job search by revising her resume and performing mock interviews. She can find help with both of those things in her school’s career center. She can also seek out help from friends and family. Many jobs are found through networking, so Lily will also want to attend networking and job planning events to help her find the perfect entry-level job on the career path she wants to pursue.

Lesson Summary

Planning to begin a career can be a stressful time.

The best candidates start early and go through four stages of planning: the exploration stage, identifying options stage, building skills stage, and, finally, the targeted job search stage.

Learning Outcomes

Once you have reviewed this lesson you should be able to:

  • Describe the four stages of career planning
  • Outline how the four years of college fit into the stages of career planning

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