"What do you want to do with your life?"
For five years I answered this question confidently. I was going to become a sociology professor. I'd apply for graduate school, get into a top-notch Ph.D. program and the rest would be history. There was just one problem. Despite what I was telling people, I wasn't sure if I wanted to be a sociology professor. I had a severe case of career paralysis.
Being indecisive about your career aspirations is common. But being indecisive to the point of feeling paralyzed isn't something you can just shake off.
During my final years of college, I had bouts of crippling doubt and anxiety. I didn't apply for graduate school. Instead, I applied for a Fulbright grant to teach English abroad. Fortunately, I got it and spent two glorious years in South Korea.
But when my grant period ended, I was right back where I started. The career paralysis was back. What should I do? What was my true calling? What kind of career would make me happy?
The answer was, obviously, that I don't know. It took several conversations and months of worry for me to realize that thinking extra hard wasn't going to help. I had to take concrete actions to answer these questions.
1. Work your network.
Research is your first step to curing career paralysis, and the most valuable research I did was simply talking to people. I began "working my network" without even realizing it. Using your network doesn't have to mean asking people for a job. When I returned from teaching in Korea, I paid visits to former professors. Sure, I had grad school on the brain, but I was also genuinely happy to see and chat with them again.
Naturally, we talked about my interest in a sociology Ph.D. They gave me insight into grad school applications, life in a Ph.D. program and the daily responsibilities of a professor. My professors were also aware of resources that I wasn't, including people I should reach out to.
2. Schedule informational interviews.
Recently, I told someone I'd never done an informational interview. Later I realized that was a lie. Informational interviews don't have to be the stagnant, awkward situation you're imagining. They're conversations with people who do interesting things that you might like to do too. The best informational interviews arise from an authentic desire to speak with that person.
I found one interviewee through a Facebook event page. Someone had left a comment saying he couldn't go. When my cursor passed over this stranger's profile picture, the phrase "Visual Sociology" popped out at me. It felt like finding a unicorn!
I'd been looking at visual sociology as a possibility to combine my interests in art and sociology. So I asked my mutual Facebook friends about this visual sociologist. I found out he was a Fulbright Korea alumni and reached out. He readily agreed to talk with me and we spent nearly an hour on the phone.
You might not find your unicorns the same way. Maybe someone in your network will recommend one of their connections. Maybe one of your friends works at a company whose values are closely aligned with your own. Keep your eyes open — and your Facebook tab too.
3. Take advantage of online resources.
As a freelancer, I've learned not to underestimate the Internet. There's an overwhelming amount of information available, but with the right Google search terms, you have access to exactly what you need, including conversations and community.
Once I started looking into graduate school applications, I was instantly overwhelmed. There was just so much to consider. It turns out, thousands of other people are online feeling overwhelmed by graduate school applications too. I don't have many friends currently pursuing Ph.D. programs in sociology, but I can read about dozens of accounts through blogs, forums and Q&A sites. I go to these sites to have conversations no one else would be interested in having, like how high my GRE scores should be or the awkward art of writing personal statements.
4. Find a job to shadow.
Here's a secret I didn't share earlier. In college, I was on track to graduate with a sociology BA in three years. But then a ridiculous friend asked why I was graduating early if I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. After that, I couldn't get the idea out of my head. So I stayed in college a fourth year to upgrade my art minor into a major. And thanks to some excellent courses, I got an inside look into the life of an artist.
My program brought in visiting artists to give talks and share their work with us. We toured local artists' studios. One class even included the opportunity to hold our own exhibit. Without this experience, I never would have realized how much work goes on behind the scenes of a gallery exhibit.
These experiences were all a form of job shadowing. Even though we typically think of job shadowing as an activity for K-12 students, recent graduates or people changing careers, it can benefit more people than kids on a field trip.
Before you spam anyone with requests to do a shadow, check online. A local university, hospital or your chamber of commerce might offer job shadowing programs. If you can't find a program, don't despair. Job shadowing is similar to informational interviewing. If, after you've interviewed someone, you still want to learn more, ask if you can shadow them on the job. If you're not comfortable or it doesn't seem appropriate to ask, downgrade your request to a brief workplace visit or tour instead of a full day of shadowing.
5. Pursue part-time or volunteer work.
The fastest and most direct way to learn if you like a job is to do it. Currently, most of my freelance work falls into digital and social media marketing. But initially, I didn't know anything about using social media for business. In a happy coincidence, my church asked me if I'd be interested in posting on their social media accounts and here I am today.
Volunteering with my church gave me the opportunity to manage an organization's accounts and get a glimpse of what it would feel like to take my career in a marketing direction. I honed skills fit for a content manager or social media coordinator.
If there are skills you're interested in practicing or learning, look for opportunities to use these skills. You might find part-time work that lets you test those skills. Or you may prefer to volunteer at local non-profits.
At the time of this writing, I continue to look for opportunities to use my skills for causes and industries that matter to me. My current list includes organizations focused on social justice and the arts — what's on your list?
Monica Heilman is a blogger and copywriter who specializes in digital marketing and the arts. Someday you might find Monica holed up in an ivory tower, but for now, you can learn about her writing services and view her art at monicaheilman.com.