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Digging up a Career's Downsides

By Marty Nemko

“I’m verbal and like to argue, so I’ll be a lawyer.”

“I’m good in science and I want to help people, so I’ll be a doctor.”

Many people make cavalier career decisions after they graduate because they’re eager to finally settle on something. TV certainly doesn’t help. Do you really think most lawyer gigs are as fascinating as those on Law and Order? Or physician jobs as glamorous as those on Grey’s Anatomy? Official career resources aren’t very revealing, either. The American Chemical Society’s 2,000-word profile of a career in hazardous waste management, for example, mentions not one drawback. Its fluffy summary: “This fast-paced line of work is challenging, profitable, and dynamic.”

Yet every career has downsides, and unearthing them early could save you from having to restart your career in a few years. The good news is that some basic career detective work isn’t difficult. It might even be fun. Here’s a three-step process for determining if that perfect-sounding career really is.

Step 1: Read. The simplest way to learn about a career is to read what’s been written about it. Here are some resources. To filter out biases, don’t rely on just one:

--The Occupational Outlook Handbook provides definitive if dry profiles of hundreds of popular careers..

--Best Careers, 2007,., by U.S.News. Read profiles of 25 top-rated careers (including their downsides), plus revelations about ten overrated careers.

--Career Resource Center. This federal government-sponsored site offers information and videos on hundreds of careers, culled from numerous private and public sector sources. Invaluable.

.--UC Berkeley Career Center. This consists of a wealth of links in a dozen career areas of interest to college grads and offer fee-based insider profiles of popular careers. They are worth the money because they usually include personal opinions, which, in concert with more objective information, reveal the career in full dimension.

--Cool Careers for Dummies offers quick takes on 500 careers. (Disclaimer: I am the author. Like I said, seek multiple sources of information!)

-- It seems obvious, but this can be invaluable. Type in the name of the career and the word “careers’ and you’ll likely find lots of information. It’s worth doing four of Google’s searches: web, groups, blogs, and news. In assessing an article’s credibility, note its source: The rantings of a disgruntled individual may be worth considering, but shouldn’t be given disproportionate weight unless the same concern is raised elsewhere. Among its four million books are thousands of career titles. To find the right ones, again, type the name of the career plus the word “careers.”

Have an appetite for even more? Visit a college’s career center or public library’s career section. There, a pro, with research expertise and access to expensive databases, can help you unearth additional information.

Step 2: Ask. Once you’ve read up, talk with professionals in the field. The information they offer might be less thorough, but you’ll get a local perspective, plus nuggets unlikely to find their way into print. Speak with at least three people to o avoid getting too narrow a perspective. In addition to people you might know, try members of a field’s professional association (Its membership list may be on its website). Email or phone them, or attend the group’s next convention or a local chapter meeting

Uncomfortable about approaching people you don’t know? No need to be. Haven’t you ever stopped a stranger on the street for directions? Asking for career advice is no more of an imposition. Some people might be crabby and beg off. But most people like to talk about their careers. And by reading up in advance, you’ll sound informed.

Here are some questions that might help unearth the dirt about a career, as well as its delights:

-- Would you walk me through your own experience in this career, from your training through today?

-- What should I know about this field that might not appear in print?

-- Are there particularly desirable and undesirable ways to get trained?

-- Does this field have particularly desirable and undesirable niches?

-- Why might a person leave this field?

Step 3: Try. There’s no better way to assess if you’ll really like a career than by experiencing it first-hand. Here’s the easiest approach: Ask people in that career if you can watch them at work for an hour or two. Identify candidates just as you would when asking questions about the career.

After that, if the career still excites you, consider taking an internship or job in which you get to work with people in that career.

How do you know when you’ve done enough career snooping? When you can answer yes to all four of these questions. Do you believe you will:

--Get into a good training program for this career?

-- Get hired in this career?

-- Be good at it?

-- Enjoy the work?

If so, congratulations. You’ve found your career!

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