College is a unique time in life, but not just because it’s a free pass to eat ramen for every meal and dress up in togas (sorry, I had to get a few stereotypes out of the way). It’s one of the few times in life when you can really experiment with career choices in a way that’s just not possible when you’re older and have a family to support or mortgage payments to meet. Discovering your career passions in college isn’t something that will just happen for you, though; instead, you have to be motivated and strategic.
Here are 5 ways that I navigated my windy career path in college to lead me to my goal.
1. Plan a diverse Freshman schedule.
College is a unique experience, and freshman year is the most unique time of all. At the beginning of your college career, you’re presented with an opportunity to try out almost anything. This is a luxury that decreases with every semester, especially if you become interested in a course-heavy major with many prerequisites, such as the sciences or engineering.
At least for your first semester, and preferably for both, work with your adviser to put together a course schedule that mixes prerequisites with courses that plainly interest you. You never know when you’ll stumble on a career passion, even if you think you’re already set.
Personally, I knew that a creative writing major was going to be in the picture, but I also started taking brain and cognitive science courses just because I found the subject fascinating. I wound up double-majoring in both. Although I didn’t go into brain research, the field has influenced my thinking ever since, and I incorporated much of what I learned into my work as a professional tutor after graduate school.
For help along the way, consider taking a skills inventory to guide you both in choosing courses and in focusing on what you love doing and are good at as you progress through your college career.
2. Join a club.
There’s nothing quite like a college club for trying out different roles and polishing some special skills. Some college clubs, such as the newspaper, offer great ways to test out potential careers, while others, such as ultimate Frisbee, provide opportunities to experiment with leadership roles such as team captain. If you’re having trouble deciding what college clubs to join, don’t hesitate to try out something new every semester or school year. Most of the students I knew in college gave many clubs a try before settling on just a few.
3. Become an intern or research assistant.
Unless you’re limited by a work-study program, consider every new semester, school year, or summer an opportunity to gain experience in a new field through internships or research assistant jobs. Many of these positions will pay as much as or more than a typical college job, such as waitressing, with the added benefits of building your résumé and enabling you to take a test spin through a new field.
While some internships and research assistant jobs may be posted on school job boards, your best strategy for attaining these positions is to hone your networking skills, which will be essential to your future career anyway. To find the research position I held throughout my four years at the University of Rochester, I emailed professors in the department whose work interested me and I asked about open positions. Later on, when I wanted to stay in London after studying abroad, the professor I worked with helped me find a job in a similar lab, while an e-mail I sent to my parents’ friends and other professors helped me snag an internship at the marketing department in Ben & Jerry’s UK headquarters.
These were all well-paid positions, but even unpaid internships can be great experiences. Many schools will even provide funding through their career centers for unpaid internships. I received such funding myself one summer to work as an assistant for a literary agent in New York, an experience and connection that has benefited me enormously throughout the years. You never know what kind of funding is possible unless you ask!
4. Shadow someone you admire.
Taking a day, a week or even a month to shadow someone whose career you admire can be an excellent way to learn just what life at work is like (you might be surprised). Many schools offer shadowing or even mentoring programs with alumni. Your parents’ professional network might again come in handy here, especially if you plan to go home for the summer.
Alternatively, you could try reaching out to a professional you admire and offering your skills and talents for free. As this TED speaker notes, doing so can help you emulate that professional’s career while doing some hands-on learning and making high-level connections. If you can’t work full-time for free, find out about volunteering an hour or two here and there and make sure no one takes advantage of you.
5. Offer your skills to a charity organization.
On a similar note, volunteering for a charity organization, either independently or directly through your college, is another great way to discover what you love doing and for what kinds of causes. If you’ve got a specialized skill such as website development, a nonprofit can be a great setting for putting what you’re learning at school into immediate use.
I can attest from my days volunteering with TEDxAustin during my recent career shift that working with an organization you admire will help you quickly determine just what you’re good at while making passionate and helpful connections along the way— connections that have helped me launch a career I’m very passionate about.
Any way you slice it, college is a really wonderful time to try out many different hats and discover both what you love doing and how you love doing it. You’ve only got four years, so make sure every experience counts. Enjoy the ride!
Follow your passions or follow the money? What’s your opinion on choosing a career?