I’ve gone on at length in the past about how taking meaningful actions of any kind is really the best thing you can do for your career. People—especially students—often assume that they need to have “everything figured out” before deciding to go out and do something. The problem is, having a plan actually doesn’t always mean that you’re better off. In fact, sometimes it’s more advantageous to act like there is no plan at all.
In response, you might say, “Dave, it can be hard to know what to go out and do when you’re struggling with career indecision. Why don’t you cut these students some slack?” or “Dave! There you go again, telling students not to make plans. Don’t you see that makes them uncomfortable? Can’t they just make their plans and go on with their lives like normal people?”
To the former question, I say of course it can be difficult to take action when you’re struggling with indecision! But what if we were to reframe indecision as open-mindedness? Suddenly, our purpose is clear: we’re trying things out, seeing how they fit—no commitments, just trial and error. We are scientists performing experiments with our lives.
The latter question also has elements of truth. It’s uncomfortable for a lot of people not to have a specific plan for moving forward, that gives some kind of structure to their existence. Take that structure away, and sometimes all you see is an abyss. But what if the real reason why it’s uncomfortable to not have a plan is simply because this forces you to face unforeseen, unfamiliar contexts? And as Alfred Adler once said, “The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.”
Of course, not having a plan doesn’t mean you’re not doing anything. That’s the whole point of this article, actually.
So, in light of the new school year, I’ve compiled a list of five things you can do right away to get involved and start experiencing new things that will quite possibly stimulate (or maybe even drastically change) your career decision-making process as a result.
I can’t recommend this enough. Not only is volunteering an essential way to give back to your community and participate in causes that resonate with your beliefs and values, it’s also one of the best ways I can think of to get exposed to new career possibilities. Volunteering on campus can be a great way to get to know your university and meet new friends as well!
2. Join/Create a Student Club
From anime to zoology, there’s bound to be a student club of interest to you. If there isn’t, then create your own club! You’d be surprised how many of the skills needed to start a club are exactly those needed to start a business. I’ve also seen many students effectively list and leverage experiences they’ve gained from club administration on their résumés.
3. Talk to a Professor
Your profs are human beings, and they are a wonderful resource, so don’t be shy. Though they can be difficult to approach at first, you’ll soon realize that there’s more to these mysteriously powerful enigmas than assignments, exams and letters after their names. Have even an iota of desire to go to grad school? Start building relationships with professors now so they can write you a meaningful letter of reference later. Profs always need volunteers to help them with research—this is just one way you can get to know these mentors better while also experiencing what a laboratory work environment might be like.
4. Get a Job
Even if you dread the drudgery of the customer service, retail or hospitality industries, there is immense value (beyond a regular paycheck) to working part-time while you’re going to school. That so-called “meaningless part-time work” has all sorts of lessons to teach you, like effective teamwork, the value of professional interpersonal skills, experiencing good (and bad) supervisory relationships, leadership skills, and the satisfaction of a hard-earned paycheck.
5. Experiential Education
If your school has a formal co-op program or something similar, I would strongly consider applying. This is a chance for you to experience real-world work experience in a supportive, learning-centered context. If you’re worried about adding time to your degree, ask yourself this: given a choice between graduating a year sooner with little to no experience vs. graduating a year later with at least a year of relevant work experience, which would you choose?