How to Do What You Love

November 04, 2002

Whenever I speak to graduate students about choosing careers outside academe, I always offer the same advice: Do what you love.

Unfortunately, this suggestion sounds irritatingly vague to someone in the throes of job hunting. What if you love being an academic and are being driven out of the profession by a weak job market? What if you have a number of different passions (dogs, French colonial history, and country music) that don't add up to any recognizable career? What if you just don't know what you want to do?

While there are no shortcuts to finding your dream job, I can offer a few strategies for putting the do-what-you-love philosophy into practice.

Finding Work You Love Takes Time

Only after accumulating a variety of work experiences will you begin to see what kind of career makes you happy. Robin Wagner, a Harvard Ph.D. in Chinese history who used to write for this column, viewed her first five years out of graduate school as "a chance to learn what it is I actually love to do and develop a plan towards those goals." As a former director of the graduate career center at the University of Chicago, she used to tell students: "Right out of graduate school, it's rare that one will find a job that's doing what you love. There's a new set of experiences to explore -- you might know what you like and dislike about academics, but that won't help you much with the world of nonacademic options."

Even if you think you've already identified the right new career for yourself, it may take several years to gain enough experience to reach the position you want. Don't put too much pressure on yourself -- be patient. As long you're heading in the general direction of whatever interests you, you're making good progress.

Avoid the Easy Answers

One of the most common mistakes made by career-changing academics is confusing their dissertation with their vocation.

Many of us build our job searches around the assumption that our subject matter expertise is our greatest asset. However, most employers (with a few exceptions for those in technical fields) will be much more interested in your transferable skills than in your specialized knowledge.

Take time to look beyond your academic specialty and investigate new fields. After all, you succeeded in graduate school because you have the ability to learn new material quickly -- don't underestimate your ability to master a new subject. Of course, you chose your academic specialty because the topic was important to you and you may sincerely wish to find a related career. In that case, you should certainly explore your options, but always keep in mind that this particular field is only one of many available to you in the postacademic world.

Another common error among career-changing academics is searching for a new career in the classified ads. While those ads can be useful once you've determined your career direction, reading them before you have an idea of what you want to do will lead you to shape yourself to a job description instead of considering what you really want to do.

Nick Corcodilos, a former graduate student in psychology at Stanford University and author of the career guide Ask the Headhunter: Reinventing the Interview to Win the Job (Plume, 1997) believes that reading classified ads is one of the worst ways to look for a new career. "If you answer an ad," he says, "you're suddenly committed to a job application, an interview, and possibly a career. That's a pretty stupid way to pick a life, if you ask me."

Start Your Job Search From the Inside Out

If the classified ads are the wrong approach to finding a new career, what is the right approach? The strategy I like best is one that Corcodilos invented called the "Library Vacation." It is a practical technique for sorting out your diverse interests, or perhaps uncovering hidden ones.

As described in detail on Corcodilos's Web site, a Library Vacation involves spending three days at the library reading anything that interests you. "Forget about job hunting or careers," Corcodilos says, "Read whatever you like. At first, you might start with magazines like People, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, foreign newspapers, and so on. Then, you'll start checking out various specialty and industry-related periodicals. Just read stuff that attracts you."

Allow your interests to lead you for three days, he says, and don't worry about your qualifications or credentials. Once you've identified the major issues and key players in a field that interests you, you can begin thinking about how to apply your skills and experience to that line of work.

Another way to identify what you love to do is to look back at your life as a whole. Your résumé represents only your professional life. What about your personal triumphs? An exercise known as "Seven Stories" -- from Kate Wendleton's book, Through the Brick Wall: How to Job-Hunt in a Tight Market (Random House, 1993), can help you evaluate your interests and skills from a different perspective. Here's how it works: Make a list of 20 accomplishments -- from anytime in your life -- that you enjoyed doing and did well. You can mix childhood memories with recent events, and big professional moments with trivial victories. It may take you a few days to come up with your list. Then, pick out the seven stories that seem most powerful to you, the ones that seem most characteristic of who you are. Write a paragraph about each of them describing what you did, how you felt, and the skills you demonstrated. You'll notice some surprising similarities. As you consider various career paths, compare them against your list of stories to see if they would draw upon the skills that you most enjoy using.

Dive In

While thoughtful decision-making is important, the best way to discover what you want to do is to simply try something new.

If you're still in graduate school, you may want to try a part-time job or volunteer work as low-risk test-drive. If you're out of school and need to earn your keep, find the best option you can and just get started. You'll learn something about yourself and about the work, and you can begin narrowing your focus. Just keep reassessing what you've learned as you build your experience and skills; don't allow yourself to be drawn more deeply into a career you dislike by circumstance or momentum.

As I said, finding work you love is a long-term process. In fact, it may even be a lifelong process, because for most of us, there is no single career that can fulfill us for the rest of our lives. Discovering and tackling new challenges in a variety of different fields may, in itself, be the right career for you. The key is having faith and trusting that your path will become clear eventually.

Susan Basalla, who earned her Ph.D. in English from Princeton University in 1997, is a co-author of So What Are You Going to Do With That? A Guide to Career-Changing for M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2001). She writes occasionally for Beyond the Ivory Tower.