Narrowing Your Career Choices, with Meg Gerry

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Find Your Dream Job, Episode 244:

Narrowing Your Career Choices, with Meg Gerry

Airdate: May 20, 2020

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to find the work you want.

Find Your Dream Job is sponsored by TopResume. A second opinion on your resume might make the difference between getting the job and getting rejected.

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One of the biggest challenges you face in your career is how to choose the field you want to work in.

Here today to talk about why it’s important to narrow your career choices and how to do it is Meg Gerry.

Meg is a certified career coach with a master’s degree in academic advising.

She co-hosts the podcast, All Things College and Career. And Meg co-owns Academic & Career Advising Services

She joins us today from Kennebuck, Maine.

Meg, here’s where I want to start: why is it important to make a career choice at all?

Meg Gerry:

That is a great question. I’m not necessarily positive it’s highly important to decide specifically on one career choice, but it really does help in the job-seeking process and to landing a job to become very targeted. But if truth be told, I think that I think that the most important thing is to try things out. And so, sometimes it’s very difficult, honestly, early on in the process to land on a specific career choice, so sometimes it involves a lot of trial and error.

Mac Prichard:

Well, would you recommend, Meg, that people explore 2 or 3 different careers at the start of the job search?

Meg Gerry:

Well, absolutely. I recommend trying things out, and if I had to go to my career adviser toolbox and pick out one tool that was most important, action and trying things out would be my number one tool or go-to, but there is a process. I have an 11-step process that I walk my clients through and I call it destination and it’s…I don’t want to bore your listeners with the entire process or drag them through all of that, but it’s a pretty extensive process that we go through to help people really narrow their focus and become clear about their career goals.

Mac Prichard:

When you take people through that process, Meg, at the end of it, after they go through those 11 steps, do you find that they’ve settled on one career or do they have a shortlist of two or three different fields they might still pursue?

Meg Gerry:

Right, well, yeah, sometimes they settle on one, and sometimes…I recommend anywhere between one and four. And at that point, once you shrink your list down to one or four options, it’s really important to take a really deep dive into these options to make sure that they’re the right match for you. So, something that I will walk my clients through is I’ll ask them, have they done enough research in this field? Have they talked to people in the industry to make sure…actually, we just had Austin Belcak on our podcast and he provided us with what I think is a great tip worth repeating, that if you are interested in a specific career, it’s really important to talk to somebody who’s actually doing that job and not to necessarily take advice from others that are not.

They’re the best people to speak to in that process. And you know, we’ll take a look, have you really researched the career? Have you figured out what the advantages and drawbacks are and what a typical day is like? Have you taken the time to job shadow? And the other thing that I really like to take a look at is, what is the outlook of the career? That’s a really important thing that we take a look at.

Mac Prichard:

Well, let’s talk about those steps because I know that within this 11 step process that you have, one of them, number 8, is narrowing your career choices, and there are six suggestions that you make and I’d like to walk through them, one by one, that will help people narrow their choices.

The first one you mention, of course, is research and you talked about the benefits of reaching out to people who are doing the job and finding out what that’s like. I’m curious, Meg, why do people who are doing this kind of work take meetings with folks who want to learn about their careers? Aren’t they pretty busy folks in general and don’t most people say no?

Meg Gerry:

Well, that’s an interesting question, and I actually find that people are quite excited and interested and happy to help share information about their career. And yes, you do have to be very mindful about people’s busy schedules and to not approach it in a way that’s centered on yourself, but to be cognizant of their busy schedule and to ask if they had 10 or 15 minutes that they could share with you how to get started in this career. What a typical day is like, what are the advantages and drawbacks? And how would you break into it? How to break in and what training and education and skills do I need? So, it’s just really important, also, just to use any resource that you can find to research a career beyond just talking to people, and learn as much as you can about it.

Mac Prichard:

Besides having these informational interviews with the people who are working in the industry that interests you, you mentioned other research. What kind of research have you found is especially helpful for your clients?

Meg Gerry:

Well, it’s, as I said, I go through a somewhat extensive process and the process that you’re talking about is kind of later on when we’ve targeted and narrowed our approach. But earlier on in the process when, I call it, investigating your options, and this is where we really explore options. Before we can make any career planning moves or move ahead in a career, you have to, first of all, evaluate and check with the client to make sure that they’re ready to make a career move, and oftentimes there are barriers standing in the way between a client and making a move. Like, I often will work with people that come in to me that are not happy on their job or they’re looking for a change, they want a new direction, but they just have no idea where to get started. So, it’s really important for me as a very first step just to see if they’re ready to actually move forward, and oftentimes, there are barriers that are preventing them from doing that, and that could be anything from lack of self-confidence or self-efficacy as we call it.

Or there could be barriers standing in the way; they feel like they’re too old or too young or they have gaps in their resume, or they’re going through a transition. So, the very first thing that I would do is just to walk them through that process and to make sure that they’re actually ready to move forward.

Mac Prichard:

Once you identify those barriers, Meg, how do you recommend your clients overcome them?

Meg Gerry:

Well, that depends on the barrier. But I’m working with a client right now who came to me and she’s a middle-aged woman who has been a stay at home mom for 15 years, so she’s just really lacking confidence about reentering the workforce because of that. So, what we’ve talked about is, it’s a very human thing to take time out of the workforce to either take care of your children or to take care of a sick parent or whatever the case might be. Hiring managers understand that. But what I help the client to do is to focus on what they did accomplish during those years at home, and this particular client had accomplished a lot.

She had worked on a lot of fundraisers and she’s looking at career options that involve fundraising and she had a fair amount of success with that. And she also took the time to earn her MBA, so we turn the focus of what they lack to what they’re providing and match that to what specific career they’re going after. So, that’s just one example of a barrier that they may face but that’s really…you can’t make any move forward until you’ve addressed career readiness and taking care of those barriers. But the next thing that is really, really, important is to help the client to learn who they are, understand who they are, and evaluate themselves.

That’s the next really important process before you can get them to narrow down anything.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, and so talk to us about how that happens. Once you’ve determined that you’re ready and you’ve identified barriers to moving forward and steps to overcome them, what do you do next, Meg?

Meg Gerry:

Right, so that’s a great question and what I do is, we take a really deep dive into how I help clients to learn who they are and understand what’s important to them. And there’s a number of tools that I use to do this and, again, making the analogy to the carpenter who has a lot of tools in their box, I also do as a career advisor. But one of the tools that I use is assessments, and I have 5 that I like to turn to, specifically, and I can talk about those if you’d like me to, but that is the first thing. And then, I also rely on…Mark Savickus has what he calls a “narrative construct approach,” and it’s essentially spending time just really getting into a great discussion with your client, and just spending some time understanding them, and learning about their journey, and hearing about their work experience. And he actually provides some questions that I use to help draw their life themes from the client that you’re working with.

For example, you can ask them, who are their role models or who do they admire? It’s basically enabling the client to…the idea is that we all have our own career story within our own themes and it’s buried in us and it’s up to the advisor to bring it out of them. So, that’s something that I may do and so we look at motivations and work values. So, I have, to help a client understand their motivations, I use a card sort, which is kind of a fun way of generating a lot of good conversation, and at the end of it, you end up with a pile of cards that help the client to understand, not only what they’re good at, but skills that they’re highly motivated by and you also end up with a pile of just the opposite. Skills that bring them down or burn them out and things that they don’t necessarily like to do.

Mac Prichard:

Things that energize them and things that drain them, and also, it sounds like you do a great job in that process of drawing people out about their own journey and where they want to go.

I want to pause here, Meg, for a quick break, and when we come back I want to continue our conversation about narrowing your career choices.

Stay with us. We’ll be back in just a moment.

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Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Meg Gerry.

She’s a certified career coach. She’s also co-hosts the podcast, All Things College and Career, and she co-owns the company, Academic & Career Advising Services.

Now, Meg, before the break, we were talking about narrowing career choices and we were talking about the steps that you take your clients through to get clear about the options that they might consider as they do a job search, and you mentioned assessments and particular assessment tools. Talk to us about the assessment tools that you work with your clients with, and particularly for listeners who might want to use these tools themselves, perhaps find them on the internet.

Meg Gerry:

Absolutely, and as I professed before, I do find assessments to be quite valuable, but I really do want to express a caveat that they do have their shortcomings and limitations and biases, that I think users should be fully aware of, and also that it’s just one tool or just one piece of the pie. So, it’s just one ingredient that can help clients understand who they are and it’s a great way to generate conversation with your client, but I certainly wouldn’t rely on them as the end-all, be-all. That’s just my personal feeling on that. But that being said, the 5 assessments that I like to use are, the first one is kind of the latest and greatest, I guess you would say.

It’s called the Use Science, and the thing I like about this assessment is that it combines your interest with your aptitude. So, I think it’s the only assessment out there that combines both, so it’s really…for example, you might really be interested in something but you don’t necessarily have the aptitude for that, and the flip side of that is you may have the aptitude for something but have no interest in doing it. I think it’s great to measure both.

Mac Prichard:

Just to be clear, Meg, can you define aptitude? Is this a talent? Is it something that can be learned, or is it innate and you’re just born with it?

Meg Gerry:

Yeah, it’s innate, it’s the way that your brain works and the way that you think, it’s your innate abilities, yeah.

Mac Prichard:

Okay.

Meg Gerry:

I don’t claim to be an expert on it. I use the assessment so I would definitely defer to the writers of the assessment for more than that, but that’s essentially how I understand it, but…

Mac Prichard:

Terrific, and so there are other assessment tools that you like to work with, tell us about those.

Meg Gerry:

Yeah, so I also use the Clifton’s Strengths, which basically we arrive at, the individual I’m working with, their top individual 5 strengths, and I find this to be a real morale booster with people that I’m working with, to help them identify things that they’re actually good at. A lot of the people that I work with are actually lacking the confidence and self-esteem, and it’s really up to me to help them not sell themselves short and realize their full potential.

So, that’s one great way of doing it. And also the Via Character Classification Assessment. It’s the same idea behind that, and a lot of employers are looking for these skills, soft skills, so to speak, in a work setting, so it’s really a great tool to help people that I work with to identify these strengths that they have and find a place that they can really be valued and put to use and that will just help them feel better about who they are.

Also, I’m sure everyone has heard of the Holland Code, the RIASEC, which is probably the most practical assessment for career advisors to use, because there are such large databases out there to match the results, so it’s really just practical and one that I do use. Finally, the Myers-Briggs, I actually use the human metric version of that. It helps clients to identify what work environment is best suited for them.

Mac Prichard:

Terrific, and for job seekers who are listening, Meg, who might not be working with a career coach, are there publicly available assessment tools that they might find either in a book or online that you would recommend?

Meg Gerry:

Yeah, so some of the ones that I’ve mentioned you actually can access online. I think you have to pay for them. I don’t know all the details, but the Clifton’s Strengths you definitely have to pay for and the Use Science as well, the Via Classification, not sure about that, I can’t remember, it’s either UPenn or Penn State, one of those universities that it comes from, and the human metrics is available online and free to anyone who wants to use it. That one I am sure of, and the Holland Code, I think they’re readily available online as well

Mac Prichard:

If somebody completes these assessments, how do you recommend they use the information that they get from these tests?

Meg Gerry:

Well, I use it to help them learn more about themselves, and it’s just a good conversation generator to help brainstorm about what might be some good fit careers. And at that point, I oftentimes rely on Onett, which I’m not sure if you’ve heard of that, but it’s a website put out by the Department and Bureau of Labor. And, basically, as we do our taxes, they keep track of where we’re working and how much we’re making, so they have a great database of information about which careers are growing, which careers have a bright outlook, and they also include salary information by state and also nationally, and they also include what sort of experience, skills, training, education you need. They will also match the Holland Code to careers, so I rely on that quite heavily when we’re in that process of exploring options.

Also, just to give my own podcast a little shout-out, when I have clients that I’m working with that have a specific career idea in mind, and we’ve interviewed a professional from that area, I definitely refer them to that episode because we will take a really deep dive into, like, we’ve had people on who are physical therapists, for example, or optometrists, or basically a whole litany of careers. And so we get right into detail about the advantages and drawbacks, what a typical day is like, what kind of education and training you need.

That’s just one other little tool in the whole; again, I would never put too much emphasis on one thing or another, it’s a combination of all of these things.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, so you take people through these assessments and some of them are so specific, they identify actual occupations that you might be suited for. Once you finish an assessment, what do you recommend? And you’ve talked, too, about the importance of speaking to people who are doing the work that you’re interested in, what happens after you do those assessments, you have those conversations? How do you see people get even clearer about their career choices?

Meg Gerry:

Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I use a couple of tools that I actually got from when I was training to become a facilitated career development. My instructor was Linda Suhler of Creating Purpose and she produces so much great career content and practical tools for career advisors. So, one of the things she came up with is what we call a career design form and a job framework. So, those are 2 exercises that I have my clients do, and basically, in a nutshell, the career design form is just a questionnaire, basically, where we ask clients to get really specific about their needs and wants in a job.

For example, we say, “Where specifically do you want to work?” And if they say, “Boston Massachusetts,” we say, “Okay, what radius are you willing to travel? Is it a 10-mile, 20-mile?” That sort of thing. “And would you entertain a position that required traveling, and if so would you be willing to travel 25% of the time, 50%, 75%? And what are your requirements for benefits and salaries, and what sort of management style are you looking for?”

Then, in the job framework, this is also a really good tool that I use, again, created by Linda Suhler. That, it’s just an exercise where we ask clients to look at job boards, such as Mac’s List, but really read these job descriptions and take short phrases or sentences, copy and paste things that really appeal to you or things that you want to do or things that you’re interested in, and shrink that down to a 12 -18 bullet-point list, so you end up with a…this is a very abbreviated description of the process, but you end up with 12 -18 bullet-point where you can easily hand it to people to say, “This is my skill set, this is what I’m looking to do. This is what I want to do. Do you know anybody who could use somebody? That is in need of this skill set?”

It basically just gives you a one-page document to hand to family and friends on informational interviews because people cannot help you unless you give them specific information.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, I love the specificity of both of those tools. I know, the first one, for example, you’re getting very practical about…questions about commuting time…

Meg Gerry:

Exactly.

Mac Prichard:

How much time you want to spend in the office, how much time you want to spend on the road. And the second tool, it has to help so much when you walk away with that bulleted list, whether it’s 12 points or 18, it brings a clarity when you put it down in writing, doesn’t it, Meg, about what you want to do?

Meg Gerry:

It really does, and you can put them into categories of customer service or sales or whatever, but the other things that I like about it is, if you’re drawing from job boards or job postings, you know these things are actually needed, so it’s not…you’re combining what’s actually in need out there for a specific work, but also with what you actually want to do, so that’s the other. It’s so much easier to read than a resume. Nobody has time for those, so it’s just a much more abbreviated thing that can help others help you.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, your point about how the information is actually coming out of the market, coming out of the employers’ actual needs, is so important.

Meg Gerry:

Exactly.

Mac Prichard:

Well, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. Meg, tell us, what’s next for you?

Meg Gerry:

Oh, well, thank you. I enjoyed it as well, and as I said, I’m honored to be a guest, I really am. But yeah, what’s next for me is I will continue to produce and create our bi-weekly podcast called, All Things College and Career, which is with my co-host and sister, Bobbie Ryan. And for anyone that’s interested, on our website you can search by career and college, which can often be helpful to people. And I will continue to assist clients, work individually with clients, and you could check out my website, Academic & Career Advising Services to learn more about my services or to schedule an appointment.

I’m continuing to teach at the University of Maryland Global Campus, where I am a member of their adjunct faculty there, and I teach a course in Career Planning Management, and Program and Career Exploration. And currently, I’m preparing for a couple of speaking engagements and I am available to also speak on topics related to academic and career planning.

I would just say, finally, on a personal note, my sister and I, Bobbie, are hoping to go to Europe this summer to hike the Haute Trail that goes from Chamanie, France to Zermatt, Switzerland. So, we have a month planned for that, but I don’t know. It’s looking kind of grim with the COVID-19 but I’m hoping that might work out.

Mac Prichard:

Well, that sounds like a wonderful trip. I hope you get to make that either this summer or sometime in the future.

Meg, given all the useful tips that you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing that you want a listener about how to narrow your career choices?

Meg Gerry:

If I had to narrow it down to one thing, I would say, try things out, that’s the most important thing.

Mac Prichard:

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Next week, our guest will be Pattie Sinacole. She’s the Job Doc columnist for The Boston Globe and the president of the First Beacon Group, a human resource consulting company.

We’re seeing record unemployment around the world because of the COVID-19 virus. But employers continue to hire, too.   

Pattie and I will talk about how to get a job during tough times and what you can do to stand out in a crowded field of applicants.

I hope you’ll join us. Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

Choosing the industry you want to pursue in your career is one of the most important decisions you will make, but it can also be one of the toughest. How do you narrow your choices if you aren’t sure what you want to do? One of the most helpful ways, says Find Your Dream Job guest Meg Gerry, is trial and error. You have to try things to know if they’re a good fit. Meg also suggests having conversations with people currently working in the field you are considering. And finally, personality and career assessments can help you get clear on the skills you offer and what you need in a work environment. 

About Our Guest:

Meg Gerry is a Certified Career Services Provider (NCDA), a Global Career Development Facilitator (CCE), a Certified College Counselor, and an academic advisor with a master’s degree in academic advising.

Resources in This Episode: