Choosing a Career

Whatever stage you’re at in life, you may be thinking about the work you want to spend your days on this earth doing. Whether you’re picking subjects for Grade 10, trying to decide what to study at university, or applying to jobs after graduation, this question is an important but often difficult decision to make.

Even adults who’ve been working for years sometimes reach a point where they wonder if what they’re doing is what they really want to do. It’s a lifelong struggle, but, as with most things, it can be made a little easier with a bit of reflection and research.

Get to know yourself a bit better

As in all things, it’s important to know yourself. What is it you enjoying doing most? And what are you really good at?

  • Are you a people’s person, or do people tire you out?
  • Are you a big picture person, or are you more interested in the nitty-gritty details?
  • Are you someone who likes logic and reason, or are you someone who’s more in touch with your emotional side?
  • Are you an abstract thinker type, or do you prefer action and getting your hands dirty?
  • Do computers excite or bore you?
  • Do you like a lot of freedom and flexibility, or is structure and order more your thing?

There are some personality quizzes and aptitude tests you can take online that might give you some insight into what sort of person you are and what kind of careers will make you feel satisfied and fulfilled. Have a look at an example of a good personality test and a good aptitude test. This one is a bit longer (240 questions!) but is designed to match your personality to your career and will be comprehensive and thorough. Your guidance counsellor at school or the career guidance office at your university may be able to help you out too.


Now that you know yourself and your strengths and skills a bit better, try visualising where you want to be. Go to a quiet place, close your eyes if you like, and see yourself in the future. It may help you to write your thoughts down as they come to you.

Think of yourself at age 28. You’ve finished your studies, and you have a few years of work experience behind you, but you still have a distance to go before you reach the top.

  • What are you doing?
  • Are you behind a desk, or working with people?
  • What are you wearing?
  • Where are you, in a city, a town or on a farm?
  • Are you in South Africa or overseas?
  • Is there a lot of responsibility on your shoulders, like in a management position, or are you only responsible for finishing your slice of work?
  • What’s more important to you, the money you earn or the satisfaction you get from doing your job?

Write all these things down, and whatever else you see, in as much detail as you can. This will help you determine what the best course of study is for you.

Job shadow

Ok, so you think you have a pretty good idea what it is you want to do. The thing is now to get a better idea of what this means on a day-to-day basis, and to be able to get some answers to you questions. This can be done through job shadowing.

Job shadowing is when you ask someone who’s already doing the job you’re doing if you can follow them around for a day to get a taste for what their job is really like. Do you already know someone who does the job you think you’d like to do? Ask them. If not, send a few nicely worded emails to companies, organisations and individuals with your request. Someone is bound to get back to you. Try and do it in your school holidays when most other people are still working, or otherwise, make sure it’s ok with your parents and your school/institution first. You don’t want to get into trouble for skipping class, even if it’s for a good reason.

Go prepared. Think of a list of questions you want to ask. How about these to start with?

  • What things do you like about your job?
  • What things do you dislike about your job?
  • Is this a very stressful job?
  • What kind of responsibilities do you have?
  • Do you leave work at work, or do you sometimes have to take it home with you?
  • What skills and personal characteristics does it take to be good at this job?

You can think of a few more job-specific questions to go along with the suggestions above. Remember to be respectful, polite and courteous. This person is doing you a huge favour. Remember to thank them nicely at the end, maybe with a small gift like a chocolate or a card.

Vac work

Vac work is a short internship, paid or unpaid, that you do during your holidays. This needs to be organised during term time by approaching companies and organisations that you think you may one day enjoy working for through email, calling, or in person.

This is a great way to find out what it’s like to start at the bottom of your chosen career and work your way up. Most likely you won’t be given much responsibility. The larger the company, the less likely it will be that you’ll be given work that’s meaningful, so rather go for the small businesses and organisations that will put your skills and talents to good use. Nevertheless, you will be given the opportunity to learn through doing and through observation. Notice the procedures and systems that are used, notice whether the company is very hierarchical, or whether teamwork is more valued over individual effort. Speak to your colleagues, find out how easy or difficult it is to climb the ladder in your chosen industry. Make sure you arrive on time and dress appropriately to the environment. Be ready to do any work, even if it’s just making the coffee.

The added bonus of doing vac work is that it’s experience that you can put on your CV when you start looking for work. It will also provide you with a reference who is respected in your industry. This will put you ahead of the other freshly-graduated candidates, because you already have an idea of what the work entails. It will also show an employer that you’re serious enough about this career to give up your precious holidays in order to learn and get ahead.

Don’t worry too much

Picking a career is tough. But here’s the good news: it’s not the end of the world if you make a mistake. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible to change your mind midway through an established career if you decide that what you’re doing is not making you happy. South African comedian Riaad Moosa was a doctor before he became a comedian. Colonel Sanders of KFC fame was a steamboat pilot, insurance salesman, farmer and a railroad fireman among other things, and didn’t start cooking chicken till he was 40, or opening more branches of his restaurant till he was 65.

It’s never too late to change your career if what you originally picked doesn’t satisfy you anymore. So don’t worry too much about making a mistake the first time. Think it through, weigh up the options, and think about what’s the best thing for you, that will be able to support you financially (everyone has to eat!) but also satisfy you in terms of doing something that has meaning to you and you enjoy doing.

Good luck!

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Melissa Nefdt
Mel is a resident freelance writer and moderator at Yebo Students. She has a passion for helping young people realise their potential, and has several years experience running youth development programmes. She likes to write about, well, everything, and wants to travel, well, everywhere. She gets her kicks from meeting new people and having interesting conversations.

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