When I was in college, I was confident that I knew exactly what I wanted to do as a career: I wanted to work in broadcast journalism.

It seemed like it was the perfect blend of my passion for theater and storytelling, so I secured a summer internship to help out in a local newsroom.

After just one week on the job, I realized that the environment wasn’t at all what I thought it’d be. There’s an obvious sense of urgency that comes along with delivering the news, which meant reporters were expected to turn around assignments immediately. Me? I’d much rather take my time and sink my teeth into a longer project.

As it turns out, the career that seemed so perfect wasn’t as great of a match for my own personality and desires. That’s a scary realization to have as a college intern, but it’s even more frightening when you started your actual career—when you’ve already invested time, energy, training, and money into getting your foot in the door.

Maybe that’s where you’ve found yourself right now. You’ve decided that you absolutely want to make a career change, but you haven’t settled on a new direction yet. You don’t want to hop from the frying pan straight into the fire, so you’re doing some research to figure out what career move might be the smartest for you.

Figuring out which job or industry will mesh well with your personality can seem tough. The good news is that there are some steps you can take (trust me, I did them myself!) to get some better insight and gain some confidence that you’re going to make the right switch. 

1. Take a career assessment.

It’s important to remember that we all have personal preferences when it comes to our careers. While I didn’t thrive in a newsroom, there were plenty of reporters and producers who couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.

During your research process, a lot of the information you get is going to be from the perspective of other people—which means they might not even notice things about a job or a work environment that would grate on you. 

That’s why one of the best first steps you can take is to complete a career assessment

Doing so will give you targeted information about what you bring to the table, as well as what you value most in a career and company culture. That’s helpful, highly-personalized information you can use as you work through the rest of the research process.

2. Make a list of adjectives.

As you continue the career exploration process, you’re going to get your hands on a lot of information. That makes it all too easy to become overwhelmed—and ultimately be led astray.

After completing your career assessment, create a list of adjectives that describe what you’re looking for in your next career move. Do you want a fast-paced work environment? A management position? An organization that prioritizes social good?

Write those all down. This list will serve as your touchstone that you can use to maintain clarity and stay focused on what you’re really looking for in your next job.

That will hopefully prevent you from getting sucked into a choice just because the money is good or the company is well-known—especially if the career doesn’t fulfill any of the other adjectives you listed. 

3. Ask the right informational interview questions.

Informational interviews give you the opportunity to connect with other people who already work in your prospective career, which means they’re a powerful tool for getting some insider knowledge into what you can really expect out of that job.

However, keep in mind that the information people give you will be heavily skewed by their own perspectives (it’s human nature!). So, rather than asking questions that will give you highly-personalized responses (i.e. “What’s your favorite aspect of this job?”), ask things that will clue you in on whether or not that job will be a good fit for you.

These questions could include:

  • What three words would you use to describe your work environment?
  • What personality traits do you think someone needs to excel in this career?
  • Do you think this career is a good match for someone who is [adjective that describes you]?
  • Is there anything that surprised you about this career?

Also, keep in mind that while one informational interview is a good starting point, you’ll want to meet with more than one person to get a diverse, well-rounded view of what that career is really like.

4. Set up job shadowing opportunities.

You can learn a lot from others, but you can’t underestimate the power of firsthand knowledge. I didn’t know that a newsroom wasn’t the right match for me until I was actually working in one. 

That’s why it’s worth setting up some job shadowing opportunities. Ask for introductions from people in your network or send cold emails to see if you can head to the office and tag along with someone in your desired department for a couple of hours.

You might not actually be on the clock. But, this experience allows you to really immerse yourself in the environment and see if that’s a job you could realistically picture yourself doing. 

After all, you might be surprised by some of the things you discover—for example, maybe that job in human resources involves a lot more paperwork and heads-down, focused work time than you thought. You were hoping for more interaction and connection. 

5. Understand what’s required to make that change happen.

You’ve worked your way through those steps and landed on a career that seems like it could be a suitable fit for your personality and your ambitions. Great! But, there’s one more important thing you need to know: What’s it going to take to make that happen?

This factor can be make or break for some people. If that career change means going back to school for an entirely new degree, is that something that you’re willing to do at this point? Do you need to achieve a specific certification, and are you committed to making that happen?

Understanding the stepping stones to the career you want isn’t just helpful for preparation, but it can also be valuable if you’re between a couple of career options. Knowing what’s required will help you zone in on the one that’s not only a good fit,  but also the most realistic in terms of your expectations and commitment level. 

I know firsthand that there’s nothing quite like the sinking feeling you get when you realize that you and your career just aren’t compatible anymore. But, the good news is that career paths don’t have to be linear—and it’s never too late for a change. 

With that said, the last thing you want to do is make an uninformed leap just because you’re desperate to escape. So, use this as your guide to lay the groundwork for a successful career change so you can make a move that’s not just smart, but smart for you.

Kat Boogaard
Kat is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer who focuses on careers, productivity, and self-development. She has written content for The Muse, Trello, Atlassian, QuickBooks, Toggl, Wrike, and more. When she's not at her desk, you'll find her spending time with her family—which includes two adorable sons and two rebellious rescue mutts.