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Not Sure What Career Path to Take? Do What You Love!


By Jean Drasgow, Director of ACES Career Services, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

I’m often asked by students, “Can you find me the career I can pursue with this degree that I can make the most money?” With the higher cost of college tuition, I fear students are basing their long-term career goals on money rather than for love of the work. Although compensation is an important component of one’s career, there is a limit to the satisfaction one can derive from an impressive salary. To have a long and successful career, students need to discover their passion and take jobs that hone their skills and stretch their capabilities. The money will follow.

A 2010 study by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found that emotional well- being rises with log income but there is no further benefit beyond $75,000. Emotional-well- being refers to the emotional quality of one’s everyday experience which is measured by the frequency and intensity of feelings such as joy, stress, sadness, anger, and affection-key factors that lead us to believe that our lives are good or not so good. Life evaluation refers to the thoughts that people have about their life when they think about it. After surveying 450,000 adults, the authors concluded that high income buys life satisfaction but not necessarily happiness.

Rather than telling students that they are looking at career prospects the wrong way, I ask them, “What activities do you do, that when you do them, time flies by? Or “What work do you do that leaves you exhausted but feeling accomplished?” When students start talking about what brings them joy, I see changes in their expression. Their eyes light up, they have smiles on their faces, and their body posture opens up—similar changes anthropologists observe when individuals are speaking about the person in whom they are in love. Those unconscious body movements are cues that indicate what the student is actually passionate about.

So, students, how do you sift through all of the agriculturally-related career options that are out there to find what you are passionate about? First, list the things you like to do in your spare time. Omit required duties like grocery shopping (unless you actually like grocery shopping). Include all of your favorite things, like reading, camping, or meeting new people. By having a better understanding of the types of activities that bring you joy; you will have a better understanding of careers you would likely enjoy.

Next, think about your long-term goals. Your perfect job today should be one that helps you prepare for and work toward your ultimate professional and life goals. For example, you may define prestige, financial security or flexibility as your long-term objectives. Ask yourself if your education, work experience and job skills are being fully utilized at your job. If not, brainstorm about the kinds of positions that would incorporate all of these elements and let you use them to the fullest of your abilities.

If you’ve not yet entered the world of work, write down what you would love to do for work, regardless of money, location or education limitations. Having your dream job defined will help you work toward the position you're passionate about. Realize that unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg, you most likely won’t start out as a CEO. You’ll likely begin with entry-level jobs that will help you develop the skills you need to be successful for your ultimate goal. Entry-level positions give you the opportunity to develop a good work ethic, practice your public speaking, enhance your teamwork, and much more. Overtime, you will develop the professional muscle and stamina to be successful in your career. The trick is to keep seeking out opportunities to propel you towards your long-term career goal, such as extra assignments or promotions that increase your skill-set. If your long-term career goal isn’t obvious at first, keep exercising your professional skills and stay current in your profession so you will be ready for opportunities as they come. Don’t forget to seek a coach or a mentor to help you perfect your form so that you can continue to develop. Renew your familiarity with your overall life goals and assess whether your job will help you reach them.

So I can tell you what the careers are that come with higher-than-average earning salaries--but will your heart race with excitement when you head to work each day? Will your eyes light up when you are talking about your professional work? If you cannot dance into work most days, you may not have yet found the work that you love. Your mission is to find a career that you love so that you will love what you do. And when money tempts you, remember that compensation’s role in life satisfaction and emotional well-being is limited. So it is good to earn a decent wage, but the old adage “Money can’t buy you happiness” may be true.