Chapter 4: Career Exploration & Pathways

College & Career: Key Connections

Motivations for attending college

Think back to the time when you first began to contemplate college. Do you remember specific thoughts? Were you excited about the idea? What drew you into the web of college life? What compels you to be here now?

Rank your top five motivations for attending college, based on the list below:

To get a good job Have fun Gain exposure to a wide array of topics
Support my family Change my career Attend campus events
Increase my earning potential; make more money Do what my parents were not able to do Make my family happy
Challenge myself Find a better lifestyle Fulfill my dreams
Show others that I can succeed Build my confidence Take classes at home or work or anywhere
Start an independent life Expand my social contacts; bond with new friends Take advantage of campus resources like the library and gym
Satisfy my curiosity Improve my network of business associates Join a sports team
Join campus organizations Have continued support via alumni programs Learn to study and work on my own
Spend my time during retirement Gain access to professors Access entertainment like theater and bands
Be more productive in life Explore myself Become well versed in many subjects
Dig deeper into learning than I did in high school Expand my knowledge of the world Others?

Understanding your motivations is essential to helping you prioritize your plans for the future and gain inspiration about directions you may not have yet charted. Ultimately, your motivations for being in college will guide your academic and life plans, leading to the fulfillment of your goals and ambitions.

Stay focused, go after your dreams, and keep moving toward your goals. —L L Cool J, musician

College and Career Connection

College is an opportunity for students to grow personally and intellectually. In a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, Americans were split on their perceptions of the main purpose of a college education:

  • 47 percent of those surveyed said the purpose of college is to teach work-related skills.
  • 39 percent said it is to help a student grow personally and intellectually.
  • 12 percent said the time spent at college should be dedicated to both pursuits.

These statistics are understandable in light of the great reach and scope of higher education institutions. Today, there are some 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States, offering education and training to students.

What do employers think about the value of a college education? What skills do employers seek in their workforce? In 2014, Hart Research Associates conducted a survey on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The survey revealed that the majority of employers believe having field-specific knowledge as well as a broad range of knowledge and skills is important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success.

Employers also said that when they hire, they place the greatest value on skills and knowledge that cut across all majors. The learning outcomes they rate as most important include the following:

  • Written and oral communication skills
  • Teamwork
  • Ethical decision-making
  • Critical thinking
  • Ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings [1]

These skills are developed across the courses students take in college and are a key reason college has core courses or general education requirements.

Employment Rates and Salaries

The following statistics on employment rates and salaries for college graduates demonstrate that college makes a big difference!

  • The average college graduate earns about 75 percent more than a non-college graduate over a typical, forty-year working lifetime. (U.S. Census Bureau)[2]
  • In 2014, young adults ages 20 to 24 with a bachelor’s degree or higher had a higher employment rate (88.1 percent) than young adults with just some college (75.0 percent). (NCES)
  • The employment rate for young adults with just some college (63.7 percent) was higher than the rate for those who had completed high school. (NCES)
  • The employment rate for those who completed high school (46.6 percent) was higher than the employment rate for young adults who had not finished high school. (NCES)
  • Employment rates were generally higher for males than females at each level of educational attainment in 2014. (NCES)[3]
  • Over the course of a forty-year working life, the typical college graduate earns an estimated $550,000 more than the typical high school graduate. (PEW)
  • The median gap in annual earnings between a high school and college graduate as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010 is $19,550. (PEW)[4]

Perhaps most importantly, an overwhelming majority of college graduates—86 percent—say that college has been a good investment for them personally. (PEW)Chart. Unemployment rates and earnings by educational attainment

All in all, college imparts a range of benefits. The short video below, entitled Why College, shows that with a college degree you are more likely to:

  • Have a higher salary
  • Get and keep a job
  • Have a pension plan
  • Be satisfied with your job
  • Feel your job is important
  • Have health insurance


Setting personal success measures

Success in college can be measured in many ways:

  • through your own sense of what is important to you
  • through your family’s sense of what is important to your collective group
  • through your institution’s standards of excellence
  • through the standards established by your state and country
  • through your employer’s perceptions about what is needed in the workplace
  • through your own unfolding goals, dreams, and ambitions

How are you striving to achieve your goals? And how will you measure your success along the way?

Job vs. Career

The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.  –Steve Jobs, cofounder and CEO of Apple

What is the difference between a job and a career? Do you plan to use college to help you seek one or the other? There is no right or wrong answer because motivations and success measures vary greatly for each individual, but all students can take maximum advantage of their time in college if they develop a clear plan for what they want to accomplish.

The table below shows some differences between a job and a career.

Definitions A job refers to the work a person performs for a living. It can also refer to a specific task done as part of the routine of one’s occupation. A person can begin a job by becoming an employee, by volunteering, by starting a business, or becoming a parent. A career is an occupation (or series of jobs) that you undertake for a significant period of time in your life, perhaps five or ten years, or more. A career typically provides opportunities to advance your skills and positions.
Requirements A job you accept with an employer does not necessarily require special education or training. Sometimes you can get needed learning “on the job.” A career usually requires special learning, perhaps certification or a specific degree.
Risk-Taking A job may be considered a safe and stable means to get income. But jobs can also quickly change; security can come and go. A career can also have risk. Employees need to continually learn new skills and adapt to changes in order to stay employed.
Duration The duration of a job may range from an hour (in the case of odd jobs, for example,) to a lifetime. Generally a “job” is shorter-term. A career is typically a long-term pursuit.
Income Jobs may not pay as well as career-oriented positions. Jobs often pay an hourly wage. Career-oriented jobs generally offer an annual salary and benefits, like health insurance and retirement.
Satisfaction and contributions to society Many jobs are important to society, but some may not bring high levels of personal satisfaction. Careers allow you to invest time and energy in honing your crafts, experiencing personal satisfaction, and perhaps making contributions to society.

In summary, a job lets you enjoy at least a minimal level of financial security, and it requires you to show up and do what is required of you.

A career, on the other hand, is more of a means of achieving personal fulfillment through the jobs you hold. In a career, your jobs tend to follow a sequence that leads to increasing mastery, professional development, and personal and financial satisfaction. A career requires planning, knowledge, and skills. If it is to be a fulfilling career, it requires you to bring into play your full set of analytical, critical, and creative thinking skills. You will be called upon in a career to make informed decisions that will affect your life, and perhaps the lives of others, in both the short term and the long term.

The Five-Step Process for Choosing Your Career

Over the course of your life, you will probably spend thousands of hours at work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average workday is about 8.7 hours long, which means if you work 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, for 35 years, you will spend a total of 76,125 hours of your life at work.

Choosing a career is a unique process for everyone. With so many different occupations to choose from. How do you navigate this complex world of work?

Powerpoint Slide: "Think about THIS!" At left, a divided image labeled "Pursuing Your Career" shows a drawing of a young woman in a graduation gown and an older woman seated in a classroom. Bullets on the right read, Is this the right job for me?, Am I feeling fulfilled and challenged?, and Does this job enable me to have the lifestyle I want?

The Chancellor’s Office of California Community Colleges has identified a five-step decision process to help choose an appropriate career. That process is described below.

Step 1: Get to Know Yourself

PowerPoint Slide: Numbers 1-5 appear in orange circles at the top, "1" being highlighted; title on top right is "5 Step Decision Process." Text at top reads Get to know yourself and the things you're truly passionate about. Three images at the bottom: left is a drawing of a young woman studying, labeled Gather Information. Middle is a man in a thinking posture, labeled Weigh Your Skills. Right is a woman seated, wearing glasses, labeled Assess Personality.

Get to know yourself and the things you’re truly passionate about.

  • Gather information about your career-related interests and values.
  • Think about what skills and abilities come naturally to you and which ones you want to develop.
  • Consider your personality type and how you want it to play out in your role at work.

This video shows successful entrepreneurs and employees sharing stories about how they turned childhood interests into careers that suited them well. Learn how listening to your inner child can help you find the right career.

Before moving on to step 2, you may wish to review online surveys related to personal identity and interests like the Student Interest Survey for Career Clusters, available in both English and Spanish.  Surveys can help students align career interests with personal qualities, traits, life values, skills, activities, and ambitions.

Ultimately, your knowledge of yourself is the root of all good decision-making and will guide you in productive directions.

Step 2: Get to Know Your Field

PowerPoint Slide: Numbers 1-5 appear in orange circles at the top, “2” being highlighted; title on top right is "5 Step Decision Process." Text at top reads Get to know your field / What level of education? A drawing of people seated in a classroom is below, and five circles at right read Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s, Professional, and Doctorate.

Investigate the career paths available to you. One effective starting point or filter is to decide the level of education you want to attain before starting your first or your next job. Do you want to earn a certificate, an Associate’s degree, a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, or a Doctorate or professional degree? Then start looking at the specifics of the jobs and careers in your chosen field, perhaps by accessing the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook to explore such considerations as a typical workday, the median income, and required qualifications for hundreds of occupations.

Step 3: Prioritize Your Deal Makers

PowerPoint Slide: Numbers 1-5 appear in orange circles at the top, “3” being highlighted; title on top right is "5 Step Decision Process." Text at top reads Prioritize your “dealmakers” and rule out your “deal breakers.” A circle bottom left reads “Decide what you WANT,” with “what role?” just below. To the right are four simple drawings in a grid: OUTSIDE or OFFICE [image of beach], BIG or SMALL [image of bar chart with rising arrow], COUNTRY or CITY [image of path between house and city skyline], and PUBLIC or PRIVATE [image of figure wearing hat and nametag next to figure wearing a tie].

Educational requirements aren’t the only criteria that you will want to consider. Do you want to work outside or in an office? In the country or a city? In a big or small organization? For a public organization or a private company? What type of industry is interesting to you? What role do you see yourself playing in the organization? Determining what you want and don’t want to do in your daily work is an important step when evaluating possible career options. Cross-reference those deal makers and deal breakers with the jobs you identified in step 2 to help you narrow down your options.

Step 4: Make a Preliminary Career Decision

PowerPoint Slide: Numbers 1-5 appear in orange circles at the top, “4” being highlighted; title on top right is "5 Step Decision Process." Text at top reads Make a preliminary career decision and create a plan of action. Two website logos and addresses are in the middle: California Career Cafe,, and Career Zone California, On the right is a drawing of a woman, titled “Use counselors.” The bottom shares a quote: “Find a career that you love and you will never work another day in your life” - Barbara Sher.

Now that you have an idea of who you are and where you might find a satisfying career, how do you start taking action to get there? Some people talk to family, friends, or instructors in their chosen disciplines. Others have mentors in their lives with whom they discuss this decision. Career counselors and academic advisors can also help with both career decision-making and the educational planning process. You’ll get the most from sessions if you have done some work on your own before you go.

Step 5: Go out and Achieve Your Career Goal

PowerPoint Slide: Numbers 1-5 appear in orange circles at the top, “5” being highlighted; title on top right is "5 Step Decision Process." Text at top reads Go out and achieve your career goal! A drawing shows a man wearing a backpack at the bottom of a set of steps, with the phrases written on each riser. From bottom to top, they read: preliminary plan, comprehensive plan, internships, part time work, volunteer work, GOAL!

Now it’s time to take concrete steps toward achieving your educational and career goals. This may be as simple as creating a preliminary educational plan for next semester or a comprehensive educational plan that maps out the degree you are currently working toward. Although this process isn’t necessarily easy, you’ll find that your goals are so much more tangible once you’ve set a preliminary career goal. You may also want to look for internships, part-time work, or volunteer opportunities that can help you test and confirm your preliminary career choice. The more informed you are about your career options, the better prepared you will be for your future and the more confident you will be in your career decisions.

Jamie Edwards, a former student at State University of New York, offers advice to help current students make connections between the “now” of their college experience and their future career possibilities.

Learn what you don’t want

From where I sit now—my former personal and professional struggles in tow—I offer up some pieces of advice that were crucial to getting me where I am today. Whether you’re an undecided major who is looking for guidance or a student with a clearly defined career path, I suggest the following:

  1. Find a mentor—For me, everything began there. Without my mentor, I wouldn’t have done any of the other items I’m about to suggest. Finding the right mentor is crucial. Look for someone who can complement your personality (typically someone who’s the opposite of you). My advice would be to look beyond your direct supervisor for mentorship. It’s important to create an open forum with your mentor, because there may be a conflict of interest as you discuss work issues and other job opportunities. Potential mentors to consider are an instructor on campus, your academic advisor, a professional currently working in your prospective field, someone you admire in your community, or anyone in your network of friends or family that you feel comfortable discussing your future goals.
  1. Enroll in a Career Exploration/Planning course or something similar—Even if you do not see the effects of this course immediately (such as dramatically changing your major), you will notice the impact down the road. Making educated career choices and learning job readiness skills will always pay off in the end. Through my career exploration class, I learned how to relate my personality and values to potential career fields. These self-assessments changed my entire thought process, and I see that influence daily. Beyond changing the way you think, the knowledge you gain about effective job search strategies is invaluable. Learning how to write purposeful résumés and cover letters, finding the right approach to the interview process, and recognizing your strengths and weaknesses are just a few of the benefits you can gain from these types of courses.
  1. Complete a Job Shadow and/or Informational Interview—No amount of online research is going to give you the same experience as seeing a job at the front line. In a job shadow or an informational interview, you’re able to explore options with no commitment and see how your in-class experience can carry over to a real-world setting. Additionally, you’re expanding your professional network by having that personal involvement. You never know how the connections you make might benefit you in the future. My only regret about job shadowing in college is that I didn’t do it sooner.
  1. Do an Internship—A main source of frustration for recent grads is the inability to secure an entry-level position without experience. “How do I get a job to gain experience when I can’t get a job without experience?” This is how: do an internship or two! Most colleges even have a course where you can obtain credit for doing it! Not only will you earn credits towards graduation, but you’ll gain the necessary experience to put on your résumé and discuss in future interviews. Having completed four internships throughout my college career, I can’t say they were all great. However, I don’t regret a single one. The first one showed me the type of field I didn’t want to work in. The second confirmed that I was heading in the right direction with my career. My third and fourth internships introduced me to completely different areas of higher education which broadened my knowledge and narrowed my search simultaneously.

My takeaway is that sometimes you have to learn what you don’t want in order to find out what you do want. The more informed you are about career options through real-life conversations and experiences, the better prepared you will be for your future and the more confident you will be in your career decisions. Always explore your options because even if you learn you hate it, at least you’re one step close to finding what you love.

—Jamie Edwards, Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom


Your work experiences and life circumstances will undoubtedly change throughout the course of your professional life, so you may need to go back and reassess where you are on this path in the future. No matter if you feel like you were born knowing what you want to do professionally or if you feel totally unsure about what the future holds for you, remember that with careful consideration, resolve, and strategic thought, you can find a rewarding career.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the average worker currently holds ten different jobs before age forty, and this number is projected to grow. A prediction from Forrester Research is that today’s youngest workers will hold twelve to fifteen jobs in their lifetime. What jobs are in store for you? Will your work be part of a fulfilling career? What exciting prospects are on your horizon?


Create a career plan

Utilize Career Coach, and other course materials, such as the Occupational Outlook Handbook, to discuss the following related to the career you are planning to pursue at this point in your life:

  1. A “Day in the Life” of your chosen career (A minimum of 3-5 paragraphs about what you learned from researching the day-to-day responsibilities of your chosen career will be required for the final project requirement.)
  2. Employment outlook in this career field
  3. Average annual salary for this career
  4. Education and training you will need for this career
  5. Skills you plan to acquire or enhance in order to be successful in this field
  6. Three goals related to achieving your career plan
  7. Three action steps to achieve those goals
  8. The resources you will utilize to achieve your career goals


  1. "Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success." Hart Research Associates, 20 Jan. 2015. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.
  2. "Workplace, Office Blogs, Articles & Advice -" Workplace, Office Blogs, Articles & Advice - Web. 31 Mar. 2016.
  3. "Fast Facts." Fast Facts. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.
  4. "Is College Worth It?" Pew Research Centers Social Demographic Trends Project RSS. 2011. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.


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