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How to Build a Personal Career Plan and Plot a Course Out of Your Dead-End Job

 We’ve all heard it before: “You’re lucky to have any job.” But just because you have one doesn’t mean you have to just suck it up if it sucks, or it’s not the career you want. The problem may be that you’re looking at your position as “just a job” and you have no idea what kind of career you want. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I know a lot of people who hate their jobs, but when asked what they’d rather do, they’re already very close to doing what they’re passionate about—they just needed to stop and figure out how to get there. Here’s how you can take a good, hard look at yourself, figure out what you really want to do, and work this into a personal career plan that will help you get where you want to go, personally and professionally.

Photo remixed from originals by Ava Verino and Michael Mandiberg.

Take Stock: Evaluate Yourself

Write Down What You Do: The first thing to do if you’re going to pull yourself out of a career-related funk is to take stock of where you are professionally. Your job title and resume only say so much about what you do, so spend a few days taking good notes of what you actually do. Start with the core responsibilities of your position (things you would put on your resume), then write down everything else you spend time doing at work, even if it’s tangential to your actual “job.” Photo by Bill Sodeman.

A good way to get in the habit of doing this is to keep a work diary of your successes, failures, and activities. It’s also a good opportunity to get in the habit of doing a GTD-style weekly review, where you take time each week to take stock of what you’ve accomplished and prepare for the next week. When you’re done, sort the list into things you absolutely hate doing, things you don’t mind doing and things that you love and wish you could do more of.

How to Build a Personal Career Plan and Plot a Course Out of Your Dead-End JobWrite Down What You Want To Do: Once the list is sorted, it’s time to focus on the things you’d like to do more of. Build on those items and write down what you wish you could do every day. Don’t be afraid to get far-fetched; if you wish you could get paid to read blogs all day, jot that down. Some people call it “wasting time on Reddit,” but the right employer may call it research. Photo by sunshinecity.

Now, start thinking long-term. Ask yourself, “Will I want to keep doing these things in a year? What about two, or five?” Don’t be discouraged if you’re not sure. It’s impossible to know what the future you will want, but try to write down some general thoughts. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What am I best at doing, both personally and professionally? What am I terrible at?
  • Do I want to stay in this job? Or this field?
  • If I want to change jobs, do I want to be promoted into a similar, more senior role?
  • If I want to change jobs, would I rather manage people, or would I prefer to continue doing it all myself?
  • If I want to change industries, which field am I interested in?
  • What is it about that industry that excites me? Has it always interested me?
  • What am I doing already that will serve me well in that field?
  • What type of company would I like to work for? What about that company is most important to me?
  • Would I prefer to work for myself, or become a freelancer, knowing that working for yourself isn’t always rainbows and unicorns?
  • Looking at the list of things I love doing, what kind of job uses those skills? Who does those things every day?

Review Your Answers: The point of these questions is to help you evaluate your goals. They help you determine what types of jobs involve the tasks you said you enjoy doing. Pretend you land the perfect job. Now think about where you’d like to go from there. Would you like to keep doing it on a more advanced level? Perhaps you’d like to manage people who do what you do now? When you start thinking about those next steps—without the stress of the whole “where do you see yourself in one/five/ten years” kind of questions (which are largely useless anyway)—you’ll find yourself thinking in terms of the career you want, not just your “dream job.”

Once you’ve finished writing all of this down, you should have a pretty good self-evaluation. This is valuable in itself, and can help you ground yourself in your current job or negotiate with your boss on those tasks that you really hate and how you can do more of what you enjoy (and are strongly suited to.) Now you’re ready for the next step: actually building your plan.

Take Notes: Build Your Career Plan

Research the Jobs You’d Like To Do: Now that you know what you’d like to do, it’s time to find jobs that let you do it. Here’s how:

  • Visit Your Local Library or Career Center: Sometimes the best way to find a job that matches up with your skills and desires is to ask a more experienced person. A chat with a reference librarian or specialist at a career center will put you on the right track towards career guides and resources that can help you translate your dreams into a job title you can aim for. Photo by CUS Visual Media.

  • Chat with Your HR Rep: If your company has an HR rep, they’re the person you should go to if you want to learn more about what careers are available in your company. Obviously your company’s HR rep has a vested interest in making sure you’re successful in your current job (we hope!) and that you stay at your current company, so if you like your company and just dislike your job, they may be able to help.
  • Scour Job Search Sites: Most people are used to searching job sites for job titles. Try searching for a function or task that you enjoy instead. If you like spending all day on Twitter or Facebook, search for “Twitter” or “Facebook,” or better yet, search for “social networks” or “social media.” Most job search engines will match your keywords with job responsibilities as well as required skills in job listings.
  • Take a Career Assessment Test: The CareerPath test (from the folks behind CareerBuilder) is a good one that blends elements of a personality test with a career assessment test. The results will help you understand what kinds of jobs and careers make heavy use of the passions and skills you have. You can find more tests at About.com.
  • Talk To People About Their Careers: Sometimes word of mouth is the best way to find out how to translate your passions into a job you’ll love, as we’ve previously discussed. Ask your friends and family, even your colleagues about their previous jobs. Highlight the things that you enjoy and ask them if they’ve ever heard of a job that does those things. You’ll be surprised: often the side-responsibilities you like at your current job are primary responsibilities at another job. Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. For example, one of my best friends is saddled with sending dull, dry sales emails for the company she works for. It’s a long and difficult process, and she says she would like it more if she had better tools to do it. However, she really loves seeing the number of people who open those emails, who gets which flavor of message based on their purchase history, and what they click on when they open them. To her, it’s just the crap her boss doesn’t feel like doing, so she gets to do it. At my old company it’s called Campaign Analysis, and there are tools that would make her life easier (not to mention a paycheck she’d probably like as well.) When I explained this to her, she was surprised. Because she had a clear picture of the things she liked and disliked about her job, it was easy to point out that there are jobs out there that could give her an opportunity to do what she enjoys every day.

Research Where Those Jobs Lead: Once you have an idea what types of jobs you’d like to have (even if it means you’ve rediscovered how much you enjoy your current job), start thinking in terms of a long-term career. Do some research on where those jobs usually lead. A good place to start is the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the My Skills, My Future career search site.

If you’re interested in systems administration, think about what your life would be like after you get the job. After a few years, would you like to manage other administrators, or would you be happier taking on increasingly technical and challenging projects? In most technical roles, it’s one or the other. Which would you prefer if you do land that job, and what happens to other people who get it? Photo by East Capital.

You’ll also want to find out whether the career you want requires education, degrees, or certifications to advance. Some organizations will only promote if you show you’re advancing your skills as well as performing well on the job, and others will only consider you for promotions if you go out and get a relevant degree, or take classes relevant to your job. Continuing education isn’t a bad thing, but you don’t want to reach for a career you want only to find that you’re stuck after taking the first step.

For example, when I was a Project Manager, eventually I learned that a promotion wouldn’t be forthcoming until I earned my Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. When I started looking at other companies, I learned that having one makes you more marketable. So I went out and got it to move my career to the next level—I had the time to study and the money to put into the test. Not everyone has that, but I certainly wish I had known it would be necessary before I started out as a PM.

By the time you finish this research, you should have an idea of where the careers you’re interested in will take you, and whether you like those possible paths or not. Of course, you can’t predict everything: you may discover a love of management when you think you’re going to be an engineer forever, or invent a new application while doing software development that leads you to start a new company. The important thing is to think past the job offer you’ll hopefully get, be flexible, and start visualizing the career you’d like to have.

Take Action: Make Your Move

By now, you should have your self-evaluation finished, and a few ideal career paths all mapped out. Congratulations: you have a personalized career plan, based on your interests and your skills. Now all that’s left is the hard part: deciding which direction you’d like to take. Your career plan shouldn’t be a dead document. Keep researching jobs that match up with your goals, and keep talking to people about what opportunities they have in their organizations for people who do what you’d rather do all day. Photo by Quinn Dombrowski.

Once you decide on a direction, you’ll have to determine whether or not the first step is something that requires education, a completely new job, or something you can start with your current gig. You may be getting valuable experience now that can lead you to the career you love, given time. Alternatively, it may be time to jump ship and work to the career you want to have, even if it feels like you have no relevant experience.

Regardless of what you choose to do, even if it’s nothing for now, there’s tremendous value in taking stock of your strengths and weaknesses and where you are professionally. You can use that information to make your current job more bearable just as easily as you can use it to find a new direction. Spending a little time making a map of how you want your career to evolve can save you weeks or even years of toiling away in a job or career that brings you no joy.

Are you happy with your career path or are you ready for a change? How are you planning for that change, or if you’ve made the leap, how did you do it? Share your experiences in the comments.

How to Build a Personal Career Plan and Plot a Course Out of Your Dead-End Job |  Alan Henry