This is a question we rarely escape in our youth and, if we are being honest with ourselves, something most adults grapple with from time to time.
The 21st Century world of work is evolving quickly and the concept of a "linear" career is quickly coming to an end.
What this means is that deciding what one wants to do with one's life has become an increasingly complex choice. There is rarely a single, straightforward path to most careers and the options for employment continue to grow. Freelance work abounds and employment sectors such as data science and software engineering didn't even exist as recently as a few decades ago.
As I serve graduate students and postdocs in my role at NC State University, I will highlight resources and tools of particular interest to this group.
Career Exploration Resources for Ph.D.s
One great resource is ImaginePhD, developed by the Graduate Career Consortium.
Taking online skills and interests assessments through ImaginePhD, myIDP, or myPath, among others, is the first step in the career exploration process.
Your interests and skills then map on to potential job families which you need to further explore to determine which careers in those families may fit your values and other parameters important to you - work/life balance, salary, autonomy, work travel requirements, etc...
For example, from ImaginePhD my top interests include helping others, connecting ideas from different fields, and meeting and connecting people. My top skills include working with limited supervision, working as part of a team, and contributing to an institution.
These map on to the job families of Higher Education Administration (which I am in now), Communications, Public Relations, & Marketing, and Training.
ImaginePhD also has a nice career exploration worksheet you can print out and hang somewhere prominent to remind you of potential careers that align with your skills, interests, and values. It also, importantly, emphasizes the next steps required in your career exploration process.
After you have identified some job families you are interested in learning more about, ImaginePhD allows you to explore potential career fields further through a variety of resources including lists of common job titles in the field, sample job descriptions, job simulation information from InterSECT Job Simulations, profiles/interviews from people working in the field, and more.
ImaginePhD also offers for each job family a list of resources to allow you to connect with professionals in that field. These include links to online groups (from LinkedIn) as well as national organizations that may have local chapters in your area. The connection step is critical as it allows you to begin the important process of meeting people who work in the field, learning about the typical tasks they focus on in their work, company culture, etc...this is informational interviewing (& see).
Informational Interviewing Tips
See them all on the General Resources section of the ImaginePhD site
There are also sections for each job family from ImaginePhD focused on skill building - how to get the experiences and expertise needed to be competitive for jobs in that family. These resources include links to webinars and online courses, publications, and more.
When it comes time to apply for jobs, ImaginePhD has example application documents for each job family, links to job boards, and articles with valuable tips on making a great impression with your application materials.
To summarize, the concept of career exploration is thinking about how your skills and interests intersect with something the world needs and will pay you to do. This process helps you find your reason for being or ikigai in Japanese.
Tools such as ImaginePhD can help you begin to map out your reason for being but the process of finding a career fit that is right for you also takes some deep self-reflection.
You often need to listen to your gut and not overly rationalize a career choice. If you have some internal feeling of doubt/concern about a potential career path, it could be nerves, but it could also be your body telling you it might not be the best fit. Really, you need to integrate the rationale side of you with your emotions and "instincts" to make smart career decisions.
For Ph.D.s, it is hard to dismiss the "typical" path of pursuing a faculty career. However, you really need to decide if you want the lifestyle that comes with a faculty career. There are obviously many forms of faculty careers from primarily doing research and writing grants to primarily teaching. Irregardless, if you find it difficult to envision yourself as being happy in the role, you shouldn't pursue this path just because you have been "trained" to do it.
Personally, this happened with me. I was applying for faculty jobs at large, research-intensive universities but had this lingering doubt that I didn't really want to spend my time conceptualizing projects, working on grant proposals, and writing papers all day.
There are plenty of career options for Ph.D.-trained researchers. Tools like ImaginePhD and other IDP-planning resources can help you begin to discover what those other career options are.
I believe everyone has a unique set of skills that contribute value to the world. The key is discovering how they map onto your interests and values and can lead to meaningful and fulfilling work.