Choosing a Career

An unconventional approach.

Posted Mar 14, 2019

pxhere, public domain
Source: pxhere, public domain

Most people end up in their career sub-optimally:

  • They fall into their careers by chance.
  • They pick from a few common choices: doctor lawyer, teacher, electrician, psychologist, etc.
  • With a career advisor, human, video, computer, or text, they inventory, abilities, skills, interests (if they have them, passions), and values.

The latter approach would seem optimal, but it’s not:

  • It too often yields unrealistic goals. For example, the person dreams of making a solid living as an environmentalist, performer, sports executive, or visual artist. Unless you’re brilliant, talented, connected, or dogged—ideally all the above—they will soon discover why the words “starving” and “artist” so often adjoin.
  • Most careers don’t require a narrowly constrained set of attributes. For example, there are introverted and extroverted psychotherapists, brilliant and merely workmanlike ones, sciencey and feeling-oriented ones.
  • There are tens of thousands of careers, most that have many variants. Even with a computer to screen careers, you’ll be (not very validly) matched to a few from just a few hundred. Much better fits could remain buried.

A better way?

An approach that would seem to balance ease with accuracy starts by answering two questions.

1. On standardized tests such as the SAT or intelligence tests, do you typically score:

a) Above the 90th percentile

b) Between the 60th and 90th percentile

c) Below the 60th percentile

I am well aware that certain activists dismiss the value of such tests, but fact is they’re the best predictor of job performance and seem particularly valuable in determining whether one should choose an intellectually demanding career such as data scientist or lawyer, one requiring moderately high ability such as social worker or teacher, or one that’s less demanding, which exist not just in the trades but even in white-collar professions, like sales representative or manager of lower-level employees.

2. Are you extremely good with one or maybe two of these:

a) Words, writing and/or verbal communication.

b) Numbers. STEM careers are number-centric. 

c) People. Not just chatting, but influencing people. Of course, that’s key for psychologists but also for any job demanding a substantial change in people, such as manager, salesperson, or law enforcement.

d) Artistic. The bar is highest here. Not only is there an oversupply of artistic types for middle-income paying jobs, but technology and offshoring are further reducing the number of decent-paying artistic jobs in the U.S.

e) Entrepreneurialism: the ability and drive to unearth unmet needs, buy low and sell high ethically, be assiduous and smart in controlling costs, have the uncommon sense to solve the self-employed person’s myriad problems and the quick resilience to learn from failures before the business’s lifeblood—money—runs out.

f) Office detail. The eager willingness to check that every t is crossed and i dotted. That ability is useful in everything from accounting to quality control to regulatory compliance.

In light of your answers to just those two questions plus your gut feeling, which of the following 29 careers, selected from the 340 in my book Careers for Dummies, feel worth investigating? These careers score well on the following criteria: Many people enjoy the career, the job market is likely to remain good enough that a middle-class living in a popular city is a realistic possibility.

One or more of these careers may call out to you but not end up being a wise career choice. Exploring them, if only with some savvy Google-searching, could unearth a side-path career that you might otherwise not be aware of.  For example, the client who just left my office was attracted to being an audiologist, but on learning that a doctorate is now required, rejected it. But in reading about that career, he learned that audiology assistants, with average earning of $60,000+ in his geographic location, require only a high school diploma to qualify for on-the-job training. He’s excited.

Because the Psychology Today readership is well-educated, 27 of these 29 careers require a bachelor’s or graduate degree. I list them in rough order of what I’d guess would appeal to the most Psychology Today readers.

Counselor with a specialty. We live in an era of ever greater specialization. So I envision increased need for counselors who specialize for example, in interracial relationships, transsexuals, men’s issues, anger management, and substance abuse. More info: American Counseling Association.

School Psychologist. They work mainly one-on-one with kids with a wide range of problems, coordinating with teachers and parents, and enjoy the benefits of the short school year at pay that’s usually better than teachers.’  More info: National Association of School Psychologists.

Physician Assistant. As we attempt to “cover” more people, the physician assistant will increasingly be our first-line health care provider, thus this career will likely burgeon. PAs get to do 80% of what physicians do—the easier 80%—with a fraction of the training and the cost. Yet you can expect to earn six figures. American Academy of Physician Assistants.

Higher Education Administrator. Despite the accelerating cost and criticism of higher education, the institution seems to continue to grow. Certainly, higher education administration is large, some would say bloated. That’s good news for you, the career-seeker: From recruitment to research, diversity to fundraising, colleges and universities have ample administrative staffs. College Administrator.

Dental Hygienist.  This is another not-offshorable career, this one not requiring a bachelor’s. Many hygienists enjoy having a captive audience to chat with (mainly one-way). It’s another health career with a high success rate—although not necessarily in getting all patients to floss twice a day. What is a Dental Hygienist?

Social Worker. This job can be draining, but niches are likely to be especially rewarding, for example, adoption specialist. The New Social Worker.

Health Coach. This is the next-generation fitness coach. Inventorying your stress, exercise, diet, substance abuse, and sleep, the health coach, gently or not so gently tries to whip you into shape. This relatively new field is already getting crowded, so it may help to specialize. I have a client who has a rare musculosketal disease and is a health coach to fellow sufferers. How to Become a Health Coach.

Patient Advocate. Receiving a serious diagnosis can be overwhelming, exacerbated by difficulties in getting to see needed specialists and treatments, to get the government or private insurer to cover them, and then to make heads-or-tails of bills. Enter the patient advocate. Patient Advocate Foundation.

Tutor. Many people are attracted to teaching but not to the task of managing let alone teaching 25 at once. They might want to consider a career as a tutor: whether for an in- or after-school program sponsored by a public or private school, after-school tutoring center, or independently. If the latter, they might get clients on wyzant.com or tutor.com, by networking with local parents or teachers, or giving talks at PTA meetings. Tutor Certification and Tutoring Careers.

Interior designer. This career lies partway between the difficult-and-difficult-to-make-a-living career of architect and the fun-but-difficult-to-make-a-living career of interior decorator. Because it requires a dollop of both architecture and decorating skill, you may paradoxically find it a bit easier to, ahem, design a living in this career. Interior Designers.

Government manager. Federal, state, county, district, and city government hire a wide range of managers. And a General Accountability Office study found that for many positions, federal pay now exceeds their private-sector equivalent. And government jobs usually come with solid benefits and nonpareil job security. To get a sense of the range of federal job, search on “manager” at the federal jobs website.

Estate Attorney. This may be one of the more satisfying legal careers. Unless you’re an estate litigator, you’re mainly about helping people plan their legacy and avoid giving their hard-earned money to the government. Choosing a Career as a Trusts and Estate Attorney.

Haircutter. This is one of the few careers I’m profiling here that doesn’t require a college degree. I’m doing so because it usually scores near the top in job-satisfaction surveys: You succeed with nearly every customer and work in a pleasant environment in which chatting is encouraged. How to Become a Hairstylist.

Athletic Coach. Most coaches I know love their jobs. You mold young people within the context of doing something they love. Most high school coaches need to be full-time teachers during the day and coach after school. Choosing Athletic Coaching as a Career Path.

Specialty Librarian. No need to be mousy, just an information and helping junkie who enjoys the (usually) peaceful environment of a library, which in the case of many publics, has become a community hub for activities from talks to music.  It may be easier to land a job in a specialty such as law or medicine than a general library.

Surveyor. I spoke with the head of a large state’s apprenticeship department and he said that if his child asked, “What apprenticeship is best?” he’d lean toward surveying: outdoors, using high-tech as well as low-tech devices, and not hard on the body. All About Surveying.

Grant Proposal Writer. From genetics to education, ever more money to fund innovative programs is distributed by a grant from government, foundations and other nonprofits. A proposal writer, employed by a potential grant recipient, reviews requests for proposals, consults staff to identify ideas for the proposal, writes the proposal, and liaises with the funder to maximize chances of funding. The Grantmanship Center.

Program Evaluator.  The funder of the aforementioned grants, in an attempt to determine bang for buck, usually requires the program to be evaluated.  Evaluators identify ways to improve programs as well as to guide the funder’s decision to expand, contract, or stop funding them. American Evaluation Association.

Online Training Developer. Online training is ever more desirable as an employer’s workers are more likely to be in far-flung locations, online and video tools are improving, and there’s the potential cost-saving of buying a video-based training course one time and using it again and again. For example, Golden Gate University recently hired me to teach a course in career counseling. Before I could begin, like all new hires, I was required to take a two-hour online sexual harassment training course and a two-hour course on diversity and inclusion. They were on video, complete with tests. That course is sold to thousands of employers at a tiny fraction of the cost of live trainings. The market for online course developers should be robust. Creating Online Courses: Step by Step.

Landscape Architect. This is an enticing career of creation for outdoorsy and plant-loving designer-types. It must be noted however that in an economic slowdown, this field could get especially pruned because it’s often a non-essential spend. American Society of Landscape Architects.

Optometrist or Audiologist. You get to be a doctor in three to four year post-bachelor’s degree and are in a high-demand field with a high cure rate, regular hours, and solid six-figure expected income. Optometry: A Career GuideCareers in Audiology.

Physical Therapist. This is another three-year-post-bachelor’s field. Your job is increasingly mainly as a developer of treatment plans in concert with an MD and perhaps other health professional. The repetitive routine work is now typically done by physical therapy assistants and aides. American Physical Therapy Association.

Biomedical equipment technician. To take but one example, medical imaging has come a long way from X-rays to today’s fMRI, and will progress far more, reducing the need for invasive diagnosis. Technicians and technologists will continue to be needed to manufacture, install, maintain, and repair these complicated life-savers. Wikipedia entry.

Robotics Technician. Again and again, we hear, “The robots are coming. The robots are coming!” How many and how fast remains unclear but no one believes they’re not coming. Hence the job market will likely be strong for hands-on, electrically interested people. Robotics Technicians.

Electric Vehicle Technician. Hybrid cars are already ubiquitous and becoming more so. Soon, all-electrics also will be, from scooters to cars, buses to trucks. Techs will be needed to maintain existing vehicles and be part of the team developing next-generation ones. Tesla Start Program.

Electrical Engineer. Most new products require electrical engineers—from the next iPhone to manned spacecraft. Occupational Outlook Handbook--Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

Software Engineer. This is the current term for computer programmer. You teach computers to perform tasks that would be difficult, expensive, or impossible to do without a computer. Of course, in addition to being a coder, there are supervisory positions that can rise to C-level, for example, Chief Technology Officer. Learn About Being a Software Engineer.

Data Scientist. Whether it’s collecting, structuring, or preparing data for machine-learning computers, or translating results into actionable recommendations, data science is one of the few fields that are virtually sure to remain important throughout even a young person’s workspan. Why Data Science is the Career of the Future.