Lesson 1: Who Am I and Where Am I Going?


This lesson is intended to help you understand how career decisions are made. We will guide you through the idea of goal setting and encourage you to set goals for this course and beyond. This lesson will also allow you to get to know yourself better, and this is the first step in understanding your career-related interests, abilities, and values. You will explore your family and cultural background to understand how your ideas about work were formed and discover what the important influences in your life have been.


After completing this lesson you should be able to

  1. identify the importance of being active in your own career development;
  2. apply the career decision-making process in your career planning;
  3. examine the importance of setting goals for yourself;
  4. apply your knowledge of goal setting to set goals for the course and beyond; and
  5. discover how to increase your self-knowledge.


College is about many things. You will learn about specific subjects and the world in general, and you will increase your breadth of knowledge through a broad range of new and different experiences. Many will argue that the purpose of college is to gain an education—not to prepare you for a career. This is very true. Consider the vast knowledge you have gained in all areas of your life, whether this is your first or last year in school. But no matter how many valuable educational and personal experiences you gain in the process, it's hard to ignore the reality that looms after graduation. That is why it is so significant that you are enrolled in this course right now. Your professors have an important job to provide you with an education and help you become a well-rounded, educated individual, which leaves the responsibility for keeping up with career issues on your shoulders.

Choosing a Career or Major

Before we start thinking about how to choose a major or career, it makes sense to start with a discussion of how to go about making this decision. You probably have at least one friend who has always had a sense of what they want to do. However, these people are in the minority, and many of them will eventually change their minds. It's important to realize that most people are not born knowing what they want to do with their lives. This is one myth about career development. Here are a few others:

  • Career decision-making is always a rational process.
  • There is one right way to go about choosing a career or major.
  • There is one career or major that is right for you.
  • There is one job that is right for you.
  • Your major will determine the occupation you enter.
  • There are tests that will tell you what occupation you should pursue.
  • Someone else can tell you what occupation to pursue.
  • The sooner you choose a major, the better.

What do you think about these statements? Most of them will be discussed at some point later in the course, but let's look at a few as you begin your own journey.

 Career decision-making is always a rational process.

Career decision-making is not always a rational process. At some point many people take a risk or make a decision based on something unscientific—like intuition. Do you often find that you make decisions based on facts and logic or on gut feelings? As you make decisions you will notice that barriers can sometimes make it more difficult to make a decision in the manner you would like. We will discuss this and more decision-making types later in the course. However, using a rational process to choose a career is often a safe and logical way to start.

 There is one major or career that is right for you.

It might be comforting to think that there is one right major or career for you, and once you find it you're set. The truth is that many people would be happy doing a number of different jobs. A very insightful student once said to me, "You know, I've been thinking about it, and I don't think I was meant to do just one thing in my life." This person had stressed and agonized over the choice of what major to pick, and she realized that she was placing a huge burden on herself.

 Someone else can tell you what occupation to pursue.

Nobody can tell you where you would be happiest—not your friends, your parents, or even a career counselor. Choosing a career path must be something you have an active part in, and ultimately, it is up to you to choose. Scary? It doesn't have to be. We will take you through steps in the decision-making process and give you the support and information you need to make a good decision. This decision may not be made in this course, and in fact shouldn't be! Career development is a lifelong process that will evolve over time as you mature and as your priorities shift.

Seem overwhelming? We'll start at the beginning by identifying the important decisions facing you right now (choosing a major, deciding on occupations to follow, etc.). Setting goals is a good way to clarify what decisions you need to make as well as the best way to make these decisions. This first lesson will focus on identifying decisions, and it will help you learn about yourself. Future lessons will guide you through the rest of the process.

Goal Setting

Many colleges emphasize providing an education over preparing you for the world of work, so a degree alone is not enough to ensure that your occupational journey will begin anytime soon. What you need (in addition to a diploma and the knowledge and skills it embodies) is a plan. If you leave your fate up to chance without a plan, you could end up anywhere. It's grim but true—there are overqualified, underemployed college graduates waiting tables in restaurant in every city in the country, but, even during tough times, there are also grads from every college and university who end up on stellar career paths immediately upon leaving school.

What is a goal?

You may hear the word "goal" interchanged with the word "objective," but these terms have different meanings. Merriam-Webster defines a goal as "the end toward which effort is directed." An objective, on the other hand, is a concept that exists only to help achieve your goals. For example, your goal may be to get a good job after graduation, while the objective that will help you reach that goal is to graduate college. An objective is not an end in itself, and if it does not contribute to your goal, it must be reassessed. A final term that is important to think about is an action step. Action steps are proactive steps you take to get you closer to your goal. While many things in your life are outside of your control, action steps are not.

The Secret: Set Goals

Do you have goals for yourself and the future? You may have some general ideas about things you want to accomplish, but is that enough? Are your goals written down? Let's face it—goal setting is not the most exciting thing you'll ever do. You might find it boring or unglamorous. It might also be stressful to think about where you are headed. So why set career-related goals?

Take a moment to close your eyes and think about where you would like to be ten years from now. Let your mind take you through a typical day. Where do you wake up? Are you in a city or a smaller town? Is anyone with you? When do you leave for work? Where do you work? Is it an office? Is it your own business? Do you work outdoors? How do you get there? Picture what your work environment looks like, think about the people you are working with, and think about what types of tasks you are doing. Don't worry about specific work duties—go for the bigger picture. What time do you get off of work? What do you do when you get home? What do you see when you examine your future?

After completing this exercise some people realize they have a pretty clear picture of what they want their life to look like. If you are taking this course, chances are you are still undecided about your career path, so it may be a pretty vague picture. Try to focus on what you were able to see. Did you see a family? Did you own a house? Maybe you saw yourself working in an office or outdoors. Perhaps you were in graduate school. You may have left work at 5:00, or maybe you stayed until 7:00. These are all related to careers. This picture may change over time, but it gives you some ideas about what you want your life to look like and what you want to get out of work. Even if you don't know exactly what you want from college (or after college), you probably have some idea of what things are important to you and what you hope to gain from your time spent in school.

Focus on the picture you have of the future even if it is unclear. Think about what is important to you. Do you want to own a home in ten years? The best way to get a clearer picture of where you want to be is by setting goals. This will help ensure that you are not still in college in ten years and that you are in the career you desire.

Just as you would use a map or a set of directions to lead you to a particular destination, you can use steps to help you reach your goals. For example, I would like to go to the beach. However, knowing that I want to go to the beach is not enough. There are a number of steps I need to take in the meantime to get there. If I were to pack up my bags tomorrow and leave for vacation without a plan in mind, what would happen? I wouldn't make it very far, and I would probably be pretty disappointed when I ended up somewhere else. Moving along without setting goals is a bit like taking a vacation without a map. You can't expect to end up at the beach without a plan for how to get there—there must be steps in the middle. Let's say on my way from Missouri I decide to stop for gas in Tennessee or spend the night in Alabama. Without an end goal and a timeframe to work with, I might get sidetracked and ultimately end up at the wrong destination. If I then wake up a week later in Tennessee, and realize I never made it to Alabama, I will probably be pretty disappointed! Mapping your career path is done in a similar way. It will help you avoid detours and get quickly back on track after being distracted. If I know I want to choose a major by May, it will help keep me focused. There may be challenges along the way that prevent me from reaching that goal, but at least I'm headed in the right direction. Even better, reaching the goal becomes more manageable if I determine small steps along the way to help me reach that goal.

In the final lesson you will learn about how to make important, career-related decisions. It will be important to take your goals into account when making these decisions. You may be thinking that you can't make goals for your future career if you don't even know what you want to do yet. First of all, we want to assure you that you are not the only one who isn't sure what you want to do. Many students are unsure about what career they would like. Secondly, the first step in creating goals it just to begin thinking about the things you may want to do.

How do I set goals?

Consider the following criteria for setting goals:

  1. Is the goal conceivable and capable of being put into words?
  2. Is the goal believable to the person setting it?
  3. Does the person have the strength, energy, and time to achieve the goal?
  4. Is the goal measurable? Does it have time and accomplishment outcomes?
  5. Is the goal desirable?
  6. Is the goal flexible enough to allow shifts over time?

An effective career plan requires you to set both long-term and short-term goals. Long-term goals give you a clearer idea of the things to accomplish in the long run as they are usually integral to your life. Short-term goals are the steps taken to reach the long-term goals. Short-term goals are achievable within a relatively short period of time (usually six months to a year). Short-term goals may also be accomplished daily or within a month.

For example, your short-term goal may be to acquire a minimum-wage job while simultaneously pursuing a post-secondary education in preparation for a career, or your short-term goal might be to take on several part-time jobs until you find a stable full-time job. A long-term goal takes much more time to reach. For example, if your long-term goal is to become a doctor, then you need to set aside eight years out of your life to pursue a medical career. Identify your goal, and then list steps that enable you to reach the goal. Intermediate steps should be listed on a minuscule basis. List every step necessary to reach your goal using as many details as possible. Include in the steps any necessary course work, training, and preparation that might be required in order to enter the occupation. Goals are more effective when they are periodically evaluated to determine if they are realistic and attainable. They should be modified whenever necessary.

Learn About Yourself

Setting goals satisfies the first step in the decision-making process by identifying the decisions you hope to make in the future. The next important step is to know yourself in order to understand what will influence the choices we make and what decisions would be most satisfying to us.

Where do I come from?

Our family gives us many things. If we're lucky, they give us love, support, and security, but they are also critical to our growth and our development of beliefs. Before exploring your current interests, abilities, and values, it is important to understand what has influenced these parts of us. Each of us has a background and individual set of experiences that has shaped who we are today. Read the following examples and think about how family and background can affect career choices.

Tiffany is a Latina female from the Texas/Mexico border. She is the oldest of eight children. Her father is a mechanic, and her mother stays at home to raise Tiffany's siblings. In high school, Tiffany's English teacher told her she was smart and encouraged her to go to college. None of her friends intended to go to college, and as a senior, she tried to hide the fact that she was applying. When she told her parents of her plan to attend college, they were supportive but open about preferring that she stay close to home. With the support of her teacher, scholarships, and financial aid, she began attending a large state university. She declared her major as English because she always enjoyed writing and thought she needed to make a decision quickly. She is unsure of whether she chose the right major, but she doesn't feel comfortable talking to anyone about it. Her parents expect her to return to her hometown after graduation to help support her younger brothers and sisters. They advise her to major in education so she can find a good job in the area. They question what she will do with an English major, and they sometimes encourage her to leave school since she is unsure of her major.

What might be some of Tiffany's major concerns? What factors are influencing her decisions about her education and career? If you were Tiffany, what would you do? Tiffany's culture and family have influenced her career choices as family is very central to Tiffany's life. In this first example, the subject comes from a specific culture and ethnicity; however, background does not apply only to racial and ethnic minorities. Consider this second scenario:

David is a sophomore at the same college as Tiffany, and he has not declared a major. He comes from an upper-middle-class family where his father worked in an office and his mother stayed at home to raise him and his two sisters. His father often came home from work grumpy, complained about his job, and he often reminded his children that he grew up on welfare and now worked exclusively to make money to support the family. David wants to choose political science as a major, but his parents question the kind of jobs that will be available to him after graduation. They would like to see him pursue an engineering degree, because he is good at math and would be paid well after graduation. David worries about this too. He grew up in a time when his parents were relatively well off. He is not sure what he will earn when he graduates, but he expects to be able to afford the same luxuries he has now. David is also hesitant to pick a major because he doesn't want to make the wrong choice and be stuck in a job he dislikes as his father was.

If you were David, what might some of your concerns be when choosing a major? What do you think his family would say if he chose a liberal arts major, like political science, which doesn't necessarily lead to a specific career? How does David's background influence the way he views careers? How are Tiffany and David similar? Do you identify with either of their experiences?

Many people think of choosing a major or career as an isolated decision; however, it is a choice that affects every part of our lives. In turn, the decisions we make about careers are influenced by every part of our lives. Family, social class, location, and ethnicity all affect how we think about our career choices.

Although no one can tell you what major or career you should choose, it is likely that others will be affected by your decision in some way. You might have parents' expectations in mind. Your friends' reactions might also be important. You may have, or hope to eventually have, a family to support, and they will be affected by the choices you make. In the United States we often emphasize individuality and forget that many people are very connected with family and friends. The purpose of discussing background is not to make you feel more burdened by the decision you are making, but to identify factors that tend to make your decisions more complex.

Study Questions

Drag each of the steps of the decision-making process to their correct position in the list.

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