When it comes to career planning, the undergraduate years can be a very confusing time. You must simultaneously figure out what you want to do as a career AND make plans (usually far in advance) to complete the requirements to move into the career. Often, you’re on your own to gather the information you need to make the decision. The problem is that, often, students don’t have a clear idea of what they want to do until fairly late in college (or, their ideas change). But, students who wait until junior or senior year to plan for the next step will often find they will be delayed in making that step. Planning well in advance is key to being ready to step off toward the career of your choice after college.
Talk to people who can advise you about careers.
Unless you’re an exceptionally well-informed student, you generally don’t arrive at college knowing how to get to where you want to be. That’s why you are assigned an academic advisor (either a staff or faculty member). This person is there to help guide you to finding the information you need to plan for your degree completion and your career path. (Note: I said “guide you to find,” not “give you.”) But, it’s always a good idea to solicit more than one opinion – where they agree, you can be more confident that the information is accurate. (If they disagree, you can: investigate on your own; ask a third party; or, decide who is more likely to be a reliable reference for the information.) Your collection of “advisors” should initially include both your academic advisor and a faculty member in your field with whom you can develop a good relationship. You should start talking with these advisors about your career intentions as early as possible, and revisit the conversations several times a year. Ask these advisors how to find information about what you’ll need to do, and when, to complete your degree and work toward your career. After you’ve found this information, assemble a plan to complete these activities – include important coursework and other career-prep activities like entrance exams (GRE, MCAT, LSAT, etc.) and undergraduate research. Ask them to look over your timeline to see if anything seems unusual or impractical, and if they have any suggestions for improving it.
As you identify careers that are interesting to you, ask your advisors (again, more than one) about their opinion on the suitability of the career for you. Ask them whether they know anyone – colleagues, friends, former students – in the field, and request that they introduce you by email so you can ask questions. If they do this, BE SURE TO FOLLOW UP! (It is very rude to request such a favor and then ignore it, and the advisor will not be inclined to help you in the future.) Be sure you’ve prepared some specific questions – don’t just ask them to tell you about the job. You can ask about: the path(s) to the career; what sort of academic coursework or other experience is required or recommended; what they like and dislike about the job; what they find hardest about the job; and, what advice they might have for someone interested in pursuing that career. If you’re still interested after hearing their responses, it could be good to also ask them whether they can point you to opportunities to sample the field as a type of intern or volunteer to help you better understand the career. Getting to talk to someone in the field can be very helpful.
IDPs are for everyone – including undergraduates.
An Individual Development Plan (IDP) is a tool that you can use to assess your strengths, weaknesses, and interests. You can read more about how IDPs are useful for undergraduates here. The value of an IDP is that it helps guide you to identify what knowledge, skills, and experiences you need to acquire to progress to your intended career. Properly developing an IDP takes a while, but the time investment is well worth it.
Hedge your bets to leave yourself options.
Identify several career paths that you think you’d enjoy. Work toward the one you’re most interested in, but as far as possible, position yourself to easily switch to pursue one of the others if you change your mind. Even if you’re absolutely sure you know what you want to do, this will only cost you a little bit of thinking time and perhaps some online research and chatting with an advisor. If you suddenly decide you can’t or don’t want to pursue that career that you’ve been so focused on, being positioned to easily change course will be invaluable.
For example, if you think you’d really like to work as a science writer when you get your bachelor’s degree, but you’re wondering about graduate school – be sure to BOTH take the classes you think you need for the science writing job AND the classes you need for graduate school in your favorite field. Even if you’re not sure, prepare for the GRE (the exam you need to take to apply to graduate school). If you think you might be interested in a particular training program or job, and you know a specific course or experience is a prerequisite for it – take the course, as long as it doesn’t knock out something you need to complete your degree.
Often, identifying what these prerequisites are is very challenging on your own. To get some guidance for this, it’s important that you talk with an experienced professional – or even better, more than one. Good career advisors include: people who are actively working in your career of choice; academic and career advisors at your school; and professors and staff with whom you have a good relationship. We have a lot more information about how to get career advising below.
Know what you need to do, and by when
Especially if you think you want to continue your schooling after your bachelor’s degree, there are a number of activities beyond simply completing your degree that you must complete for a successful graduate school application. To make things more complex, several of these activities require a series of sequential steps that often can’t be hurried. For example: to apply to a PhD program, you must have your GRE scores. You can determine the optimal timing for this as follows:
If you want to start a PhD program in the fall after you graduate with your bachelor’s degree, you need to apply about 1 year in advance – that is, the fall before you graduate. To have a complete application, you need to have taken the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) early enough that you have your scores before you apply. The scores take a couple weeks to receive and you may not be satisfied with the scores from the first time you take the exam, so you should take the GRE in the winter before you apply (that is, winter of junior year); that will give you time to prepare more and retake the exam if you’re unhappy with your first scores. To be ready to take the GRE, you should have done some practice and prep work; this should be in the summer or fall before you take the exam. That means that, if you want to start grad school the year after you graduate, you should be preparing for the exam just before your junior year.
If necessary, this timeline might be possibly condensed a bit– perhaps your target school has a later application deadline, or perhaps you don’t need to retake the exam, or you don’t need much time to prepare. But, it’s certainly best to not have to rely on those circumstances. And, the GRE is only one part of a complete graduate school application – you also need to be sure you’re completing prerequisite coursework, asking for letters of recommendation, and writing your essays in a timely way for your application deadline. And, if you’re interested in medical or vet school, there are many more things to complete to be prepared to apply on time.
This planning isn’t only important for students looking to continue schooling, though. For example, if you’re interested in a particular job, there may be a specific course they want to see on your transcript, or they may want to see that you had an internship in the field.
You may be asking yourself “How can I be expected to know all this information so early in my college career?” Our answer is: talking to your advisors early and often.
Do your best academic work and take challenging classes.
This may seem to be a no-brainer, but it’s worth reiterating. Work hard to do your best academically, especially in math and science courses and especially in upper-level courses. If you have a bad freshman year, but recover to excel in your later years, most programs and employers will see the evidence of overcoming initial challenges – although it’s not ideal. Although math and science courses are most important for your career, don’t ignore the humanities and social sciences. These courses do contribute to your GPA and your overall background knowledge. Many of these courses are now relevant for the revised MCAT, and there is a surprising level of interaction among very different disciplines with science. (For example: knowing how to use illustration and graphics software will make you a star for making figures in grad school; the application of ethics courses is obvious; the ability to clearly communicate your thoughts in an engaging way is amazingly valuable; and here, a science faculty used dramatic performance to help improve the effectiveness of some science learning)
Seek opportunities and experiences that will help you better define what you want to do
Talk to people in various fields whenever you can. Pursue opportunities for undergraduate research, volunteering, and shadowing to understand the typical activities of people in careers of interest to you. Attend science and career seminars, conferences, and workshops, and mingle with the attendees and presenters.
We will continue to be developing this post to provide resources for undergraduate students. If you have advice or know of resources you think should be represented here, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.