Six Small Steps on the Way to a Plan

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 19, 2007

Career planning can be overwhelming.

So many of the decisions can be so . . . huge. Should you switch jobs, or is a whole new career in order? Move across the country in hopes of scoring a raise, a more modest cost of living, or maybe just regular hours? Perhaps you're thinking of dropping out of the workforce for a while to concentrate on family or go to grad school.

There are so many options. It's easy to understand why many people get stuck in jobs they don't love, with salaries they don't find satisfying.

But it doesn't always have to be about the big decisions. Here are six relatively small things you can do right now to jump-start your career:

· Update your résumé. I don't mean start from scratch, trying to come up with a fresh design or reorganize everything. But at least once a year, take an hour to pull up your résumé, make sure your contact information and employment information are up to date, and add any new skills or achievements. Prune information that isn't relevant anymore. If you have been in the workforce more than a year or two, that generally means anything that happened in college, unless you had a particularly impressive internship or some wildly prestigious honor.

· Sign up for a class. Going back to school does not have to mean committing to a full-fledged degree program. Start small, with one class. And if at all possible, take this class in person. Online classes are a great way to acquire information, but they aren't ideal for people unsure of their next move. A classroom is a great way to expand your network, and depending on your personality, that weekly face-to-face meeting can be just what you need to keep your enthusiasm going. This one class will also let you test the waters for pursuing a degree. Much better to find out if a program is really for you by taking one class at night than by quitting your job and signing up full time. This method is also much cheaper, especially if your employer will pick up part of the tab. Always ask; many do.

· Take a test. I bet you thought those days were over, huh? Well, this is a different kind of test, one designed to help you tease out which professions would best suit you, depending on your personality. Variations of such tests abound online, including many that are specifically related to career choices. Don't expect such tests to tell you point-blank what to do with your life. However, they are a cheap, easy way to get some ideas, often for careers you hadn't considered. Such tests are also commonly offered in career-service offices at colleges and universities.

· Join a professional association. Whatever field you're in (or want to be in), there probably is a professional association for its workers. Even better: If you live in the Washington area, the group is probably local. Many of them are, to facilitate their lobbying work. Student and junior memberships are often available at deep discounts, so don't let cost be an obstacle. The contacts that such a group can provide are invaluable, and their members-only job boards offer a far more efficient way to hunt for jobs online than the big, general job boards.

· Check in with your references. Now is the best time to give them a call -- when you don't need them to help you get a specific job. It's important to stay in touch. This is especially true if your list of references still includes college professors. They need to know what you're up to lately, not just that you did a great job on that term paper three years ago.

· Try a little moonlight. If you're considering a radical career change, consider starting part time or in a volunteer position while keeping your "day job." It might not be the same job you're coveting, particularly if specialized education or training is involved, but working in a similar environment could help you figure out if the new field is a good fit. And if it doesn't work out, you won't have to come up with a new way to pay the rent.

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