How to Be a Strategic Career Explorer

Posted January 20, 2015 by
Mark Skoskiewicz

Mark Skoskiewicz, Founder of MyGuru

Whether you’re concerned with success in high school, college, a job search, or a specific career, it turns out that who you are (your background, skills, talents, etc.) is actually less important than what you do (the strategies you follow, plans you put in place, and effort you expend). Most people don’t necessarily find this intuitively true, but lots of research has been done to back up the point.

Here’s the main point of this article. You need to manage your academic life and professional career like a CEO manages a business: by researching, developing, and implementing strategies.

“It turns out that even brilliant, highly accomplished people are pretty lousy when it comes to understanding why they succeed or fail. The intuitive answer — that you are born predisposed to certain talents and lacking in others — is really just one small piece of the puzzle. In fact, decades of research on achievement suggests that successful people reach their goals not simply because of who they are, but more often because of what they do.”

Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, who researches motivation and success

I currently own and operate a tutoring company called MyGuru, and I frequently see the most successful students planning farther in advance, developing customized study plans to address their particular situations, and proactively navigating a syllabus to truly understand where to place time and effort to maximize their chances of getting a good grade. Before MyGuru, I worked as a strategy consultant. In that role, I saw that the most successful, satisfied employees got out in front of the staffing (i.e., how and why you get placed on any given consulting project) and review (i.e., how highly ranked you are relative to your peers given the “competencies” you have displayed) processes to understand the criteria being used. They learned how these processes worked, and took steps sooner rather than later to position themselves favorably in them.

What these students and young professionals are doing is using strategies to be successful. The most helpful definition of a strategy that I’ve found is “a set of choices about what you will and will not do to reach a goal.” Being strategic is about knowing, roughly, where you’d like to go, assessing the situation, and making a series of conscious choices about how to get there. This can be contrasted with an approach where you try your hardest, but more or less do what everyone else seems to be doing, and listen to the advice provided by teachers, counselors, recruiters, and company leaders without challenging or investigating it to more fully understand important nuances.

A generic approach for acting strategically in the context of exploring and preparing for any given career would include:

1. Set goals early regarding what career(s) you think you might want to pursue (even if you have more than one, aren’t sure, and change goals a few times)

a.  For students unsure of what they want to do, this might be the hardest step
b. However, only by forcing yourself to make some early decisions can you do the research necessary to begin to learn whether that’s truly a good path for you
c.  You can always pivot and change the goal eventually
d.  Your goal could be a specific career, or a type of career, or even an optimal mix of salary, hours, and travel (learning the option open for many different careers that fit the bill)

2. Proactively explore the facts about that career(s) through web-research and perhaps informational interviews:

a. What is the typical day of an entry level person in this career(s)?
b. What is the required travel, compensation, average number of hours, etc.?
c. What companies employ people in this career?
d. What majors do people in these careers pursue?
e. What skills and capabilities do employers seem to look for?
f.  What activities seem to be valued on resumes?

3. Create a list of issues and opportunities around that career(s) given your particular situation

a. How well does your current background fit with what you’re reading about?
b. Does the average compensation, number of hours, and travel align with what would make you happy?
c. Are there clear strengths that you can build upon to land a job in this career, or significant weaknesses you need to address (leadership on your resume, GPA, etc.)
d. Who could you talk to find out more, get an internship, etc.?

4. Create a few different alternative ways you could go about preparing for that career

a. Typically, there is more than one type of job within a given career area for you to choose. What are your options?
b. What majors are both attractive to employers in this career and attractive to you based on your interests?
c. What is the long list of extracurricular activities you could pursue to enhance your resume in the eyes of employers?
d. Is there a set of activities you could be pursuing (i.e., community service, leadership experience, etc.) that would actually position you well for a wide variety of careers or graduate school experiences? Often the answer is yes.

5. Make a plan of attack, even if you might change it, and begin to work towards that plan

a. Depending on your age (freshman in college vs. two years out of college), you might be more or less confident that you’ve even started with the right career goal…
b. …however, use your best judgment and all of the available data to at least begin to make a plan that pushes you in a direction.
c. At a minimum, as you make choices and work towards specific goals, you’ll begin to learn whether you’re on the right path for you, not whether you need to reconsider your decisions to-date

About the Author

Mark Skoskiewicz founded MyGuru, a boutique provider of 1-1 tutoring and test prep, in 2009, while earning his MBA from Northwestern University. A former economics tutor at Indiana University, he believes strongly not only in the power of customized 1-1 instruction, but more importantly in the power of mindset, strategic planning, and proper study habits in creating general academic, standardized testing, and professional/career success. He is the author of a forthcoming book on how to prepare for standardized tests: Plan, Prepare, Perform. MyGuru has a unique office hours membership program which provides on-demand online tutoring, mentoring, admissions guidance from its team of expert coaches, as well as steep discounts on online test prep services, for a flat, low monthly fee.

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