Defining Your Career on Your Terms

I can't remember when I started thinking about my career. I know it wasn't when I was in university. Maybe not even during my NYSC year, I was too busy wishing the year away.

Like most young kids, I remember being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I chose something that would let me get away from the dreaded Math course and didn't involve Chemistry or Physics. For me, the decision was relatively easy, I was going to study something in the Arts & Humanities or Social Sciences. I eventually settled on Mass Communication.

As a Mass Communication student, my choices were either to work in print, become a broadcaster or work in PR & advertising (social media and marketing as we know it today did not exist at the time). I went through the motions of school and even interned at NTA for the summer of my 2nd year, yet I wasn't thinking about my career. What would it mean for me to be either a broadcaster, advertiser, or publicist? Would I enjoy doing the job on a daily basis and for a long time? To be honest, beyond thinking about getting a job after University (I always said a job with a nonprofit), I didn't really get into the specifics of what I wanted to do or where I wanted my career to go (epic fail).

I know for a fact that my story isn't that much different from other young Nigerian professionals. We grew up/are growing up in a system that encourages us to get an education, but doesn't really teach us about preparing for a career we'll enjoy or even provide opportunities after graduation from University. Hopefully, you've being smarter than I was and started thinking about your career sooner than I did (1st year of University or even earlier). But if you haven't and find yourself wondering what to do with yourself after graduation, during or post NYSC, fret not! It is never too late to figure it out and take charge of your career, you just need to get into the right mindset. Here's what you need to know to get started:

Understand that your career is exactly just that - yours!

You get to choose what your career is going to be. This doesn't mean that you'll have your entire professional journey figured out. In fact, you should maintain a level of flexibility and openness to explore opportunities that come your way. However, you can and should decide what you want to do and how to make it happen. 

Now you might be thinking, 'what if I wanted to be a doctor, but Naija system and Jamb did not allow me to read medicine?' Better yet, 'what if my parents forced me to read a course I wasn't interested in?' These might be situations that may have derailed you from what you envisioned for yourself, but I firmly believe that no knowledge is wasted. You just need to get creative and look for new ways to apply it.  You might not be able to practice medicine, but there are other ways to save lives. 


This worksheet features step by step prompts to help you focus on the things you enjoy doing, and helps you use this information to define your career path.

*This template is also available in the Library*

Define your what, how and why

For some people, the what, why and how is pretty straight forward. For others this might involve a little trial and error. Regardless of how long it takes, it is important to know what you want to do, why you want to do it, and how you are going to make it happen.

For instance, I used to teach communication classes at a University. After doing this for a while, I realized that I really didn't want to be in academia so I decided to change industries. The problem was that everything I had done up until that point was preparing me for a career in academia. I felt lost, confused and very frustrated. After job searching for a few months and applying to many jobs that looked interesting, but not getting any favorable response, I knew I had to change strategies. Here's how determining my what and why led me to a 'how' that changed the outcome of my job search.

The What

In trying to understand what I wanted to do, I went back to my previous experience (teaching and working as a civil servant) and looked at tasks I had performed and what I enjoyed about them. After a bit of brainstorming, I realized that even though I did not enjoy academic research, I enjoyed helping students prepare for the workplace by teaching them how to write business reports, craft their resumes and cover letter, and also how to become better public speakers. 

My 'what' was that I enjoyed equipping people with skills that helped them succeed in their careers. This led me to start reading about professional development and networking, and ultimately streamlined my search to jobs in this area. Today, I work in the Executive Search (recruitment) industry as a communications professional. It also informed my decision to start a career oriented blog for young Nigerian professionals :).

The Why

Your 'why' is what keeps you grounded. It goes back to your values. Why is what you want to do important? For instance, a person might choose to become a doctor because they want to save lives. Someone else might choose law because they believe in getting justice for those who need it. Knowing why you are following a particular course of action and why it is important is what will keep you going when times get rough (and it will). 

For me, my why is driven by what I feel was lacking at the beginning of my own professional journey. I believe that everyone deserves to have tools and resources that prepares them for an important aspect of their existence, which is the ability to make a living through a fulfilling career. The reason this is important is because through my work, I am able to help young professionals think creatively about their careers and make choices that will get them closer to their goals and in less time. 

The How

So, you've figured out what you want to do, why you want to do it and why it is important. The next step is determining how you are going to get to your goal. What do you need to do and learn to get the job you want or start your business? Do you need to supplement your degree by learning a particular skill? Will a post graduate internship or volunteer opportunity give you the much needed experience that will make you more attractive to employers? The 'how' is basically your strategy for making your career what you want it to be.

Back to my own experience, once I understood where my interests were, I knew I had to help employers see how my teaching experience translated to a non-academic position. So I volunteered my time with a professional networking group called Philly Nigerian Professionals, started a blog and learned WordPress, email marketing and social media management. These skills and experience were added to my resume, and the rest as they say is history.

To Summarize

Career planning can be a confusing, overwhelming and frustrating undertaking. However, the first thing you need to remember is that your career belongs to you. Take the time to figure out what you want to do, why you want to do it, and how to make it happen. Don't let your course of study be a limitation to you defining a career path that is authentic to you. Remember, it is never too late to pivot in any area of your life. Your career belongs to you. Take charge!

I'd love to hear your stories about where you are in your career and what your challenges are. Please share in the comment section.

Featured image credit: Jopwell Collection