How to explore in your career

Tony Blair tried to make it in rock n roll before going into politics.

We often talk about the benefits of trying out several different paths, especially early in your career. But changing job too often has costs. How can you explore effectively?

Here’s a couple of ideas from our recently updated page on why and how to explore.

Tips for exploring

1. Use your natural exploration opportunities

There are times when, money permitting, society gives you a free pass to do something random:

  • In a “gap year” between school and university, or just after you graduate.
  • In your high school and university summer holidays.
  • In university courses that aren’t your major.

Take advantage of these opportunities as much as you can.

2. Use the “graduate school reset”

After you graduate from university, you can do something unusual and risky for a few years, then go to graduate school, then begin a regular professional career as if not much happened. More specifically:

  • You can take one to two years out before doing a PhD, and by the time you graduate, it probably won’t matter.
  • Sometimes you can use a Masters degree to transition into a new field.
  • You can do a law degree and become a lawyer or go into policy.
  • Consulting, finance and many corporate jobs accept people directly out of MBAs, so if you can get into an MBA program, these are an option.

More generally, your twenties are a great time for exploration, since you probably don’t yet have a family, and you can get by without spending too much money.

3. Think of your first couple of jobs as an experiment

Rather than expecting to “get it right” first time, think like a scientist – imagine your first few jobs are experiments to test a hypothesis. If they work out, great, if not, move on. The cost of doing this is that changing jobs too frequently can look bad to future employers, but depending on the industry, changing after about 18 months is usually not a problem, especially if you performed well. The typical 25-34 year old changes jobs every three years. Moreover, it’s widely accepted that over time, careers are becoming less structured.

4. Look for ways to make “little bets”

If you’re considering doing something new, there’s probably a way to test it without much cost. For instance, you could try out a new area part-time, or do a 1-week trial.

5. Pick jobs that help you to explore at the same time

Look for jobs that:

  • Let you work in a variety of industries. Freelance and consulting positions are especially good.
  • Let you practice many different skills. Jobs in small companies are often especially good on this front.
  • Give you the flexibility to explore outside of work.

6. Keep building flexible career capital

Prioritise paths that give you valuable skills and keep your options open. For instance, it’s much harder to go from the nonprofit sector to the corporate sector than vice versa, so if you’re unsure between the two, do the corporate sector first. Read more on our career capital page.

What should I explore?

Make a list of the most promising medium-term options, then try to figure out a way to test all of them. For instance, suppose you’re interested in:

  1. Academia
  2. Something in business
  3. Working at a nonprofit.

Then a good plan could be:

  1. Do an internship at the nonprofit while at university.
  2. Do consulting for two years after you graduate, letting you experience many parts of the corporate sector.
  3. Do a PhD (and explore the nonprofit sector more during the holidays).
  4. Then you can either continue in academia, go to a nonprofit, or go back to the corporate sector.

Focus in particular on exploring the paths that look promising but that you’re very uncertain about, and which are cheap to test. Internships and trial projects are your friends!

Finally, make sure you consider playing one or two “wildcards” – doing something totally outside of your shortlist. There are many unknown unknowns in career choice, and if you stick to the well-trodden paths, you’ll never discover them. Some examples to consider:

  • Immerse yourself in a foreign culture. Especially consider China, Russia, Brazil and the Middle East, because these countries are likely to be very important to global coordination in the future, but are poorly understood in the West.
  • If you’re mainly focused on science, do something artistic, and vice versa.
  • Take some time out to reflect on your life.
  • Spend time in developing parts of Africa to learn about global poverty.
  • Pursue an unusual side project you find especially motivating (this is how many of the biggest startups got going).

See the full page on why and how to explore

Have we missed something? Let us know in the comments.