The Role of Self-Exploration in Career Planning

Are you self-aware and confident in your skills and abilities? Perhaps you have a friend who always seems to know exactly what he or she wants or can accomplish. How well you know yourself and how effectively you can do the things you need to do are integral to your success, not only as a college student but also as a person. Self-assessment, or the process of gathering information about yourself in order to make an informed career decision, is a good first step in clarifying your academic and career goals. Students enter college at varying levels of self-awareness, and some even have a strong self-image, but most of us continue the process of defining (or redefining) ourselves throughout life. Although you might know some activities you like to do and which activities you are good at doing, you may lack a clear idea of how knowledge of self aligns with different career possibilities.

Factors That Affect Career Choices

We’ve learned that engaging in self-exploration is a critical step in the career development process. We will continue the exploration process in several useful ways and consider these attributes with respect to possible careers.


Values—things that we feel strongly about—are critically important in our lives and careers. Our values are formed through our life experiences. In the context of career planning, values generally refer to the things we most desire in a career in relation to how we want to live. For example, some people value job security, money, structure, and a regular schedule. Others value flexibility, excitement, independence, and variety.

For example, having “enough money” relates to one’s personal desires and needs. Some careers pay higher salaries than others. Thus considering your personal desires and needs in light of your values and your desired or actual earning potential is a worthwhile exercise. It may reveal that what you value most is not money but rather the chance to work for a specific cause or the opportunity to create a particular lifestyle, such as one with a great deal of flexibility or independence. Or perhaps you want to pursue a career that would allow you to work in a particular environment, like the outdoors, with children, or in a certain part of the world. In general, being aware of what we value in our lives is important because a career choice that reflects our core values is likely to be a lasting and positive choice.


The ability to do something well can usually be improved with practice. Each of us has a different skill set that we bring to any situation, and it is important to know both your assets and deficiencies. Skills typically fall into three categories:

  1. Personal skills come naturally or are learned. Examples of these skills are honesty, punctuality, being a team-player or motivator, and managing conflict.

  2. Workplace skills are gained through work experience, training, or professional development opportunities intended to increase your knowledge or expertise in a certain area. Examples include designing Web sites and bookkeeping.

  3. Transferable skills are gained through your previous jobs, hobbies, or even everyday life. These skills can be used or transferred to another job. Examples include planning events, motivating others, attention to detail, and organization.

In today’s job market identifying and improving your existing skills will help you be competitive for new and different positions. By knowing your skill set you can link your skills into career possibilities.


Your inherent strengths, or aptitudes, are often part of your biological heritage or the result of early training. Aptitude is your acquired or natural ability for learning and proficiency in a particular area, which makes it easier for you to learn or do certain things. Manual dexterity, musical ability, spatial visualization, and memory for numbers are examples of aptitudes that have a lot to do with the way you learn. Similar to skills, each of us has aptitudes that we can build on. The trick is to shine a light on your aptitudes and discover a path in which your strengths become your best intellectual assets.


Your personality makes you who you are, and it can’t be ignored when you make career decisions. The quiet, orderly, calm, detail-oriented person will probably make a different work choice than the aggressive, outgoing, argumentative person will.

Life Goals and Work Values.

Each of us defines success and satisfaction in our own way. The process is complex and very personal. Two factors influence our conclusions about success and happiness: (1) knowing that we are achieving the life goals we’ve set for ourselves and (2) finding that we gain satisfaction from what we’re receiving from our work. If your values conflict with the organizational values where you work, you might be in for trouble.


From birth we develop particular interests. These interests help shape, and might even define, our career paths. Interests develop from experiences and beliefs and will continue to develop and change throughout our lives. Good career exploration begins with considering what you like to do and how it relates to your career choices. For example, you might be interested in writing for the college newspaper because you enjoyed writing for your high school newspaper. On the flip side, it’s not unusual to enter Psych 101 with a great interest in psychology and realize halfway through the course that psychology is not what you imagined. Because your interests are unique to you, you are the only person qualified to determine the course of action that will best suit these interests.

Exploring Your Interests

John Holland, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, developed a number of tools and concepts that can help you organize the various dimensions of yourself so that you can identify potential career choices. Holland suggests that people are separated into six general categories based on differences in their interests, skills, values, and personality characteristics; in short, their preferred approaches to life. Holland’s system organizes career fields into the same six categories. Career fields are grouped according to what a particular career field requires of a person (the skills and personality characteristics most commonly associated with success in those fields) and what rewards those fields provide (interests and values most commonly associated with satisfaction).

Your career choices ultimately will involve a complex assessment of the factors that are most important to you. To display the relationship between career fields and the potential conflicts people face as they consider them, Holland’s model is commonly presented in a hexagonal shape. The closer the types, the closer the relationships among the career fields; the farther apart the types, the more conflict between the career fields. Holland’s model can help you address the questions surrounding career choice in two ways. First, you can begin to identify many career fields that are consistent with what you know about yourself. Once you have identified potential fields, you can use the career center at your college to get more information about those fields, such as daily activities for specific jobs, interests and abilities required, preparation required for entry, working conditions, salary and benefits, and employment outlook. Second, you can begin to identify the harmony or conflicts in your career choices. Doing so will help you analyze the reasons for your career decisions and be more confident as you make choices.

Never, ever think that you have to make a decision based on the results of only one assessment. Career choices are complex and involve many factors; furthermore, these decisions are reversible. It is important not only to take time to talk your interests over with a career counselor, but also to shadow individuals in the occupations that interest you. Obtaining a better understanding of what an occupation entails in terms of skills, commitment, and opportunity will help you make informed decisions about your own career choices.

aptitude Natural talent or an ability an individual has acquired through life experience, study, or training.