Polygence blog / Research Opportunities and Ideas

7 Things To Do If You Are Unsure of Your Career Path

7 minute read

“Where do you see yourself in five years?” When I was in high school, I was constantly fielding questions about my future. For some of my peers, the answer seemed clear. I, meanwhile, was less sure of how exactly to respond. In fact, this is the reality for many high school students, especially those who enjoy multiple classes or subjects. Maybe you have a few mental pictures of how your life will look five years down the road, but they’re somewhat hazy. Or, maybe you are torn between two or three completely different career paths and don’t know how to choose.

If this sounds like you, these tips might help. Keep in mind, though, that the best advice comes from real conversations with experts in the fields you are considering. That’s why Polygence’s Pathfinders program is specifically engineered to help students find what they love through 1:1 mentorship. Tell us the fields you’re considering, and we’ll match you to three mentors with up to three different areas of expertise, all of whom are there to help you find your passion. 

In the meantime, here are 7 strategies and ideas that have worked for me in the past, and could help you if you are unsure about your career path.

1. Self-Reflect

When thinking about your future career, reflecting and learning about yourself is just as important as understanding your options. You can do all of the research you want to about potential career paths, but what really matters is how each option relates to you. Life experience is helpful for understanding your own wants and needs; but for young people, like high school students, gleaning insight from a relatively limited amount of experience can be challenging. To get started, try asking yourself some of these questions:

  • What do I like to do for fun?

  • Do I like to try new things, even if I’m not great at them at first?

  • What makes me feel comfortable?

  • Do I prefer being inside or outside?

  • After which activities do I feel the most productive?

  • Am I an introvert, an extrovert, or somewhere inbetween?

  • What do I like to do when I’m stressed?

  • What clothes do I like to wear? Why?

  • How self-critical am I?

  • What do I daydream about?

These are just a few examples of questions to think about. Sometimes, the answer might not be clear, or it might change from day to day. That is completely normal, especially for students. Try not to over-analyze; instead, continue to be self-aware and notice how you react to different situations throughout the day. 

For me, one of the most important lessons I learned about myself in high school was that I love learning new things. Although it’s a simple realization, it made me think about whether potential career paths would suit my love of learning. I also realized that I feel the most productive and accomplished after building something new on my own, which led me to think about careers that have room for creativity and autonomy.

2. Get Inspired

Finding inspiration doesn’t always mean a sudden “Eureka” moment. Simply finding refreshing experiences can challenge you to see things differently, which can give you clarity about your future. Here are three ways I like to get inspired:

Try something new

Try stepping outside of your regular routine. For example, if I would usually ride my bike somewhere, I might try walking, instead. I might cook a new recipe, or try following a vegetarian diet just for a day. You could practice some form of art, like drawing a portrait of your cat or choreographing an original dance routine. Here are some more ideas for activities to help you find inspiration in your daily life:

  • Rewrite the lyrics to your favorite song

  • Try a new hairstyle

  • Go a full day without looking at your phone

  • Start a journal

  • Try bird spotting

  • Start up a conversation with a stranger

Experimenting with new activities is a great way to get inspired and to learn more about yourself. The keys are to be creative and to keep an open mind.

Expand your horizons

In addition to trying new things, going to new places expands your perspective on the world—even if you stay close to home. You don’t need to travel overseas to expand your horizons. Simply exploring a new corner of your local park or getting off of the bus one stop early can give you some much needed perspective on your present and future places within your community.

Go for a walk

It may seem simple, but going for frequent walks is a great way to reflect and find inspiration. In addition to getting you outside, it’s a form of exercise, which improves creativity and overall cognitive function. Going for a walk on a new path is great for sparking creativity, but the best strategy for finding new perspectives is to get a little bit lost. Don’t look at a map or use your phone (unless it is an emergency, of course). Wandering without a path in mind can lead you to discover new paths that you may not have known existed.

Learn more about various career exploration activities you can do as a teen

3. Design Your Own Career Path

If you are a student and can’t seem to decide on the career path that would be best for you, remember that you can create your own. You can always lay the foundations for your own career path step by step, even if you are not following in anyone’s exact footsteps. Especially in rapidly developing fields, it is increasingly common for professionals to have unique career trajectories spanning a variety of experiences. People who develop unique skill sets around growing or changing fields can combine their abilities to create new job descriptions that might have never existed before. In the same way that walking without a map can lead to new discoveries, blazing your own professional trail can open up exciting possibilities in your career.

4. Get Comfortable with Uncertainty

Uncertainty can be scary. While it is tempting to plan for every possibility at every step of your journey, there will always be surprises. That’s okay! Even if you have a clear picture in your head of where you want to be in five years, there will always be new opportunities (and challenges) that you don’t see coming. The ability to deal well with uncertainty is a valuable professional skill, so try to lean into it.

It may also help to recognize and acknowledge that you’re not alone in your uncertainty about future career aspirations. For example, Polygence mentor Selena’s journey to becoming a cancer researcher took many twists and turns as she reflected on her personal interests and followed where they led her. 

5. Keep Your Options Open

When I have been unsure about my career path, but knew there was a chance that I would want to pursue a particular option, I kept that option open as much as possible and for as long as possible. This applies to opportunities throughout your education and career. For example, if you have strong interests in both mechanical engineering and poetry, apply to colleges and universities where you can take classes in both (or even double major)! You can’t predict the future, let alone how you will react to it. Don’t stretch yourself too thin, but if you have the opportunity and the time to explore multiple options at once, go for it.

6. Rule Something Out

While it is important to keep options open that you are interested in, if you can easily rule something out, don’t hesitate to take that step. Deciding what you don’t want to do is just as important as figuring out what you do want to do.

7. Talk to Your Mentors

The best advice comes from real conversations. If you are unsure about whether to become a laboratory researcher or a psychiatrist, talk to your science teacher and to your school counselor. If you know that you want to become a biologist but need help deciding on a specialty, try reaching out to experts in some of the areas you are considering.

Polygence students have shared how their experiences working with mentors on a research project helped them explore their passions, choose a college major, and plan their career path. Here are a few of their stories:

Discover more about the value of mentorship for high school students

How I Chose My Career Path

I was always thinking about the future when I was in high school, even if I never had a clear answer for where I saw myself in five years. Throughout each day, I was drawn in different directions: in the morning, I was excited about mechanical engineering; by the afternoon, I was thinking about a career composing classical music; and, after dinner, I wanted to work as a journalist.

Part of the issue was that I couldn’t picture a typical day in any of those professions: even if I knew I liked English class in school, working as a writer must surely be different, right? At the time, I had never had a real conversation with a mechanical engineer, a music composer, or a journalist. Only once I got to college did I meet experts in these fields, who helped me picture myself on each path.

In the end, I chose to study music composition. Thanks to my mentors, I was able to inject my career in composition with elements of my other interests in ways that I never knew were possible. For me, having real conversations with experts in specific fields was a key factor in shaping my career path.

If you are unsure about your career path, remember: the best, most personalized advice comes from talking to mentors in the fields that you are considering. In addition to helping you with the decision process, they might tell you about related career niches you would have never known existed. The sooner you start those conversations, the better!

The Polygence Pathfinders Program

Pathfinders is a career discovery mentorship experience designed to help you explore different career paths and gain more clarity about your future. Learn from three world class mentors in the fields of your choice and discover your passions!