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Career Advice for High School Students

Before the holidays, I had the singular pleasure of addressing a roomful of female high school juniors and seniors on the subject of careers.

By Vivian Steir Rabin

Vivian Steir Rabin is the co-founder of iRelaunch and the co-author of Back on the Career Track (affiliate link). She is a relauncher, having relaunched her career in executive search after a 7 year career break. Vivian left iRelaunch in late 2014 in order to focus full time on VSR Advisors, a retained executive search firm focused on commercial real estate and financial services for which she serves as Managing Director and Principal.

A close friend, who is the principal of an all girls parochial school in the Washington, D.C. area, had invited me to keynote the school’s Career Fair. The student body has very traditional values (becoming a wife and mother is a high priority) so I kept that in mind in my remarks. Here’s a summary of what I said:

“This is an exciting time, but it’s also a daunting time, because you have lots of decisions to make in a way you haven’t had to before. So I’d like to give you some principles to guide you, not just today, but as you move through your career.

Here are my four principles of career management:

  1. Do something you enjoy. Now I know we have to be practical and pursue fields that will enable us to make a decent living as soon as possible as well as enable us to spend time with the families we hope to have, but sometimes the long road is the short road. Sometimes it pays to invest more time and money in your education so that you can pursue a field that might give you more satisfaction (and earning power) than a field that has fewer educational requirements. Also, don’t eliminate fields because you think they won’t be compatible with raising a family. As you’ll see when you meet women in different fields today, you can raise a family in almost any profession, if you’re creative and motivated. So how do you figure out what you’d enjoy if you have no idea? Well, first of all, talk to as many adults as you can about what they do. Don’t be shy. People love to talk about their work, especially with young people. Secondly, attend a liberal arts college where you can sample a variety of courses to see what appeals to you. Finally, try to get some sort of experience in fields that interest you, like an internship or even just shadowing someone in that profession.
  2. Take charge of your own career. In the old days, people could count on being at the same company for years and assume that “the boss” would notice their good work and promote them. Well, those days are long gone. No one is going to watch out for you, but you. So you need to develop a plan and set goals for yourself. Even if you end up changing the plan, and I’ll cover that in a minute, just having a plan will make you work in a more focused and mindful fashion. Secondly, don’t think that when you graduate college or professional school that you never have to open a book again. Nothing could be farther from the truth. You need to engage in life long learning, to constantly upgrade your skills. Don’t wait for the boss to tell you that you have to learn a new program or understand a new technology. You have to be constantly aware of changes in your field and keep up with them. And, thirdly, you need to engage in life long career management. Don’t think that once you’ve got the job you want you have it made, that you can just coast. No way. If you want to advance, you have to let people know that you’re looking for a new challenge. You have to network in your field and make connections both inside and outside your organization.
  3. Maintain the work-family balance. As family oriented young women, I don’t have to tell you to make time for your loved ones. I know you know that’s important. But I want to caution you that if you do take time off, don’t totally let your professional identity go. Try to work part time or do a project work in your field, keep in touch with your colleagues and choose volunteer assignments that help you maintain your professional skills. For example, if you’re an accountant, volunteer to be the treasurer of a volunteer organization. Don’t just bake for the bake sale.
  4. Finally, don’t be afraid to abandon the career path you’re on and relaunch in a new direction. This might apply to you a few years from now or decades from now. If you don’t like what you’re doing, don’t feel like you’re stuck. What if you’re a physical therapist and you feel like if you have to treat one more of these depressing cases you’re just going to explode? What are you going to do? Keep going to a job you can’t stand? No, first of all, think about other ways your skill or experience could be applied. For example, maybe you could work in the business side of the physical therapy center or maybe you could get an additional certification and become a personal trainer. And if you decide to pursue something entirely different, and need to start at an entry level, don’t despair. Your life experience will help you move ahead quickly. For example, Dinny Stearns Taylor, whom we interviewed for Back on the Career Track, worked as a teacher before she quit when she started having children. Ten years later, when her children were older, she wanted to reenter the workforce. She had always been fascinated by technology, so she asked employers in the area what programming skills they were looking for and she took courses in those programs and accepted an entry level job in the field. Because of her strong communication skills from her years as a teacher and mother, however, she was quickly put in charge of groups of programmers, and was eventually promoted to Chief Technology Officer of Williams College.”

At the end of my talk, although I was certain I had bored the students to tears, they immediately asked me lots of good questions. Hey, maybe I should relaunch as a high school teacher . . .

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