Getting Started

Organizations need a sense of where they want to go (mission and vision), an assessment of where they are (organizational diagnosis) and a plan of how to get from here to there (strategic plan). We want to suggest the same basic framework for thinking about Composing Your Career.

Focus

Some of you are clear about your direction, have a mission in life, or a clear sense of what role you want to take up in ten or twenty years and exactly what you need to do to get there. You may know you want to run an international NGO, or aspire to really change welfare as we know it, or create a financing system that makes it possible to equalize health outcomes. Others of you come with an interest in a specific policy area (transportation, urban education, child welfare), but not a clear sense of role. Others have a more general commitment to a sector (maybe nonprofit or government), but are open as to both area and role.

The task is to try to get clearer. You can start anywhere, but ultimately you need to narrow down some aspect of your career goals. If you are open to working in any topic area, do you know what role you might want (e.g. executive director of a nonprofit, but open to the issue area)? If you are not yet clear about the role you want to play in an organization, can you identify a field you care about or a few you want to explore (e.g. open space, public transportation, waterfront development)? If you are still not sure about either field or role, can you target a setting (e.g. large public agency, international NGO, or small community based organization)? As we have said, getting clearer about your career goals is a process. We’re encouraging you to start, to take a few first steps. We ask that you recognize that career goals change over time and with each experience. Don’t feel as if once you have gotten clearer on your career goals that you are/should be committed to them indefinitely—this is an ongoing, organic process of finding your way, with lifelong opportunities for vision re-evaluation and adjustment.

All of you come with assets, strengths and preferences. We encourage you to work from your strengths and then identify skills you need to build or knowledge you need to acquire. In order to work from your strengths, of course, you need to know what they are —this guide and other resources at Wagner will help you do that.

Guiding Questions

  • What are my fields of interest? (e.g. children and youth, hospital administration, housing, international development)
  • What change do I want to make happen? (e.g. improve access to health care, reduce juvenile delinquency)
  • What roles might I want to play in an organization? (e.g. financial manager, policy analyst, urban planner, fundraiser, program director, executive director)
  • When do I want to achieve these goals? (e.g. do I want to be an executive director in two years or in 20 years?)
  • Is geographic location important? (e.g. New York City exclusively, eastern seaboard between Washington DC and Boston, the Bay Area)
  • What skills do I have that I like to use? (e.g. analyzing, budgeting, writing, researching)
  • What work values are important to me? (e.g. advancement, creativity, independence, recognition, stability)
  • What leadership roles have I taken on? (e.g. task force at work, leader of student group, board member of a nonprofit organization)
  • What do employers look for when making hiring decisions? (e.g. specific skill sets, experiences, education)

Next Steps

Develop focused, yet flexible, goals. Goals can include area(s) of interest, job function, geographic location, and kind of organization. Here are some ways to get there:

  • Assess your interests, skills, and work values. Identify the range of organizations out there doing the kind of work you're interested in. Research what kinds of jobs exist in these organizations. Pinpoint the skills and experiences most often required in these roles.
  • Talk to people - classmates, alumni, faculty, and staff. Discuss your job research with them. Listen to their stories.
  • Try something on. Get involved. Have an experience so you can affirm whether or not you're on the right track.

The Tracks Exercise

Many of us know that we are committed to a career in public service, but figuring out what that means can be difficult. This exercise is great for people who are looking for a bit of focus. The exercise comes in three phases: Brainstorming, Analyzing, and Synthesizing.

  • I. Brainstorm  

Download, photocopy, or cut out of the newspaper any job posting that appeals to you on one of two levels:

A.) You’re drawn to this kind of an organization. You like its mission. You’d like your work to have an impact on this issue, population or area. You like the agency’s approach to the work. And you could see yourself, someday, working for an organization like this. Don’t worry about where it’s located or whether you like the job description that’s attached to the organization. Just focus on the agency’s overall purpose. Circle the part you like and put it in a folder.

B.) You’re drawn to this kind of job description. You like the way the responsibilities are bundled. You like the skills needed to perform the function of the position, and you could see yourself, someday, doing something like this in your day-to-day. Don’t worry about the agency the description is associated with or whether you have the skills to perform the job. Just focus on the actual job description. Circle the part you like and put it in your folder.

Do this until you have a bare minimum of 50 selected items. The more you collect, the better. Remember, when brainstorming, we don’t evaluate along the way, we just collect ideas. Once you have at least 50, continue to the next phase.

  • II. Analysis

Take the selected items out of your folder and see if you can find any patterns or common themes. Some things to look for might include: issue, population to be served, approach to the work, geography, kind of organization, unit or department within an agency, and role. 

  • III. Synthesis

Using the data gathered from your brainstorming and analysis phases, create at least one and no more than five potential job tracks for yourself. A job track is a way to put parameters around and frame your potential career interests, and can include any of the following that have meaning for you: issue or field of interest; subcomponents of the issue that are of interest; approach to the work; kinds of organizations that do this work; where these organizations are located; size of the organizations; potential departments within organizations; roles that you aspire to play; and the requirement of skills, education, experience, and knowledge to fulfill those roles. 

Take stock of your qualifications and experiences as they relate to your potential tracks. Your tracks should connect to Composing Your Career and lead to a plan of action to maximize your time at Wagner. Your track should inform which courses you should take, the professors you should get to know, how you use your assignments, the events you go to, the groups you join, the people you seek out, the internship/ job experiences you look for and how you present yourself in a resume, cover letter, and an interview. Remember to reflect along the way to determine if this track feels like a good fit for you. If it does, continue on this path. If not, seek out additional tracks.

Download a copy of the Tracks Exercise here.