We’re all searching for what we want to be when we grow up. Whether you’re 18 and looking forward to college, or you’re a middle-aged professional considering a career change, it’s hard to figure out what you want to do (in terms of work) with the rest of your life.

Next to getting married, choosing an education that leads to the right career is one of the biggest commitments you make in life. Which is why it’s odd that people don’t spend more time getting to know (i.e. “dating”) several careers before choosing one. In fact, you wouldn’t even buy a new shirt to wear on a date without trying it on first, so why are we generally cavalier about committing to careers we know very little about?

To help you untangle the knotty mess of confusion we get ourselves into when considering college degrees and career choices, I suggest you “date” a few careers first. This isn’t nearly as scary as it sounds, considering there is little chance a career will break up with you right before your sister’s wedding or cheat on you behind your back. You’re more likely to pursue the college degree that leads you to the career of your dreams if you follow these easy steps.

Step 1: Interview

Have you ever looked at someone doing a job and said to yourself, “That’s what I want to do?” But how do you really know if that’s true? Are you familiar with everything it takes to do that job, let alone how much education or training it would take to get there?

Before you commit to several years of college tuition for a degree that might end up being about as useful as used tissue, meet and interview people who already have the job you’re considering. And not just one person in the industry, but several; including the ones who are a little disillusioned with the way their careers turned out. That’s not to say you want them to talk you out of it, but you do want a realistic, down-to-earth rendition of what it takes to be whatever it is you want to be. Make sure you ask about issues that could be important down the road as well, such earning potential, the amount of free time you’d have, and if the job is family friendly. Don’t be afraid to get personal. This is your chance to “get to know” a career without taking it home to meet mother.

Step 2: Volunteer

The best way to understand the day-to-day workings of a job is to do it for a while, even if you don’t get paid. Obviously, no one is going to hire you without the proper credentials, however, I seriously doubt they’d turn you away as a volunteer. In this economy nobody refuses free labor. Granted, you may not be able to do the exact job you want to pursue (for example, you can’t practice law without a license), but you will be able to work side-by-side with the type of professionals you hope to someday become.

Plus, not only does volunteering give you some idea of what’s it’s like to have a particular career, it also helps you build a resume within that industry. It never hurts (when interviewing for real jobs) to have a little work experience under your belt regardless of the career you choose.

Step 3: Take a Class

Even though you don’t want to actually commit to a degree or college until you get a career in your crosshairs, there’s nothing wrong with enrolling in one or two classes in the major you think you want to pursue – just to see if the curriculum even remotely resembles what you thought it would be. (Think of it as “trying on” a college degree program.) It’s a great way to tell if you’ll like (or be successful in) the classes you have to take in order to pursue the career you think you want.

Online colleges and community colleges are great places to start, being that they’re typically more flexible (and have an easier admission process) than your standard state university. In fact, some colleges allow you to audit classes for free. Or you can sign up for a state university’s extension program, which usually offers the exact same classes, curriculum, and teachers as those used in the university’s college degree programs.

Step 4: Visit a Career Counselor

You’re never too old or too smart to benefit from good advice. You may think you know everything about choosing a career, but you really don’t. Career counselors are trained to figure out what career or vocation would be right for you, based on a series of interviews, tests, and transcript data. Of course, you’re always free to pursue whatever college or career you have you your heart set on. And if you choose to move in the direction your heart leads (regardless of what a counselor says), at least you have practical advice to fall back on, should you change your mind later.

Plus, career counselors give sensible education and career advice to specific demographic groups like working or single moms, or folks who need financial aid. Quite often the only way these programs come to light is through a career counselor.

As anyone who’s pondered college can tell you, choosing a career can be an overwhelming task. Oh sure, there are those people who’ve known since they were five that they wanted to a dentist, fireman, or teacher. But unfortunately, most of us still don’t have a clue as to exactly what it is we want to do with our time until we’ve wasted a good portion of it travelling down the wrong path. Don’t let that happen to you.

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