Q. You are a new college graduate without a job or concrete career plans. You might be interested in doing public service work for a year or two. Could that help you find your way to a career?
Some organizations provide a stipend or salary, although the benefit of public service is not money — it is the time it allows new graduates to consider their options and learn about themselves, says Roberta Cross, director of career services at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. The work can also build self-confidence, she says, and it can show graduates career paths they may not have known of or considered.
John Coleman, a management consultant in Atlanta and co-author of “Passion and Purpose: Stories From the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders,” says public service work also provides an opportunity for mentorship and coaching from senior-level professionals, which you aren’t likely to receive in an entry-level corporate job.
Q. How do you decide what kind of work to pursue?
A. Take an inventory of your strengths, weaknesses, skills, interests and values, says Susan Jewkes Allen, a career counselor and co-founder of LifePlusWork, a career counseling and coaching business in San Francisco. “Take stock of yourself, writing down things like what you’re good at, not good at, your natural communication style, level of adaptability and aversion to risk,” she says. This will give you a heightened awareness of the kinds of jobs and tasks that could be a good fit in your public service work. Q. While volunteering, how do you keep in mind what you are learning about yourself?
A. Keep a journal of what you do each day, including the skills you learn and your reactions to what’s happening, says Donna Goldfeder, director of career services at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. “At the end of the year you can look at the journal, and if you see that you wrote down 20 times you got a lot of satisfaction from helping people, maybe you should consider a helping profession,” she says.
Q. Are there things you can do to develop yourself professionally while volunteering, even if you’re not sure what profession you will ultimately pursue?
A. Young people working for a public service or nongovernmental organization usually have the chance to take part in activities that would not be open to them in the corporate world. “You may be teaching, managing finances, marketing to the local community, recruiting or managing people. You can explore all of these,” Mr. Coleman says.
Look for opportunities to interact with senior-level people at your organization and other nonprofits, or in the community. “One of the toughest things for a 22-year-old coming out of college is to understand how to relate to senior-level people,” he says. The only way to learn to do that and build up confidence is to immerse yourself in it. “Watch them and learn from them,” he says.
Ask senior colleagues if they would serve as references for you after your volunteer service, Ms. Cross says. They can also be resources, giving feedback on your résumé or connecting you with others who can help you professionally.
Q. When you have completed your public service, how do you connect what you’ve learned and enjoyed to a specific career and begin that professional transition?
A. Much of the information you need is already in your journal, Ms. Jewkes Allen says, and those bits and pieces are part of a puzzle about yourself that you are assembling. Research shows that for college graduates, “a fit between their interests, talents and market opportunity is one of the best determinants of career happiness,” she says.
You will very likely need help in putting that puzzle together. Ms. Goldfeder suggests consulting a career coach or a counselor at your alma mater for help in connecting your findings to a possible career path or job. “They have databases and tools that can be used to evaluate your new skills, interests and experiences and see where they match up with a professional career,” she says. Once you have identified possibilities, seek alumni from your college in fields you are considering and ask what they like or dislike about what they do.
It’s O.K. to change your mind, she says. “We often start our professional lives with a dream of where we will end up, yet very few of us end up there. That’s not failure; it’s that we continually adapt and adjust to the information we learn about ourselves.”