Recipe For Frustration: Mixing Up "Job Search" With "Career Exploration"

by Dana Alexander

The anxiety of the lost traveler comes to a peak when the townsperson attempting to sputter out directions finally gives up in frustration and says, "You know what? You can't get there from here." For the "lost" senior or recent alumnus trying to bring focus to life after college, it's no joke. Too often they are unwittingly employing a strategy that simply can't get them where they want to go. Put in simple terms, they think they are in a job search mode when, in actuality, they are in a career exploration phase and unclear of their direction.

As a college career counselor, I usually see this when a student (or alum) comes into our office very discouraged at having been unsuccessful in finding employment. After a bit of probing it becomes clear that, indeed, they can't get "there" (a meaningful job) from "here" (no clear goal). They often think of themselves as ready for a career-related job when in fact what they are ready for is a concerted career exploration process.

What are the signs of career explorers masquerading as job searchers? They usually have done little of the hard work of what I call the "journey inward." They are unclear of their skills, interests, values and personality characteristics, and of course that means they cannot articulate them to a potential employer. Often, they haven't gone far in the "journey outward" either, by gaining experience through internships, meaningful summer work, volunteer opportunities, or encounters with people who do work that interests them. Their job search usually looks very scattered with applications in widely variant fields. What they don't know (until we tell them) is that employers have their antennae out for just these kinds of job searchers, who come across lacking confidence and focus. Mostly, employers avoid them like the plague. So it wasn't the searcher's forgotten deodorant that lost them a second interview, but that neon sign over their head flashing "I don't know what I want."

The first step in the counseling process is often to convince them of what Howard Figler calls "the merits of floundering," and help them to see that this is a legitimate place to be, with its own sets of challenges and rewards. It may well mean a period of temporary work or being what seems like under-employed, to "buy time" to bring focus and direction. We encourage students and alums to be bold and unashamed in presenting their situation -- often an issue when speaking to family and friends. It may sound something like this: "I'm working at Starbucks (or McDonalds) right now and learning some important skills, but mainly I'm using this period to figure out the next significant step for me. I'm looking at what truly interests and motivates me, talking to people in fields that intrigue me, and exploring a number of options." As Figler says, this is nothing to feel guilty about, but simply a part of life for many, regardless of age.

When a student or alum finally understands the nature of their frustration and can put words to it, they are able to let out a sigh of relief and move forward with a strategy that can get them where they want to go. In my job search workshop I also make this distinction very clear and encourage students to determine in which mode they are. I often see visible signs of relief as many realize they are not ready for a "job search" at all.

The prepared job searchers have given time to the journey inward and the journey outward. They not only have a sense of who they are but can present that in an interview. Because these job searchers have participated in an internship or volunteer experience, they know what to expect in a work environment and have illustrations from their own experience of how they have succeeded in a job. They encounter people they trust and whose opinions they value, to confirm that they are moving in the right direction. They also have a strong inner conviction that they are the right person for the job they are pursuing.

Moving from being a career explorer to a job searcher is not difficult, but just like any developmental process in life, it will take time and effort. There is a way to get "there" from "here." It just takes recognizing where a person truly is, and developing a realistic strategy to get them where they want to go.

Dana Alexander
, Director of the Office of Life Planning at Westmont College in Santa Barbara California, graduated from Westmont with a degree in Sociology. He went on to earn a Master's in Theological Studies (with an emphasis in pastoral counseling) from Gordon-Conwell Seminary, an advanced degree in Counseling from Northeastern University, and a Certificate in Career Counseling from California State University at Northridge. After serving in the ministry for nine years as an assistant pastor, he transitioned to the career development field, where he has been since 1988. He has four children (a son and three daughters). He is a National Board Certified Counselor (NBCC), a National Board Certified Career Counselor (NBCCC), a Master Career Counselor, and teaches graduate level courses in career counseling at Antioch University. He can be reached via email at

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