17 steps to the perfect career

17 steps to the perfect career
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There's nothing like a job you love — to turn on your neurons and give you a fresh sense of purpose. But how do you get from where you are now to the cool job you really want? And how do you keep growing in a job once you've gotten it? Shifting gears is often daunting.

Luckily, mastering the art of managing a great career, whether through development where you are or by making a big move elsewhere, truly comes down to just a few key steps — plus some methodical soul searching.

Already on the hunt? Before you send out even a single resume, you need to think long and hard about what kind of job you actually want. Are you looking for a high-paying job that will challenge your mind and put you at ease about your budget? Or are you a creative type looking to surround yourself with like-minded souls? If you're all about flexibility, more jobs than ever will let you work from home — or from across the globe.

Once you figure out what you want, it's time to get down to the nitty gritty of sending out your resume, going on interviews, and if all goes well, negotiating your salary. “No company will ever love you more than they love you when they are trying to recruit you,” Liz Ryan, author of Reinvention Roadmap, wrote in Forbes. That’s why it's critical to negotiate your pay before you start.

Navigating workplace issues doesn't stop with the money talk. From your very first day on the job, you need to figure out how to make yourself indispensable without coming off as an insufferable know-it-all. Take credit for your wins, but be sure to make friends and allies along the way.

Lastly, you need a problem-solving toolkit for dealing with everything from a bad performance review to workplace discrimination. You’ll also need to give yourself a break and don't be afraid to take that well-earned vacation.

And when you're ready to take a permanent vacation from your job, follow smart tips on how to leave on good terms — and be sure to tie up loose ends like switching your health care coverage and rolling your retirement account into an IRA or your new job's 401(k). Even if you stayed at your last job for only a short while, you don't want even a penny of your earnings to languish in an account you forgot you even had.

Ready to roll up your sleeves?

In this guide you'll find:

• How to pick the right job in the right city
• How to get hired and earn the salary you deserve
• How to be a superstar at work
• When not to let the turkeys get you down (and there are a lot of turkeys)
• When — and how — to make a graceful exit

First, figure out what job is right for you

1. Be open to radical changes

If you’re ready to make a radical career change, start by figuring out your “gifts,” “passions” and “values,” then looking for a career that offers the best of all three. Use nights and weekends to start researching the viability of making a switch to a new career before you call quits on your day job.

Don’t just focus on what you hate about your current gig, either. Home in on what you love. That could make it easier to pivot into a new career since you are building on skills you already have and are using actual experience to decide on your next move — versus leaping into a complete unknown.

Finally, if you are feeling at a loss, consider courses of study that could open your mind. You may also want to take some classes to get into a hot new field like machine learning, blockchain or the legal cannabis industry.

2. Consider jobs where you'll make bank

You can’t begin a job search without figuring out what kind of job you want in the first place. While pay should never be your sole consideration, we're not gonna lie: Making enough money to pay the rent, not to mention your student loan bills, will make life immeasurably easier. And earning more now makes pie in the sky financial goals — like an early retirement — that much more possible.

If you've got a college degree, working as a software programmer or engineer is your best bet for earning as much as $90,000 a year within the first 5 years after graduation. But long term, you can't beat a career in medicine for top salaries: Anesthesiologists made an average of $258,100 according to 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, making theirs the highest-paid profession.

Meanwhile, petroleum engineers, actuaries and geoscientists are among the 10 highest-paid professions for people without advanced degrees, with nuclear power reactor operators earning the most among those without a degree.

Of course the highest-paid jobs vary widely depending on factors such as if you're a woman (think CEO or pharmacist), the state where you live (anesthesiologists in Kansas make more than anywhere else) and the company you work for (the average Google employee rakes in $155,250 a year). So do your homework.

3. Look into top cities and companies for jobs

Sometimes the best job is one you can actually get, not the one that pays the most. Where you look for a job is important: For example, Orlando topped a recent list of best cities for job seekers based on salaries, job security and the overall availability of jobs, among other factors. And if you want to work in the arts, New York, San Francisco and Seattle are your best bets.

It's also worth paying attention to which companies are hiring: Amazon says it's creating 100,000 full-time jobs between now and mid-2018, for example.

4. Remember to weigh factors far beyond money

The ideal job, of course, is one you love. Maybe you dream of being a veterinarian, a police officer or a firefighter. Or perhaps you'd like to get paid to travel by working abroad or teaching in a foreign country. (Just don't quit your job to instagram.) Or maybe you want to work for yourself.

Want to take the road less traveled? You can get paid for fun jobs like working as a professional snuggler, an island caretaker or a gum test-taster. Like chocolate? You can even work as a chocolate taster if you don't mind moving to the U.K. Here are 13 of the weirdest jobs on Earth — from chicken sexer to iceberg mover.

Of course, a job that gives you time to have a life is important, too. Corporate recruiters, user interface designers and data scientists ranked highest for keeping a favorable work-life balance in a 2016 Glassdoor employee survey. If working from home is your bag, consider a career as a medical director, vice president of technology services or regional VP of sales — all pay at least $100,000. And remember that working as a freelancer gives you more control over your hours and has the added perk of letting you subcontract your work out to others.

5. Know the difference between a job and a career

When you're starting out in your career, you may not give a lot of thought to whether your chosen profession will even exist in 10 or 20 years, but it’s worth considering if you’re working in a dying industry as a broadcaster or meter reader, for example, or if a robot could steal your job one day. And even if it doesn't, you may feel a little like a robot yourself if your work ID becomes a microchip implanted into your body.

It's also good to know which jobs have the brightest outlook going forward, like wind turbine technicians, who could have more than twice as many job prospects in 2024 than they did in 2014, or physician assistants, who make an average salary of $97,280 and have seen their wages rise 42% over the last decade. If you want a career that combines rising wages with the ability to telecommute or work part-time, working as a registered nurse, data analyst or recruiter are all smart bets.

But most importantly, remember that any single job you hold is just one part of a career arc — and changing jobs and even fields over the course of your life is normal. That’s just one reason why developing interdisciplinary abilities and people skills is so valuable.

Next, get hired!

6. Perfect your resume

Once you've figured out what job you want, it's time to work on the single most important factor in landing an interview: your resume. Always customize your resume for each job you apply for to make it easier for the hiring manager to see why you’re the best person for the job. Don’t have much experience? Consider creating a skills-based resume and including everything from volunteer work to school projects.

Here’s a handy checklist of things to include:

7. Don’t sell yourself short in the cover letter

No job application is complete without a cover letter — even if it seems like a formality. Be sure to address the hiring manager by name if at all possible, and make it clear why you aren't just the most qualified candidate, but also the best cultural fit at the company.

Lastly, be careful with your choice of words. Avoid industry jargon and cutesy phrases like “best of breed” or “rockstar” — and spell check everything one last time before you hit the send button. Even a single typo can doom your application.

8. Brush up on your networking skills

The best resume in the world won't be much help if the right people never lay eyes on it; this is where networking come in.

If you're still in school or just graduating, check in with your college's career services department, which may be able to connect you with recent graduates who have expressed interest in helping students land an internship or first job out of college. Create a LinkedIn profile, if you don't already have one, then invite people you know to join your network.

The real networking begins when you start making relationships with people who can help your career, whether that's through someone you already work with or by getting job leads from friends or acquaintances. So whether you are looking to work in a new city or move from freelancing to a full-time position, make sure anyone who can help you knows your intentions.

9. Crush it in the job interview — then negotiate your salary

Going from a great job candidate on paper to someone with a bona fide job offer usually comes down to how well you do in the interview. Prepare by practicing answers to common questions like "Tell me about yourself," then tackling uncomfortable ones like "How much money do you currently make?" (Bear in mind that last one may be illegal depending on where you live.) And remember that your job interview starts the second you walk in the door — so be confident, polite and focused from the get-go.

When you get the call offering you the job, don't make the rookie mistake of accepting the first number they throw out as the salary. Instead, thank them for the offer and politely suggest a higher number, based on the skills you bring and the going rate for the role. And before you give a final answer, look out for red flags like a company that asks you to work for free or has unusually high turnover, which could indicate a serious problem.

Then go from new hire to superstar at work

10. How to make a stellar first impression at a new job

Your first few days at work may feel like a happy blur as you bask in the honeymoon period and try to remember everyone’s name, but it is important to focus on succeeding from day one. Dressing professionally, steering clear of office gossip and keeping the volume on your headphones low are some basic office etiquette niceties. And if you are LGBTQ, you may want to decide early on if or when you will come out at work.

But to be a success, you need to focus on the substance of your work. Excel at your job, volunteer for extra responsibilities and make suggestions on how to fix processes that aren't working. And forget the cliched advice to “underpromise and overdeliver”; just commit to a deadline and deliver on time.

11. Don’t waste time, but do take breaks and make friends

The key to being productive is to stay on task. That can be tough when myriad office distractions pull you in different directions, but there are some tricks that help: Make a to-do list that only includes big tasks, take lunch at an off-hour so you can enjoy some quiet time while everyone else is out of the office, and take regular breaks.

Having trouble staying motivated? Bonding with your coworkers can make a big difference in your happiness at work. Find a work buddy to take coffee breaks with and offer to help co-workers when you have time. Not only will it build good will, it will make the office a place you actually want to be.

One note of caution: Be careful with office romances. While there’s nothing like the prospect of bumping elbows with your office crush to get you excited about work, make sure it’s not against company rules to date a co-worker. And here’s another fun fact: Those who have sex the night or morning before work are happier and more engaged at the office, according to a study conducted by researchers at Oregon State University.

12. Work on your “soft” skills

Career success isn’t just about how good you are at what you do, it’s also about how well you work with others. Be mindful not only of the words you speak and how often you toot your own horn, but also with how carefully you listen to your boss and co-workers.

Good communication is doubly important if you work from home or are adjusting to a new boss, who may have a different management style from what you're used to. (And here are some tips for handling that if you're the boss.) And for a little extra credit, learn how to deal with narcissistic people by channeling their need for positive feedback into motivation to treat others with decency and kindness.

13. Master the art of asking for a raise

Once you’ve proven your worth, it’s time to negotiate for a raise. You can make things less awkward by smiling while you politely lay out the reasons why you’re worth more than you’re getting paid. Demonstrate that you’re an achiever, not just a doer — and don’t get pegged as a complainer.

Sometimes you can’t get the pay bump you deserve no matter how much you’ve achieved. In that case, it may be time to consider working for a company that will pay you more. Looking for a new gig can be a pain, but switching jobs is one of the best ways to get a meaningful raise.

14. Don’t be a workaholic

Figuring out if you're a maximizer or a satisficer can help you find balance if you are overdoing it. And don't be shamed into skipping vacation time you've earned. In a disturbing trend, Americans have been taking fewer vacation days than they did in the 1980s and 1990s, as the chart below illustrates.

Being successful at work is important, but if you have no life as a result, you could wind up feeling miserable. Your mental health actually starts to decline if you work more than 39 hours a week, according to a study conducted by Australian researchers. (Although, contrary to popular belief, a four-day work week isn't all it's cracked up to be.)

Tackle workplace troubles with tact

15. Know what to do when the problem is you...

No one should stay stuck in a job they hate, but before you hand in your resignation, figure out if there is any way to make it work. If you’re constantly rolling into the office late because you’re bored with your job, ask your boss if you can take on a new project. Got a bad performance review? Think about how changing your work habits could make both you and your boss happier.

Boss problems are a top reason why people leave their jobs. “People don’t leave their jobs, they leave their bosses,” Larry Fisher, who runs business development at the talent management firm The Ayers Group, said in a phone interview. While it's possible your boss really is the problem and may be working you to death by discouraging you from taking a vacation, the best solution often boils down to how you handle differences of opinion.

Managing work conflicts is an essential skill, so it’s wise to learn how to call out a bad idea at work without offending your boss or co-workers and how to suggest alternate solutions to problems instead of just saying “no.”

16. ... and what to do when it's not

There's also a very real possibility that you are stuck in a toxic work environment or are dealing with serious issues like wage inequality, wage theft or discrimination. Despite efforts to boost corporate diversity, gay workers may lose promotions and raises because of bias toward their voice. And women still must work 50 years to earn what men do in 40.

If you're a woman who is not being paid the same amount as a man who does the exact same job, you can report it to the the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and file a lawsuit against your employer. Being harassed or discriminated against at work? Document everything, then report it to HR. If they fail to resolve the issue, you can hire an employment lawyer or find one who will work pro bono.

17. Always exit with grace and class

Sooner or later, you will move on, whether it is for a more challenging job, a move to a new city or because you got laid off. If you're still on the fence about giving notice, consider big red flags like lack of upward mobility, no raises or a toxic company culture. Even if you check off all of the above, it may still be a bad idea to up and leave your job if you're in debt, don’t have an emergency fund and don’t have a new job lined up in advance.

Once you've made your decision, make sure to leave on the best terms possible. Tell your boss before anyone else, giving two weeks notice if you are in a junior position or longer if your job will be hard to fill. If you signed a non-compete agreement, find out if it's enforceable. Never bad mouth the company on the way out, but do connect on LinkedIn or Facebook with everyone you want to keep in your professional network.

Finally, do a little housekeeping: Sign up for unemployment benefits if you're eligible, decide if you want to stay on your company's health plan (which can be expensive) or sign up for health care through the Affordable Care Act and look into rolling your 401(k) into an IRA. Then get ready to start the next — and best — chapter of your life!

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