Why Smart Career Changers Choose Hands-On Exploration

Annie Favreau

Choosing a career path is hard. But switching paths can be even harder--especially if a big education commitment (like getting a new degree) is required. To help career changers navigate these high-stake decisions, career exploration programs are popping up all over the country.

These programs--which range from single career days to month-long intensives--give you a first-person experience of what it's really like to work in a specific industry. And this insider knowledge can make all the difference between pursuing a career you love or choosing a direction that's bound to fail.

As one of the oldest career immersion programs in the United States, Harvard Graduate School of Design's Career Discovery is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, we spoke with faculty and alumni about the four best benefits of exploring careers before you make the big leap.

No. 1: You can determine if a career is a good fit. At Career Discovery--a six-week summer intensive centered on design and planning fields like architecture, landscape architecture and urban design--you don't learn about careers, you experience them. "It's very hands-on ... it's not a lot of lectures and sitting in classrooms," explains Kathryn Madden, one of the lead faculty members. "It's really focused on getting your hands dirty."

This kind of up-close work is a great way to dispel (or confirm) any doubts as to whether a new career is a good match. Faculty Director Jeffrey Klug says certain questions become clear: "'Am I any good at it?' 'Do I have aptitude?' All of those kinds of questions are answered during the summer."

No. 2: You can test drive ideas before spending time and money on school. As with many industries, it's a big commitment to launch a design or planning career. "It's a long path to be trained in all those technical and creative processes," says Madden. "To go into these grad programs that take a lot of time, you want to be sure these are fields you're interested in."

Klug also points out the high cost of some degrees--which often run between $10,000-$25,000 per term. "If you can spend one-tenth of that in a summer to understand what a profession might be like, why wouldn't you do it?"

No. 3: You get real advice from working professionals. For alum Kerry Bobbermien--a civil engineer who wanted more creativity in her job--one of the biggest benefits of Career Discovery came from the wide range of working professionals who taught and gave lectures. "I went out of my way to talk to the speakers who came," she says. Her networking paid off: The advice she received helped her get a more accurate picture of the industry. "I could never have gotten that by myself," she says.

No. 4: Your experience pays off in any career you choose. While Career Discovery specializes in design and planning careers, the lessons learned there apply much further afield. "I try to encourage students to recognize that design is not a method, it's a mindset," says Klug. "There are so many ways you can apply your education in design to the world."

One great example is Film Director Seth Gordon (his latest movie, Identify Thief, was released in February). Gordon attended Career Discovery to learn more about architecture, but he still uses the skills he acquired there for his Hollywood career. "If you're well versed in architecture, you're well versed in other disciplines," notes Gordon. "You learn history, physics, how to represent space visually ... and that makes it incredibly useful in a number of ways--and certainly for filmmaking. It's relevant to so many areas."

Good career exploration programs help people make more confident decisions about their future. So, did Career Discovery deliver? "Definitely," affirms Bobbermien. "It's not a small decision to make, and the program really gave me the confidence to say--yes, I want to make landscape architecture my career."

Would you consider a hands-on career exploration program? Tell us why or why not in the comments.

Annie Favreau is the managing editor for Inside Jobs--a site that helps career changers and choosers discover strong career options + find the right education to make it happen. Follow her on Twitter @InsideJobs.