What Is a Career? The Definition of Career & What It Means to Have One

What is a career, really? We've got the definition of career for you here as well as examples and guides for how to get you started on yours.

The world is a fast-paced place at the moment and when you’re standing on the edge of the world of work, it can look intimidating. Where should you begin? What should you study?

What is a career, anyway?

Around half of American workers have made a significant career change in their lives. In addition, millennials have a reputation for switching industries faster than you can say “portfolio career.” With student loans higher than ever and start-ups blossoming on every corner, sorting through advice can feel overwhelming. 

First, it’s important to start with the basics. If you want to cut through the noise and get clear from the start, you’ve found the right page. Keep reading to discover what a career is and how you might go about choosing one. 

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The Definition of Career

As defined by Dictionary.com, a career is:

An occupation or profession, especially one requiring special training, followed as one’s lifework.

A career differs from a job as it typically lasts many years and may contain lots of related jobs or promotions. A career tends to be in a particular industry although it might also be a string of jobs related in another way. 

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.

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Healthcare Career

You might begin a career in healthcare as a part-time administrative assistant in a hospital while doing a healthcare degree. You might qualify in your chosen health field and progress up the route in patient care. Or, you might become a biomedical researcher and stay in the lab or academic side of the industry. 

No matter if you decided to follow a patient-facing career, pursue an academic career or even do both, you’d have a career in the healthcare industry. 

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Teaching Career

Teaching careers can be enormously diverse and rewarding. You might begin a teaching career as a TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) teacher while traveling abroad for a year before returning home. You then could choose to train as a high school teacher. 

Perhaps you love outdoor sports and do a summer as a camp counselor before training as a watersports instructor. You could go to college and pursue an academic career too, eventually teaching college students. For something very different, you could teach mindfulness to corporate clients or run skills classes at military bases. 

Even though your career might take you into many different industries, you’d still have a career in teaching. 

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Varied but Related

As you can see, a career isn’t necessarily one type of job. Instead, it’s a long-term focus that may include many roles but they will typically have a common theme. That theme might be an industry like healthcare or it might be a skill like teaching. 

How to Choose a Career to Go Into

There’s often a huge amount of pressure to choose the “right” career. What constitutes the “right” career is never specified of course! 

When it comes to choosing a career, it’s important to remember that nothing is set in stone. While a college degree is a huge financial commitment, even if you change your career goals down the line, a degree will often pay off even if it’s in a different subject. 

As we’ve already seen, careers can be widely diverse. This means that if you specialize in healthcare and decide you might want to try out teaching, there’s often space within your career to shift focus. For instance, you could become a healthcare trainer to see if you enjoy teaching. If you do, you could make a career change into a teaching field. 

Another example would be going to law school only to wish you worked in the entertainment industry. Luckily, the entertainment industry needs lawyers too! 

There are plenty of ways you can explore many different career angles from within a chosen field.

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Internships can be a strong way of getting experience in companies and industries you think you might want to have a career in. No two internship programs are the same and you can use them as an opportunity to get real-world experience, meet contacts, and ask questions to those in positions you admire. 

Of course, taking an internship in a particular industry might show you that you don’t want to work in that industry or role. This is just as useful as an internship that shows you where you do want to work. Even during internships that don’t make you want to join that industry, you’ll still pick up great work experience in admin, communications, and other skills. 

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List Themes You Feel Close To

One of the strange things about choosing a career is that people often end up in careers they may never have heard of when they were in high school or in college. So how can you choose a career path if you don’t know all the options?

Employers don’t just look for work experience in their industry, it’s often transferable skills that they’re interested in. This means that if you work in a role where you’re caring for others, for instance, your people skills might secure you a role in a completely different industry. 

Themes you might want to pursue could include: 

  • Caring for/helping others
  • Animals and wildlife
  • Teaching
  • Healthcare
  • Creative
  • Working with children
  • Technological innovation
  • Environmental and green energy
  • Military
  • Communications

While some of these are industries themselves, they’re also broad themes that can help you choose a career that suits you. If you feel strongly about helping others, you know to look for careers where that is a principal focus. 

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What If You Pick the “Wrong” Career?

There is no such thing as a career that is “wrong” if you go into your working life with a proactive attitude. That’s because transferable skills exist in every job and so you will always be progressing, even if you decide to switch to a completely different career at some point. 

As we’ve seen, there’s also much overlap in careers and you can often try out a different avenue while remaining in your same broad career. 

However, if you do reach a stage where you believe you’re in the wrong career – through personal preference, ability or external factors like demand – you can retrain. If you change careers with purpose and thought, there’s no reason why future employers will look down upon you as a career-changer. In fact, you may well bring a valuable and rare skill set to your new career, thanks to your previous one. 

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How to Succeed in Any Career

Success and happiness are often more closely linked to how you work, rather than which job you work in. You might be in your dream role but what happens if you’re micro-managed, not given any responsibility, and undermined at every turn? You’ll quickly hate your job. 

Studies show that one of the main factors for loving your career is autonomy. Being engaged and having some autonomy at work is more valuable than a pay rise or even the role you think you want. Of course, autonomy doesn’t get handed to you as soon as you sign your first job contract. 

You earn responsibility and autonomy by showing that you can step up to the challenge. To succeed in any career, it’s important to be proactive, hard-working, and trustworthy. As you build experience, you can use your position to gain more autonomy and shape your career into the one you’ve always wanted. 

Success in a career is a mindset. It means not thinking you’re owed a great career and instead working towards building one. 

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Owning Your Career

We all know that historically, you’d pick a trade and stay in it for your whole life. In recent decades this has become the exception, not the norm for many people and industries. There is no rule book to follow and while that can be overwhelming, it can also be reassuring if you’re worried about making the “wrong” choice. 

If you asked ten CEOs of tech companies how they got to where they are, they would all have very different answers. There are many paths you can take through your career and you can use any job to your advantage.

It’s important to not try to follow the paths of others too closely. What worked for them won’t necessarily work for you and the opportunities they found will have changed. When you own your career journey and understand that it’s yours to shape, you’ll feel less pressure to make the “right” decision each time. 

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What Is a Career? It’s an Abundance of Opportunities

So, what is a career? It’s a life-long journey through the world of work that is unique to you. It may have unexpected twists and turns, it might need reconsidering sometimes or switching tracks, but each step you make is progress. 

When thinking about the career you want to aim for, remember that there’s not just one journey. Careers might fall into industries or skills and you can often try out very different roles all within one career. 

Most importantly, your career is yours. Your individual experience and interests will help you shape a career you love.

Explore more articles about opportunities and jobs on our blog and get started on your unique career!

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Christian Eilers
Written By Christian Eilers
is a writer and expert on the topics of education, entrepreneurship, career advice, travel, and culture. On the Goodwall Blog, he covers topics including self-improvement, social impact, college preparation, career development, climate action, and more. Christian is originally from New York City and now resides in Kyiv, Ukraine after living in Warsaw, Poland for the past 4 years. At his desk, you're sure to find Pickwick, his Devon Rex cat, either attacking his fingers as he types or the monitor as the mouse pointer moves around.

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