Whether you’re looking toward graduate school, a gap year or landing your dream job, career planning and discovery is an important part of the student experience. As National Career Development Month, November is a great time to put some focused thought into your future career choices—even if you’re not sure what the next step will look like.

To learn more about the career planning and development process at Case Western Reserve, we checked in with Drew Poppleton, director of post-graduate planning and experiential education, whose office specializes in helping students explore the link between academics and career options through one-on-one career counseling, extensive networking and discovery resources, and much more.

Read on to learn what Poppleton thinks are the top five things you should know about career planning.

1. You don’t have to know what you want to have a plan.

A common misconception about career planning is that you must have a clear idea of what you want to do or who you want to become to build a successful plan toward that future, which simply isn’t true. Having a plan—any plan—is what matters. If, like many CWRU students, you have lots of interests or many talents, and you’re struggling to figure out which direction to go, your plan might look different from someone who has a clearer picture. For instance, your plan might include a bit more research into possible careers on the front end of the process, followed by several exploratory conversations with alumni, faculty and family. No big deal. Those activities can be quite fun, and there are numerous resources available through Post-Graduate Planning and Experiential Education to help you along the way.

2. You don’t have to—and shouldn’t—plan by yourself.

Speaking of resources and help, it’s important to bring others into the career planning process with you. There is no additional honor or benefit in going it alone and no one expects you to know how to navigate your career journey by yourself. Will you have to put in a healthy amount of individual effort and stay focused on your goals? Sure. But when others know about your plan, they can help you stay accountable to yourself, open doors you didn’t know existed, and provide meaningful perspective and guidance at critical points throughout the process. 

We don’t know what we don’t know, and no amount of internet research will provide the kind of deep insight you’ll gain from having a conversation with someone who’s actually walked a path you’ve considered traveling yourself. So get out there and talk to people. Whether it’s your navigator, a career and internship consultant, your advisor, a family friend or your roommate, you’ll find that people generally and genuinely want to support you. You probably know where to find your roommate, but if you want to talk with your navigator, a career and internship consultant, or other members of your success team, you can schedule an appointment through MyJourney.        

3. Your network is larger than you think.

It’s usually at this point in the career planning conversation that students start to feel uneasy about next steps. As soon as we start talking about networking, images of ballrooms packed with hundreds of strangers in dark suits affixed with illegible name badges spring to mind and trepidation rises. Networking takes many forms, however, and sometimes the most effective means of connecting with people can also be the least nerve-wracking. The trick is to start with people you know or with whom you have some kind of affiliation. Once you start mapping it out, you’ll find that your network is larger than you think. In just your immediate circle, you have classmates, advisors, faculty members, friends, family members and more. It’s possible that none of the members of the inner ring of your network have pursued a career to which you aspire, or worked at an organization in which you’re interested, but their friends, family members or advisors might! If you don’t share with people your interests or plan—if you don’t ask them if they know anyone in your field of interest—you’ll never find out.  

Just by being a student here, you are part of the CWRU community, which extends to the 110,000+ alumni around the world. Tools like CWRU Connect: Alumni Career Network, LinkedIn, and CareerShift make it easy to engage with alumni in your field of interest. The Alumni Career Network is especially easy, as all of the alumni in that database have volunteered to talk to students and want you to reach out to them, and the software even offers email templates for crafting your first outreach message. 

4. Give yourself time and don’t be too hard on yourself.

As you might imagine, researching professions, building relationships through networking, engaging with organizations on and off campus, and pursuing opportunities of interest can be time-intensive. Make sure you build ample time into your plan. If you connect with an alumnus this week, it’s unreasonable to expect that they’ll be able to help you land an internship in their field the following week—get to know them over time and work on building a rapport. After speaking with a few alumni in a particular profession, you might learn that it’s not as appealing as you once thought, and you’ll have to tweak your plan, and that’s OK. You’ve accounted for this extra time, remember? It’s also likely that there will be opportunities you apply for that you don’t get, or never hear back about—it happens to everyone and it’s part of the process, so don’t be hard on yourself.

Having a plan doesn’t mean that you have to stick to that same plan from start to finish. Having a plan is about staying in motion and being active in your own journey, but being flexible enough to adapt to what you learn and encounter. The earlier you start, the quicker you begin planning, the more time you afford yourself to benefit from the process.    

5. Embrace the process.

As strong as the urge may be to achieve your goals as quickly as possible, resist it. While there is nothing wrong with being focused and making steady progress toward your goals, your career is not a checkbox that can be crossed off summarily. You should always be planning your career, whether you’re just starting out or 30 years into it, so learn to enjoy it. The career planning process is a tremendous vehicle for learning about yourself and others, discovering new things and gaining self-confidence. There will be bumps in the road, but if you approach your career with a growth mindset, they’ll likely turn into sources of valuable insight or catalysts for positive change.