The Ultimate Guide to Finding Your Career North Star
Discover the essential first steps to jumpstart your job search, from self-exploration and understanding your options to leveraging LinkedIn's powerful tools for career exploration.
It’s time to take the plunge and land a job you love. No more settling. Pause for a moment and let yourself feel the excitement of new possibilities—now try to channel that excitement for what may lie ahead. You’ll need it! Because the hardest part of any job search is, you guessed it: getting started. But fear not—we’ll be with you each step of the way, from start to finish.
Set Your Course Before You Set Off
So just what is the first step in the modern job search?
Well, you could jump into action mode and do what we’ve all been trained to do: Work on your resume. Or you could fiddle around with your LinkedIn profile. Or perhaps the most mindless (and least impactful) activity: taking that stale, multipurpose resume and applying cold to every job you come across. With so many ways to browse and apply—with so many things to do—it’s no wonder that lots of searches never leave the launchpad.
But here’s the truth: All those actions won’t yield results unless they’re focused. While firing off your resume far and wide like a bazooka or clicking every “Easy Apply” button you see on LinkedIn may feel productive, it’s not. It takes a laser-guided missile to hit your target (which might be new connections, emails from a recruiter, interview callbacks, and ultimately job offers). Your first task is to get to know thyself—then find what matches are out there and get discovered for them.
So here’s a simple operating question to cut through all the analysis paralysis: What kind of job would you actually love in the first place?
If you don’t yet know the answer to that question, that’s okay. It takes time for lots of us. But until you start to develop a hypothesis about the kind of work that brings you fulfillment, every other step— building a resume, crafting a LinkedIn profile, even networking— could feel like a step through superglue. Without a clear North Star to guide you, every job search maneuver is just a shot in the dark. That’s where the Exploring step comes in.
This is an absolutely critical, soul-baring, be-truly-real-with- yourself, no-shortcuts-allowed exercise. Because when it comes to your professional brand in the digital world, getting focused— on what you really want to do next, and then on how you position yourself accordingly—is the key.
Said another way: There’s no such thing as a perfect LinkedIn profile. There is only a perfect LinkedIn profile for a specific job. What is that job for you, and for where you are right now in your career? Clarifying this will be your compass.
So to make sure you set off in the proper direction, let’s take the first step together: finding the right path for you by exploring on LinkedIn. Let’s do it in two parts: 1) understanding your options, and 2) testing your options.
Career coach Shelley Piedmont says:
Part 1: Understand Your Options
To point your compass toward the right career path, you need to get a feel for what’s out there. Once you do, chances are you won’t have to blaze an entirely new trail. The galaxy of possibilities will be made more knowable and more manageable.
Here’s a useful case study. Jeremy used to mentor a high school student in the South Bronx named Ian. Ian had impressive clarity about his future and was dead set on becoming a criminal forensic scientist. There was only one problem: Ian hated science. Kind of a job requirement. Oops.
Upon further investigation, it turned out that Ian didn’t know any practitioners in the field. But he did watch a ton of CSI. Sure enough, he had trained his sights on the one profession that seemed cool—even though it was totally wrong for him!
Ian is no outlier. We have all done this, usually at earlier stages of our professional lives, but it’s liable to happen at other key moments of our careers, like mulling over what comes next after a graduate program, or trying to break into a new industry mid-career. We get tunnel vision on a specific path that we’ve heard about—and then start to ignore all other possibilities. And we do so at our own peril, given that just seeing a role on TV or focusing on what our friends are passionate about may block out the other careers that are indeed a better fit for us.
To avoid this trap, you must get intimately acquainted with the set of real possibilities out there. The single best way to do that is to explore the trails that others have blazed before you. Especially those with whom you already have shared work credentials or a shared affiliation—like an alma mater—who are lower-hanging fruit to connect with.
When we worked at LinkedIn, our team built a handy product called the Alumni Tool. (Sure, we’re biased, but we think it’s the best-kept secret on LinkedIn.) And even though it’s buried deep within the site, discovering it is like striking career gold: It shows the paths of every alum at virtually every school—colleges, universities, graduate programs, even many high schools—in the world.
So what makes these paths so valuable to you? And why the school-based approach to career exploration? The Alumni Tool gives you a sense of your most realistic, attainable options. After all, these alumni have been in your shoes, studied what you’ve studied, and gone on to land awesome opportunities across a variety of fields, locations, and employers. Not only that: Given your shared affiliation (Go Tigers/Aggies/Banana Slugs/Fill-In-Your-Goofy-Mascot- Here!), these contacts are also low-hanging potential referrals and informational interviewers. Their brains—and networks—are ripe for the picking.
Here’s how to start mining that alma mater career path on LinkedIn:
1. Type in your school in the search box, and choose the “School” page option.
2. Click “Alumni” at the top of the college or university’s page.
3. Welcome to the best-kept secret on LinkedIn! You now have access to all your school’s alumni on the site (i.e., those who’ve listed the school in the Education section of their profiles—all easily filterable by location, company, job, major, and connection proximity):
What to do next with this information depends on where you are in your career (e.g., a new or soon-to-be grad casting a wide net, or twenty years out with more focused requirements) and on what’s most important to your search (e.g., living in a certain geographical area, or working for a dream employer).
Here are just a few examples of the myriad ways you can purposely slice and dice this alumni data to get precisely what—and whom—you need to help you focus your job search.
Let’s say you’re a current college senior at Texas A&M University who wants to move to Austin after graduation. Select “Austin, Texas Area” from the Where they live column (if it doesn’t appear in the first set of listings, click “Add,” then search for your desired location). You have just cut down your list of 370,000+ alumni to one-tenth of that unruly number—only the 31,000+ in Austin:
And best of all, everything else in the Alumni Tool dynamically updates based on any filters you apply. So in this example, you’ll now see only the companies hiring alums in the Austin area in the Where they work column:
Okay, so what? Well, now you have a list of alumni in your desired city who are available to connect and from whom you can learn. (We’ll get into that reaching out part later in this chapter.) Just as valuable, this is also your postgraduation employer lead list. Both factors can help you get focused. It’s a custom-tailored directory of potential organizations to explore—ones in which your alumni base is already working.
Maybe you’re a new grad who’s not sure what to do with your psych degree. You’re far from alone—it turns out that, according to LinkedIn, more than a thousand Texas A&M alumni in Austin walked in your shoes and navigated that very situation. Just click the “Next” button to toggle over to the What they studied column and choose your major:
Now look at the Where they work column and behold all the most popular options at your disposal—from technology and business to academia:
Let’s say you graduated a decade ago and entered the health care sector but now want to switch into an information technology career. Choose your desired field (and perhaps also the function you want to be in) from the What they do column:
Again, notice that the other elements of this tool also update as you click into these filters. So toggle back and check out the various employers where others like you have landed jobs:
OTHER BEST PRACTICES
Here are a few more important notes to get the most value out of the Alumni Tool:
1. Be sure to conduct a similar search for every school you attended, in any capacity (including high schools, graduate programs, professional certificates, and even study abroad). Each new search expands your horizons even further.
2. No matter what kind of program you were in at a school, even if you didn’t complete it—a certificate, an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s degree, or beyond—remember that the entire institution’s alumni base is also part of your network.
If you got your MBA from Texas A&M, for example, you would of course want to peruse the Alumni Tool for the Mays Business School as well as the overall Texas A&M page. But don’t skip other schools within the larger university, such as the School of Law or the School of Public Health. Whether you were part of the Texas A&M community for a semester or a seven-year PhD program, all these alumni are now at your fingertips.
Why are they so accessible? Because graduates tend to feel an affinity for their larger institutions, not just their specific pro- grams (just look at all the university logos plastered over bumper stickers, thirty years post-graduation). Omar, for example, went to UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business but always responds to requests he gets from anyone who’s ever been affiliated with UC-Berkeley. He loves Cal, not just Haas—and definitely not just MBAs.
3. You can custom-search far more than a location (e.g., “Austin, Texas Area” on page 68) with this tool. Don’t see a specific company, skill, or area of study in the default list of the top fifteen results? Click the “Add” button atop any of these dimensions and use the search to find the right, LinkedIn-standardized match to narrow your list:
4. For any additional search criteria that don’t fit within LinkedIn’s standardized options, you can add them using the search box at the top of the Alumni Tool:
For instance, let’s say you only want to see graduates who are in the field of Corporate Social Responsibility. Just do a search for that phrase (in quotes to capture all the words of the phrase together) and hit “Return.” Now you can see all the alumni who have that specific field anywhere on their profiles, plus updated data on where they live, work, and more:
Corporate Social Responsibility is also known as “CSR,” so you can add an “OR” operator to catch more than one phrase and widen your search.
These focused methods of finding alumni are especially help- ful at the outset of your job search. This way, no matter what’s most important to you, you’ll have a tailored list of pathways to explore. Instead of settling for just the jobs you know, you now have visibility into both a larger and more realistic set of potential jobs that you might actually, dare we say, enjoy! Just as important, you’re laying the groundwork for a network of school-affiliated people who can help surface opportunities and eventually get you in the door.
Now let’s get into how to tap the power of these career maps to build real relationships.
Hold Up—What If I Didn’t Go To College?
We’ve focused so far on examples of college and university networks. But what if you didn’t go to a four-year school? After all, two in three Americans haven’t completed a four-year degree.
Good news: The true power of LinkedIn is that it’s not some exclusive old boys’ club. Anyone can tap its data to accelerate their career. Here are two other options, no matter your educational background:
LinkedIn has the Alumni Tool for almost any school in the world, including vocational programs and high schools—a truly unrivaled data set of career paths to explore. So you can search for and explore any and every school you attended.
LinkedIn also offers a similarly filterable solution for companies. Say you’re already working somewhere but want to explore the ins and outs of different roles—and the folks who hold them—at your organization. Just search for your company and click the “People” tab.
Bam! You can now explore lots of paths within your current employer (the easiest place to start) but beyond the specific job you’re doing today. Then you can also view the paths and required skills of people at other companies where you might want to work next.
Part 2: Test Your Options
You’ve just taken the critical first step: discovering an entire uni- verse of plausible professional options. This is especially something to celebrate if you’ve been feeling stuck or overwhelmed up to this point.
Now it’s time to test out those options. While it might be tempt- ing to say, “Wow, look at all these philosophy majors working at Nike; that’s the path for me,” it’s an even better idea to talk to those philosophy majors before you take the plunge.
To appreciate why, imagine this scenario: You spend the next few months hustling to land a plum job at Nike. You finally make it in. And then on your first day, your boss says: “Hey, do you mind updating all these spreadsheets by the end of the day?” Which is really too bad, given that spread- sheets are your own personal kryptonite. And the mere sight of all those blank cells makes your eyes start to bleed. And every time someone says, “Pivot Table,” you start to break out in hives. . . .
Okay, you get the picture.
To avoid this fate, you want to really dig into each possible career path and understand exactly what it entails—what would you actually do in this role, is it a good fit for your superpowers, and will it bring you meaning or misery?
The best way to do that is to talk to people who do the job—i.e., the alumni you just uncovered in the last step. After all, if you had the choice between reading about a chocolate cake in a cook- book and tasting the cake right here and now, who wouldn’t go for the real thing? The same concept applies to career exploration; there’s just no substitute for learning from real people with real expertise.
Here’s exactly how to start up those essential conversations:
1. Once you run your initial filter(s) on the Alumni Tool to narrow down the pool of users, scroll down to see the alumni doing the very jobs in the very places you’re excited about:
2. Pick one who is doing something intriguing and click the “Connect” button. Then, be sure to also click “Add a note” (since you want to make it clear why you’re reaching out):
3. Now, here’s the most crucial part. Many people blow it by saying something like, “Hey—can you get me a job?” or “Let me tell you how awesome I am!” While you might want both things, neither is particularly appealing to an alum.
In fact, if you’re an alum yourself, you might have received at least a few messages like this. If so, you know all too well that no one wants to be so plainly sold to or used in such a transactional way.
Worry not, however, because the vast majority of alumni are happy to help out—they just want to feel good about it. They want a chance to tell their own story or steer the next generation clear of the mistakes they made. But here’s what you will almost certainly not hear: “Oh, sure, let me serve you up a job on a silver platter just because you happened to be one of the 300,000 other people who went to my school!”
So here’s an example of a note that gives the alum the spotlight instead of a sales pitch (you can find a template for this kind of outreach at the end of the chapter):
The key elements here are:
Playing up your shared affiliation from the get-go.
Flattery (let’s be real, it works).
Conveying you won’t waste their time.
Next week is always better than this week!
Once you’ve sent this first request, don’t stop there. You want to reach out to at least five alumni, with a goal of having three real conversations (aka “informational interviews”) per career path. Why? Well, for one thing, you’re unlikely to hear back from every alum. You also want a diverse sample of experiences to help you get focused while making a potentially foundational career decision.
For the alumni who do respond, be sure to keep track of what you learn. Make the most of each conversation by doing the following:
Ask great questions to accelerate your learning (see Sidebar on the next page).
Follow up with a great thank-you note. It doesn’t have to be long, but it does need to include some of the things you learned. The alums should know that the time they invested in the call was well worth it—and they’ll be all the more likely to want to help you again in the future.
After each of your three (at a minimum) informational inter- views with alumni who have desirable job titles, work at companies you’re considering, or have taken career steps you want to emulate, it’s helpful to rate your level of fit. Here’s a basic rubric to evaluate what you’re learning:
3: Great Fit—I’d love doing this kind of work, it plays to my strengths (but with some healthy “stretch” and learning), and I’d feel good about what I accomplish there.
2: Okay Fit—This work feels somewhat interesting, I could definitely get it done, and I’d have a decent sense of accomplishment.
1: Bad Fit—This work seems fairly boring, I’d have to work really hard just to be mediocre at it, and/or it would give me very little sense of meaning.
Let’s look at an example: Say you just interviewed a high school math teacher, who’s told you about his days of engaging his students, helping them navigate tough challenges both at school and at home, and ultimately guiding them toward success. If you love to tell stories, have incredible interpersonal skills, and are motivated by making a difference in a young person’s life, you might rate that role a “3.” If your true love, however, is finding patterns hidden in data, your number-crunching skills are off the charts, and you’re most motivated by making sense out of lots of information, this might be a “1” for you.
Either way, your overall list will give you an average rating for each potential pathway. You can then compare the overall ratings across each of the paths to identify the one you should pursue first. Instead of stumbling out of the starting blocks like so many job seekers, you are now armed with a compass pointing you to a clear North Star.
Great Questions = Real Insights
To make sure you get the most out of your connection with fellow alumni, get ready to ask great questions. Again, you’re not pitching yourself or asking for a job—you just need the real, unvarnished truth about what the job is like.
Here’s precisely what to ask them during a phone, video, or coffee chat:
How did you go from school (or a different type of job/role) to your current role?
How does your job compare to school and tap into what you studied there?
What do you do all day?
What do you love the most about your field?
What’s most frustrating about your role?
What has surprised you most?
By asking these questions, you can get a sense of what it’s really like to be in their shoes—what the job feels like, how it compares to your shared experience, and what you might not expect as someone on the outside.
Exploring An Internal Transfer
While many of the methods in this chapter are designed for people entering the workforce or making a significant career change, the same underlying principles apply to current employees consider- ing an internal transfer. Because a great new job—maybe even your dream job—might be just down the hall.
Often, it is.
In fact, roughly half of jobs are filled by internal candidates—it’s a whole job market of its own. So if you’re pondering (or at least open to) an internal transfer within your current workplace, you’re not wasting your time on this chapter. Much of the process is quite sim- ilar, but here are a few nuances for the purely internal job search:
You will likely find that LinkedIn is more useful than your internal employee database, if one exists. In addition to names and titles, the site gives you a career dossier for everyone in your organization. You can find people with shared interests (e.g., the Director of Sales attended your alma mater, or the Head of Facilities volunteers with the same nonprofit) that can make it easier to strike up a conversation.
Just like you can play the “I’m a student” card when you’re in or newly out of school, you can also play the “I’m a colleague” card. This is a very strong “in” that should engender a response while networking. But it is not a license to abandon the rules for cold outreach. Don’t get too transactional too quickly; try to convey why they’re the right person; mention shared connections; flatter them; and don’t waste their time.
Since a potential connection is already in your company, flattery can go even further than normal. They assume, and you can play on, some prior knowledge. Maybe mention something they said in an all-hands meeting, or say that their reputation precedes them.
Start with a lightweight “would love to get to know you and what your team does” ask. Don’t ask for a referral in the first call or coffee chat unless it lasts more than an hour and you’ve said a lot about yourself, or you know they’re hiring for your dream job. You should instead have lots of nuanced questions and end by asking if they would be willing to be a mentor.
Most companies will have a process for internal transfers. Understand that process. Oftentimes it will include alerting your current manager once you decide to throw in for a new job, which could potentially be a thorny situation. You must weigh the risks and benefits here, but your HR department and/or recruiting team should be a safe place to help you do so. Also, keep in mind that anyone at your company using LinkedIn’s Recruiter can’t see that you are open to new opportunities, so there’s no way to indicate to them that you want to be considered for an internal move. You can of course make this visible to all members (see page 107), but we don’t recommend that unless you’re really willing to throw caution to the wind.
From Passion To Profession
We first met Andrew Kung while we were all working at LinkedIn. He was a talented recent grad who seemed to have it all: a highly selective job at a fancy-shmancy company with enough compensation to put his instant ramen–eating days behind him.
There was only one problem. Andrew felt stuck.
That’s because he was doing a type of job the world expects new grads to do (sales and customer support), not the one that he really craved and excelled at (photography). But unlike many new grads—and frankly, a lot of experienced professionals, too—Andrew wasn’t content to just defer his dreams indefinitely. Instead, he started reaching out to professional photographers through his connections on LinkedIn and realized that his dream was completely attainable.
By learning from these insiders, Andrew started to imagine an alternative future that wasn’t just pure fantasy, but one that was grounded in the reality of others’ experiences. Their stories became the paving stones for a career path that he could start to envision.
Buoyed by his career exploration, Andrew requested a transfer to LinkedIn’s New York City office. And within six months, he had networked his way into enough part-time gigs that he decided to quit the security of a big company job altogether. Pretty soon his LinkedIn Headline reflected not only his passion, but his new profession:
Within a few years, Andrew had done photography work for Beats by Dre, HBO, and Esquire—and had his work featured in the New York Times and Vogue, and on CNN.
Andrew shares this reflection on his experience: “Before LinkedIn, I always just relied on serendipity to open doors. But with LinkedIn, I realized I could engineer my own serendipity—and my own future.”
Sample Connection Message for Alumni:
Hi FIRST NAME,
As a fellow SCHOOL alum who also majored in FIELD, I was so excited to come across your profile. I’d love to know more about how you built your impressive career—any chance you’d have a few minutes to chat next week?
Thanks for considering!
—YOUR FULL NAME
You did it! Instead of being consigned to wander the earth for all time in search of occupational fulfillment—like some kind of career zombie—you’ve just given yourself the antiserum: understanding what’s out there. And unlike the watered-down stuff that you might find on blogs and social media, you went straight to the source: real people doing the jobs you might really land soon. So give yourself a pat on the back for completing the first major step in the modern job search.
Before we move on, here’s a checklist to help make sure you’ve applied everything we just covered:
❑ Explore the career paths of alumni from your alma mater(s). Try applying the following filters to home in on people whose careers excite you:
❑ Area of study
❑ Skills you possess and can demonstrate (or really want to build)
❑ For every career path that intrigues you, reach out to at least five—yielding at least three conversations with—alumni who are in, or have done, the jobs you’re most interested in. For each informational interview, make sure to:
❑ Ask great questions that give you a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes.
❑ Follow up with a thank-you note that lets alumni know their time was worth it.
❑ Use these paths and informational interviews to assess your level of fit and narrow down your preferred next step.
Want Even More Insider LinkedIn Tips?
This chapter is excerpted from our brand-new LinkedIn best-seller, Linked: Conquer LinkedIn. Get Your Dream Job. Own Your Future. (Workman/Hachette, 2022). And grab a free copy of my LinkedIn profile checklist - the only one designed by LinkedIn insiders - here.