By Paul Thomas

Get the BIG picture when choosing a career: Stats vs. Stories
 
When choosing a career path or institution for further study, there are various ways of getting hold of the information you require to make an informed choice. An obvious source of information on an educational institution is its website and/or prospectus (brochure). You can also source information on meta-sites such as www.firststep.co.za. Similarly, when choosing a career, you can usually find a whole lot of information from the governing bodies that oversee the various professions. By way of example, the Health Professions Council of South Africa could give you information on a career as a doctor or nurse, while Icograda (the International Council of Graphic Design Associations) could help out with information on world-wide careers in the visual arts. These governing bodies usually have websites and brochures of their own, which serve as valuable sources of information. The First Step website, once again, is an excellent source of information on a wide range of careers.

However, while websites and information brochures are an excellent starting point for information gathering, they are precisely that: a starting point or First Step! If you want to make a truly informed decision, there is a very important second step - stories.
 
In order to supplement the facts and figures you find in websites and brochures, it’s always a good idea to speak with people who are studying (or have recently studied) at the institution you’re considering and/or people who are involved in the profession you’re thinking of joining. The websites of certain more progressive institutions and governing bodies have articles, videos or pod-casts by people who have studied/worked in that arena. However, in order to really see the big picture, there is no substitute for a face-to-face conversation with an actual person.
 
The rich qualitative stories you hear from the individuals in situ may provide you with the kind of information that websites and brochures don’t carry: anecdotes and nuances which can help to contextualise the facts and figures into the digestible whole required for an informed decision. A word of warning, however, is to speak with a variety of people. For example, don’t let horror stories from one tired, jaded paramedic put you off that noble career path. Another paramedic (one who isn’t exhausted at the time) may paint a more enticing picture…and then you’ll have two perspectives – the good and the bad side of the job – and your understanding of the profession will be holistic.
 
A potential third step, if you can arrange it, is to spend a day or two with your contact at his/her place of work or study. This form of ‘experiential learning’ will prove invaluable in steering you towards a thorough understanding of the path you’re considering. In short, speak to people – as many people as you can – and listen with interest to their narratives, advice, recommendations and warnings. Balance that qualitative information with some hard facts from the institution/council, and you should have all the elements you need for a well informed choice.