Stop Using Job Titles to Guide Your Search

03 March 2021 by Katharine S. Brooks

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​You finally land your first job. When you applied, it sounded like the ideal role: the title, the description, the organization. Your family and friends agreed — it was perfect for you. But now, six months in, it isn’t exactly what you expected. You aren’t doing all the great things the job description promised, and your responsibilities barely reflect your title. You feel stuck, tired, and misled.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.

Getting hired, let alone, getting hired to do a job you love, is rarely ever easy — especially for those just entering the workforce. While every role has aspects that will excite you more than others, as a career coach and executive director at Vanderbilt University’s career center, I have seen many new grads take on roles that ultimately fail to match their long-term goals.

Trial and error are necessary to figure out what path feels good to you, but putting some work prior to beginning your search can help you sidestep a handful of roles that will (probably) not be the right fit.

Below is a two-part exercise to help you refine your search, and hopefully, end up with a job that you will enjoy doing.

Part 1: Ask yourself four simple questions.

The first thing most young professionals focus on when applying to a new role is often the wrong thing: the job title. This is actually not a bad instinct. After all, isn’t that the easiest way to find a position that you actually want to do? You Google a few keywords — and poof —, LinkedIn, or another search engine throws up everything mildly related and available.

The problem is that job titles can be misleading. Many titles labeled as “marketing” are sales positions. The title “consulting analyst” may sound important, but you could very well end up counting supplies and performing other mundane tasks in that role (especially while you are building up a client base). A “customer relations” role can have a different meaning depending on where you work: Disney World may have one perspective while a tech startup has quite another. Some organizations even use impressive titles to disguise a job that no one wants, or to justify longer hours or lower pay.

Before you worry about a job title, you need to identify exactly what kind of role you’re looking for. This will help you distinguish which titles will align with your goals and expectations, and which ones — in reality — will not. Try answering these questions.


Who do you want to be around all day? Who do you want as customers, clients, or colleagues?  Who do you want to interact with? Think about the occupations of these individuals, their education level, or their personalities or lifestyles.

Sample answers:

  • I want to work with college students and new grads.

  • I want to be around people who are goal-oriented.

  • I want my customers to be people who need help managing finances.


What do you see yourself doing? Are you consulting, writing, analyzing, designing, inventing, coaching, teaching? Do you want to help someone? In what way? By providing legal or financial guidance? By providing mental health services? What kind of information or materials do you want to use? Is it data? Materials you can mold and shape? Do you see yourself in a highly interactive and collaborative environment? Or are you working alone?

Sample answers:

  • I want to provide people with financial advice and guidance.

  • I want to be able to teach basic budgeting online.

  • I want to work regularly with my team members.


What kind of setting excites you? If you’re a health care worker, would a hospital, rehabilitation center, or specialized clinic be best? If you’re teaching, would you prefer to be employed by a public or private school or university? Do you need to work in an open environment with natural light, or do you want a private cubicle space? Do you want to work in a particular city or state? Or do you want to travel for work, or work abroad?

Sample answers:

  • I want to work at a public college, in a financial aid office.

  • I want to work in a city on the west coast: San Francisco or San Diego.

  • I want to work in an open office space with lots of windows.


Once you’ve answered everything else, it’s important to think about the “why” behind your choices. Why does this kind of job appeal to you? Why is it important to work with the people you selected? Why do you want to provide the services you identified? Answering the “why” will not only help you find meaning in and be satisfied with your job. It will also keep you motivated during your search.

Sample answers:

  • I want to know that I’m helping young people build good habits.

  • I want to help my clients achieve their dreams through my support.

  • I want to know that my advice had an impact at the end of the workday.

Now, try this for yourself.

Part 2: Refine your search.

It’s time to put your answers into action and get specific during your search. Use your who, what, where, and why to guide you. Start with these four steps:

1) Assess your answers. Take a few minutes to review everything you’ve written. What about your answers surprises you? What elements of this ideal job most appeal to you and what “must have’s” will you look for? What’s more important: finding the right people to work with or working in a specific location?

2) Google. Type “careers in [your field of interest]” into Google. That simple search will bring up lots of valuable information, from professional organizations to job sites with specific openings. Professional organizations are associations, usually nonprofits, that provide people with free resources and information about a specific type of role or industry. Use them to learn more about your field of interest and identify the job title or description that seems to align with your who, what, where, and why. Once you have this information, you can also do a more specific search on job sites like LinkedIn or that allow you to select the city or state you want to work in.

Another strategy is to read or watch interviews with people who have the kind of job you’re looking to do. For example, Youth Central hosts career profiles of hundreds of people, featuring interviews where they talk about their jobs and how they got them.

3) Have a chat. Use LinkedIn or Twitter to find people who seem to have your dream job or people who may be in similar roles. Be sure you personalize your request to the individual. For example, you could say, “I’ve just graduated with a degree in ____ and I’m looking for possible careers in ______. I’d love to learn more about how you got this job, what it entails, and what aspects you love most. Your advice will help me make a more informed decision about my career.”

Your college alumni database is another great place to find people to chat with. If you see a job listing that you like, you may discover that you already know someone at the company who can connect you to a person in the role you want to apply for. Ask that person for an informational meeting and try to find out what their day-to-day looks like. Is the description listed online accurate? Can you see yourself doing and liking it?

4) Compare different jobs: Even if a job seems like it’s perfect for you, don’t stop your search there. Find roles at several organizations that meet your “must-have” requirements and compare their descriptions. How different or similar are they? Which one is closer to your answers? Most often, it’s best to apply to everything that draws your interest — you can never learn everything from what’s written online, but you can gauge a lot more information (and ask specific questions) once you are called for an interview.

Remember: You may not like everything about a job. Nonetheless, this exercise will help you learn more about yourself and where you see yourself going next. Don’t just do it once. Come back to it whenever you feel in doubt. Your wants and needs will change as you grow and gain experience. Expect to evaluate, and re-evaluate, what feels right for you.​

Source: Harvard Business Review