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CosmoGirl! Guide to Your Career

By Marty Nemko

Pre-Intro: You’ve heard it since you were little: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?” Don’t freak if you don’t know the answer. These pages will help.

Some people have always known what they want to be. One ballerina said, “My mother told me I danced out of the womb.” Unfortunately, for most of us, it’s not that clear. We need to explore some options before deciding which career is right for us. Let’s start.

Are You Sure You Want to be the Next Oprah?

Most celebs tell you, ‘I followed my dream and it paid off. You can do it too.”

Problem is, for every celeb success story, there are hundreds of waiters who waited for the big break that never came. And even if you become famous, it’s far from a guarantee of happiness. Think of how many stars became drug addicted, alcoholics, or even committed suicide: Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and Saturday Night Live’s John Belushi, for example. And because of fame’s pressures, I’d bet that a higher percentage of non-famous people are content with their lives.

If you can’t imagine life without that long-shot dream, fine, go for it--at least until your mid 20s, when there’s still plenty of time to switch careers. But if you can envision making your long-shot dream your after-work activity—for example, by joining a local volunteer theater group--you’ll be able to do what you love without having to decide whether you can afford to buy both ramen and toilet paper that week.

Secrets to Success in Long-Shot Careers

Before you get started on the road to fame, remember that becoming famous usually requires a lot of talent and hard work. If you’re up for the challenge, here’s what you have to do:

Be a pest

As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, so if you’re willing to be tenacious, your chances of getting noticed by the right people go way up. Of course, that doesn’t mean be obnoxious. Be polite to everyone, whether it’s a record company executive assistant, or a prospective talent agent. That way, people will remember you not only for calling so often, but for being nice while you were at it. That will make them more likely to want to help you.

Expect to make sacrifices

Before you get rich, you might have to be poor. Some weeks, you may have to decide whether to buy mac and cheese for dinner or toilet paper for, well, you know.

Practice your butt off

Whether you sing, play an instrument, or whatever talent you have, videotape yourself, and ask, yourself what’s good and not good about what you’re doing. Celine Dion didn’t get where she is without perfecting her voice for hours a day since she was a little girl!

Give yourself a time limit

Don’t blindly follow your dream past your mid-20s. If, by that point, you’re not making at least some money at your dream job, think about pursuing another career within that field. I’m not saying you have to be an international sensation, but you don’t want to be hitting up mom and dad for rent money. So if the record contract doesn’t pan out, try being a record publicist. Have a Plan B in case the red carpet takes its time rolling out.

Box: Clues to YOUR Perfect Career

Your ideal career incorporates your special abilities, interests, and desires. Problem is, most people don’t know what their special abilities, interests, and desires are. These questions can help you identify them:

1. One of my clients has a knack for convincing people to do what she wants. Another has a knack for fixing electrical things. I have a knack for writing quickly. What do people say you have a knack for?

2. Rebecca triumphed over Attention Deficit Disorder. Now, she wants to train teachers to work with ADD kids. Have you experienced an adversity that suggests a career for you?

3. What tool do you love to use? Some people love computers. Others are happy looking through microscopes, using a sewing machine or reading books. What about you? Write your favorite
tool(s) here: ______________________________________

4. Is there an unusual subject that you love? Do you find insects fascinating? Israeli art? (If you can’t think of anything, ask a friend or your mom if they can help. You might not realize that you talk passionately about some topic so get another perspective. Write your favorite unusual topic here

5. What’s one thing your job absolutely, positively must have? Must you be around people all the time? Do you need a fast-paced, ever changing job? Is status crucial for you? Those are just a few examples. What characteristic(s) must YOUR job have?

BOX: Cool Careers for People People

  • Manufacturer’s Sales Rep. For example, selling a line of cool clothing to department stores. Neat Niche: Selling commercial security equipment. That should stay in demand in light of the terrorist attacks. HS, $$$ (See below for the meaning of these codes) For more info:

  • Project Manager. For example, working for the US. Dept. of Health and Human Services, you might lead the team that’s developing a new program to prevent eating disorders. B, $$-$$$.

Here are some less well-known cool careers for people people:

  • Child Life Specialist. You help kids who face a long hospital stay by role-playing medical procedures with them so they won’t be scared, and setting up tutoring so they don’t fall behind in school. B, $,

  • Casting Director. Your job is to cast anything from a sitcom to a feminine hygiene commercial. HS, $$,

  • Management Consultant. Help corporations solve problems they can’t solve themselves, like how to expand their business into Central America or how to decide what kind of telecommunications systems would best serve them. M AVG: $$$, TOP: $$$$,

  • Victim Assistant. You’re hired by a police department to provide emotional and practical support to assault victims all the way through trial. SC, $

  • Fundraising Professional. I’m not talking about peddling raffle tickets door-to-door. Professional fundraisers, working for a non-profit such as the Sierra Club, hit up companies and rich individuals for big bucks. They may also plan gala events to put fat cats in the mood to give. B, $$$

  • Producer. You come up with an idea for a TV show, film, whatever. Then you convince people to invest in it and you hire the talent to make it happen. HS, $$.

  • Doula. You help in-labor moms feel more comfortable. During the first weeks after mom gives birth, you do whatever to make her life easier. HS. $

  • Personal Coach. One-on-one, you help people develop and achieve goals—school goals, career goals, and/or social goals. HS, $$.

BOX: Cool Careers for Word Lovers

  • Magazine Editor. An editor chooses topics and writers, for example, “Let’s do a story called ‘Supermodels’ Beauty Secrets’ and I think Wanda Wordsmith would be a great person to write it.” When Wanda submits a draft, the editor polishes it up before publication. B, $$. For more info:

  • Journalist. Working for a newspaper, TV news department. or website, a journalist’s job is to quickly crank out factually correct, fair, and concise accounts of what happened. B, $-$$.,

  • Librarian. More than just answering patrons’ questions, librarians decide what books, magazines, and online services the library will acquire. M, $-$$.

  • Speech-Language Therapist. Whether it’s helping a 4 year-old stutterer or a 94-year-old stroke victim regain speech, speech-language therapists, with great patience, help people, one-on-one. M, $$

Here are some less well-known cool careers for word lovers:

  • Politician’s Writer. Every pol, from Podunk school board member to president of the U.S. uses writers. Using a style that’s a cross between journalist and ad writer, they craft speeches, fundraising letters, and those vote-for-me postcards that stuff our mailboxes. M, $$,

  • Ghostwriter. Perhaps the most likely way to get to write a bestseller is to be a ghostwriter. Publishers are eager to have famous people write books, but most of them can’t write, so they hire a ghostwriter to write it. That’s why you often see books authored by a famous person “with” some unknown. Insider’s Secret: Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village” was ghostwritten by Barbara Feinman but Feinman’s name never appeared on the book’s cover or even in the author’s acknowledgements. The nerve! B, $

  • Information Search Specialist. A farmer wants the best advice on how to grow oranges. A citizen wants information on bioweapon deterrence. Whatever the topic, an information search specialist, using the Internet, other databases, and the telephone, gathers the information. B, $-$$$

A not-so-cool career that word lovers are attracted to

Attorney. To be a good lawyer, you needn’t love arguing but you must be great with details, write well, and ok, it doesn’t hurt to like winning an argument. Beware: 75% of lawyers say they wouldn’t choose the same career again—the fighting and dishonesty among lawyers is draining. Neat niche, however: Adoption Attorney. You help match a child with adoptive parents, making sure their rights and those of the birth mother are protected by the law. J.D., AVG: $$$, TOP: $$$$,

BOX: Cool Careers for Artistic Types

You already know about the obvious careers for artistic types: musician, artist, actor, dancer, etc., but here are some less well-known options.

  • Newborn Photographer. It amazes me that life’s most inspiring event, childbirth and the day after is rarely photographed professionally. Try to get a hospital director to give you the right to offer to take photos to expectant parents who will be giving birth at the hospital. HS, $-$$. For more info:

  • Home Stager. When someone wants to sell their home, they often call in one-day-decorators called stagers. They replace the moosehead over the mantle with a rented masterpiece. They suggest low-cost improvements, for example, painting one wall a dramatic color to enliven a nondescript room. $-$$, HS,

  • Trade Show Exhibit Designer. In most industries, companies assemble each year to show their wares to customers. Each company has a booth, and it has to attract attention. Someone’s got to design those booths. Want to be that person? HS, $$,

  • Neon Sign Maker. How’d you like a career bending twisted glass into special shapes? Don’t worry. You needn’t be a Rembrandt. An artist creates the design. Your job is to bend the glass to match the design. $ HS,

  • Costume Designer. You study a TV or movie script, then create or buy clothes that are appropriate to the story’s period for the actors to wear on set. AVG: $$, TOP: $$.

  • Visual Effects Designer. Take your skills as an artist and enhance them with computers to create visual wonders for video games and movies, like making someone’s curly black hair instantly turn straight and blonde. AVG: $$, TOP: $$$$,

  • Museum Curator. You come up with ideas for cool exhibits, then bring together the objets d’art that bring it to life. You also publicize the exhibit and help raise money for the museum. M, AVG: $$, TOP: $$$$,

BOX: Cool Careers for Science/Math Types

  • Physician. The prestige and money are great, but there are downsides. Your college education is exceptionally rigorous—fewer than 1 in 4 students who start college pre-med actually get into med school. And the education is long: four years of college, four years of med school, 1-6 years more of internship and residency. After that, you’ll likely have more than $100,000 in student loans to pay back. And once you’re a doctor, it’s no picnic. The job is stressful: a misdiagnosis can be devastating, and imagine how difficult it must be to tell unsuspecting patients they have a fatal disease. Neat Niche: Infertility specialist: helping people who are having difficulty getting pregnant. DOC, $$$$. For more info:

  • Computer Programmer. Programmers don’t just create computer games. They do things like develop software that figures out how much electricity the state of Minnesota uses per second. B, $$$

  • Engineer. The perfect career for those who like designing objects using science, math, and computers. Cool projects: creating a low-pollution car that can go long distances between battery charges or a robot that can vacuum your house. Neat Niche: robotics engineering. $$$, B,

  • Architect. The good news is that you get to design buildings. The bad news is that most architects don’t design their first building until they’re middle-aged. Most clients who can afford architects are older and don’t trust young people. So young architects, after years of study, pay lots of dues designing such things as the ducting for a warehouse or ensuring that the senior architect’s design meets the city’s regulations. B, $$,

Here are some less well-known cool careers for science/math types:

  • Statistician. You do math to figure out questions like: 3 out of 100 patients who tried a new drug suffered headaches, while 1 who took a placebo got a headache. Did that occur by chance, or does the drug, in fact, cause headaches? M, AVG: $$, TOP: $$$$,

  • Physician’s Assistant. Compared with MDs, a much shorter, less expensive training process, yet you get to do many of doctors’ most rewarding tasks: wellness exams and health education. B, $$$,

  • Enologist. Want to make wine for a living? B, $$

  • Toxicologist. You get to figure out how to deal with air and water pollution, and biological and chemical weapon attacks. DOC, $$$-$$$$.

  • Biomedical Researcher. Want to become part of the effort to cure cancer and other devastating diseases? Although the big shots in this field have Ph.D.s, a surprising number of jobs require only a bachelors or masters degree. B, $$-$$$.

  • Public Health Official. You’re a doctor hired by the government to create policies that ensure the health of citizens. The top dog is a.k.a. the Surgeon General. M.D., AVG: $$$, TOP: $$$$,


Typical minimum education requirement for this career: (There are occasional exceptions.)

HS = High school diploma or less

SC= Some college

B= Bachelor’s degree

M= Masters degree

DOC= Doctoral degree

Average income after 5 years in the field

$ = Under $40,000 a year

$$= $40,000-70,000 a year

$$$= $70,000-100,000 a year

$$$$= Over $100,000 a year

Box: The Next Big Things

Want to be ahead of the curve? The following fields have not yet taken off, but I’m betting that by the time you’ve finished college, they will.

Mass Customization. It’s not easy to find a dress that looks great on you. Traipse to the mall, go from store to store, try stuff on. When you find style you like, chances are they won’t have it in the best color for you, or it won’t fit well. An answer: mass customization. Soon you’ll be able to go to the Gap, for example, website, pick your favorite style and color, enter your body measurements, and a perfectly fitting version will be created just for you and delivered to your door. To prepare for a career in mass customization, take courses in computer programming and fashion design.

Gene Therapy. Genes can predispose us to getting physical diseases such as cancer or mental illnesses such as severe depression. Prospective parents will likely have the option to use gene therapy to prevent their children from being born with these terrible predispositions. To become part of the research effort to make gene therapy available, major in molecular biology or computer science.

Online Education and Training. As you well know, some teachers are great but others put you to sleep. As internet bandwidth widens, interactive courses taught by world-class teachers will be available to everyone from high school students wanting a great math course to corporate employees wanting to learn the keys to being a great manager. To prepare, take courses in instructional design.

Home Schooling. 20 years ago, in most states, it was illegal to home school. Today two million kids are home schooled! And the number is growing. Many parents believe that their average and high-achieving kids are not getting their needs met in the public schools. There will be a need for consultants to help parents home school. To prepare, you don’t need to major in education, but take courses in curriculum and child development.

Anti-Aging Research. Nanotechnology (the ability to create molecule-sized machines) may enable us to damage aging cells. To prepare for this career, major in molecular biology, chemistry, or physics.

Box: What To Do Next

You’ve chosen a career that that interests you. Now what?

First, find out if the career really is likely to suit you:

Read. Read an article or book on that career. How to find them? Search on the career’s name using a search engine such as or at an online bookstore such as

Talk. Call people in that career. If you’re not too shy, simply phone people listed in the Yellow Pages or from the website I listed alongside each career. If that’s too scary, see if your parents, relatives, friends, or friends’ parents might know someone in that career.

What to ask a person in your prospective career? Just say, “I’m thinking about a career in (Insert the name of the career) and I’m wondering if you could tell me a little about what it’s like?” You might also ask questions such as, “What should I know about it before deciding to enter that career?”, “What’s a smart way to train for the career?” or “Are there after-school or summer jobs I should try to get?” Hint: There’s a large database of internships at For a smaller list of unusual internships, check out:

Visit. If you hit it off with the person you speak with, ask if you might watch him or her in action for an hour. That can give you a better feel for what the career is really like. Ideally, you’d visit more than one person. Two doctors, for example, could have very different worklives.

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