"Where is this relationship going?" is a question that can mean several things for a romance. It can signal demise or it can reignite long-lost passion. Whatever the outcome, asking it means you're taking control of things.
Your career isn't exactly like having a significant other, but some of the same rules apply. Coasting through your professional life without asking any questions of yourself or taking into account your ambitions can limit what you achieve. And it doesn't matter if you're at your first job or you're about to retire, you should always be thinking about where you are and what you want out of your job.
With that in mind, we put together some suggestions for workers at every stage of their careers. Many issues you face as a high school student aren't the same as what you'll face midcareer. But you'll also notice that some advice is relevant to you no matter what your age is. So here are some topics to think about as you navigate your career when ...
... you're still in high school:
Pick a job that doesn't interfere with school. First jobs can teach you about the value of work and earning a paycheck, but the real benefit is learning how to balance personal and work lives. At this age, you should be more focused on getting your education and a diploma than on climbing the corporate ladder.
Take your job seriously. Don't become a teenage workaholic, but don't shirk your responsibilities, either. Show up on time, perform your tasks and treat your boss with respect. It never hurts to have a good reference and a boss willing to have you back, maybe during your summer breaks during college or full-time when starting your career.
... you're still in college:
Find a job that relates to your major or your interests. Working and going to school isn't easy, and you'll be even less inclined to enjoy your job if it bores you. While you may not find your dream job right now, any opportunity to see if you enjoy working in your ideal industry is a good learning experience.
Look for internships. Now is a prime opportunity to get experience that can build into a full-time job after graduation, and it's also the one time in your life when you can live very cheaply. Internships don't often pay well or anything at all, but they often count for course credit and always build your résumé, so take advantage of them while you can.
Start job hunting a semester (or more) before graduation. Every May, the job market is flooded with new graduates ready and eager to find work. If you start sending out résumés, going on interviews and networking ahead of your classmates, you can have a job lined up before you even get your diploma. You can really enjoy walking across that stage even more when you've already accepted an offer.
Remember that you're a working student. Although a lot changes from high school to college, some things stay the same, namely, the need to remain focused on school and taking the job seriously. Don't forget to study for an exam because of work. (And don't forget to show up for work because you were having too much fun.)
... you're at your first "grown-up" job:
Learn from others. You're a sophisticated, likable person with great ideas; you're also the newbie. Don't be afraid to speak up and contribute to the team, but remember that you have a lot to learn from colleagues and your boss. They can teach you what to do and what not to do at that particular company and in the professional world.
Look for a good foundation. For the average worker, an entry-level job does not mark the beginning of a lifelong relationship with that particular employer. You're likely to have several jobs throughout your career, so don't look at a first job as if you're going to be there forever. Look for a job that interests you, offers networking opportunities and, most importantly, lets you develop skills that will help you down the road.
Don't burn your bridges. When you move on to a new job, do not e-mail your boss with a diatribe about what an incompetent fool she is. Don't tell your colleague how sorry you feel for him because he's still stuck in that prison of a company. Peaceful partings can ensure you have good references and a good reputation. (This advice is good for everyone, regardless of age.)
... you're in the middle of your career:
Assess your life goals. For a second, forget about your career and think about what you want your life to be, both now and in the future. Are you on track to achieve what you want? This isn't just about a work/life balance, but also an opportunity to see if your job situation helps you achieve the personal goals and lifestyle you want.
Take stock of your professional worth. Midcareer is a vague period because it comes at different points for many people and not everyone's professional life progresses at the same pace. So, this period isn't about your specific age as it is about the status of your career.
At this stage, you've had at least one job, if not several, and are accruing experience and expertise in a field. Ask yourself what your résumé would look like if you were to job hunt right now. What are your strongest skills? Where do you need improvement? What career opportunities would be available to you? Now is the time for you to decide if you need to change directions or if you're happy with your situation.
... you can retire:
Decide what you want your golden years to look like. The template of what retirement should look like is long gone. Today, mature workers are taking different paths when it comes to their careers, and you can decide what works best for you.
Because people are living longer, many older workers have no desire to leave the work force and spend another 10 or 20 years at home. Instead, some are scaling back to part-time jobs with their current employers. They still get a paycheck and the company retains their expertise. Others are switching professions entirely and venturing into their dream jobs now that they have the time and money to do so.
Decide what you need to have the life you want: Some mature workers can't afford to leave their full-time jobs, even if they wanted to, due to financial needs. As you get older, you have to plan for the cost of health care, medicine and other living expenses, none of which is cheap. Deciding what your future looks like should account for your ideal situation and inevitable factors.
Anthony Balderrama is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com. He researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.