How to Navigate the “Exploratory Phase” of Your Career Without Stress

Experts say that being unsure of your next move isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Here’s how to take your next step mindfully and confidently.

Sergey Nivens/ Shutterstock
Sergey Nivens/ Shutterstock

What should you do when you know you’re feeling stuck at work, and you know you’re ready for something new — but you don’t know what that something will be? Researchers now call this often stressful stage the “exploratory phase.” And the process of contemplating your next career move — while living with a deep-seated feeling of uncertainty — can be scary.

“Success is pretty much never something that happens immediately or seamlessly,” Traci Stein, Ph.D., M.P.H., a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Columbia University, tells Thrive. Stein says it’s important to remind yourself that almost everyone struggles with an exploratory phase in their career at one point or another, and the process isn’t one that should scare you away from trying something new. After all, exploring any new opportunity takes you out of your comfort zone.

If you’re overwhelmed by the exploratory phase of your career, know that that’s completely normal, and you don’t have to let the resulting stress take a toll on your well-being. Here are a few tips to help you navigate this daunting — but eventually very rewarding! — stage. 

Take it one day at a time

The exploratory phase is all about exploring new avenues and job opportunities that could work for you, so it’s important to remember that you very likely won’t find the perfect fit in one day. That’s why Stein urges taking the process one day at a time, and not expecting to instantly land on a new job that’s perfect for you. “Treat each day like a new opportunity for growth, learning, and success,” she urges. “Understand that they won’t all be perfect, and really don’t need to be.”

Exercise “compassionate self-awareness”

You know you’re ready to move on from your current job, so you likely know what doesn’t work for you. The task now is to hone in on your self-awareness, and be compassionate with yourself about finding what will work for you as you think about your next role. “Work on developing self-acceptance and compassionate self-awareness,” Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, and author of Bouncing Back from Rejection, tells Thrive. “The goal is to view yourself from a compassionate perspective.” Take a moment to write down what you like and don’t like about your current role or previous positions, and then think about what you would be most excited about trying in a new role. Write that down, too, and contemplate the jobs and fields that would most likely support that. Most importantly, be your own support system throughout the process, Becker-Phelps urges. “Give yourself the support to explore what makes you truly happy.”

Interview yourself

Exploring new areas of work can be daunting, and that’s why it’s important to zero in on what exactly you’re looking for in a job. “You must be self-aware,” Becker-Phelps says. “Pay attention to what engages you.” She suggests giving yourself an interview, where you ask yourself a series of introspective questions, such as: “What do you enjoy thinking about? What do you enjoy doing? If you did not need to worry about money, what would you want to do with your life that would provide you meaning and fulfillment?” Once you hear your own answers out loud, you can better understand the direction you’re headed in, and the steps you need to take to get there.

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