IN THE EARLY stages of planning a career the possibilities can seem endless. Dreams of being an MTV presenter and aspirations of becoming a brain surgeon are not uncommon. However, while it is exciting to dream, at some point reality has to be faced and practical considerations must be addressed. Whether you are a student trying to secure your first job or a seasoned professional aiming to create a clearer career plan, it is essential to start by researching the particulars of each possible route and deciding on the best option. Only then can you plan how to achieve your goals. Career reference guides and internet sites are good starting points. They give a basic idea of the skills and qualifications required for particular jobs and are useful in helping to decide whether they are worthwhile exploring further. Useful books include The Penguin Careers Guide by Jan Widmer and The A-Z of Careers and Jobs by Susan Hodgson. Both include a detailed directory of common jobs and their basic requirements. Online The Princeton Review ( www.princeton review.com) provides detailed listings of a wide range of jobs. The site includes a career quiz that can be used to shortlist potentially suitable career options. Another comprehensive website is www.careercruising.com , which has videos of interviews with people in specific jobs. However, membership is required and there is a fee for use of the service. Don't be put off if there doesn't appear to be an easy route to your goals. Some careers have more obvious paths of progression than others. For example, accountancy has a very structured career path, but sales and marketing tends to be more fluid. Careers with less obvious paths often require more careful planning. Someone aiming to be a travel writer, for instance, might have to start in general journalism or publishing and gain relevant experience before focusing on travel articles later on. The point is for them to evaluate whether travel writing is a realistic long-term goal. It is important to understand what it will take to get there and ask whether they are willing to invest the effort. Once you have a clear picture of the basic requirements for each occupation, shortlist the two or three options that most closely match your career preferences and the opportunities in the market. Then it's time to get a more realistic sense of what is involved. That means talking to people already working in the field or gaining some practical experience. This is an opportunity to focus on the big picture and evaluate whether you are likely to succeed in the long term. Don't underestimate the value of firsthand experience. Without the kind of personal perspective this gives, there is a significant risk of making a fundamental mistake. Many graduates, for instance, are attracted by the glamour of the travel and hospitality industry. Later, though, they struggle to cope with the long hours and the challenge of dealing with difficult customers on a daily basis. The best way to gain valuable hands-on experience is through an internship programme. For those who are still studying, the campus careers office should be able to provide details of local organisations willing to offer work experience to students. However, those who have already left school or university might consider setting up their own work-experience project. Start by identifying some key players within your target profession or industry and then write to them to ask if you can work there for free for a period. Highlight the mutual benefits of an internship programme and focus on the value you can add. For example, if your targeted profession needs people to work on the mainland much of the time, emphasise your fluency in Putonghua. Make it clear you are willing to take on any tasks necessary and that you do not expect too much training or supervision from the company. It is surprising how successful this approach can be. For every 10 carefully composed and meticulously researched letters sent out there is likely to be at least one positive response. Many professional people will feel flattered by the attention and, if they are busy, will be keen to take up the offer of some free help. However, internships still require employers to invest time and effort in planning and managing the programme, and some professions may not be willing to help at this level. An alternative approach is to suggest work shadowing instead. This involves following one person as they engage in their daily tasks and requires the employer to invest less time and fewer resources. A third option is to interview an individual about their job. This is perhaps the easiest and most common way of researching potential careers, and most professionals will be happy to oblige. It is important not to let apparent difficulties stand in your way. If you are already working, take a few days' annual leave in order to shadow or interview professionals. You are never too old to work for free. Many of those who have made successful mid-life career changes have undertaken internships. Having gained experience in the job, you should now be in a good position to decide on a primary career direction. It's a matter of evaluating the information gathered on each of the possibilities and assessing which best fits your career preferences and the available opportunities. Here it is helpful to adopt a structured and analytical approach. Rank your possible careers, rating each according to how likely it is to meet your needs. For example, if the chance to progress quickly is important to you, then it is necessary to understand which potential career offers the best chance of rapid promotion. Choosing a dynamic and expanding field such as wealth management might provide that opportunity. A traditional career such as accounting, where it is necessary to work your way up through the ranks, might not. If any doubts remain, do some more research or try to generate a wider range of options. However, if you feel sure about your decision, you are now ready to start making your career dreams a reality. In next week's article, we will show you how to define the details of your career plan. Questions that need to be asked What qualifications are needed for entry-level jobs? How often do opportunities arise? How stable is the industry or the type of job? What are the typical responsibilities and duties? What essential abilities, personality traits, values and interests are needed to succeed? What education, training or experience is required? What are the typical working hours and salary levels? What are the prospects for promotion or progression? Is the industry or profession growing or declining? What are the rewards of the job? What major frustrations or annoyances should be expected? What impact might the job have on lifestyle or leisure time? What obstacles to success might exist and how could they be overcome? Survival Tip # 4 Ground your career decisions in reality. Research will help you to anticipate obstacles and plan action to overcome them.