Career Vs. Occupation vs. Job: What’s the Difference?

Defining the terms

The words “job,” “occupation,” and “career” are often used interchangeably. This makes sense because their meanings overlap. They’re all related to employment. However, there are some important differences. Understanding their definitions can help you frame your own thoughts about future employment. 


This is the broadest of these terms. Although it refers to someone’s profession, usually one that requires education or special training, it also points to the whole span of employment over the course of a working life. Think of a career as the big picture, spanning someone’s professional trajectory, from their first job to their last.


This is a narrower term, referring to someone’s specific type of work or field (e.g., lawyer, musician, or contractor). People can have multiple occupations over the course of their career. In fact, this is becoming more common.


This is the narrowest term, referring to the specific role someone is hired for. Think of jobs as the building blocks that make up one’s occupation or career. 

Let’s define these words in concrete terms, using a teacher as an example. A teacher’s occupation would be “teacher,” but their career could encompass much more. For instance, a teacher may start as an assistant, become a middle school math teacher, and then begin teaching high school algebra. Their job would be their current position: Ninth-Grade Math Teacher at Main Street High.

Why is this important for a high schooler?

This terminology can be a useful framework as you begin to explore potential employment opportunities. 

For most people, their first paid work is at a job, either full time or part time. This often happens in high school, before they’ve even begun to think about their ideal occupation or what they want their career to look like. High school jobs can be the first step in someone’s career, but they might end up being unrelated. Either is perfectly fine.

Jobs, especially for students, are an ideal way to explore different industries without necessarily committing to working in that field in the long term. Having jobs at your age can teach you what you do and don’t want as your occupation or career. For example, you learn that you dislike the hustle and bustle of working at a popular ice cream parlor. Your job as a camp counselor makes you realize that you love working with young children. These are both valuable outcomes. They can point you in one direction or another as you consider college majors or future employment.

Do I need to know right now what occupation or career I want?

Absolutely not. If you aren’t sure yet about the direction you want your professional life to go, don’t stress out. It can take a fair amount of trial and error at different jobs, and in different classes, before people find something that works. 

That said, having an occupation or career in mind is useful for goal setting. For example, knowing that you want to be a doctor can be a guidepost  for classes and jobs you choose to take as a high school student and in college. 

You may already have a strong sense of what you want your occupation or career to look like, or maybe you’re at the start of this journey. Either way, keep an open mind. It’s very common for people to change career paths as they grow.

Where do I begin?

If you want help thinking about your career goals, here are some articles that may be of interest:

Check this out for information on setting career goals.

Here’s information on how to assess what career might be right for your interests, values, and skills.

This is a step-by-step guide to career exploration.