So, let me get my own personal experience out of the way first:
I graduated from college a semester early because I took 18–19 credits for 7 semesters. So, without a job lined up (I wasn’t expecting to graduate until May but crossed my credit requirements in December), I spent months applying for jobs and not really doing much else. Out of the blue, I got a call to interview for a job that some random person referred me to, I got it, and it ended up being the absolute perfect job I could’ve had: researcher and advisor. The truth is stranger than fiction…it is the best possible job for me to have accidentally fallen into: analyze problems, learn, and teach while getting paid well.
As a result, I’ve spent the majority of my career living with a great sense of purpose. I learn and teach every day; I help people solve problems every day. I had a couple of years where I was in an environment where I couldn’t do that very effectively, but I returned to form and only found a plateau when I decided to start writing/advising on life topics as well to help others even more.
So, at first glance, I probably don't seem to be the best person to give advice on how to find a meaningful career...except for the fact that I didn't see the above meaning that I found in my career at first. When I took the researcher job, I thought that it'd just be what I did for a few years until I went back to graduate school and figured out what I really wanted to do. The thing is, every couple of years when I started thinking that it was time (i.e., colleagues of similar tenure were leaving or getting promoted), I would get a promotion and reset the clock on that decision. It was only when I just finally asked myself what I liked doing, and when I saw that it was learning, teaching, and solving problems...I realized that I was in the very job that would be best for me. Therefore, while I am very fortunate, I actually do have a wealth of experience figuring out what is meaningful in a career as well as finding it in what I was already doing.
Now, if you are reading this post, you are probably wondering how to find meaning in your career because either you’re not or you’re worried you won’t be. In response to those questions, I have this advice (after all, I give advice for a living):
The meaning of life is growth. You feel purpose when you are growing in areas that are important to you. In your job, you have a few options to feel meaning in your job:
In short, you can find purpose in your career as long as you can keep your eye on the fulfilling part of the job—the work itself, the outcome it delivers, the outcome you’re supporting, or the money that helps you and your family grow. If one of the latter three categories apply and you don’t feel that that’s enough for you, then try to find a job that moves you up to the next level of meaning/purpose. You’ll either get there or will prefer the money and pursue purpose outside of work. There are no wrong answers as long as you feel good about your choice.