The Non-Linear Career Path

Growing up I watched most adults in my life pursue and stick with one generally linear career track (my dad still works for the same company he started with 32 years ago and my mother has always stayed a home). From the time I got ideas about what I wanted to study and do with my life I naturally started putting my life plans together in a similar fashion. Lo, and behold, life didn’t go according to the ideal plan. I realized what my strengths were and were not and changed my major, and altered my plans. Then I got married and factored in my husband and factored our plans together. I always planned on graduate school and careers that required in, but I didn’t do it as the time I had planned on. Kids, several moves, and general growing up caused me to reshuffle again and again.  Suddenly my life plans and career track looked more like a meandering maze than the direct path I had intended.  Surprise, surprise.

But as I’ve been thinking about the “ideal” against real life as I am turning a new page now and enrolled in graduate school to prepare for the career I have been dreaming of for so long, I wonder why it came as such a surprise. More and more people are experiencing career fluctuation and less than linear life tracks than in the past. It is more common to make a bold move or shift to accommodate real life events, opportunities, and challenges. I fall into that category of people taking the indirect career path. I’m glad for the flexibility and the growing acceptability and embrace of the non-linear track; but that doesn’t quite make it easy to sort out all the gray matter in this gray area: What to do?  How to do it?  When to do it? Gah. I’ve spent so much time asking those questions and trying to determine the correct answer. My own decisions are really personal and I hesitate to talk too much about it least someone else judge too harshly, too quickly.

The only universal truth I’ve figured so far is there isn’t one. We all get to figure it out for ourselves. What works (or even working in the traditional sense) for one isn’t an option for someone else. So today, as we are talking about work and careers this month, I’d like to say: let’s discuss. Has your career path been simple and clear cut, or have you felt like the path you’ve faced or are still navigating is a bit more complicated and surprising than you had anticipated?

As someone in the middle, and grateful for others with shared experience,  I would love to hear from you and how you are muddling through. Discuss.

About Sandra

(Blog Editor and Prose Board) recently moved back to California by way of north Texas, Baltimore and San Francisco. She loves sunlight, color, and intense dark chocolate. She devours cookbooks like novels and writes a bit at www.section89.com.

8 thoughts on “The Non-Linear Career Path

  1. I didn’t get a ‘real’ job (full-time, benefited, etc) until I was 34, and only did so out of necessity because I had to support my family. Before that, I did get bachelor’s and master’s degrees, mixed in with periods of staying home with kids and sometimes working part-time. Before I got married and had kids, I’d only ever been a student and had student jobs.

    I had heard a lot of doom and gloom about how it’s better to start a full-time career path early in life, or that it’s better to stay on one after starting a family, but I have been OK trying to enter the full-time workforce at a somewhat ‘advanced’ age with little actual job experience and an unconventional employment history. Other women I know have been too. I imagine that a lot really depends on the type of job you are trying to get and what type of industry you are trying to break into. Also, I did work part-time in my field at first and I’ve known others that have done that as well. Like you said, all evidence is just anecdotal and everyone has a different path, but I don’t think you are doomed to never have a good career if you didn’t find your path early in life.

  2. I turn 40 this summer, and I am still trying to figure out what I will be when I grow up. I had one career, then had kids, then considered about a bazillion options . . . and it IS so complicated and not clear-cut. It is VERY much a go-with-my-gut process. And it IS a process. I think your picture describes it perfectly–except you need arrows on the end so that there’s no mistaking that the process will continue!

  3. I know what I wanted to be when I grow up very early and went directly to that career. I am technically newly-retired from that same area I started 40 years ago but have moved into any different directions within that category. Can’t say I have the same job or focus as when I started. I have learned much and changed my approach and focus several times. Within that framework I have juggled part, full, on-call, and no job time depending on my families needs and the availability of jobs. Yes, it really is a process and willingness to change, grow and adjust.

  4. So, I attended the MHA conference this past weekend and felt simultaneously inspired and frustrated. Inspired because there is some amazing scholarship coming out in the Mormon history field and I (hopefully) will get to be a part of it, but frustrated because I’m a 36-year-old undergrad and all the people my age at the conference were grad students/doctoral candidates presenting super cool research. I just desperately want to fast forward, you know, like 10 years and be where they are now.

  5. (sorry, hit enter too early) But at the same time I realize that with my non-linear career path, I’m at a completely different place than I would be if I started at 18 and plowed through college the way I intended. I’m a better student and a much better learner than I was at 22 and I’ve got some real life experience that I think is making my efforts more fulfilling. I definitely agree with the above comment that I go with my gut when making decisions. Some of the best classes I’ve taken and experiences I’ve had came from following seemingly random ideas that, in retrospect, must have been inspiration. I’ve had opportunities come that wouldn’t have if I had stuck to my original plans. In fact, I think I prefer having my life not go according to my linear path; my plan was fairly straight forward and boring, this life is way more interesting. :)

  6. When I had my first baby at 25, I had a BA, three years of work experience, and most of an MA under my belt. I knew I wanted to be a SAHM, but other than that, had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. And I was shocked when that adorable little baby didn’t take away all of the ambitions I’d developed and honed over the previous quarter century.

    What I have been pleasantly surprised by is that there have still been educational and work opportunities for me, even as I’ve primarily been a SAHM. I know a lot of this is because I’ve had the luxury of not needing to be the primary breadwinner for my family, so I could work as an adjunct at a college (four different times), get an MFA, work as a writer and an editor. While I don’t expect that I’ll ever have an earning potential similar to my my husband’s (and that’s not really the focus of this discussion anyway), I do feel that by looking for it, I’ve been able to find plenty of opportunities for intellectual and social fulfillment along this (yes, circuitous) path.

  7. I feel like I’m off even the non-linear path… I studied art, a subject that I was passionate about and knew would develop me as a person. It was a conscious choice to not study in a career-oriented way (and I heartily recommend doing that to anyone who doesn’t know what they want to be when they grow up!) And I got a lot out of it, and still do. But school’s over, I have an MA that doesn’t get me a job. I feel like I have done all the different things that we talk about now as the new labour market for young people: I’ve been in a full-time job that was only for six months, in an unpaid job training thing, throw in a mission in between there, done some quite entrepreneurial after-school activity teaching, and now I’m in a permanent part time job which I consider a temporary solution to that pesky problem of a student loan. What happens when the loan is paid? I’m actually a little scared to even think about that. And for some reason, when I try to find some guidance or advice from the Lord, all the scriptures and conference talks etc all of a sudden say “be patient” and “trust in the Lord” and such…

  8. Emily- I totally get and feel that way at times too- that the breaks I’ve had has given me time to grow and think and mature so that I a better and more thoughtful student than I would have been fresh from my BA program.

    Shelah- I love that you have been able to do so much- you make me hope I will be able to juggle a few more balls as well.

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