Career as a Moving Target

BY: ROBIN MARKS

Go to college, study hard, secure an internship or two and enter a career with a lifelong plan at 21 or 22 years old. These expectations are perpetuated by the “gold watch phenomena,” where a person gets a job, stays with the company for 30 years, advancing appropriately, and retiring with a healthy retirement account.  While we know these social expectations are outdated, we continue to hold onto them with clinched fists. (The average worker changes jobs 11.7 times in his/her life according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor.) So why do we hold on tight to these social expectations? Perceived control and stability have their cognitive advantages, so what is the problem? Life intervenes. Experience intervenes. Human growth and development happens. And when it does, it can create overwhelming dissonance for individuals who have been told they need to make lifelong plans.

Career plans are great, but the question of what one wants to do for the rest of his/her life has implications. As we develop, it is unrealistic to think that our career aspirations stagnate. As career counselors and professionals, we see our clients’ values shift, as their responsibilities change – expenses, partnerships, and family.  Interests might develop, halt or shift gear as they acquire more experience and begin to understand what it means to advance in a chosen field.

What does this mean for career planning? It is ok to have short-term goals. Loans need to be paid off, credit card debit needs to be paid down, and families need to be financially and emotionally supported. There is nothing wrong with an individual taking a job to manage responsibilities, even if he/she is unsure of how it fits into his/her lifelong career plan. If approached correctly, and with an open mind, an individual can acquire new skills, develop new interests, and learn more about him/herself from this experience. The key is asking important questions. “What are my goals while I am in this position?” (They can range from the mundane to the important.) What have I learned about myself and what significance does this have on my personal and professional pursuits?” “Am I opening myself up to explore new opportunities through volunteer work and by attending social and professional functions?” “Have I used my current level of access to have important conversations with others to hear about their experiences?” This is effective career management.

As career professionals, faculty and staff, we should teach students to think critically, problem solve and ask difficult (and sometimes abstract) questions. We should facilitate self-awareness by asking questions about interests, values, skills and experiences.  We should encourage long-term AND short-term goals and refrain from implying that there is a majestic finish line where individuals stop developing along with their career goals. Personal and professional development is a lifelong journey.

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Robin Marks is the Associate Director for Career Counseling & Programming at UD’s Career Services. She works with deciding students who are trying to select a major, political science and international relations students, students with disabilities and students interested in graduate and professional school.

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