I've talked about graduate school before, but mostly in terms of how my decision got me deep into student loan debt. I've talked less about that decision in terms of its impact on my career. For a long time, I thought my career path was clear.
I started working at a writing center as an undergraduate and stayed there for four years. I adored what I did; and when I learned that my boss had a PhD in rhetoric and composition, I decided to apply to those programs. I always assumed that I would end up on the tenure track — but life had other plans and I ended up having to be flexible.
Changing career tracks: Honey's story
The thing about the tenure track is, you have to be willing and able to move where the jobs are. By the time I finished my degree, I had a significant other whose career also had to be taken into consideration. The city that ended up being the best fit for us (for a variety of reasons) didn't happen to have any tenure-track positions in my specialty the year I graduated.
This left me with two options: I could become an adjunct or I could find a non-teaching job.
Many, if not most, people in my position become adjuncts. It seemed like a logical option at first because I had been trained to teach and had been doing so for more than five years. It also seemed to suggest that I was still “on the market” for potential tenure track positions and hadn't given up on my career dreams.
However, most adjuncts don't ever end up with tenure-track jobs. Instead, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education and other similar sources, they end up working at multiple institutions on a contingent, semester-by-semester basis without either job security or employment benefits. With as much student loan debt as I had, that sounded risky to me.
Choosing route #2, however, meant that I had to clearly articulate to potential employers how the skills I had gained during the course of my degrees were transferable. Fortunately, my coursework in rhetoric enabled me to do that. I got a full-time, benefits-eligible job as an academic adviser and have been in the position for over six and a half years.
Careers are not permanent, so flexibility is always important
There's nothing especially unique about my story. Lots of people have to move because of family obligations and end up pursuing a different career than they originally planned or anticipated. Others pursue a particular job only to find out that the grass isn't always greener on the other side. Still others go into an industry that interests them only to find out that the industry itself is unstable or shrinking and they are faced with a career change after being laid off.
It is also possible to reinvent your career into an entirely different industry, hopefully one of the fastest-growing. My dad was a construction worker for many years until the recession in the early 1990s. After being laid off and unable to find another construction job, he went back to school and became a licensed real estate agent. Transitioning from a skilled trade where he never interacted with clients to a career in sales was a huge adjustment. Since then, he's transitioned again to another sales career in another industry, with a totally different product. Other people in my life have had difficulty making similar transitions, though. They seem to lack the mental flexibility to reinvent.
Whether you make a career shift out of personal desire or because change has been thrust upon you, it is important to remember that what makes you a valuable employee is rarely in the specifics. It is not your familiarity with industry lingo, your knowledge of a specific software package, or what you majored in while in college. Those things can be assets, of course. But your ability to learn quickly, to take a leadership role, or to collaborate with others are potentially far more important skills to have. But even if you possess those qualities in spades, they are not easy to make clear in a résumé format where it is more common to list specific skills and responsibilities. It is up to you to recognize transferable skills in yourself, to seek out-of-the-box opportunities where such skills are valuable, and to articulate them to those with decision-making power.
Another option for career flexibility: Pursuing multiple careers simultaneously
There is certainly something to be said for focusing on one career at a time; but if you need to diversify your income, flexibility can help you here too.
I wrote once about side gigs vs. day jobs, but since then I have realized there is no need for the “versus.” Side gigs and day jobs don't have to be in competition with each other! Sure, some people start a side gig because they would like to build up enough of a solid income stream to be able to quit their day job and live the life of the freelancer or entrepreneur.
But that doesn't have to be the point of the side gig. Maybe you don't earn enough at your day job to reach all of your financial goals. Perhaps you would just like to reach those goals more quickly. It may be that you've picked your side gig strategically, as a creative outlet for your real passions that happen to make you some cash along the way.
Whatever the reason, starting a side gig can be a smart career strategy. It's a way to hedge your bets in case the unexpected happens. It's a way to learn or hone skills that you don't get a chance to master in your day job. It's also a way to avoid the “all eggs in one basket” type of thinking that can lead you into pigeonholing yourself in your career. (Whoa, that was a lot of bird metaphors in one sentence!)
In other words, even if your side gig isn't something that you could — or would — pursue full-time, just knowing that you have other skills and talents might help you switch gears more quickly and confidently should it become necessary. I know that while being flexible and changing my career goals in higher education was key to becoming financially stable, it wasn't until I started supplementing my income with a side gig that I started kicking serious financial ass.
What advice would you give people that expect to change careers? Has being flexible over the course of your career helped you advance in your career or make a career change more easily?
Honey Smith has been reading GRS since at least 2008, right when she got her first â€œrealâ€ job and started getting serious about finances. She and her husband Jake are in their mid-30s and recently bought a home together. Currently, she manages graduate programs at a large state institution, and he is an attorney at a mid-sized firm.
Between them, they have paid off approximately $30,000 in consumer debt since she started writing for GRS in 2012. However, they still have nearly $200,000 of student loan debt, so she will continue to chronicle their debt-paydown journey. In addition to personal finance, Honey is interested in vegetarianism and cooking, gardening (despite living in the desert and having a black thumb), issues in higher education (including the student loan bubble and the slow death of tenure), and animal rights; however, her heart lies with fantasy novels, trashy TV and Skyrim.