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Students, Stop Thinking About Career Path!

An article in this month’s Career Convergence Web Magazine advises career counselors to “Stop Saying Career Path,” and it’s a great message for students, too. Author Eric Anderson explains that “the metaphor of a career ‘path’ continues to embed in our minds the ideas of visibility, stability, and predictability” – all of which are increasingly elusive in the contemporary workforce.

The use of the word path conjures up images of charted routes with benchmarks and signs along the way, but the truth is that the next step isn’t always so obvious. The world of work and career development is rapidly changing, encompassing more than a single field of study or job title might imply. Some of the catalysts of this evolution include:

To take the “path” metaphor a little further, we often use language such as “following a path” or “ending up on the wrong path” when we describe our professional history or desire to change careers. This reflects a passive approach in a time that requires action. Putting yourself on a path can be restrictive, and narrow the options you consider – when many more may be available.

Putting Theory into Practice

John Krumboltz’s Happenstance Learning Theory of career development helps to frame a more open approach, asserting “the importance of engaging in a variety of interesting and beneficial activities” as you build your career while “remaining alert to alternative opportunities, and learning skills for succeeding in each new activity.”

The Harvard Business Review suggests that you “begin with a direction, based on a real desire, and complement that with a strategy to discover and create opportunities consistent with that desire.” Likewise, Anderson recommends a shift in metaphor that implements this approach by thinking not of a career path, but instead a “voyage” through which we are able to set a course, adjusting for elements beyond our control along the way.

So, how do you set a career course and determine your direction? A recent article about career paths from suggests that you’ve got to “know yourself. What are your strengths and weakness? What makes you happy? What do you want?” Put the focus on the tasks and projects you want to work on every day, and the environment in which you would prefer to perform your duties.

Answering these questions and then moving toward your chosen direction requires a set of skills and characteristics outlined by the University of St. Thomas Career Development Center as part of a “planned happenstance” approach:

  • Curiosity: a willingness to “explore new learning opportunities.”
  • Persistence: initiative to keep moving, even when things aren’t going well.
  • Flexibility: the ability to adjust to changes encountered and consider unconventional options.
  • Optimism: facing the future with the attitude that there are options out there and success is possible.
  • Risk taking: an understanding that decisions often have to be made without a guarantee of the results.

Career Planning & the Future

While career paths may become an outdated concept, I am still an advocate of career planning – the process that includes research, reflection, decision-making about what you want your future to be like, as well as preparation for the workplace and marketing yourself to employers. But a modern career plan also requires periodical review and revision, and continued learning.

Know that it is possible to apply your knowledge and skills to range of employment scenarios. Take time to explore the changing options so that you can take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. Your career and the ways in which you manage it may not look like your parents’ or grandparents’ experience, but can be successful in its own right.

Tell us about your career development voyage. What keeps you moving in a positive direction?

Image credit: mjp*, Flickr, CC:BY-NC-ND