Navigating Through a Meandering Career
9 July, 2021
I am someone who had a meandering career; I started as a researcher in physics and moved into strategic consulting. Then I worked as an analyst, CRM manager, and finally, product manager. So, my professional journey was full of unexpected changes. Even within the same company, I would go from the business into the product team.
It may seem easy to change your job and pivot your career, but that is not always the case. Many people, myself included, were often puzzled about what they should do and lacked the confidence to do anything. But, as I got to practice changing a job/role more often than most people usually do, I got to develop a model that I can share with my reports and other people who consider changing their careers.
What I asked myself -- and what I believe other people should ask themselves -- is: what topic do I need to work on, what tasks do I want to do, and what skills do I want to exercise to be happy. Start with analyzing where you are today. What are the things that are making, and not making, you happy in your current job/role? Once you compare the two, you will be able to have some understanding of what job, role, or industry you will feel more comfortable at. I would call this phase “understanding the realm of possibilities.”
Don’t be afraid to explore those possibilities. Talk to your friends, people already in that job, role or industry, or your manager. Read books, meet people at conferences or connect with them through LinkedIn. Do whatever possible to gain as much knowledge about those possibilities. Too often people will have a rosy understanding of other people’s jobs/roles, as they would, in most cases, get to see only a facade. They would rarely see their pain points and day-to-day challenges.
Next, start to narrow your list down. Remove whatever doesn’t feel exciting, challenging or enjoyable. Once you trim the list down, you shouldn’t have more than four to five possibilities. Then, map out the knowledge gaps. What are the jobs/roles you could start tomorrow without any additional training, and what are those that would require significant upskilling? You should be able to establish how you should get there and how much time it would take. If you need to obtain a graduate degree, would a new employer support you during the transition? Can you apply for a new job without acquiring new skills but with a commitment to upskilling within six months? These questions fall under what I call “operational aspects of transition.”
In the end, you need to have friends, sponsors, or ex-teammates who can help you out with getting an interview in a new company. Or, if you think of transitioning to a different department within the same company, you should be supported by a department manager. When you are changing a job/role, what other people think of your past performance is critical. You are yet to demonstrate your value in the new job/role, so having people who would vouch for you is what makes the difference.
Sometimes, it will take time for some of the possibilities to unfold. Even if it takes longer, don’t be discouraged. Career change is often unpredictable, and being patient always pays off. Also, you can start upskilling and re-inventing yourself in your current role while waiting for the right opportunity to appear. Even in the new role, pause after a couple of months to evaluate what you like and what you don’t. Things frequently look differently from the inside and outside, which may initiate yet another career change.
- Career choices are important but not set in stone. Whatever career choice makes you happy is the right for you to pursue. I moved from theoretical physics to business which is the polar opposite, but I was not driven by anything other than what would make me happy.
- The more information you are able to collect prior to making a transition, the more confident you will feel about it.
- Transition is not just about your new job/role but about leaving your team or project in good hands. I could never feel good about the transition if I knew that I didn’t find the right replacement or prepared the team.
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