Monday, 14 April 2014

“Now what?” What a career change taught me about making “big” career decisions

Today's post is by Crystal Snyder, Coordinator for the University of Alberta's Undergraduate Research Initiative (URI).

As another academic year draws to a close, between the celebratory spirit of the end of classes and the hustle to prepare for final exams, there may be a question lingering on the minds of many students: "Now what?"

I remember being in the final semester of my undergrad degree, counting down all the "lasts" of my program, while growing more anxious at the fact that I had not yet made any firm decisions about what my first step would be post-graduation. The result was rather anticlimactic: I got a job doing research, and my transition from student to employee consisted primarily of moving from part-time research in one discipline to full-time research in another. I never regretted that decision, but even after several years of working in the field and finishing a graduate degree, I still hadn't answered all those deep, lingering questions about what I really wanted to do with my life.

I'd arrived back at "Now what?" and this time, the transition would not be so simple.

I'll spare you the details, but here are the highlights: nothing happened according to my "plan", the work I'm doing now is entirely different from anything I might have imagined I would do, and I have never been happier in my career as a result. That's the good news.

The bad news is that in between, there was no escaping the unsettled, uncertain feeling that I'd landed a starring role in a reality TV mash-up of Groundhog Day and Extreme Makeover: Career Edition. Okay, maybe it wasn't that bad...but I did learn a few things that may be helpful to those of you who are embarking on a career transition of your own:

The best laid plans often go awry...and that's okay.

If there's one thing I wish someone had told me at the beginning, it's that you can't always plan your way into a career. I thought I knew what I wanted to do, and I started planning for that, but I soon learned that planning for change is not the same as actually doing it. Taking the time to prepare and explore your options is important, but so is stepping out of your comfort zone and taking action.

The job I have now didn’t exist when I was making my plans, and when it did come up, I almost didn’t apply because I wasn’t sure I was ready. It's hard to imagine now how things would be different if I hadn't taken the chance anyway – I not only got the job, but I also learned that most people's careers do not follow a set, linear plan. I wasn't alone – phew!

Mentors matter.

One of the hardest things about transitioning out of my career in science was figuring out how to let go of my identity as a scientist. I had invested a lot in becoming a scientist, I was successful at it, and even though it was my choice to change directions, there was still a very real sense of loss, and no shortage of people who questioned the wisdom of what I was doing. Having a mentor who understood and encouraged the changes I was making helped a lot. I think mentors are important regardless of where you are in your career, but during a transition, they can really help challenge you to think about your career in different ways.

Learn from your new community of peers.

The inevitable flip side of losing one identity is that you have to find another. If I was no longer a scientist, what was I, exactly? Some days, I still feel like I'm figuring that out, but the breakthrough came last spring when I attended a conference with 40 of my peers who, on the surface, appeared to have very little in common. These were people from diverse academic backgrounds, working on every kind of student program you can think of, from career services to outdoor recreation – and yet, we all agreed on a common set of skills, values and attitudes that lie at the core of what we do. It made me realize that despite everything familiar I was leaving behind, I had a lot more in common with my new colleagues than our various job titles suggested.

The way you're accustomed to working isn't the only – or the best – way to work.

This might seem obvious, but keeping an open mind about workplace culture will go a long way. As a researcher, I was accustomed to a completely different way of working than the way I work now – and it was a culture shock at first. But having gained a great deal in the adjustment, I must admit I bristle whenever I see another article talking about how employers need to cater to the needs and expectations of Gen Y employees. Sure, maybe workplaces do need to evolve in some ways, but part of the transitional process is learning how to adapt to different ways of working, and I think there is tremendous value in embracing this as part of our professional development.

There are no "wrong" decisions – just different choices

I've realized now that my career has almost come full circle that much of the stress I felt about my career decisions as an undergrad was unnecessary. You'd have never convinced me of that back then, but I've come to view career decisions as a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure story, in which we're constantly faced with different options, but there's no one right way to get from one place to another. So even though the decisions you're facing right now may seem monumental, our careers are really the sum of many smaller choices we make throughout our lives – there's always room to change course if you get lost along the way.

So fear not – and good luck on your exams!

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