How to Move Forward When There Is No Up

Let’s take a look at my inbox. A question from a reader is as follows:

My college is – literally – the only higher ed game in town. And so even though I work in a staff job that I generally enjoy, there’s no upward mobility. I’ve been here for 3 years and I’m really ready to take on more challenging assignments. I’m in my early 40s and at a place in my life where I just am not interested in getting another degree (already have 2 Master’s). I’m trying to be patient but I just don’t see it happening. The people who are the next level up from me have been here for at least 8 years. What would you recommend?


I can already hear many of my readers nodding their heads. I know I can relate. In my last organization, I put in 8 years and still wasn’t at the level I wanted to be at. And the people who were in the job title I wanted? They’d been there 10+ years. I had proven my abilities – I had excellent performance reviews and was clearly capable of the next level of responsibilities. There just wasn’t a job above me to be given to me. Ultimately, I wasn’t willing to wait it out yet another couple of years…so I left.

So that would be option one.

Moving on to another organization.

You should do this only after you’ve 1 – made clear your desires to your boss, and 2- made a strong case for your abilities to take on something new. Repeatedly. Because it’s not fair to duck out on a boss / organization if “but I want more challenging work, and I deserve the chance” would be news to them. You need to give them the chance to meet your demands.

So you’ve probably realized that would entail leaving higher ed, but if the college is the only higher ed game in town, and you need to change, you need to sort out which is more important.

Option two: If you want to stay in higher ed, moving.

As in relocating for your next job in another city, state, or even country. (The world is your oyster!) Many people do not have this option. If you own a home, have financial constraints, are divorced and co-parent, or have dependents, this just might not be possible. But just putting it out there, that often the grass is greener. Larger cities – with multiple higher ed employers – would be your best bet, so you have a safety net in case the first place that makes you the right offer…turns out not to be the best fit.

Here’s a hot tip – if you’re working in a large or well-known college, be sure to cast a net wide enough to capture smaller, or lesser-known institutions. For instance, loads of people leave large major R1 universities for a higher up position at an R2 so that they can have the work they desire, but at a different level of complexity, or to be amongst colleagues that are more their speed. (Think teaching-focused rather than research-focused, for instance, or to serve populations that they feel strongly about).

Option three: Move laterally within your current college.

Academics, especially, get really hung up on the idea that moving vertically – and that the right job *title* and the more *money* that comes along with that equals success. And I’m here to tell you that I know plenty of folks who have moved laterally – sometimes even for slightly less pay – just to be able to try something new and break into an area that is much more engaging for them. Success looks different for different people.

Maybe you love, say, the event planning aspect of your job, but it’s only part of your current role. There are all kinds of higher ed jobs that involve event planning: freshman orientation, student housing, HR, research development, the Provost’s office. So even if the job title might be as sexy as a vertical progression, what matters more? Doing work that is fulfilling & more challenging? Or having the right job title?

Required steps

Regardless of which option(s) you decide to consider, there are 3 key essentials that are non-negotiable when you feel like your career has stalled.

Networking and Informational Interviews

Maybe you’ve done your darnedest to communicate your desires and aspirations and to prove your worth to your current boss – and even their higher-ups. But have you been telling other people, too? Because you should.

In any organization, we are all just part of the same big team, and so if you move from Team Yellow to Team Purple, it doesn’t matter. The organization still benefits from keeping your talents & work. So don’t be shy about voicing your desires to others throughout your org. This is how you’ll learn new leads.

Speaking of leads, you need to be following down each and every one of them with an informational interview. When you tell people in your organization about your aspirations, they often suggest someone you should talk to. Now go schedule time to talk to them! Networking is not just about you needing a favor. When you do informational interviews, you are at the very start of relationship building with that person.

So if you do it right, and continue the relationship beyond the initial informational interview, then they have a vested interest in your success, too, and can continually feed you new leads and check in to see if you’re getting to where you want to be, even championing your abilities and skills behind the scenes. Which is how up to 80% of hiring decisions actually get made.

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