What is the goal of career planning?

I am, of course, all about career planning. You need to at least have a plan. You need your own plan (as opposed to the plans that your employer has drawn up for you).

But a lot of us struggle with the process of career planning. For good reasons. It can be overwhelming! Let’s look at why that is, and the one thing you can do to make career planning much simpler. (Hint: know the real goal or purpose for career planning, which I’ll share with you here).

First, whether we like it or not, we (Americans, anyway) grew up in a culture that puts such importance on the value of hard work. Whether we pride ourselves on or look critically at the American work ethic, you can’t deny it is all-pervasive. But academics are immersed in a perverse subculture of our American work culture in which work becomes one’s identity as well.

When someone asks “What do you do?” (one of the most common small talk questions), do you say: “I am an economist” or “I work in economics?”

I’m just curious.

See the difference? I am something versus I work at something? It’s a telling distinction. (I have yet to meet an academic who answers in the latter form.)

But back to my point – academics are not just immersed in our overall “work is very important!” culture but inculcated with a sense that work is equated with one’s identity, one’s purpose. And so to plan your career out is to plan out your life.

As if that isn’t enough pressure, secondly, there’s objective and subjective evidence that one’s career success has a significant impact on one’s quality of life. Subjectively, people who find career satisfaction (I hate that term) are, well, happier in other components of their lives (social, civic, personal, and so on). That’s made all the more clear in today’s carefully-curated social media. I can just see all the #workingfromhome showing perfectly-made-up, just fresh out of yoga, ready to hit the day posts in my brain as I type that sentence. There’s also the financial (objective) aspect. On a practical level, career success, by definition, entails financial success. So, again, all of us, academics or not, are getting hit over the head with messages that our career is of utmost importance. And since we are academics, we take our work seriously, and thus planning a career is of paramount importance. We feel we must get this right. That’s a lot of pressure! (Take comfort! Us alt-acs are not doomed to a lifetime of career dissatisfaction. Some studies indicate soft skills could be one of the biggest predictors of career satisfaction. And if you don’t believe studies, ask me! On a scale of miserable to completely satisfied, I’m much closer to completely satisfied as an alt-ac.)

Third, there are many ways to career plan. Career plans look different. Life design has been hot for a few years now. There are different models that work better for certain occupations or certain types of people (ahem, tenure-track academics, I’m looking at you, as you have a career plan “built-in” to your PhD education! That works great! As long as you’re one of the unicorns who actually secures and thrives in a tenure-track position.) There are the career planning fads – ways of planning that come & go. And then there’s the frustrating advice that us career coaches will tell you, which is: the best career plan is the one that works for you, unique to your circumstances and goals. Helpful, huh? It may be true, but my point is that with all of these options, and an unlimited menu of models from which to choose, you’re bound to get analysis paralysis and just shut down at the mere phrase “career plan” and I don’t blame you.

So what helps us get past all of these existential questions? Stepping back and looking at the big picture. What a career plan is for.

What is it that a career plan will help you do?

The whole point (get ready, here’s my big reveal!) of your career plan is to get you to TAKE ACTION.

To move you from immobilized by the (literally endless) supply of options to making a choice.

Singular.

One.

You probably hear your brain saying: “But it IS a life-altering decision.” Uh, okay. Sure. In the same way that choosing to eat chips followed by cheesecake for dinner tonight dooms you to a lifetime of poor health. You can totally choose junk food tonight – even for a week! – and later change your course, back to eating healthy again. Career planning is exactly the same. Making one choice now does not determine your entire future. (And even if you accept a job that ends up being equivalent to inhaling junk food while binging Netflix – fun in the moment, but not good for the long run? You haven’t done anything wrong. You just repeat this process. Choose one next to get back on track).

Sometimes people take “career plan” to mean a document that is all-encompassing. That maps out all possibilities, all steps, and all potential paths.

I encourage you to think of it as an action plan. Emphasis on “an.” Period.

Picture yourself walking in a forest. You come upon a stream. You need to cross the stream. Nobody is going to dictate which stepping stones to use. It doesn’t matter. Pick one. You’re not blindly picking – you can see which one looks the best. You’ll know more once you put your full weight on it. Then once you’re there, you pick the next stepping stone. You don’t have to have your full stepping stone route mapped out before you can even start.

Career planning is like that. You use a career plan not just to think about a next, but to motivate yourself choose where to start. To select a direction and take your first action.

The future of higher ed (or any industry) is shifting as you spin your wheels mapping out where a career path might lead in it. So your industry’s job landscape will look different from how it looks now. If you’re doing it this way, you’re planning in the now for a future that hasn’t yet been written. Same with you. You’re planning for future you, when current you doesn’t really know what future you will need.

Remember Dunning-Kruger? Well, how do you know what you don’t yet know about your potential career options? You can’t possibly know what direction to take your career until you’ve tried out a few things and measured how well you like (even love!), hate, and can tolerate the various tasks. (I really like the simple emoji scale that Lifehacker used in the Evaluate Yourself section in their How to Build a Personal Career Plan article here).

So rather than get overwhelmed with planning and mapping out Plans A – Z, why not turn career planning into a single question:

What do I want to try next?

It may be a higher-level job in your current workplace, a different role, a different employer, “anything else,” or something in between. Whatever it is, it doesn’t seal your fate.

You are smart. You are capable of making well-researched, well-reasoned decisions. Your choice today is not your career destiny. Period. But to get unstuck in your career, you must take action. And a good career plan will lead you through the questions you need to ask yourself to make yourself do something.

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