Degrees are supposed to be freeing. They are supposed to give us more options in life. At times, however, they can also feel constraining. There are certain expectations that come along with those pieces of paper we frame on our walls. If you get a medical degree, the expectation is that you will practice medicine. If you get a Masters of Divinity, the expectation is that you will work in ministry. If you get a PhD in philosophy like I did, the expectation is that you will become a philosophy professor. Or work at McDonalds. Those seem to be the only two careers people think you can have with a degree in philosophy.
But if there is one thing I have learned in my academic and career journey, it’s this: there is more than one way to make a career.
This lesson didn’t come easily, and it wasn’t something I deliberately chose to learn. I was finishing up my post-doctoral fellowship and had a job lined up for the fall. All was going according to plan — PhD, post-doc, assistant professor.
And then, the call came. There was a hiring freeze for all faculty positions for the upcoming year. My job had been cancelled. It was time for a new plan.
Figuring out your career is not always easy, especially when things don’t go as planned. As scary as it was for me to lose my Plan A, however, it ended up being a blessing in disguise. Losing Plan A forced me to think more creatively to come up with Plan B.
Here are two important lessons I learned in the process:
Careers are not one-size-fits-all.
Even when there is more than one career option in a field, there are often views about what counts as a “successful” career in the field, and we are often expected to aim for whatever that idea of success is. When I was in graduate school, it was fairly clear what we should be aiming for: a tenure-track academic position at the highest-ranking university we could get a job at. Of course, we were free to choose another path, but it was often assumed that this is what everyone would want.
But careers can’t be one-size-fits-all because we are not one-size-fits-all. We have different strengths, different personalities, different things we want out of a career and out of life. What works for someone else might not work for you. And that’s okay.
There is more than one way to make a career because there is more than one way to make a life. There is even more than one way to make your life. We sometimes stress about making the “perfect” life choices. The fear of making the “wrong” choice can paralyze us. But the truth is, there are lots of ways to be happy, lots of ways to solve problems, and lots of ways to make a difference in the world. So, don’t let yourself get stuck in a box.
Do you want to start thinking more creatively about your career? Instead of asking yourself what career you want, try asking a question recommended by Sarah Todd at Quartz: What problems do you want to solve? As Todd argues, this can set us up for thinking more open-endedly about our values and the many ways we might bring positive change to the world. And, since our first ideas are generally the least creative, give yourself time and space to come up with possibilities.
Another way to get out of the narrow-thinking trap and think more creatively is to run what researchers Chip and Dan Heath call the Vanishing Options Test. Ask yourself what you would do if you couldn’t choose any of your current options. It was when my job literally vanished that I had to start thinking more creatively about my career. And I was able to come up with options I had never considered before. I had to break out of the box before I could see them.
You don’t have to have it all figured out.
We often treat our calling as something that we discover. We need to “find our passion” or “discern God’s plan for our lives” and then pursue it. We like to think of our career as a straight path where we know the destination and we just need to follow the nice paved road to get there.
But research suggests that this might not be the best way to think about our career. It’s hard to know in advance what might be a good career for us. In the beginning, we’re still figuring out what we really want and what we’re really good at versus what we think we want and think we might be good at.
So, take time to unpack your beliefs, values, desires, and fears. What has influenced these things? How did you end up here? What voices are speaking the loudest? Are they the ones you want to listen to?
We need to go beyond just thinking outside the box, however; we need to actually get outside the box. Research shows that it’s hard to know what we’ll be good at and what we will like through self-reflection alone. The best way to learn these things is by exploring the possibilities in the real world. Try talking to people in different careers. Ask them what they like about their jobs. Find low-risk ways to try out different jobs or learn new skills. Rather than choosing “all” or “nothing,” you can always follow the Heath brothers' advice and choose “a little something.” When we are unsure about a decision and need more information, Chip and Dan Heath recommend “ooching” our way into it by making small commitments. The real-world experience and feedback we gain through ooching can help us make better decisions about what to really commit ourselves to.
This is how I became a writer. After my initial job was cancelled, I began teaching part-time at different universities to try to find my fit. But I also began thinking differently about my career. Instead of trying to fit my life around my career, I began thinking about how to fit my career into my life. So, I started teaching online so that I could work from home with our newborn. The flexibility of working from home also gave me an opportunity to explore new paths. I started writing and slowly putting my work out into the world. And the more I wrote, the more I realized that I had something to say. My years of studying and teaching about decision making and moral and social issues gave me unique insight into issues. Getting a PhD in philosophy might not be the most direct path to becoming a writer, but it is the very thing that gives me something interesting to write about.
So, the good news is that we don’t need to have our entire trip mapped out before we begin our journey. As Emily P. Freeman says in her book The Next Right Thing: “God often gives a faint vision of things before they ever come to be. It’s not a full form, more of a shadow, not focused or clear. It doesn’t come with steps or money or sure things, but it does come with hope. And hope is what keeps you going in the fog. Instead of those black-and-white answers we tend to love so much, what if we began to look for arrows instead?”
Sometimes we just need to be open to change. And rather than trying to plan everything in advance, sometimes all we need to do is determine, as Freeman beautifully puts it, “the next right thing.”