How to stumble into a career (like I did)

There is no way for me to reflect on my current career happiness without giving due credit to happenstance and luck.  I was hired as a career counselor two years ago and I love my job.  It is common among all generations to believe that through sheer will we carve out success after success and by accumulating them, find work that sustains us for the rest of our lives.  In this belief, milestones and achievements become the way-points of upward career mobility. But that is not a story I can tell.  Missing from this classic narrative, are the almost arbitrary moments that can become pivotal in finding a working environment that fits.  My own career path—if you can call it that—is evidence that career goals and unforeseen opportunities can ultimately lead to a good job or better yet, a career.  Reflecting back it was almost an afterthought that got me here.

I like to call it “productive happenstance.” Productive happenstance occurs when you are able to recognize and then act on opportunities that come from unexpected places. It is not a rudderless existence, I am not saying you drift along without much of a plan and passively wait for something to happen.  Goals are important and working toward them should always be a priority.  What I do want to suggest though, is that by working towards goals, you also open up new alternatives that you may not have originally considered or even known about.  These developing alternatives can become important moments in the search for a career.  In my case, I was working on completing a PhD. in history when an opportunity came along that did not impress me at first.

In my department, graduate students applied for funding in winter quarter, and based on the rankings of the faculty grad funding committee, TAships, fellowships, and other awards were disbursed to the graduate students for the next academic year. One spring, however, an email from the department’s non-faculty administrative unit arrived in my inbox advertising a graduate student appointment that supported the full-time academic advisor in a part-time role.  Unlike the usual funding application (research statement, teaching philosophy, etc.) they wanted a resume and cover letter.  This went out to all 50 plus graduate students in the department, of which six actually replied myself included.  Honestly my attitude toward the job was pretty cavalier: like most grad students, I coveted a fellowship. In the end, I did not get that fellowship but I was chosen to be the part-time advisor after the hiring committee interviewed all six applicants. At least, I thought to myself, my funding was secured for the next academic year.

Now up to that point, my plans had not changed.  I would complete my degree and go on the academic job market to become a professor, a post-doctorate fellow, or an adjunct.  But over the course of that next year, while working twenty hours a week as an advisor, I began to slowly envision another path.  The path did not appear in an instant or as an epiphany, I was still bent on becoming a professor. When you put six years of coursework, teaching and research into a goal, it is not exactly easy to just walk away.

But I could not ignore the amount of fun I was having as an advisor.  I started to meet other advisors from different departments and attended all-advisor meetings. My understanding of the university as a whole expanded, and I began to organically work on co-curricular projects that introduced me to other campus partners.  Most importantly, my skills in listening and conversation flourished, and I was noticing how much I enjoyed this more facilitative student-facing role.  I started to look for open advisor positions on campus and at other institutions. My dissertation languished.

And this is where the luck comes in.  As I was approaching the end of my appointment as a part-time advisor and thinking about funding for the following year, auspicious events beyond my control unfolded in a sequence that was nothing short of miraculous (at least in terms of my new budding career interests).  Essentially the boss of my boss retired.  My supervisor became the shoe-in candidate for the director role, and I became a strong candidate to replace him as the full time academic advisor.   When I was hired I put my grad studies on hold (where they still remain) and jumped into the work wholeheartedly.  The part-time advisor grad appointment was not renewed in the department; as far as I know it was a one-off funding opportunity that I was lucky enough to get.  It literally changed my life.

How did I go from advisor to career counselor?  It was again, a combination of having professional goals and the almost arbitrary role of happenstance.  As mentioned above, once hired by the department of history I took to the work with great enthusiasm and agreed to lead a project that was only slightly above my head.  The chair of the department and my supervisor wanted to develop a professionalization program for its students that included career exploration, resume and cover letter writing, and internships.  I didn’t really know how to plan out the curriculum for such a course so…….I followed up on some outreach from the Career Center and started collaborating with a career counselor.  But that is a different story and you already know how it ends.

So how can you tell when productive happenstance is happening?  What do developing alternatives look like when they first appear?  I can’t say exactly.  There’s no silver bullet answer to these questions.  It takes awareness and some pretty sophisticated decision making skills.  And luck.  What is important is to be striving towards something.  In your pursuit of even small milestones you never know, a path towards a career might open up whether you planned for it or not. Keep your eyes open, say yes to things. And be honest with yourself as well.  Although I didn’t see it at the time, I was growing weary of the research and writing process in academia.  I was good at it, but not great and certainly not passionate.  It was too isolating I realize now, and I second guessed myself a bit too much to be an expert among scholars.  Had I confronted myself with these feelings earlier, it could have spurred me to notice and seek new alternatives sooner.

By Jon Olivera
Jon Olivera Career Coach Jon Olivera