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Careers Café

What if it’s not about where you are going?


In my last post, I suggested that you don’t have to figure out what to do with your life. I want to explore that idea a bit more.

As Barrie Thorne noted back in 1987, we often look at children as who they are becoming rather than as who they are in a specific time and place. Despite the rise of other modes of studying children, this tendency to think in developmental time still dominates discourses of childhood (scholarly and otherwise).

I would argue that it frames most discussions of postsecondary education (undergraduate and graduate) and early career jobs. This is not only infantilizing but, as Thorne noted, diverts attention from the specific historical and personal conditions in which you are “developing”.

The story you tell about your life unwittingly becomes a fairy tale

I will finish this degree, get an entry level job in the profession of my choice, and live happily ever after.

In reality, there is no day when “happily ever after” starts.

You will always have another goal to strive for (tenure; promotion; retirement). You will never have enough time. Bad things will happen to you.

You will also have challenging and enjoyable work. You will make time for the things that are important to you. Good things will happen to you.

How would you look at your life differently if you stepped out of developmental time?

In other words, what if you stopped thinking in terms of what you are becoming and started focusing on what you are doing now?

Can you identify what makes your activity worthwhile even if that next step doesn’t happen. Ask yourself “Who benefits from my work?”

Your PhD research should make a contribution to the advancement of knowledge in your discipline, for example. Other scholars in your field will benefit from the work you do.

Your teaching contributes to the development of all those young minds in your classroom.

Your involvement in organizing a conference enables conference attendees to meet others in their field and share their work, which contributes to the advancement of knowledge in your discipline, the career advancement of numerous others, and so on.

None of these individual achievements need be earth-shattering or newsworthy. However, there are ways you can do all of them to optimize the contribution you make.

Acknowledge those contributions. Really acknowledge them. You are not a failure because you did not hit some developmental milestone you had mapped out in advance. You just hit a different milestone. One you weren’t anticipating.

And, as I said last time, you can decide to change the path. If what you are doing is not sufficiently rewarding, figure out how to change it, even if that means rewriting the developmental story to gain the skills and experience you need for a different career path.

Jo VanEvery is a career coach who specializes in helping academics. Find her at
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