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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

Why a Winding Career Path is Totally OK

First you’re an intern. Then you’re hired as an assistant. You then become a coordinator, a specialist, and then a manager. Perhaps you jump companies, but you stay in the same industry, building a career path of positions that shows evidence of perfectly-timed growth in your field.

Sound like the ideal resume?

Not necessarily. I’d argue that, in the first few years of your career, you should fret less about building that step-by-step, logical resume, and focus more on choosing opportunities that will expose you to many industries, fields, and environments. Personally, by taking a winding path, I’ve gained practical knowledge of many fields, developed a set of skills I can apply to any role, and, best of all, figured out what I want out of a job.

So if you’re not positive about your career path (and who is?), here’s why it’s OK to experiment—even if you’re building a resume that you think doesn’t make sense.

1. You’ll Get Good Perspective

While experimenting won’t give you deep experience in one field, you’ll gain the valuable ability to understand many perspectives. I sampled jobs with a nonprofit, government agency, think tank, and law firm. Now, in my current role at a startup, I have learned that it’s incredibly useful to be able to wear hats from previous jobs when the situation calls for it. For example, putting on my lawyer hat has helped me to avoid insurance issues and steer clear of contract traps. Or, when pitching to nonprofit clients, understanding their budgeting processes has enabled me to structure better deals. I am positive that the ability to easily relate to many different perspectives will help me build more effective relationships with partners, clients, and consultants in every role I encounter.

Having a broad perspective also becomes increasingly important as you begin to take on management roles. As a manager, you will probably oversee employees with a range of functions—accounting, policy, business development, communications—and it’s unlikely you will be an expert in all of these areas. Having a basic knowledge of what your employees’ jobs entail will make you a more effective manager who can delegate work smoothly and keep an out for obstacles.

2. You’ll Weed Out Bad Fits

One of the best things about experimenting with multiple industries is that it helps you eliminate career paths that are bad fits. For example, trying out a legal internship may change your mind about applying to law school (it did for me!). Remember, it’s never too late to take a detour, and it’s always OK to decide that something’s not for you.

That being said—be careful to avoid letting one boring project or one bad manager ruin your impression of an entire industry. During each job or internship, make an effort to meet with co-workers with varying roles across different teams to gain a broader understanding of the field.

3. You’ll Build Transferable Skills

No matter what industry or role you’re in, there are several common skills that will help you succeed. Getting experience in communicating clearly, coordinating skillfully with multiple departments, managing up, and building client relationships, for example, will be a big advantage in any field. These golden skills are usually never mentioned in a job description, but they’re the ones you should be honing long before you worry about climbing the ladder in a specific field.

When looking for new opportunities, there are a few tell-tale signs that a job will help you to build transferable skills. Small teams or new departments will usually offer you more responsibility and lessons in managing up. Positions that work with multiple departments will teach you how to streamline communication and interact with diverse groups. Also, look out for jobs that enable and encourage you to attend industry events (lunches, seminars, conferences) that will help you build professional relationships.

4. You’ll Recognize Patterns

After a few internships or jobs, you’ll be able to start comparing your experiences and identifying your preferences. Ask yourself questions like: Do I like large, structured environments or small, flexible ones? Do I like to work solo or in groups? What kind of management style keeps me motivated? Which tasks do I find myself wanting to complete first?

Once you start thinking through these questions, you’ll begin to recognize industries, companies, or opportunities that either play to your strengths or clash with your preferences. What you want out of a job—and what you don’t want—will become much, much clearer.

Now What?

So now, once you have some amazing experience, a good idea of the type of job you want, and, of course, a resume that doesn’t exactly “make sense,” how are you going to land your dream job?

It’s all about positioning. When seeking out your next position, you’ll need to figure out which aspects of your work experience are most related to that new job. It’s helpful to distill the job description down to a few core functions, identify when you’ve done those tasks in the past, and figure out how to best showcase them in your resume, cover letter, and interview.

For example, if you’re applying to a job in public relations, but have no experience working for a PR firm, you’ll want to make sure to bring up past projects that involved monitoring press, media research, or managing relationships during an interview. When I was interviewing for a marketing job where my experience and skills didn’t perfectly fit the job description, I tried not to focus on my weaknesses. Instead, I related my experience to the core concepts of the role—managing an editorial calendar, communicating for large audiences, and working across teams. At the end of the interview, the recruiter remarked that she was impressed with my diverse experiences and that the technical aspects of the job would be taught during training.

A winding career path isn’t a bad thing—it can mean you’ve taken opportunities to experiment, rule out bad fits, develop strong transferable skills, and learn more about your professional self. The most important thing to remember when exploring new jobs is to carry the lessons you’ve learned in the past to your new positions. Keep learning, keep growing, and be proud of the fact that you bring a unique perspective and adaptable skill-set to the table.

Photo courtesy of Daniel McDermott.