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Career Planning in a Pandemic

Excerpt From: Inside Highered

In the past months, we've experienced dramatic changes to life as we know it. If you were in the process of a career search when the pandemic hit, all your planning may now seem pointless. During times like this, we have to make a choice: Do we retreat and hide, or do we push forward and see this as an opportunity for growth and positive change?

While I've never been on the job market during a global pandemic (who has until now?), but I have been on it three times across two recessions. Lessons learned from those experiences may help you find your way through this downturn and others you will face during your career.

Career Planning vs. Career Reality

When I began my Ph.D., my career plan was to be a college professor. The timing seemed perfect. Reports at that time projected huge growth in faculty hiring, so I thought I’d be applying when a record number of tenure-track positions were available. We all know how that worked out. And to make matters worse, I completed my Ph.D. in 1991, during a recession that began in the late 1980s. I spent three years on the academic market searching for a tenure-track position that never materialized.

For those of you currently hoping for a tenure-track position, COVID-19 will make your long-shot odds of landing a tenure-track position even longer. During both the 1990 and 2008 recessions, many tenure-track faculty jobs disappeared and never returned. The same thing is likely to happen with this recession.

What can you learn from this? Your career plan needs to be flexible, no matter what path you are on. An event like the one we’re experiencing now will result in shifts in career options. Some will disappear, and new ones will appear. This isn’t a new phenomenon -- we no longer have buggy-whip makers -- but that doesn’t make it easier when the career you planned and prepared for disappears.

Being forced to make a career change is not fun. It felt like I was being pushed out rather than making an exit on my own terms. And I had to take time to process my feelings so I could move forward. But once I made the change, I realized a lot of the elements I liked about being a professor were still part of my job. In hindsight, it would have been prudent to have a longer list of career options. Once I made the switch to my new career, I then continued to explore other options in case I wanted or had to shift careers again.

The fact is that the best career plan is one that includes several options that are all equally acceptable paths for you. Then when you enter one of those careers, continue to build your skills and connections in case that position becomes a victim of changes in the career environment.

Be Realistic About Your Career Options

During an economic downturn, it’s especially important to be realistic as well as knowledgeable about your career options. There are three main types of career transitions: 1) the same industry, a different job, 2) different industry, same or similar job, and 3) different industry, different job. The easiest is the first one; the hardest is the third. When I first explored career options outside faculty life, I was looking at positions in both a different industry and different functional areas, which is the hardest transition to make. My second search involved the same industry (higher education) but a different job (career services). There were enough similarities that I was able to make the case that I could do the job. As an instructor, I taught communication, and my classes involved content that overlapped with career education.

When I look back at the first search, I found it tough to make the argument that I could do the jobs I was applying for. During the second search, I only applied for staff positions at universities, and I found it much easier to make the claim that I could do the job. Notably, both of these searches happened during two different recessions.

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