Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an article debunking the oft-repeated mantra that most of us will go through seven career changes throughout our working lifetimes. Basically, the Department of Labor has completely disavowed the statement, and no one’s ready to ‘fess up to having started the seven-careers rumor.
However, I think a more valid (and useful) way of framing this is that we may, in fact, be much likelier to have at least seven career extensions throughout our working lives. With that frame, I’ve had at least seven so far, and have friends and colleagues who’ve had even more as new opportunities have opened up (or been created by them).
Career Change versus Career Extension
A career change means starting over from scratch in a career unrelated to the one you’ve been engaged in previously – think going from neurosurgeon to organic peach farmer. You’ve got to learn new skills, understand a new operating universe or profession, and essentially build your brand and visibility again from scratch.
A career extension, however, is a much likelier scenario for many of us given the, ah, iffy economy – an economy as devastating for librarians as it has been for auto workers, journalists, and mortgage brokers. A career extension involves identifying your current career strengths – what you know, who you know, what you are known for – and extending that “professional equity” into a related field where those strengths will still be recognized and respected.
Think Transferable Skills
The basis of career extension is transferable skills – those skills you possess that can be equally valuable in environments, organizations, or situations other than traditional or special librarianship. The closer those environments, organizations, and/or situations are to your home base (i.e., traditional or special librarianship), the more likely that your strengths will be valued, and that you will be compensated commensurately. Essentially, in a career change, you’re starting from scratch and paying dues all over again; in a career extension, you’re making a lateral move that keeps you at least somewhere in the same spot in terms of recognized expertise.
In my career, more by blind luck than any strategic thinking on my part, I’ve had the following career extensions based on my core ability to find, create, and/or organize information:
Publishing – magazines and books.
Corporate – information advisor to a cable telecom CEO, who originally hired me to set up a publishing group for him.
Special librarianship – started an information center for a cable telecom museum, based on my knowledge of both librarianship and the cable telecom industry.
Academia – designed and now teach a course in alternative career paths, based on my alternative career paths.
Academia – recruited to run the MLIS program for University of Denver on an interim basis, based on being an advisory board member and teaching the Alternative Careers course, which meant I could understand both the administrative and student perspectives.
Creator of first virtual academic library – recruited to conceptualize, design, and implement first virtual library based on my knowledge of academic libraries, academic programs, and corporate business strategy (this was for a private-sector university).
Independent creator of online content – based on knowledge gained on virtual library project, began working as an independent consultant for companies doing online content projects.
Became head of online information portal for people with disabilities – took my online content development skills into a new experience universe, i.e., disability, and had to quickly learn all aspects of this world, including information resources, information gaps and needs, key players and thought leaders (for collaboration), and relevant government agencies and resources; in addition, had to quickly learn social media/marketing, community building, and search engine optimization techniques.
Started working part-time for a PR firm based on my content development skills and the social-media/marketing, community building, and SEO techniques I had learned in previous position.
Okay, if we count my two academias as one, that’s eight career extensions in about 25 years (I was 12 when I started….). Also, based on the course that I started teaching at DU on Alternative LIS Careers, I wrote a book and am now under contract for a second one and have given workshops around the country for conferences and LIS grad students on alternative LIS careers and career design topics.
But most interesting from the perspective of “career topic” extension, I’ve now been asked to give webinars on career topics to students at a really cool career college, because they felt that the basics of the message – how to create a resilient career – would be the same for everyone. Turns out they’re right. So now I’m in the process of deciding whether I should consider this as another career extension, and create content relevant to the needs and interests of all students, not just LIS ones.
Bottom line: if you feel like you’d like to explore career paths outside of librarianship, whether traditional or special, think about related disciplines if possible. These are likely to recognize the value of what you do, and won’t cause you to have to begin building your career all over again from scratch. Career extension allows you to build on the professional equity you’ve already created, and allows you to keep contributing at a level that reflects your true worth.