4 Questions to Ask When Figuring Out Your Career Trajectory

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k
April 17, 2024 at 12:13AM UTC

People spend 13 years and two months of their lives at work on average, according to a HuffPost Australia analysis. If you often work unpaid overtime, you’re looking at an extra year on the job. Next to sleeping (26 years for someone who lives to be just under 80, the average life span), that's the activity that will take up the most time in your life.

What does that mean? Well, in short, work should count. That’s why planning out your career trajectory is so important. The thought you put into mapping out your career and the goals you set for yourself can have a tremendous impact on your life — a life that, let’s face it, includes a lot of work. 

So, how exactly do you determine your career trajectory? Here are some pointers for figuring it all out and finding work that contributes to, rather than detracts from, the rest of your life.

What is a life trajectory?

Your life trajectory is exactly what it sounds like: the progression of events and circumstances you take consciously or unconsciously or that happens to you that defines the course of your life. Part of your life trajectory depends on the choices you make and things do you, while other events and contributing factors are beyond your control. Either way, the smallest decision or event can have a huge impact on the rest of your life, and while you can’t control everything, you can map out ideas about what you want to happen and formulate goals and plans to achieve it.

What is a career trajectory?

Your career trajectory is a major part of your life trajectory. It describes the progression of your career, starting with your first ideas about work and what you might want to do and including every event that contributes to your work life from then on. Like your overall life trajectory, it encompasses and is influenced by every career-related event and decision you make. If you’re stuck in a job you hate and keep at it for years, you might find your career trajectory stagnating or seemingly moving in a flat line. On the other hand, you might decide to move in a different direction to find something that truly fulfills you, which will propel you forward, even if it involves a couple steps that seem to be backward, like returning to school or making a career change and starting in an entry-level role. You’ll probably encounter setbacks — everyone does — but these and your accomplishments are markers along your career trajectory.

Vertical and horizontal career trajectories.

You might assume a vertical career trajectory is the only valuable kind — this is when you’re attaining new titles, moving into higher-level positions and receiving a larger salary. On a graph, this might look like a line with an upward slope. 

However, few career trajectories are that simple. You might, for example, reach a point where there seems to be little movement, which could be represented by a straight, line parallel to the x-axis on a graph, also known as a horizontal career trajectory. This might feel frustrating, but don’t think of it as necessarily negative. During these times (and there may be many), you might be learning the ins and outs of a new job, gaining skills and/or making lateral moves into different positions at similar levels. Instead of thinking of this as stagnation, consider it preparation for future advancement. You might need those important skills to move into a managerial role or make that lateral move to prepare yourself for the next opportunity. 

For example, perhaps you start your career as software developer at an early-stage startup. Your next job might be the same title (or even a more junior one) at a much larger company. This doesn’t mean you’re not advancing; instead, you’re simply gaining skills to work in a different setting and contributing in a different way.

You also might reach a point in your career where there’s not much room to advance into a higher-level position, although you’re still nurturing your skills and even helping others on their career trajectories.

Career pathing and planning.

Career planning involves mapping out your work goals and determining milestones to achieve them. You might use the SMART method or a similar method to create a plan that includes short- and long-term markers that inform you about your progress toward achieving your goals.

What are good career paths?

While there’s no one specific way to determine your career path, a worthwhile one usually involves learning, building your skillset and aligning your career aspirations and steps with your personal values (in other words, ensuring that your personal and professional goals are consistent). It generally incorporates both vertical and horizontal career steps and decisions and may even involve career changes.

How do you write a career path?

A career path is the progression of events that transpire and initiatives you undertake toward achieving your professional goals. It includes education, jobs you hold along the way and any other activities and opportunities that in some way contribute to your career success. Like your career trajectory, it will probably include both horizontal and vertical movements.

To create a career path for yourself, start by writing down your ultimate goals. Then, consider the smaller steps you’ll need to take to achieve them. This will involve specific job titles, skills you’ll want to build and other activities such as networking and joining professional associations. It may involve finding new opportunities with your current employer or looking elsewhere. For example, if your goal is to start your own business, you might determine that you’ll need to spend X years with your current employer to gain experience in the industry, take courses to build Y skills and so on. Or, if you want to reach C-suite level at your current employer, you might determine that you should first become a manager in your department and perhaps make a lateral move to another department to gain exposure to different aspects of the company. You should, of course, set smaller-scale milestones along the way.

Recognize that not everything goes according to plan, and your own goals might even change. That’s okay! Neither your career nor your life is a straight line, and challenges and surprises all contribute to your trajectory. Hopefully, every experience will teach you something.

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