When people reach out to me to discuss their career trajectory in higher education, often they are looking for me to spell out "the perfect path" to reaching their goals. In reality, however, there never is a perfect path, and many times not even a pretty-darn-good one. Career paths in higher education, and likely most fields, are a little bit about career aspiration, a little bit about preparedness and a lot about life.
A path that looks great on paper may not actually fit with the other aspects of our lives. At the end of the day, most people I know adapt their career paths to their life's path, not the other way around. Yes, career decisions are influenced by one’s grand plan, but they are influenced even more by our needs, opportunities and even limitations.
Seventeen years ago I had no intention of working in higher education. I was a stay-at-home mother with a master’s degree in counseling and a career aspiration of being an elementary school principal. At 32 years old and on the verge of a divorce, I knew I needed to get back into the work force to support myself and my children. With very little work experience in my field of study and even fewer local job openings, I happened to land a part-time job as a community college counselor and instructor. My neighbor was attending the college and said she would put in a good word for me with her adviser; not much of a connection, but I took what I could get. Little did I know I had started a new career.
Six years, two states, three institutions and a divorce later my career in higher education leadership was burgeoning and I was making a stable wage for my family. My career path had found me, and I was loving it. At this time I was starting to feel the pressure and readiness to advance my career in higher education, and started to explore a terminal degree. I was unsure where my path would take me, but felt the need to prepare for the next phase.
I received a lot of advice suggesting that getting into a doctoral program while my children were still preteens would be much easier than waiting until they were in high school or college. Although I had always imagined being a graduate student who studied and researched my way through a Ph.D. full-time, I instead started my Ed.D. at age 36, with two preteens, a full-time job and in the only weekend program in my area that related to my career.
At work I was really pushing the innovation envelope and was being recognized for my thought leadership. It didn't take long to get recruited by a former colleague working at a new institution -- a growing for-profit university just up the street. Not only was the position interesting, and the culture one of innovation and quality, it came with much greater pay than I had grown accustomed to in traditional higher education. While I never thought of working at a for-profit, the opportunity was a godsend.
After remarrying, finishing my doctorate and seeing my children off to high school, I was personally ready to move forward in my career. However, I found unexpected challenges I did not anticipate when I crossed from the traditional higher education sector to the for-profit sector several years earlier. Job titles in for-profits tend to be different from those at traditional institutions, not to mention pay; I was earning more than an average higher education vice president, but held a director title. In addition, most upper-level leaders at for-profits are under a noncompete agreement, which can make moving to a new institution tricky, as was my case.
All of this required thoughtful navigation, especially knowing there are fewer job opportunities the higher up the ladder one goes. In the end, I landed a vice president position at a wonderfully innovative local state university -- yet it came with a significant pay cut.
My new role gave me opportunities to stretch and develop in an executive role, and a few years later I again found myself being recruited by a for-profit -- and, as ever, the timing was unexpected and the opportunity intriguing. This time my children were off to college so I could take on the extra travel and hours required for the position. It was also local -- a real benefit.
I share all of this as a personal example of how one’s career path does not need to be neat and tidy to land in the right place, be rewarding or even be deemed successful. Often what we want to do or even what we think we want to do is heavily limited or guided by our current life situation. As you contemplate your own path, you will likely face the following questions at some point in your career; the answers to which may slow down, propel or even redirect your path. My advice -- be open to all three!
1. What types of jobs are available where I live? Am I able to relocate?
2. Am I at a time in my life when I can work odd hours (usually required in student affairs or adult-serving institutions) or commit myself to additional responsibilities (required for leadership positions)?
3. Are there master's and/or doctoral programs I need for career advancement that fit my situation (financially, with my family, through my current employer, etc.)?
4. Am I willing to leave the benefits of my current employment (such as pay, tenure/seniority, location)?
5. What would happen if I delay a career change or pursuit of additional education?
I never would have imagined my career path 17 years ago, and certainly would not have been able to create a master plan detailing it out. My path and plan flexed as my life changed. Because of life events I ended up in higher education and made decisions about when I changed institutions or positions, as well as when I attended graduate school. My decisions have been deeply rewarding -- from exciting career opportunities, to contributing to the field, to work/family balance, to financial stability and more.
I discovered new aspirations, and I have no doubt taken risks, but mostly I have balanced my personal needs with my career needs -- with the former influencing the ladder with much greater vigor and necessity time and time again.
Trenda Boyum-Breen is executive vice president at Rasmussen College, in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn.
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