August 21, 2018

Seven stages of a professional career – A Life Course approach

Where is your career headed?

What if you had a trusted road map you could use to navigate your career and your professional growth? This post offers such a road map, and a timeline for recognizable stages of your career.

The concept of the Life Course is a tool from our friends in the field of sociology that forms the basis of the road map I offer. The work of Dr. Glen Elder led the way in this discipline to the development of Life Course Theory.  This theory holds the following five principles:

  1. Life-Span Development:  Human development and aging are lifelong processes.
  2. Agency:  Individuals construct their own lives through the choices and actions they take within the opportunities and constraints of history and social circumstance.
  3. Time and Place:  The life course of individuals is embedded and shaped by the historical times and places they experience over their lifetime.
  4. Timing:  The developmental antecedents and consequences of life transitions, events, and behavioral patterns vary according to their timing in a person’s life.
  5. Linked Lives:  Lives are lived interdependently and socio-historical influences are expressed through this network of shared relationships.

Using these principles, I have developed a Life Course approach to define the seven stages of a professional career.  In each, there are key developmental tasks and milestones, but I’ll save those for another post.

Stage 1:  New Professional

If you are in this stage, you are a newly minted professional who has just completed training.  You have your first formal job in your chosen profession, and you are learning the rules of the institution and the work environment.  I jokingly refer to this stage as “learning where the bathrooms are.” There are rules governing what is expected of you, though they may be explicit or hidden.  It is up to you to find, practice and learn them.  Most people will be hesitant to break the rules — or even to question them — while just getting their feet on the ground.

Stage 2:  Rule Questioning

In this stage, you have learned and internalized the rules everyone else has offered you for career success in Stage 1.  You are beginning to learn what works for you and what doesn’t.  Expectations may no longer apply, and you may begin to ask things like, “what if I did this another way?” or “what if I see my career path differently than a mentor or boss?”  Much like an adolescent, you begin to test the limits of the rules you were given, and begin to chart your own path.  You define your own subject matter interests, and find ways to have the systems around you support those interests, rather than accepting a “standard” course for your career.

Stage 3:  Mid-Career Awakening

At this stage, you begin to realize that, in addition to defining your own interests and questioning the rules you have been given, you have to take control and responsibility for your own career decisions.  You are the one person on the planet who truly has your own career interests at heart, and who holds them front and center in importance.  You begin to learn what you must say “no” to, in order to say what I call the “strategic yes.”  Sometimes this stage happens when things don’t go as planned in your career, or a trusted mentor or boss moves on, leaving you to manage your own career differently.  It’s rarely easy, but this is a critical juncture in career development.  The stress from this period offers you the energy to move to Stage 4.

Stage 4:  Independent Professional

Here, you have defined your own area of expertise, your own fields of interest, and you are recognized as being able to initiate projects of your own creation and to carry them to completion. This is where succession planning for your professional work should begin — who will carry on your work?  You may also be offered mid-level leadership roles, and are likely to find them aligned with your career and personal needs.

Stage 5:  Senior Expert

At this stage, your reputation within and beyond your organization has been secured and you are likely an effective mentor of others.  You do not feel that your professional work is complete, but you have achieved some real successes.  You may be offered senior administrative roles at this stage and in fact, these may become your primary work.  Planning for the completion of your professional work, who will carry it forward, and what you want to do as your work winds down are all important tasks to be completed at this stage.

Stage 6:  Wise Elder

By this time in your career, you have garnered clear recognition for your successes, and you may feel that you have achieved what you wanted.  This is the time when public recognition of your achievements is likely to ramp up, and planning for your retirement or encore career should be well under way.  It’s not necessarily a time to rest on your laurels, but there does seem to be more freedom and autonomy over how you spend your time.

Stage 7:  Capstone

How do you want to “cap” your career?  Do you want an “encore career,” which could be an extension of your professional work in a different setting, or something arising from your career but clearly separate.  Encores can also be completely unrelated to your lifetime of work — I had a colleague who retired from his professional career and promptly landed himself a small part in a hit movie!

You may decide that you want to retire, with no specific scheduled or required work.  Advance planning for your financial, interpersonal and psychospiritual wellbeing during this time is important, too.  This kind of planning should begin early in your career, and should include discussions with those closest to you regarding their needs, their understanding of your needs, and how to organize your day-to-day life after retirement.

Planning a successful career doesn’t have to wait until the middle or end of your work life.  In fact, it should begin at the beginning, and continue throughout the span of your career.

What About You?

What stages of this roadmap seem most familiar to you?  Have you begun thinking about retirement, encore or capstone planning?

This post relies on the work of many scholars, and specifically references source material about the Life Course from the links included, as well as the following book chapter:  Elder, G. H., Jr., M. K. Johnson & R. Crosnoe, 2003. The Emergence and Development of the Life Course. In Handbook of the Life Course, eds. J. Mortimer and M. J. Shanahan (H.Kaplan, series, editor) New York: Plenum Publishing.

Last updated August 21, 2018