“Life is what happens when you are making other plans.”
Life is full of surprises, some big and some little. But when those surprises affect your professional life, it can be overwhelming. How do you keep them from becoming devastating?
Sometimes, you have a little warning that something bad is coming—a bad performance review or rumors about downturns in your industry, for example. Other times, a merger may result in the sudden elimination of your entire department or your being asked to take on a completely different role. Alternatively, maybe there’s a significant change in your personal life—for instance, your partner getting the opportunity of a lifetime in another city may interfere with your carefully planned career path.
Whether the situation snuck up on you slowly or suddenly leapt into existence, at some point, you realize you have a problem and that something is going to have to change. Knowing how to act when things don’t go as planned is an important part of career success.
Regroup: Collect the Data
The first thing to do when you realize you have a problem is to evaluate the size, scope, and other parameters of your situation.
Don’t rush into action based on insufficient data, especially if you have experienced a sudden, unexpected change. You need to take some time to understand what is going on and accept the new reality. This means you will need a short-term plan to stay afloat while you research your master plan. You can probably gather preliminary information about your current resources and options quickly. That will help determine what your timeline for action on your long-term strategy is to be. You may be able to identify some interim actions that will give you more time to plan for a more permanent goal.
Once you have your short-term plan in place, you can begin gathering data for your overall strategy, beginning with some basic questions, such as: How big is this problem? If it’s something that affects only you, you probably already have a sense of the nearby professional landscape and may have colleagues who are able to help you with your transition. If it’s an issue that affects your entire department, field, industry, or other demographic, you may have to be more flexible in what you are willing to do and move farther afield to find opportunities. In the latter case, you may have many colleagues in a similar situation with whom you can share leads and other resources.
How long is the condition likely to last? If it’s only going to be a few weeks or months, you may be able to stretch out your current position or savings to tide you over. If it’s a longer-term or permanent situation, you’re going to need a different strategy.
Why did this happen? This is often the hardest question, and you may never get a complete answer. Is there a specific underlying cause that is not likely to be repeated, or did this incident reveal something about your character or skills that indicates you may not have been on the best career path for you as an individual? Has a situation beyond your control given you an opportunity to end up happier and more fulfilled?
While you are gathering all this information, it’s important to remain professional. In public and with colleagues, make sure to keep your emotions in check. Don’t say anything that you might regret. Make sure any goodbyes are professional. Thank people sincerely, be sympathetic, and don’t complain too much.
If your departure was not part of a public announcement, share the news with key contacts in person if possible, and make sure they have your permanent contact information. If it’s feasible, send a more general message, including your contact information and an invitation to stay in touch, to a wider group using email or social media. Keep your public announcements factual and upbeat.
You need to keep professional relationships professional, but you can vent and share grievances with close personal friends. Talking through the issues can help you process them as well as evaluate options.
If circumstances are going to force you to reset your career direction, make sure it’s in a direction you like. This is a perfect time to reflect on your career and other accomplishments to date—your knowledge, skills, and abilities. Where are you in your career? Where you are going? Where do you want to be?
Updating your resume, LinkedIn profile, and other professional documents can be a good way to jog your memory about what you have done and help you start thinking about changes you are going to make to reflect your new reality. (You may have to tweak those documents again when you decide where you are going in your new career trajectory.)
Keep in mind that you are more than your job. You have many facets, and your current position is just one of them. Think about all your accomplishments. What have you enjoyed doing, and what have you done well? What small parts of your most recent occupation do you wish you could do more of? Is there volunteer work that gives your life meaning that you would like to expand? What roles have you drifted into that you wish you could quit?
Remember that regrouping includes taking care of yourself. Depending on the nature of your transition, you will want to be cognizant of your mental health and add time to rest into your plans. Transitions (especially involuntary ones) usually involve some discomfort. Even so, if anxiety or other negative emotions become overwhelming, it’s okay to seek help. There are often community-based programs that take individual financial situations into consideration.
Taking the time to gather information and think before you act will remove some of the emotion and provide a clearer perspective on events. It may allow you to see connections that you might have missed.
Reassess: Explore and Evaluate Your Options
Start by adopting a positive attitude. You are in a new place now. Previous assumptions need to be reexamined, and former expectations might now be invalid. Know that you will get through this difficult period, though where you end up may not be where you thought you would be—it might even be better.
As you learn more about your situation, you will think of many options—some better than others. Writing down every possibility, no matter how unlikely, is an excellent way to get a sense of perspective on the breadth of options you actually have.
Consider what you were going to do and whether you should put it on hold, cancel it, or figure out a way to make it work under the new circumstances. For instance, maybe you can use technology to teach classes instead of instructing in person, or you might go to graduate school earlier or later than you had originally intended. If you can’t do exactly what you were planning, is there a step that will move you in that direction?
Especially in turbulent times, do not discount any option, or even a combination of options. Could you do some consulting to earn income while looking for a more permanent position? Is there some volunteer work you’ve wanted to do to improve your skills and build some professional connections? If you have always wanted to move to another city or take a big chance, maybe now is the time to do it.
Maybe you could find a paid internship or register with a placement agency for short-term or temporary work. Temporary work can ease financial problems, but it can also allow you to learn valuable skills and build your professional network, which would put you in a better position to find a permanent position. Temporary jobs may be the first to go away during an economic downturn, but they are also some of the first to come back. The trade-off to consider is that they do take time away from other job searching activities.
For each career possibility, think not only about how desirable it is right now, but also about both the short- and long-term consequences to your career. Can you combine multiple strategies?
React: Make a Choice and Move Forward
Once you have researched your situation, analyzed your options, and selected the best one, commit to making it work. Know that you have made the best decision possible with the information at hand; don’t waste time wondering what might have been. You should have a backup plan, but don’t split your focus too much.
Prepare for Next Time
Your new career path may not be what you thought it was going to be, but it may very well turn out to be something just as good, or even better.
Use this experience to learn and think about ways you can be better prepared for the next time you experience an unexpected transition—because there will be a next time. What did you have to learn or do suddenly, and is there a way to do that in advance? Were there any warning signs that you missed? If so, how could you be more aware of them in the future? Did you have your resources (savings, skills, professional network) in order and ready to be tapped? What can you do now so you will be in a better position when the next challenge arises?
Don’t be afraid to share your story. Other people can learn from your experiences, and retelling it will make you think about it again and perhaps gain new insights. It may be worth remembering the perspective of Steve Allen, the co-creator and first host of The Tonight Show. He observed, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.” Eventually, you may be able to see some humor in the situation.
In summary, there will always be career challenges and unexpected transitions. By not panicking, but instead using your research and analytical skills, you can understand the situation and adjust to emerge with an excellent plan of action and an even better career trajectory than you had before.
Lisa M. Balbes
Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D., has been a freelance technical writer and editor at Balbes Consultants since 1992. She is also the author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers (Oxford University Press).