Exploring Careers the Non-Linear Way – UW Graduate School Skip to content

Exploring Careers the Non-Linear Way

Career pathways are often viewed as linear. An imagined life scenario goes something like this: You go to college, get your first job, earn a promotion, get a graduate degree, move up the ladder to your dream job, secure that dream job, then happily retire–all within a few decades and all within the same company or organization. However, industry trends and professionals in our networks have increasingly told us a different story: before, throughout and beyond graduate school, people are following career trajectories that are non-linear and often include, various work experiences and projects that not only enhance the skillsets they already had as graduate students, these experiences allowed them to acquire new sets of tools to pursue their passions.

As you plan ahead, we encourage to think expansively about your professional endeavors. Instead of asking yourself, “What job title do I want to have?,” ask yourself, “What work experiences do I want?”

Here a few tips to get you started:

Managing social expectations. Social messages can impact the career choices we make now and into the future. These messages have the potential to tell us who we “should” be and come from our families, peers, broader community, and an array of institutions around us–this even includes the UW. Sometimes external messages do resonate with our professional endeavors and that’s great! When the messages don’t align with your goals, it’s perfectly okay to take a step back and reflect on your values and strengths in order to switch gears and create roadmaps to do work that excites you, or at least piques your interest.

Flexibility. One skill you’re amazing at in graduate school is being flexible. You’re adept at juggling multiple campus, work and personal responsibilities. Take advantage of your ability to be flexible and remain open to opportunities that provide you with a range of professional experiences. (1) Volunteer a few hours a week (or per month) at a local non-profit and see if your passion lies there. (2) Learn more about a specific job or work culture by arranging a job shadow. (3) If internships or practicum aren’t part of your degree requirements, but you’d like (paid or unpaid) work experience, seek out internship opportunities that work with your schedule. All of these experiences have the potential to broaden your professional networks. And wider networks increase the likelihood of successful job searches and setting up interviews. Volunteering, interning and job shadowing can also help you rule-out options based on first-hand experience, and this frees you up to explore other paths.

Do versus be. Rather than focus on who you want to be (e.g. a person with a static job title), think of the contributions you want to make in your community, with your peers, to your family. How you work is also important. Can you bring your authentic self (values, strengths, ethics) to work? Are you able to start your day from a place of integrity–regardless of whether you’re in an entry-level position or higher? Does doing the work involve more positive stress than negative stress? Is there room to face challenges that will help you grow professionally? Focusing on contributions, rather than job titles, can help you think more broadly about how work can be meaningful to you.

Failing forward. Doing what you love is an iterative process, not without trial and error. Don’t be afraid to take risks, but don’t be careless about the risks you take. Have a new project idea? Share it with colleagues, especially if you notice gaps or issues not already being addressed in your field. Start with a soft launch, on a smaller scale. If your project doesn’t produce the results you imagined, ask yourself the following questions: What went well? What can I learn from this? What would I do differently? Focus on the process and then move forward, and keep challenging yourself to grow.


Kelly, Jaye & Ziyan
Core Programs Team