Consider this advice your go-to guide to reaching your career goals and gaining a lifetime of happiness. Part of our series on navigating your career.
The need to shake up your career isn’t always obvious. Sometimes, you absolutely love the people you work with and haven’t even considered a move, or you’re so busy at the office that you haven’t taken a moment to ask yourself, “Is this where I want to be?”
You might, however, be missing a few key signs that it’s time to leave for the next step in your career. “An important thing to establish early in your career is what work really is,” says psychologist Kristen Carpenter, Ph.D, director of women’s behavioral health at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “In your 20s and 30s, you’re looking to amass the experiences you need so that you can be where you want to be professionally in your 40s.”
To do that, you need to make the right moves. Here, Carpenter lays down the guidebook to professional success—and personal happiness along the way. (Not ready to leave your gig? Learn these 10 Ways to Be Happier at Work Without Changing Jobs.)
Write down your goals early in your professional life, and regularly check back. What you want at age 25 probably isn’t what you’ll want at 30. “You should reevaluate every couple years,” Carpenter says. “Look and see whether your goals have changed. It’s easy to get into a routine and become disengaged at work.”
No matter how friendly and awesome the environment, Carpenter says you need to keep a certain amount of professionalism in these strange friend-colleague or friend-boss relationships. If you don’t, it’s easy to abuse this bond on both sides. “It’s important to set clear boundaries,” she says “Are you friends with your boss? No, not really—that can get sticky. This is why it’s important to have a mentor to turn to outside your company.” Which leads us to...
Carpenter says an outside-your-office career mentor within the same field can be a priceless contact in your rolodex. “Don’t remain in a vacuum,” she says. “Find someone you can trust, who you can turn to for the tougher career questions.” When it comes time to make a job change, for instance, that person can tell you if your concern is a regular occurrence within your given field, whether you might be happier at a job of the same type at a different company, or whether you might want to switch fields. (Get inspired: 28 Powerful Women Share Their Best Advice.)
Carpenter says that a lot of women fail to leave their jobs not because they're miserable, but because the working environment is so nice and welcoming. “It’s great to enjoy your co-workers, but ultimately you have to ask yourself if that’s why you go to work everyday,” she says. “If the plan was two years at this job, and you love your environment, you might find yourself there five years later without having advanced your career.” If you’re not consistently growing in your career, and that’s still your goal, it’s time to check the ladder. Can you feasibly move up in your current position at this company? If not, look around for potential switches.
If you’re considering an actual career switch, because, say, Wall Street isn’t what you hoped it would be, talk to your mentor first. “And then, make sure you make one lateral move before you officially bow out,” says Carpenter. “After that, there might be a way to transition into another facet of the same field. For instance, if you’re experiencing burnout as a teacher, you might be able to move into educational support, work for a textbook company on curriculum, or become an administrator.” (Here's Why Burnout Should Be Taken Seriously.)
While it’s great to be aware of whether or not you’re happy in a job, moving around too much might start to raise a red flag to the companies where you apply for positions. It hints that you can’t find happiness in the field, can’t make it work with your co-workers, or that they may have to rehire for your position quicker than they’d like to. “Multiple short blips suggests a pattern,” says Carpenter. “If you have one blip of only six months, which you can explain, you’re good. But anything more than that early in your career gives prospective employers pause.”
At any given moment in your career life, you have to weigh different kinds of happiness and what they mean to you: personal, professional, and familial. “It’s never too late to make a big move or reach for the position you really want, but as time goes on, there are more demands on your resources,” says Carpenter, who says this is why planning ahead is crucial. “From a very early age, set aside money for a rainy day. That way, you won’t have to stay in a position you don’t love because the cost of leaving is so high.” Every little bit helps; even a couple hundred dollars a month. “After five years, you’ll have a good start if you want to go back to school, for instance,” Carpenter says. (Learn more Money-Saving Tips for Getting Fiscally Fit.)
It’s just as important to ask yourself what kind of life you want as it is to ask yourself what kind of career you want, says Carpenter. “If you’ve always dreamed of ending your career as a professor, that may be the job you want, but it may not support the lifestyle you want,” she says. “It’s hard balancing family life, working, and personal goals, so in the end, you may have to compromise. You may find that teaching at a small college versus a large university might be more suitable to your lifestyle.” What you’re looking for is the most satisfying combination of career, work and family—which may not be what you thought it would be at 25.
Make sure you can answer yes to this one specific question at any given moment in your career: “Am I making a conscious choice to be where I’m at right now?” says Carpenter. “Wherever you’re at in your career should align with your goals and values.” If your current position isn’t lining up, it’s time to shake things up. (Knowing when to leave your job is one of 8 Career Secrets to Steal from Mad Men, by the way.)