How To Give Up The Comfortable Professional Path & Take The Plunge

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Hi all! It’s been a long time (much too long, in my opinion) since we’ve had an Ask Chelsea Anything, and as I’ve been guiltily watching the emails pile up, I thought I’d take a Tuesday — the most totally-honest day of the week! — to get back on my game. To start, I picked a question that typifies a dynamic we see a lot on TFD, balancing one’s long-term prospect with a sense of short-term comfort and stability. Navigating the world of professional employment can be terrifying in this way, especially as we’ve all come of age in an economy that makes any salaried job feel like some kind of precious gem, no matter how objectively crappy it is.

So, without further ado, let’s get to our question from a TFD reader who finds herself in a sticky work predicament. (And as always, don’t forget to send your questions to!)

Dear Chelsea,

I have a tough decision to make and you seem like a resourceful person to ask for help. I’m graduating this winter with a degree in software engineering and I’ve started working at a prestigious engineering firm with a salary that’s pretty awesome, especially compared to what I used to live on during my uni years. I love a lot of things about my job: the company attitude, the people (it’s not easy to get a job here), the office, the benefits. The only thing I don’t like is the job itself. I’m passionate about coding, but my current job is very limiting and in a completely different area, even in a coding language I’m not very good at. I feel like I’m not living up to my potential and that can have a huge impact on my career opportunities in the future.

Let me elaborate. As a fresh graduate in IT, I’m a very sought-after asset (and that’s hard when friends around me are struggling to find jobs — I feel as if I’m ungrateful for my good fortune, which I’m not as I’ve worked very hard for it). It’s mostly because I can be molded into almost any specialty yet I’m still relatively cheap. Because of this I have a limited-time market advantage, if you will, but it’s shrinking rapidly after a year or two in a specific field. So, from a career perspective it’s a strategically-important time period for me and has a big impact my future. Wouldn’t it be better for me in the long run to get a job in a field I actually care about and am competent in or should I just stay on my ass and be grateful that I make a good paycheck doing something in a mediocre way?

Thank you.

Kind regards,

Judith! This is a good problem to have. Compared to a lot of people (as you readily acknowledge), having to choose between a job in your lap that isn’t ideal, and a potential future job that could be even better, is a good dilemma — even if it’s a difficult one to navigate in practice. As most of us learn sooner or later, having a “good enough” job can often be the thing that hinders us the most in terms of our career potential, even if it keeps us the most financially secure. Getting complacent can be the quicksand that keeps us from making the moves we need to make for the long-term, because trading comfort for potential reward is something that goes against our most basic nature. (And that’s not totally without reason, especially in an economy where being debt-free is a rare blessing and having a steady, salaried job is far from a given.)

So how do you balance your need to evolve and make the right moves with your fear and guilt about your current gig? Well, part of this I can answer myself, and part of this I brought in our good Ask Chelsea Anything friend Dani*, who has worked in HR for years and is always happy to help answer this sort of question. As far as what I can say, though, one thing is absolutely sure: never let that feeling of guilt — as you put it, “I feel as if I’m ungrateful for my good fortune, which I’m not as I’ve worked very hard for it” — stop you from doing what is right in your own career path. Your friends not being able to land jobs as easily as you, while obviously not great for anyone, has nothing to do with you or your choices. You can’t let a feeling of guilt or “Why me?” in any way impact your personal career path.

That said, the feeling of “this is a good, well-paying job that I know I have” is not a feeling to ignore. The question is balancing “using that security to your advantage” with “getting stuck in a rut that ultimately hurts your future because you’re too scared to take a risk.” My advice for staying in your current gig? Figure out the budget you’d need (side jobs included) to save up a full, three-month emergency fund at your current income/bills. See if you can do that within a year, and make it a point to save up that money while at your current job, both for the general financial security, and to make the potential transition into your next job all the more secure and flexible. Staying at a mediocre job with financial comfort is not a bad move, but it’s only really serving a purpose if you’re using that comfort to your fullest advantage — set a clear timeline that allows you to save up your emergency fund, and start planning your exit date around it.

Now, as for the actual job hunt/potential new gig, I defer to Dani*, who had a not-insignificant amount of things to say about your field and its HR implications.

Hi Judith! I don’t know what your current speciality is, but I do know one thing: People who are mediocre at a lot of things in the IT/software engineering field are going to become obsolete in the next five to ten years, if not sooner. A lot of these jobs are becoming automated, and unless you distinguish yourself as the kind of person who is good at managing systems (and people), rather than just a code jockey who can perform rote IT and data tasks, you will soon find yourself replaced by a computer who can do your job for a hair’s fraction of the price. That’s not a doomsday scenario, that’s the future of your field — but I think you already know that.

Save enough money to make sure your transition is a safe one, and start looking at a job that challenges you and, more importantly, has a real ladder in front of you to get into a more management-oriented, synthesized position. The longer you are relegated to one task, the more vulnerable you are. You are in a good position right now, but unless you use it to make quick and intelligent jumps — and again, the specific roles will depend on the kind of work you’re doing — you will quickly find yourself even worse off than those creative-major friends. Always be making your career decisions looking at least 3-5 years in the future, because you need to be ahead of the curve of your own industry.

I hope this helps, and that you find your way in (what sounds like) a very cool, if slightly intimidating, field! And remember, always do what’s right for you, not what sounds like the general “good” thing to do. Temporary security in the short term is almost never worth a solid pathway in the long term.

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  • Tara

    This may not be the case, but I have to ask…it sounds like the writer hasn’t been in the new job for very long. You might not be as bad at the job as you think you are. Engineering, especially in a language you never learned, can have a steep learning curve. Are you sure you’re actually struggling or just learning?

    Are you sure the part you’re doing now is what you’ll be stuck with if you stay? It’s possible you are being trained on the new technology before getting more exciting work. This has happened to me and a few of my STEM job friends.

    I also wouldn’t worry too much about the “new market advantage”. In my job searches, having some real world experience actually made it easier to get a job and I could be pickier about what I wanted (especially when I still have a job). I’ve also had many, many women far into their tech careers say that if 50% of your jobs lead to your overall goal/what you end up doing, you’re doing REALLY well.

  • Keisha

    I totally agree with Tara! Ive found, and discussed with a few other close friends, that the first six months of your first couple professional (aka postgraduate science-based) jobs SUCK the first 6 months. I advise this reader to give it 6 months before throwing in the towel. Tough jobs in engineering, tech, and healthcare world just take some time to settle in and have a steep learning curve.

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