By Christine Song

Job vs Career: What Are You Working For?


Define your path to success.

Do you consider your current work to be your job or your career?

You might wonder what the difference is between these two seemingly similar words. Both essentially describe what you do for work or how you make a living in its simplest terms. But a job and a career are quite different, neither being good or bad, just different.

Some people fall into the work they do, while others manage to intentionally map their trajectory. In either case, if you want a career, but realize you just have a job right now, now’s the time to adjust and plan where you’re going to go from here.

What will you need to do to turn your job into a career?

The definitions of job vs career

A job is “a paid position of regular employment.”. When people think of themselves as having a vs job career, they think of their job as typically more one dimensional and doesn’t necessarily focus on growth or advancement over time.

One might have a job for many years with little or no change in the job description or duties. Or even if the role changes, your level of personal investment in it may not increase or decrease.

Your attitude about your job is completely personal and individual. For some, having a job that is simply to support one’s family or themselves brings satisfaction, fulfillment, and happiness. The consistency and stability of having a job is meaningful and completely rewarding.

It’s easy to write off the idea of just having a job, and not a career, because our culture places so much emphasis on deriving meaning and satisfaction from your work. But not everyone feels that way.

In addition, a job (or a series of jobs) can ultimately lead to a career or exposure to different career paths; it can be a way to start something on the ground level and build up. You never know when a job you just took to make a little extra money might turn into something you really care about.

On the other hand, a career is “an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress,” synonymous with a profession or occupation. A career is something you want to grow, advance, and develop over time. Career seekers think and plan out their long term career goals, and work to make them happen. They derive satisfaction and meaning from their work, and from advancing their work.

Building a career can take many years, if not a lifetime to achieve, so planning is important.

What do you have and what do you want?

If you have a job right now but you want a career, what can you do to change that? What’s your plan?

Knowing what you want and comparing it to what you have right now will help you gauge how far apart those two things are from each other. It can be tempting to make a huge leap when you suddenly realize you want to make a change in career path. But slow, steady, and logical will win the race.

Once you spot the gaps between where you are and where you want to be, you can come up with a plan to check each gap off your list to ultimately get closer to what you want.

1. Ask yourself some questions to help you identify the gaps.

Write down your answers as you go along, as the first step to creating your job vs career plan.

Is the sector your job is currently in related to or similar to the sector you want to be in for your career?  

If you answered yes:

  • Is your current job a stepping stone to advance to another job with more responsibility and how can it be a stepping stone? Even if your current job is in the same sector, you might not be close enough to your dream career. For example, if you work the front desk at a doctor’s office but dream about being a nurse, you are on a track acquiring skills that do not get you closer to a nursing career. Brainstorm ways in which you can take on more responsibilities or learn more, like taking classes or volunteering at a clinic where you can work more closely with patients.
  • Is your current job considered part of a professional track? Similar to the question above, you’re looking for gaps between what you have and what you want. If you want to be on a professional track to manager, but aren’t on that track currently, you need to take steps to change your course.

If you answered no:

  • Why do you have your current job? Think back to why you took your current job in the first place; this will remind you of where you started and why, because you likely had a good reason. Maybe you needed an income, took the first job you were offered in a new city, or you thought you wanted to do this work, but now realize this isn’t where you want to be. No matter the reason, you want to make sure that as you plot your new career, you are being deliberate and thoughtful, and not repeating old mistakes.
  • Do you qualify for jobs that you want to have in the relevant sector, that can move you forward in your career? Identify and make a list of jobs in the sector you want to be in. In compiling the list, pay particular attention to the education and experience requirements of job postings. If you don’t currently have the required experience, are there positions a step or two lower than your dream job that you could take now and then build from?

Can you advance your career within your current company?

  • What opportunities are there for growth at your company? Research available positions online and talk to those you work with or want to work with to see how frequently opportunities become available. Some companies may have opportunities for upward mobility, but if they’re full or there are only a few tightly held positions, these are red flags that advancing may be very competitive despite what looks like opportunities for growth.
  • Are there other companies in the same sector that support upward growth in your current role (lateral move)? If it’s competitive at your current company, what does it look like at other places? The goal here is to get a sense of whether it’s the same everywhere and just the nature of the particular position, or if you have more choices and opportunities elsewhere (nearby or further away).

Do you have the skills and experiences necessary for where you want to be, your ultimate career goal, or at least the next level up?

Whether or not your current job can be a stepping stone to future opportunities will hinge on having the educational background, experience, and skills necessary to get you that initial job for the start of your career. If you don’t already know what you need, now’s the time to do some research. Because if something is missing, it will likely hurt your chances of being considered for that job at the next level.

2. Look over your answers to the questions above.

You should have a better sense of where the gaps are between your current job and where you want to be. With this information, make a list of the things you need to do to close the gaps. For example:

  • Research advancement opportunities at your company. What does the career path look like and which jobs/positions do you need to advance up, up, and up? Maybe you’re an administrative assistant now, but it’s possible that with experience you can become a human resources assistant, then HR manager, etc.
  • Talk to your manager during an upcoming review about your career goals and ask what support is available, what you can do to improve, and/or how they can help.
  • Identify classes, certifications, or continuing education courses that will help you advance. What is the schedule for these items and when could you take them. Does your employer offer reimbursement?
3. Start to put together a timeline and goals for when you want to achieve each milestone.

If you need to complete a certification that will take you 9 months to complete, map it out so you can see that and set monthly goals to stay on track. Or maybe you need to have a certain number of years experience in one job before you can apply for and be considered for the next level up. Establishing your goals at this stage and mapping out a timeline will help keep you on track and feeling like you are truly working toward something.

4. Consider a backup plan and alternative career track(s) that will get you to the same place.

This can take some strategizing and creativity, but it’ll be worth it to plan for contingencies in advance. Companies go out of business, layoffs happen, but if you work on networking, familiarizing yourself with employers, and developing yourself, you’ve got a head start on overcoming various unplanned obstacles.

Turning your job into a career

There are many ways to get from point A to point B, and the transition from a job to a career can take time. But with your plan in hand, you can take yourself just about anywhere you want to go.