Career planning and changing paths

Do you ever feel like we get mixed messages about planning careers? Much of the advice I’ve been given about careers and postgraduate study is contradictory. This experience is what prompted me to apply to work with WiPF-- I want more young women to know about our career interviews and workshops.
I’ve read countless blogs about how it’s ok not to rush into a career, and how we’re likely to change careers at least once. Yet, at university, it was made clear to me that choosing a path early on gives you an advantage -- at careers events, employers and successful alumni recommended choosing a ‘niche’ and getting relevant experience as early as possible.
Searching for jobs online, I’ve noticed that person specifications for entry-level jobs can be prescriptive. In Europe, you’re usually required to have an MA, previous experience in a similar organization, deep knowledge of a region or a track record of using a specific skill. In the U.S., the foreign-policy community has become self-selecting, as having a prestigious Masters or Ph.D. is now a necessity.

Where does this leave those who've changed their minds or those who took time out to explore options? They may be perceived as less passionate about pursuing their chosen career. I’m inspired by those who, over many years, have shown dedication to their chosen field. Still, we should be able to recognize their achievements without devaluing others’ non-linear routes to employment. Expecting people to gain their skills in a specific area will make foreign policy less diverse.
I have friends did a second postgraduate degree after realizing that they had been following the wrong path, but making this change was costly. In the UK, we’ve seen a sharp drop in mature and part-time students. Many women, particularly those with children, are not in a position to quit a full-time job to go back to university or take up a low-paid traineeship.
If you’ve delayed your career or changed path, you can end up feeling like you’re not where you should be. Last year, I volunteered at an NGO (which is not an option that is open to everyone, of course). Most of the other volunteers were older than me but they were happy with their decision to take time to build up experience. I found their attitude refreshing. However, we knew there was pressure to reach career milestones by a certain point, like the successful women working there had done.
From reading our interviews, it may seem that many of the women decided what they wanted to do early on, even before university -- but what we read is only part of their story. Everyone takes detours and gets some rejections. Even with a plan, you can’t predict where you’ll end up.
We’re privileged to be in a position where our careers are a primary concern, but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn't talk about career anxiety. The process of deciding what to do in life is stressful, and more so for those without access to good advice. I hope that having honest conversations like these will help women, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, make choices which will help them get where they want to be.
If you’ve changed careers and now work in foreign policy, or if you’re having difficulty making a career move, emails us back. We'd love to hear your story!

Lucy Lavery is a newsletter coordinator at Women in Foreign Policy.