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Job vs Career: What's the Difference?

Posted on July 14, 2020
Image of a sign post (arrow shaped) on a steel pole with the title "Career"

When I talk with prospective students about our graduate offerings, I often find myself talking about career trajectories, and every so often, one will ask me – what is the difference between a career and a job? The quickest way to differentiate between a career and a job is that a career provides a pathway to growth and development over a period of time (usually years).

But the answer is a little more finessed than that. Let me step back and talk a little bit about my own career trajectory. When I graduated from college, I was hired by a local all-natural health and beauty product company. For me, it was not a stepping-stone on a path toward to something greater. I had no interest in the industry. It was just a job. I lasted six months. My next position was a means to getting accepted into a coveted bank training program, but when the program closed, that left me with a job. While there were growth opportunities, they were not ones I was particularly interested in. I could not see a long-term future.

I’ve been reading the book, Leadership: Step by Step by Joshua Spodex, and in the book, he refers to Peter Drucker’s parable of the three stonecutters, as presented in his 1954 book entitled, The Practice of Management. In the parable, a passerby comes across three stonecutters and asks what they are doing. The first stonecutter, referred to as the unhappy one, replies, “I am doing what it takes to earn a living.” The second, content one, replies, “I am a stonemason practicing my craft.” The last one, the overjoyed one, replies, “I am building the greatest cathedral in the land.” Drucker’s parable can be applied to the job versus career debate. The first stonecutter has a job, the second and third stonecutters have careers. Why? Both the content and overjoyed stonecutters have one thing in common, longevity. They intend to continue to be stonecutters for a long period of time. This helps them see the future. What we see in the third stonecutter, the overjoyed one, is a sense of purpose, which I believe is essential to a career. And it is why my first endeavors were nothing more than jobs – I had no sense of purpose.

A career is a series of jobs that create a trajectory, a propulsion with a forward momentum, providing one with opportunities for growth, development, and purpose. However, a career for one will look very different than a career for another. Here are examples:

What is considered a career?

Career Scenario I: The Inside Track

Mary is going to finish her degree, then get an entry-level job in the tech industry, such as an Associate Product Manager, then get promoted to Product Manager, and finally as the Chief Product Manager. She plans to stay at same company as she moves up the ladder.

Career Scenario II: The Strategic Stone Stepper

Kara has her sights set on becoming the CEO of a Fortune 500 Company. She earns her BA in Business and is offered an entry level position as a Financial Analyst at a major financial institution, where she stays for three years. She then returns to school and earns her MBA, upon which she is hired as Senior Management Consultant at another major financial institution. In two years she is promoted, and in five years, she takes a new position at a different major financial institution as a Vice President, and is later promoted to a Managing Director, and within three years she is offered the CEO position of a company she took public two years prior.

Scenario III: The Industry Apprentice Approach

Phil has always wanted to help people, so he is going to start his career with a job with the American Red Cross, so he can understand how the organization serves people in emergent situations, then he plans on working for Habitat for Humanity to better understand how the organization mobilizes volunteers to help others. While he may work at one or two other nonprofits, his final goal is to start his own nonprofit organization to help people in his community.

Can a job become a career?

In each of these scenarios, I have presented stable trajectories in which each job opportunity is part of a greater career path. In reality, for most of us, we get derailed at some point. There are many reasons plans get derailed, a promotion goes to someone else, a terrible or unsupportive manager, layoffs, partner move, and the list goes on. When life happens, we need to respond and sometimes we even have to take a job that is not part of our career plan, and that’s okay – it happens. Paying the bills doesn’t stop when life interrupts. If you find yourself in the position of taking a “job” that is not part of your overall career plan, work hard and do well until you can step back into your career trajectory. And most important, keep in mind that what may appear as a setback, may actually turn into an opportunity.

One last thing about a career – regardless of where you are on your career path, having a mentor can be of great benefit, especially when life does interrupt. A mentor can keep on track or help you to re-focus your attention. More specifically, a mentor will ask you why you are considering a new position and prompt you to think about how it fits in your overarching plan. And if you have what we’re determined to be a job, but want a career, there are plenty of resources available to you to assist you in finding the right career path for you. These resources include books, websites such as Live Career, school career centers, such as Steinbright Career Development Center (they offer a great tool called Career Navigator – available to the public), as well as community programs. Regardless of what resources you opt to use, a mentor is a great place to start.

Stay safe and healthy,

Anne Converse Willkomm Assistant Clinical Professor Department Head of Graduate Studies
Goodwin College
Drexel University
Posted in professional-development-career-tips