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What to do when you’re stuck in a career rut

If you’re feeling like your career is not advancing in the way you’d like, try implementing these four techniques.

What to do when you’re stuck in a career rut
[Photo: Zhu Liang/Unsplash]

What song do you hear in your head when you wake up in the morning? Is it something uplifting that gets you ready for a new day? Or the lyrics to that Pink Floyd song “Time”? And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you.

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If so, you might just be stuck in a career rut.

Not everyone wants a career marked by advancement. Many people use their job as a way to engage with other people, to pay the bills, or to subsidize the activities that really feed their soul. But if you’re interested in progressing in your career, then you should feel that your job enables you to learn new skills and to encounter new people that will prepare you for your next position.

If you feel you’ve learned all you can from your current position, there are several things you can do to get yourself unstuck—even without looking for a brand-new position.

Ask for more

Look around your workplace. Who seems to get plum assignments? Who gets asked to take on new responsibilities? You might think that leaders in organizations are thinking long and hard about who should be selected for these roles. Sometimes there is an extensive selection process. More often, though, the people who get asked are the ones who come to mind when the leader is thinking about a task that has to get done.

That means you need to help yourself be a person who leadership thinks about when assigning new projects. It turns out that you don’t have to do anything devious to be top-of-mind for the leaders. In fact, the most effective thing you can do is to ask for some more responsibility. In general, leaders of organizations are busy, and so they may not be able to evaluate all the likely candidates for a job that needs to get done. When you volunteer to take on something new, you’re putting yourself into the pool of people who will get considered. That’s a great start.

Say “yes” more often

Of course, you’re probably really busy at work. Most organizations don’t have a lot of spare capacity, so you are likely to have a full-time job’s worth of work to do already. So, when someone comes along with yet more responsibility, you might be tempted to decline.

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If a supervisor asks you to do something that many other people in the organization could do just as well, then declining might be the right thing for your sanity. But if you get asked to do something cool—particularly if it will help bring you to the attention of other leaders in the organization—say “yes.” You can figure out how to fit the new responsibility into your stack of work later.

If you’re not sure whether a particular assignment is one that will make you more visible, then ask for advice from mentors you trust in the organization. When I was a graduate student, for example, my adviser suggested to me that I always review papers for journals when asked early in my career. The idea was that it is hard to get prominent researchers to read something you have written, but if you write good reviews of papers, then people who have risen to the level of being journal editors will read what you write.

Meet new people

Part of the difficulty of escaping a career rut is that you probably spend a lot of your workday hanging out with other people in your own department. Much of the work you see other people doing is similar to what you have on your plate. It can be hard to figure out how to move forward when everyone around you seems stuck on the same treadmill.

That’s why it’s important to expand your social circle. If you work for a large organization, see if there are affinity groups or events that would enable you to interact with people from other areas of the company. You can also look beyond the confines of your company and find meetings of local networking groups or professional societies. (Even during the pandemic, many organizations are having regular virtual meetings with time set aside for members to engage with each other.)

Seeing the work world through other people’s eyes is a way of expanding your own horizons. You may find that there are jobs you hadn’t considered before or other positions in the organization that seem exciting. The career paths of other people can often be inspiring.

Take more classes

Finally, if you are not learning new things in your job, you need to find other sources of new skills. Many organizations offer a yearly education benefit that can be used for degree programs or nondegree classes and seminars. If you haven’t been taking advantage of that benefit, you’re missing out on something important. Many colleges and universities have excellent programs that will teach you additional skills. You don’t need to enter a degree program. Many of these classes can be taken a day at a time or bundled together to get a certificate.

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There are also a lot of excellent programs that can be taken online that you can watch either synchronously or asynchronously. Rather than doing random internet searches, though, ask your colleagues what classes they have enjoyed and sample them yourself.

Not only do these classes improve your knowledge and ability—they bring you together with other people who are improving their skills. Networking with those people can also be inspirational and help you get out of your professional rut.

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