* As Published in the Fall 2010 Edition of Inspire Magazine and in the October 2007 Honor Cord published by Phi Theta Kappa. (Honor Cord files may be archived and users may need to contact the PTK publisher for updated link information)
People who come to mental-health counseling often bring with them a long list of unsatisfactory life events (past and present). Career and income are sometimes among the undesirables. Dissatisfaction in a career can certainly be one indicator of a mental-health issue, but more often it is something that happens when hopes and dreams intersect with reality.
To be sure, many factors can affect satisfaction levels in a career. Your values, goals, and personality matter, just as do things such as the company’s size, the work environment, and management styles. Of course, the paycheck is a big factor. Some would argue that a passion for the work is a bigger consideration. Either way, shifts in career satisfaction occur, and they do so at relatively consistent times and usually in predictable patterns.
New Jobs/Old Job
Common shifts in career satisfaction can be understood in the following two examples: there are satisfaction considerations in the new career just as there are in the long-standing career. In the case of a new job, you might at first experience what appears to be a heightened sense of job satisfaction, which actually might result from a sense of accomplishment in acquiring the new position, particularly in a competitive market. Conversely, if you are a seasoned veteran who has worked for ten, fifteen, or twenty-five years in the same position, you might expect more of a struggle in finding satisfaction, particularly compared to what it felt like when the job was still very new to you.
Regardless of whether the job is new or old, expectations can play one of the biggest roles in job/career satisfaction levels. What you anticipate, believe, hope for, or expect in a career will influence “happiness” as your expectations become reality (or if they do not).
Buyer Be Aware
A good analogy in connecting expectations and career satisfaction might be something similar to what happens after you buy a new car. If you are like most people, you will begin the process by looking around at the cars that are on the market. As you get an idea of the cost, you probably will adjust your “likes” and “dislikes” (depending mostly on your pocketbook). Eventually (if you are not buying on impulse, that is) you will buy the car. And for quite awhile “life is good” — how long depends on a number of things.
But, inevitably as the “new car feeling” begins to wear off, the perceptions of the car change; interestingly, the perceptions of the car may change even as the car itself does not. And in a matter of time, almost as if it happened suddenly, you might realize that you just don’t like the car as much as you did when you first bought it. The “honeymoon” timeframe is as different as people themselves.
Careers can go through a similar process. Career paths and goals begin a lot like car buying. People usually look at the jobs that they find exciting (some even make their choice in childhood). Later, they find out what the earnings potential is (sort of like getting the best car for the price). Once the career is perceived to be desirable and the income level is anticipated, the educational/credentialing requirements are sought. And assuming that a college degree is necessary, most people pursue a career dream with some expectations for outcomes.
But what happens when the potential, the perceived, the anticipated, the sought, and the pursuit do not match the actual career or job? Imagine, for example, if you started your college career seeking the degree that you believed would provide for a most wonderful set of circumstances: a thirty-hour work week, a Monday through Thursday schedule, all evenings and weekends off, and an $80,000 a year salary. “Life IS good,” huh? But then imagine that after college, you begin the job search, and in the market you start to realize that you will need to adjust your likes and dislikes a bit (sounds like car buying, doesn’t it?). After some compromise, from the expected to the reality, you find that you begin your career at the lower rung of the career ladder — working six days a week, some evenings and weekends required, at a $39,000 a year salary — with the potential for a future earnings package that is much more lucrative. The belief and the facts, at least in this example, are not congruent.
Are the expectations wrong? Is the career choice a mistake? Maybe.
Dreams and Realities
A career, very much like life, can be very satisfying, not based solely upon the choice itself, but based primarily upon the earlier expectations that precede the ultimate and realized choice. When dreams and reality are equally matched, the degree of satisfaction can easily be linked and contrasted to the level and degree of earlier expectations. The closer an anticipated dream is to the eventual reality is also the degree to which satisfaction can be measured.
Sometimes a lower career expectation makes anything that is better than the expectation “gravy,” so to speak. The gravy is not always in the pocketbook. If you hoped to change the world, some change might just be the bonus you were looking for; if you hoped to become wealthy, one step up the ladder might just be the exact bonus, at the right time.
The irony of having a lower expectation now, for the sake of a higher satisfaction later, is rooted in understanding what is reasonable and what is not. The irony of it all is this: your career choice, hope, and dream, if it is grounded in reasonable expectations, might end up being out of this world; yet don’t forget, it also may not.
A practical way to help align expectations with careers is to do something you have probably been told to do a million times before: your homework. Before you set your expectations, you might consider talking to people who currently work in the field you are considering. You also might do web searches (search for salary calculators and compare), speak to college instructors (many are experts in their particular area of academic teaching), and look at the classifieds.
Whether it’s money or passion (or both), expectations will affect your career satisfaction.