Before We Get Carried Away…
This is going to be a fun one… REAL fun. In fact, it’s likely to stir up some disagreement and that is OKAY! It’s not that one identifying as any one of the “labels” below is the career trap. Please, consider that statement one more time: “Identifying as any one of the ‘labels’ below is NOT a career trap.” What becomes a career trap is when someone following path finds themselves inadvertently removing options from furthering their path, hence removing degrees of freedom to what a clinician can do with their career over a lifetime. Now, if you’re drive is singularly excellent in a hyper focused niche, then that’s awesome! You’re not trapped because you’re doing exactly what you want to do, love to do, and are amazing at. However, if you want options… you might want to start by watching out for…..
1. The one who knows nothing else.
“The Clinical Specialist”
Believe it or not, yes… this can be a career trap —IF— you don’t have a plan. Most commonly, the clinical specialist gets trapped because the opportunity to be exposed to scenarios outside of their specialty becomes minimal or of general disinterest. As healthcare matures and the economy surrounding it evolves, it will likely favor clinicians who have the capability to shift; from setting to setting, from specialty to specialty, and many times from state to state. Just 3 or 4 years ago, there was a massive shift from nearly all settings into home health and we are still feeling those waves today. Presently, some have concerns about the stability of the SNF and home health market.
Another way the clinical specialist gets trapped is by getting promoted into management. Yes… one of the strangest things we do in healthcare is identify our best clinicians, move them into management — something they typically have little interest, skill, or training in… and, we turn them into “the enemy.” We give professionals who find themselves into this trap little feeling of choice, as management seems to be the only career progression available — hence, the trap happens under a seemingly positive circumstance.
These are just two possibilities of getting trapped as a clinical specialist; and, it happens because there is (1) no plan in place to remain clinically nimble in skill set, and, (2) no plans for advancement outside of management.
Escaping the Trap
Most clinicians who come into healthcare are usually motivated by clinical excellence, the patient experience, and a sense of professional duty. This is a fantastic place to be and is very much true to our roots. However, when roots don’t spread, a plant begins to struggle.
Escaping this trap is as easy as mapping out several long term career options you’d like to have available to you. As an example: Say a hypothetical sports/orthopedic clinician wishes to consider academia, consulting, and geriatrics are potential options down the road. With these three areas in mind, this hypothetical clinician should be making early attempts in connecting with guest lecturing and associate professorship opportunities, creating a footprint in an area of focus to position themself as a future content expert, and should be spending a few per diem days a month in geriatric settings while keeping up with literature, CEUs, and more importantly — networking with geriatric specialists in the field.
With these three parallel tracks closing in towards our example clinician’s long term aspirations, a few synergistic things are happening: (1) guest lecturing builds a personal brand and the necessary experience a required by academic institutions, (2) a digital footprint builds authority, and (3) networking helps with any future job transitions — as we all can appreciate, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” which will prepare our clinician to be better prepared for any changes that might (will) occur in the unforeseen future.
2. The one who never gets promoted.
“The Company Loyalist”
Now, we’re not saying to wake up tomorrow all angsty and go start a revolt. What we ARE saying is to thoroughly explore your current leadership chain, requirements of promotion, and history of career advancement within the company. Ask the questions: Is it dynamic? Growing? Innovating? If so…AWESOME. If not… ask yourself: Is it the same old story, over and over, again? Have the same managers been in the same positions for the last 10, 20… 30 years? Are the same supervisors the same as they were 15 years ago? Do the senior clinicians speak highly about the internal opportunities within the company?
Again. Avoiding career traps is all about having a PLAN.
Escaping the Trap
One of the most discouraging and disillusioning experiences for anyone is being an employee to a company for the best years of an early career… only to confront that awful feeling of “the company doesn’t care about me… doesn’t value me.” This can happen for a number of reasons, but if you’re happy with and loyal to the company you’re employed by with aspirations to move up the chain of command, FIRST REVIEW the conditions of promotions.
Then, consider making making smart lateral transfers within the organization as a way to demonstrate your internal track record. It’s also one of the most savvy ways of getting promoted within staff positions (typically denoted as levels, such as “PT 1 promoted to PT2,” or “Associate RN” to “Clinical RN” to “Advanced Practitioner” RN) before getting in line for a leadership role. Consider also the prerequisites of leadership roles as they vary from organization to organization, department to department, and setting to setting.
Some require experience within the company, others experience accrued within the industry, and some require management training or even credentials. Also, understand that being promoted outside of your organizations is one of the highest compliments a manager can pay… and, that homecomings are a fantastic way of moving up the chain of command by leaps and bounds.
Meanwhile, explore special projects, volunteering for committees, and program development as avenues to get up those rungs in a respectful way. HOWEVER, if you discover that your current chain of command along with the others that you’d qualify for have a lot of tenured staff who would first be in line… it just might be the case that this organization’s career lifecycles are not in line with your own — it’s time to move on and do so in the most humble, respectful and thankful fashion as you possibly can.
3. The one who can’t find satisfaction.
“The Job Hopper”
This trap commonly snag a clinician who never seems to move up in the chain of command, never settles down, and might be feeling chronically burnt out. Now, it’s not that there’s a placement of fault here — these are just common symptoms. Why? Usually, “the job” isn’t what causes the problem as much as “how the job is done” — and, the organizational culture surrounding these jobs. THAT, is what causes this chronic dissatisfaction for individuals lost in this career trap.
You may find that this clinician is a chronic job hopper because they are either too quick to move on from company to company, OR, have been saying “Yes” to the wrong organizations as they aren’t compatible with their priorities given the Six Dimension of Employee Compensation. Due to this cultural mismatch, the Job Hopper feels like their soul is being drained all the time. And, no matter where they go… there’s always something wrong with the place — and, it’s usually the people or the way things are being done. And, P.S. #TrustIssues.
Escaping the Trap
“Where your problems are, there you are.”
The escape from this career trap is found in understanding that change starts within, and, is caused by determined individuals in positions of influence. Many are dissatisfied because the change isn’t happening fast enough, or, working conditions are less than optimal (to put it kindly) — where explanations such as “that’s just the way our profession is…” IS NOT an acceptable answer.
STORY TIME: Early in my career, I definitely suffered from this. Now, this little share isn’t trying to depict the individual worker as the problem. Rather, it’s trying to show that if you’ve gone through half a dozen jobs and the same cluster of problems still exist, then you are the common denominator — and, the only thing you have control over and can effectively change… is YOU. Years ago, I had to come to grips with this. And, once I did… everything made sense.
As a former engineer, all I saw was the inefficiencies in healthcare. Despite being surrounded by daily wins and medical miracles, my mind was too focused on the negative — on what was wrong, on what needed fixing, on what should be better… on the injustice of it all.
Escaping this trap isn’t about letting things go. It’s not about giving up. It’s not about turning a blind eye. It’s about recognizing that there’s a time and place for everything. It’s about realizing that lasting change takes time. And, how ironically blind I was to that fact. After all, I told patients day after day about the “expected course of recovery” and how much variation there is person to person — that depending on the case and circumstance… it could take days, weeks, or months for the body to heal and for a patient to feel like themselves again.
So, back to the answer… the escape from this career trap: Be choosy about who you’re employed by, accept certain truths about the industry… and, if all else fails… the universe is pretty much telling you to start your own company!
It is pretty much that simple.
Deny your time and talent to organizations that don’t work the way you ethically feel found to, don’t practice the way you feel morally committed to, and don’t appreciate their workforce the way you wish to be appreciated. Fiercely advocate for employers who DO work in congruence with your convictions, and, strike up a dialogue on how you can grow with and grow into such organizations. AND, if such companies don’t exist within the circles of your life — CREATE YOUR OWN!
4. The one who can’t find themself.
“The Specialty Hopper”
We’ve all heard it said: “Jack of all trades, master of none.” Now, this trap isn’t necessarily trying to say that switching specialties or changing settings is a bad thing. In fact, in light of the trends in healthcare, having a multi-setting clinical background may actually be a smart thing to be working into one’s resume. No, the specialty hopper here isn’t hopping around because they wish to be well-rounded, loves all settings, or is prudently planning for agile maneuvering within healthcare as it evolves. This specialty hopper is jumping around because of one thing: They are lost!
Being lost isn’t always a condition that you don’t know where you are. Many times, being lost is a state of not knowing where you are going.
Escaping the Trap
Please don’t mistake the message here. Changing settings or specialty isn’t the trap. The trap is changing without a plan, without a goal, without a strategy… without a reason. And, it’s not that changing “just because” won’t work out for the better — it’s that jumping around specialties without a clear idea of what the career goal is may leave you out of options in just a short handful of years.
After all, that’s what we’re trying to avoid — “the trap” — a situation when careers find themselves out of options… or, at the very least, out of favorable options. So, let’s be clear: The trap here is that a clinician continually changes specialty such that they are unable to meaningfully develop their skill set to become expertly effective in any given setting — essentially never shedding the “new grad label” and failing to attain any marketable “experience” for the next opportunity.
Therefore, it’s not that being a generalist is bad or that we are discouraging a multi-specialty background. The issue is taken when a clinician makes shallowly planned career changes with frequent shifts in a small window of time; all to a point where one “loses their spot” in the proverbial line for promotion, fails to develop in depth as a clinician for ANY given specialty, and is essentially seen by most employers as “having floated around” with skills that have otherwise remained at “entry level.”
Now, if you wish to stay sharp in numerous settings, you can ALWAYS take up a per diem / PRN gigs outside of your primary place employment. There’s also a factor of self acceptance. It’s OKAY to want to do everything. You just have to realize that it’ll be a very non-traditional walk you’ll be taking and you will very likely receive some unkind regards for that…. and, so what? You do you!
Therefore, if your aspirations is building depth in diverse settings versus depth in a singular setting, boom — you have a plan! However, if your aspirations are rooted in clinical management or specialization, but you find yourself floating all over… you may have to discipline yourself to focus so you don’t find yourself without options down the line and out of the running before you even toss your hat into the ring. The theme should be crystal clear at this point: Have A Plan!
5. The one who never moves up.
“The Perpetual Middle Manager”
This one never moves up, never moves on. Sometimes, they get promoted by their superiors just to “get them out of the way.” This trap happens when a middle manager has been one for their entire career, and, it’s not usually because they are fantastic at it. It’s likely because they’ve maxed out their skill set and potential; or, have found a comfortable place to coast; OR… has been determined by upper management (and, sometimes executive management)… that they are in a position where they can do the least amount of damage.
As Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Lucius Fox said, its a … “Dead End.”
All too often, the bosses (secretly, or not so secretly) feel such middle managers do the least harm to the system in their current role. Therefore, they’ve been in that same position for ages not because they’ve excelled, but because they have effectively trapped higher levels of management from removing them, promoting someone who would be better in that role, and have yet to demonstrate levels of incompetence that would justify removing them from that middle management office. And, besides… promoting someone to effectively replace them would cause more problems — they’ve held onto too many secrets and would be a liability… etc. etc. etc.
Sound eerily familiar? Yeah… this happens a LOT of healthcare.
Now before we move on… I have to state the obligatory: “Yes…. yes…. yes… there ARE middle managers who choose to stay there, are doing fantastic, everyone loves them, and are conduits who vault their former juniors into executive roles above their own station. That’s rare. And, as we known in medicine, “what’s common is most common.” Moving on.
This career trap doesn’t just trap the middle manager who should coached, trained, and mentored — or, simply performanced out. This career trap effectively stifles all the great candidates “in line” to have their hand in a promotion; a glass ceiling, worst of its kind.
Escaping the Trap
To escape this trap, you need to first identify who you are in this scenario. Are you the middle manager? Or, are you the candidate patiently waiting their turn to take the helm? If you’re the middle manager stuck in this circumstance, it’s likely that (A) you have no clue, (B) you’ve been suspecting for some time but have little motivation to make a move (which is part of the problem, here), or (C) have just recently caught wind and are now trying to figure out if its worth your time and effort to dig yourself out of this situation. If you’re the candidate caught under this glass ceiling, it should be obvious — your manager has probably been the manager for several changes of management prior… and, they are still there.
FACT: Whatever you’ve been doing, obviously hasn’t been working. It’s time to make a change. In an incredible amount of similarity to “the one who never gets promoted,” this is a case of where a middle manager has already been promoted — sometimes more than once. But, now you’re stuck. Or, you are the one stuck under them. Regardless of who you are in this scenario, you NEED to make a change and it’s time to get your ducks in a row.
BECAUSE… it’s time to move out. This might be a lateral transfer, this might be leaving the present company as is… it might mean starting new from a different chain of a command.
It might be time to go “back to school.” And, I put that phrase in veritable air quotes in that it could very well be the case you need to go back to school for something like an MBA, MPH, or MHA. OR… it could be that you need to revisit what competencies you need to establish in order to actually move into upper management.
PS. If you’re interested in my perspective about getting an MBA as a clinician, you can check out that blog article – HERE.
Some Closing Thoughts
The thing is, career traps aren’t a problem until they are. That’s the way most traps work — they seem innocuous, irrelevant, and so far away from now. And, as it works with most traps, it springs when you least expected it, are least prepared for it, and when the timing couldn’t be worse.
The natural issue we keep seeing in healthcare is that clinicians are trained to be just that… clinicians. There is very little preparation in formal didactics, post-graduate studies, and even in the wild west of continuing education that makes way en masse for expansive career paths. If you’re interested in exploring more content on career mapping and the job market, consider joining us in our Job Market Pulse Facebook group — it’s free… no opt in, nada.