The Escalator Myth

Photo Courtesy of Adam Snood via Flickr

Photo Courtesy of Adam Snood via Flickr


If you’re going on the market this year, you’re facing some tough news.  The humanities numbers are dismal.  The number of jobs available in STEM fields aren’t much better.  As they do, every year, people ask why PhDs continue to apply to academic jobs when they face such long odds.  There are many answers to this question, but an issue that I see over and over again as a career counselor and coach is what I call the Escalator Myth.  The Escalator Myth keeps people in place, pursuing careers and jobs that might not be the best fit or lack significant opportunities.

The Escalator Myth is the belief that once we pick a career, it will, or should, move forward and upward in a consistent and predictable way. Much like stepping on an escalator, we "step into" a certain career.  And the escalator has only direction:  up or down.  Since we equate "down" with failure or lack of success, we try to move upward, taking promotions as they're offered to us.  If we make changes, which might mean a step sideways or even downward for a time, it's seen as proof of our failure.  In real life, we don't step off moving escalators until we get to the top or bottom; jumping from one moving escalator to the next is scary and dangerous.  The Escalator Myth encourages us to see our careers as a process of finding the one "right" career, and then, once we're on that escalator, doing our best to ride it to the top.

I have a friend who works in IT.  He's very good at what he does:  leading small teams of programmers on the ground, making sure projects get done.   Because he's good at what he does, he was offered a larger management role in one of the organizations where he worked.  But this job turned out to be much more administrative and strategic, taking him away from the work he actually enjoys doing and is good at.  His days were spent in meetings not writing code.  His confidence shrank and his performance suffered while his motivation dropped.  But the Escalator Myth kept him in place:  after all, wasn't management the next step up for his career to grow? He'd be stupid to go back being a programmer, right?  Fortunately, my friend recognized that success isn't just about taking a promotion, and he found the courage to ask his manager to return to his previous role.  He's been happy and successful in the programming roles he's had ever since.

PhDs are vulnerable to the Escalator Myth: we spend years training to become scholars and then, if we’re lucky enough to earn a tenure-track position, we’ll spend another 4-6 years earning tenure.  The investment of time and economic resources are huge, and we expect to spend a long time on that escalator. Plus, our career role models and mentors are not likely to have made many career changes because of the process of earning tenure.  When I took my first non-academic job, I got pushback from well-meaning friends and family.  They wondered why I would “give up” if I had already invested so much time in this career.  Combine this outlook with the sunk-cost fallacy, and it’s no wonder so many PhDs spend time on the market even if the odds are against landing a tenure-track job.

Change over the course of a career lifetime is actually pretty common.  This longitudinal study, which followed young baby boomers for thirty-five years, found that the participants held an average of 11.9 jobs over the study’s lifetime.   So we should expect that we’ll change jobs and, even careers, over the course of our working lives multiple times.  But job change is hard.  It forces us to reexamine our priorities and goals, to confront scary questions.  We wonder if we’ll be able to find #altac work that’s fulfilling or even be able to find work at all. Starting over in a new field can feel frustrating and humiliating.  But we shouldn’t let fear keep us from trying something new if the old thing isn’t working anymore.

Before I became a recruiter for a non-profit, I spent a month there working as an HR Assistant. As an HR Assistant, I was paid less and had fewer responsibilities than my previous role. It was a tough transition. But being the HR Assistant allowed me to learn a lot about the field quickly.  And I was a much more competitive candidate for the recruiter role than I would have been without that experience.

In that transition, I struggled with the Escalator Myth.  I was supposed to move up in my career not down.  And up should have meant a job title with more money and more responsibility.  But the reality is that change both closes doors and opens up new opportunities. Transitioning into HR and recruiting gave me a new skillset and probably opened new doors for me.  Time will tell.

Our jobs and careers will not always unfold in predictable ways.  Over the course of a lifetime, our careers may look more like rivers, wandering though wetlands, than an escalator.  Our interests, values, and skills evolve and change over the course of our lives, why shouldn't we expect our careers to evolve too?