Closing Career Doors

specialized jobsDo you close career doors when you take a specialized job?  How do you decide if it’s worth the risk of closing doors behind you?  Reader A wonders:

How to decide when you are at a career crossroads, if a great opportunity comes up, but it might close doors. (My best friend just got a great offer to run a $50MM business, but it’s an area that peripheral to her primary area of expertise, solar/wind, so she’s worried about LT ramifications, even though she’d expand her skillset.) What factors are important when you are opening one door and closing another?

Great question, Reader A.  We’ve talked about pros and cons to changing careers, how to change careers, and how to use LinkedIn to secretly investigate a new career — but we haven’t talked about closing career doors by taking a specialized job.  I’m really excited to hear what the readers have to say about this one, since obviously I’ve taken a career path (media law to fashion blogging) that has diverted me, a bit, from my original career path.

Here’s my $.02:  I don’t actually think doors are closed, even if you leave the career entirely.  Maybe I’m naive, but I think that if you keep up your contacts, stay up on the news in your original area, and — when you’re looking — express specific interest, skills, and talent for the job that’s open, you have a good shot.  I think particularly where you leave for a peripheral area, you’re still building important skill sets that are related to the original field.

I think it’s also important to note that nothing is entirely what it seems — the “general” job may leave you with knowledge that’s too specialized to be of broad use.  For lawyers, for example, if you stay in a “general practice,” you may spend years working on a specific case (or a few) that has very specific knowledge or a specific fact pattern associated with it.  You’re still learning how to research and argue, of course, but you’re not getting hugely general business knowledge. On the other hand, if you take a job in house for a company, yes, you’ll deal with things related to that specific industry (let’s say, the price fluctuation of widgets) but also general concerns (such as board members, employee drama, and managing outside counsel when you’re sued for colluding on the price of widgets).  So your breadth of experience is actually wider after taking the seemingly smaller job.

Finally, don’t forget the adage about God opening a window when life shuts a door — the idea being that if you go from Market X to Market X-sub-1, you may also find that Markets Y and Z are now open to you — even if X is closed.

The ONLY place I might be wary is if you’re leaving a stable industry for an industry that might collapse entirely. I would worry that whatever “new” skills you’re gaining would be soon obsolete, and worse, if the entire industry really does crash, the market will be flooded with people with similar skillsets, and your networking contacts might shuffle dramatically.

Two interesting posts on this topic (with differing viewpoints):

Readers, what do you think — when looking at your long-range career plans should you be wary of narrowing your focus, or changing careers entirely?  How do you evaluate it when you come to crossroads like this? 

Pictured: Gwoeii / Shutterstock.

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Comments

  1. This is really interesting to me, because I think that law is so broad that sometimes I want to try a different specialty within law (say, international instead of environmental), but it just seems so risky. I like what I do, but I want to stretch. Has anyone done this successfully, and later regretted it?

    • Diana Barry :

      I am curious about this too. I haven’t seen anyone switch specialties except as a second-year associate, or so.

      • I have seen folks go from corporate to lit and vice-versa, but usually before their third or fourth year. If it’s later than that, people seem willing to take a “years haircut” to be billed out (and paid) cheaper in order to convince biglaw employers that they are serious about making the switch. This was very common in the 2009-2012 range, when people stayed in biglaw even if they were in a specialty they didn’t want–the job market was so bad that you just sucked it up, but some folks were pretty adamant about making a switch happen as soon as they could lateral or convince a staffer.

    • Anonattorney :

      I’ve seen a few more experienced lawyers switch specialties within the law. First, I’ve known a few senior associates who transitioned from a litigation practice to a transactional practice. It put them behind a few years on the partnership track, but it worked out fine in the end. Second, within litigation, I’ve known several older, established attorneys who successfully transitioned into entirely different areas of law. BUT, they had trial experience, so they were able to leverage that experience into the new specialty area.

      I’m sure it depends entirely on what the specialty is, how many skills are actually transferable, and whether there are natural transitions between your current practice and the new area you want to get into. If, for example, you could start looking at international environmental issues, you could facilitate a good transition into the new practice.

      Anyway, those are my thoughts.

    • I’ve known a number of attorneys who have changed specialties. There was usually, though not always, something to “link” the specialties – like one type of administrative/regulatory practice to another; or a federal practice to a related state practice. But I know a couple who’ve just started from scratch too.

    • I switched practice areas after year one to move to a new city (not hard at all to transition), and recently switched practice areas again after year 5.5. I switched because the practice area I took on in new city wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it was 2009 and I was glad to have a job where I wanted to land. I quickly picked up the new practice area and was offered partner (mid-law) right before I left. I don’t see the practice area as sustainable long-term, so I decided to make the jump anyway. I like my new area much better (completely unrelated to old area), but what “they” don’t warn you about it the hit to ego. I’m lucky that I didn’t have to take a salary hit (b/c of trial experience etc. like someone noted above) but not being the go-to information person, having a “boss” again, and just generally being unsure about everything is an adjustment. All temporary, of course, but things to consider when making a move.

  2. I agree with your comment about those doors not really being closed – especially within a 2-3 year time frame.

    About 5 years ago, I left my area of expertise to go work on the periphery of my field, and then returned 2.5 years to a big promotion in my original division. All within the same (large) company, but even so, my initial move was so strange that nobody from my old group even knew the new job existed, much less what I’d be doing or how it could be relevant.

    Where I’d hesitate: moving to an area that’s contracting rather than expanding. That’s always awkward and produces a lot of weird coworker behavior like information hoarding. It’ll make your time there more difficult, and it will be harder to succeed. Success may mean networking – but if travel budgets are limited, good luck with that. In the end, it could be hard to get out under those circumstances.

  3. Interesting topic. I definitely agree that titles/roles can be deceiving in terms of how specialized you are. However I don’t think I agree with Kat on the point that doors don’t actually close when we shift fields. I think sometimes they really do. Sustained contacts, being up on relevant news, and being interested and talented are things that don’t easily come through in the first round of applications, especially when your resume alone is being scanned. At that point, you either show recent experience or you don’t, and many employers will summarily throw out the latter group even if it’s just to thin the pool. In a way this is similar to the problems SAHMs sometimes face when trying to “on-ramp.” They may be perfectly qualified, but not get the chance to prove it.

    I don’t think it makes sense to turn any direction at a career crossroads unless you’re ok with the way you see it leading–as opposed to banking on the ability to backtrack.

    • I agree. Not to say it can’t be done, but I think it’s infinitely harder to get back to where you once were depending on how far afield you go.

  4. Meg Murry :

    I can’t tell from the way the letter is written whether solar/wind is the original field of expertise, or the new field, but it is a field I am familiar with, so a few points regarding that:

    -The solar/wind industry goes through huge ups and downs depending on whether there are any tax incentives for it at the moment. Right now, federal tax incentives regarding solar/wind have expired, although there may be state ones. If there aren’t any in her state, or they will be sun-setting soon- now is probably the time to get out of solar/wind, not into it.
    -At the end of the day, “green energy jobs” are still just energy jobs. Installing solar panels and wind turbines are still construction jobs requiring knowledge of roofing, electrical work and pouring foundations. Selling solar panels or wind generators isn’t all that different than selling any other widget. In our region, companies that have started as “green energy” companies have quickly folded, because there isn’t enough business to make sense to just do green energy, while traditional companies are able to expand into green energy fields have done much better since they already have the expertise mentioned above.

    Also, don’t forget that closing doors isn’t a one-way thing. If the OP’s friend doesn’t take the new offered position, she may be closing that door, at least for the moment, if not permanently. So where does she see more doors opening in the future – in her current industry, or the new position?

    • Solar/Wind are her areas of expertise. She would be moving away from those fields toward another marginally-related sustainability-type industry, which is nascent.

      • Meg Murry :

        Well, a nascent field has risks all of its own that she should consider. Does being on the cutting edge of new technology exite her? What about the risks and headaches that could go along with it? Cutting edge can be exiting, or it can be the same old bean counting/widget selling with an extra layer of headache. And if its such a new field, where did the $50MM number come from? Is that projections, or what the company really actually took in? Ive seen some really amazing renewable energy companies, and I’ve also seen some with crazy overenthusiastic projections with wildly overstated assumptions – some due to over enthusiasm, others due to baldfaced lying.

        This sounds like an exiting opportunity for your friend, but also a good time for her to listen to her gut regarding red flags. Is she really just nervous about stepping out of her current filed/comfort zone? Totally understandable, and worth thinking about. But if its more than just that, I’d definitely suggest she look at her risk tolerance, and also get an opinion from someone else in (but possibly on the edges of) the renewable energy field as to whether a move to this company would be a good long term move.

  5. I think this advice applies less and less the more technical your field. I left my original engineering specialty and could not break back into that field without probably going back to school, or at least studying up on it again. Kat’s points about board members and employee drama being applicable anywhere are of course true- but I haven’t used, say, non-Newtonian fluid flow equations, in my work in years. It’s just not something that comes up outside of certain engineering positions.

  6. I am in a very similar situation right now. I have decided to go from a general job to a more specialized area. I was initially wary of making the jump, but once I thought it through, I am going to be much happier in a smaller company where I can make an impact than I have been as a cog in a large corporation. It will be a step up position wise, I will get more management experience under my belt, and the company is rapidly growing. I feel like these skills will be more valuable to a future employer than it would be to continue to get more general knowledge, and I would have to wait for many more years until I can get the same type of responsibility with my current employer.

  7. This is a question I think a lot about. I left private practice to become a career law clerk for a federal judge. By definition, then, my position is essentially infinite, and frankly I’d be happy with that. It’s a dream job. But, my husband and I don’t want to stay in this city forever. It might be five years from now, but we want to move when all our circumstances allow. And I worry a lot that I won’t be marketable in the legal field anymore, having “leaned out” from active practice. I do fear that I have closed a lot of doors by stepping out of practice. I can certainly make a great case for myself—I’m certainly still gaining & exercising lots of useful skills—but it’s not an obviously easy sell to transition back into a “real” law job.

    • Senior Attorney :

      I was a “permanent” law clerk for a state Court of Appeals justice after leaving private practice because I was totally burned out and wanted to spend some time with my family before my son was grown and gone. At the time I thought I was committing career suicide and I’d never be heard from again, but lo and behold it opened doors that led some years later to a great new “real” law job in an area I’d never really considered when I was in private practice. My number one takeaway from that experience was that life is long, careers are long, and there’s often something awesome around the corner even if you can’t see it.

      • “life is long, careers are long, and there’s often something awesome around the corner even if you can’t see it”

        Boom, question answered.

  8. Its interesting that you post this: I had a horrible time getting out of criminal law and finally (after a very long story) landed a non-law contract position with a federal agency. And now, because of my criminal law experience, I’ve been approached with an opportunity to go and be a federal agent for the agency (its an OIG).

    On one hand, I wanted out of criminal work… on the other, being an agent could be fun. Do I want to throw the attorney thing out the window completely (though I never made any money, had any job security or got treated decently as an attorney) or do I want to keep beating on that dead horse?

    Special agent jobs are sought after and, if I don’t like this agency, I can switch to another OIG (really, any 1811 job that goes through FLETC): but, do I really want to carry a gun and possibly hang around with knuckle-dragging super-tough guys for the next 20-30 years? And what if I don’t like the federal agent thing, would I be able to do anything except criminal work after that?

    Yikes! Any thoughts from the hive?

  9. I am so there! I left the practice of law for a position as Director of Alumni Relations and Development at my alma mater. I still wake up at night worrying that *if* I ever wanted back in the practice of law, I have shut that door (especially because I was only out of law school a couple of years before I took this position). I took this position because the hours are steady and I can spend more time with my daughter. It isn’t the most mentally stimulating position, and I usually get treated like a 2nd class citizen by other attorneys, but for now, I am happy with my decision.

  10. Very interesting discussion. And I want to say THANK YOU for enforcing a ban on threadjacks because I’ve found it very frustrating in past discussions.

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