Finding Your Career Path: Are you a Sprinter, Wanderer, or Straggler?

Although exciting and important, finding your ideal career path can often be quite nerve-wracking and stressful as well. It is easy to feel like you are drifting in an unknown direction, despite the multitude of professional opportunities. More importantly, it is all too common to fall into the mindset that there is one and only one way to be successful in your occupation. But, as career satisfaction is a complex matter, there are often multiple ways to achieve success.

Having an awareness of your own personal approach can work wonders in increasing your confidence and directing your goals.

In his best-selling book, “There is Life after College” Jeff Selingo synthesizes current research on young adults, outlining three professional categories that they tend to fall in. Whereas each characterization has its own benefits and weaknesses, knowing where you stand on the spectrum can help you gain insight into planning your future career.

Image of six stick people running in the colors blue, green, and purple

Are you a Sprinter?
According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, young adults born in the early 1980s have had, on average, six different jobs between the ages of 18 and 26, and by their 27th birthday only 14 percent of college graduates had a job that lasted at least two years. Economists have further found that increased mobility in one’s 20s leads to higher earnings later in life. Sprinters fit this cohort of young adults perfectly: they act like rocket ships, speeding towards their careers and are hell-bent on success, no matter what the cost. They tend to have a clear idea of what they want to achieve, and they stick with it, assembling a progression of professional opportunities that look increasingly impressive. Consequently, they also tend to change jobs frequently according to their career visions. This approach to finding a career has many strengths: if planned well, it creates impressive opportunities, and can lead to much independence, confidence, and success.

However, the Sprinter lifestyle is not for everyone, and can even be a recipe for confusion and turmoil. Frequent transitions without the ability to move up in your job can be defeating, and student debt provides a real limitation to mobility and occupational flexibility. Also, in moving so fast into a career, it is all too common to not take the time to develop your interests, and explore what is truly the right career for you.

Are you a Wanderer?
Wanderers are not as quick and certain about their careers. Although they can bounce from job to job like Sprinters, they are often not as determined as Sprinters are to find a job and are more likely to work in a job outside of their field of study.

This can often be a strength: in a complex world/economy, jumping headlong into a career is not always the most alluring choice for a young adult, and taking the time to explore career path may lead to more fruitful options down the line. For example, many young adults decide to go back to graduate school for additional degrees in hopes of leading to a job that they are passionate about.

However, for some, taking this time can be limiting, and can even lead to a feeling that you’ve missed out on important career opportunities. Paradoxically, research shows that the bulk of wage increase in an adult’s career happens in the first ten years. So for a young adult who is not catapulting confidently into a career, exploration can seem more like fighting a riptide, with many young professionals remaining in jobs that they are overqualified for, jumping between disparate professional opportunities in hopes of striking gold, and also taking jobs that do not fall on their  educational path. Although messages like “keep your eyes on the prize” and “hold out for better opportunities in the future” are meant to be motivating, it is tempting to wonder how long this will take, and at what cost?

Are you a Straggler?
Perhaps the most frustrated cohort is that of the Straggler. They have tried several career options, and are still struggling to find a true path for them. Some have tried an alternate professional or career path, only to find that it was not what they expected. Some have decided to go back to graduate school in the absence of a clear mindset for a career path, and some are even struggling to find work. In a professional culture that tends to stress the “one size fits all” notion for career success, it can be hard to shed this mindset in order to explore what is truly right for you. Although it can be defeating to find that you have not succeeded in the path you set out for yourself, always remember that your educational or professional institution has resources for you to explore career paths, and it is never too late to begin this process.


Although these categories can seem hierarchical, there are logical steps people in each one can take to lead to success in their careers. For the Sprinter, although being successful may be easy, it might be necessary to take some time to reflect on what do I want, and what would be best for me, aside from prestige. For the Wanderer, it could very well be the opposite: if you see a job that you are interested in, go for it, because it could be a meaningful career step. And for the Straggler, it may be necessary to shed the occupational pressure of family and friends, and take the time necessary to find what is my true calling.

No matter the case, always remember that OITE Career Services is here to help if you are at the NIH. To schedule an appointment, simply go to https://www.training.nih.gov/career_services/appointments.

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