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The Importance of Developmental Career Stages and Embracing Change

by Ellen Fink-Samnick MSW, ACSW, LCSW, CCM, CRP on 08/20/18

It is that time of year when I embark on my coveted role as college professor. For the last fifteen years I have proudly served as an adjunct faculty member for George Mason University’s College of Health and Human Services, primarily the Social Work Department. During the first class I ask my students their career interests, with most presenting their entire career trajectory. Of course, 37 years ago when I was queried by professors about my professional direction, I also conveyed a career set in stone. At that point I had no idea how fluid our health and behavioral health industry would be. I had not yet learned that powerful lesson of how the career choice of today would likely be gone by tomorrow!


The Only Constant is Change

I graduated with an innate desire to be a clinical social worker, specializing in counseling with children, adolescents and families. I took every course focused on the knowledge required to achieve my career goal; from engagement and interviewing of diverse clients, to assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. I attended professional trainings in the community, plus joined my professional association. I graduated ready to rock the therapy world, but soon found myself amid a sea of competition from various social work programs. After several months of seeking the job of my dreams, I accepted a position in the last place I ever wanted to work; a hospital. I had bills to pay and could wait no more for my passion position. For the meantime I would delay my career plans and embark on this paying, yet slightly altered occupational path.


I was shocked at how much I loved my job!  I worked at today’s equivalent of a Safety-Net hospital; high psychosocial needs, populations pre-disposed to every Social Determinant known, and limited financial resources. Assigned to Pediatrics, the Emergency Department, and a Medical Surgical unit there was vast opportunity to engage and grow my clinical skills with individuals, families, groups, and the community overall. Then came a moment of pause. 


Three years after graduation I was finally offered the job I hoped for upon receiving my MSW; as an outpatient therapist for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at a large public teaching hospital. I grabbed the position as if it was the brass ring, though failed to consider how I was no longer that new grad.  Within weeks I missed the energy of the inpatient hospital. Doing therapy in an office bored me to tears. I watched with envy as my colleagues dialogued about the intricacies of client dynamics, medication management, and the intentional choice of treatment intervention. I was interested, though uninspired. I hung in there thinking I was being impatient and had to allow myself time to adjust to the new role and setting. My evaluations and supervisors assessed my work as exemplary, though I was unmotivated. Sunday nights would bring that inner dread from having to return to the clinic on Monday morning. After two years, I was offered a promotion to supervisor for inpatient adult pulmonary medicine. I accepted the position and was quickly back in my groove.


That was 32 years ago, and while I never looked back, it was far from the end of my career journey. If you asked me then what I would be doing for the rest of my career, I would have said, “I’ll be Director of Social Work for a large teaching hospital.”.  Little did I know how much the industry would continue to change. Professional case management was swiftly emerging. Several years later I moved to another region of the country, where case manager roles in hospitals were abundant. Yet, with social workers not the primary job candidates for these positions, it took me eight months to find a job despite my experience. I was told I could easily find a role in an outpatient clinic once I obtained clinical licensure in my new home state; a fate worse than death as far I was concerned.  I had to revise how I marketed myself, considering the competencies I brought to the case management table, such as advocacy, assessment,  team facilitation and collaboration. Within a month I was offered a case manager position by a nurse who sought an assertive, self-assured, social worker for her newly formed Case Management department. Again, I was faced with an unexpected path to a new career stage.


Eleven years later I felt like my job no longer defined me; a thought I never considered in graduate school. Now the Director of Case Management, Quality and Risk Management, I felt the need to effect change on a grander scale. The workforce presented as worn and tired, and I wanted to empower my colleagues in arms as I had empowered clients and their families for decades. After careful thought and guidance from a professional coach, I embarked on yet another new career path to create my own business;  a journey I discuss in a prior blog. It was a professional direction I never expected to go, but one that has stimulated and stretched me in more ways than I could have ever anticipated.


Developmental Career Stages: Models and Needed Emphasis

What have I learned from my experiences? Emphasis in Health and Human Services education is placed on the developmental life stages. Students across disciplines learn about the key milestones attained as individuals mature through infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (young, middle, and older).  However, practitioners equally go through developmental stages that advance their professional maturation. These stages have been a part of career planning for decades, though are not consistently addressed during college education, and must be. Students enter degree programs feeling pressured to declare their academic major, as well as define their entire career path. The pressure only amps up by graduate school. Needed career path adjustments can come from many factors, as changes in the job market or sudden life events. The workforce is less than prepared to deal with them.


One of my proudest parent moments came when my son visited colleges of interest.  During a group tour led by the school’s Director of Admissions, students were asked their major. When his turn came, my usually reserved, then 17 year old boldly looked over at his father and I then stated, ‘I’m undecided’. He was the last student (of 30) to go, and the only one to claim this unique status; we beamed.


A number of models address career evolution from a developmental perspective. One of the foundational paradigms is Super’s Developmental Career Model. It includes key tasks defined across distinct developmental life stages:

·       Growth(ages 4-13):children develop capacities, attitudes, interests, and form an understanding of the work world.

·       Exploration(ages 14-24):adolescents entering the work world attempt to understand themselves and find their place.

·       Establishment(ages 25-44):young adults strive to secure their initial position and pursue chances for further advancement.

·       Maintenance(ages 45-65):a period of continual adjustment for adults to hold on, keep up, and update their competencies.

·       Disengagement(over age 65):the final stage, with transition out of the workforce.

Some experts have challenged the age ranges make the model appear dated, as many students no longer follow a traditional academic or occupational pathway. As a result, it is common to see Super’s model presented with the stages only and without those age delineations.  


While Super’s model also includes the integral component of developing an individual self-concept, other modern models focus on a more natural evolution of the career process. Individuals can change careers as often as five to seven times in a lifetime; not an exaggeration in our industry. It is imperative that career management be viewed as an essential life skill to master. I applaud the following Six Stage model. The cycle can re-occur over time:

·       Assessment:Preparing for life’s work by taking assessment instruments, working with a career coach.

·       Investigation:Researching the world of work, conducting interviews with people in your chosen field; may have feelings of confusion about the best career path/options.

·       Preparation:Gaining knowledge, experience, and setting goals to assure a success-oriented mind-set.

·       Commitment:Conducting a job search, negotiating and accepting an offer.

·       Retention:Possessing comfort in a chosen field, with career commitment demonstrated by staying current with industry standards of practice, plus new skill acquisition.

·       Transition:Some unease due to a need to transition/make a conscious change in career direction; fosters resiliency.


Given my own career trajectory, the Six Stage model resonates loudly. Truth be told, I have experienced five career changes so far. I now talk openly with students and other professionals about acknowledging the value of developmental career stages. Each year finds me open to exploring new opportunities, such as adding virtual webinars or even embarking on this blog, as I did earlier in the year. There are many things one can’t account for in their career, but know this:  the industry will change and you must be both open and prepared to change with it.  




Until next time...Stay Resilient!  


Comments (4)

1. Anne Llewellyn said on 8/20/18 - 12:03PM
Great article. I think the key to career stages is embracing change, keeping your eyes and ears open for opportunities and being ready when they come. As professionals we are trained in 'basics' the rest comes with lif experiences. Seize the day!
2. Ellen Fink-Samnick said on 8/20/18 - 12:13PM
I appreciate your enthusiasm and validation of the importance of the career stages. Weaving the basics, with life experience is a challenge but so very vital. I've been known to tell my students, our professional realm is comprised of 3 legs of a stool: theory, practice, plus reality! All are essential to career excellence .Carpe Diem is correct, Anne!
3. Lois May said on 8/24/18 - 10:04AM
This article is right on. Taking advantage of educational and credentialing opportunities in my long Nursing Case Manager career opened doors which I would have never thought of early in my career. Embracing change can take you to many new interesting places.
4. Ellen Fink-Samnick said on 8/24/18 - 11:12AM
Lois, thank you for the kudos! Our health and human service professions have evolved so very much with robust opportunities. IT is so important to take stock as early as possible, and actively consider the possibilities before us! Onward!

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