I'm heading back to my undergrad alma mater (Hollins University) in a few weeks to speak at their career conference. I had an epiphany as I thought about what I want to share with students about my own career path and how it can help in a job search.
My career reads like a liberal arts curriculum. Hard sciences — done it. Math — done it. Creative writing — yep. Computer programming — yep. Business management — always. Marketing — check. Art — roger. Theatre — affirmative. Social studies — everyday.
I'm a career polymath, which basically means I've worked a wide range of jobs and developed a varied skill set. This type of career comes with challenges and biases others never encounter — especially when looking for a new job. I've been dropped from consideration because I haven’t spent more than 15 years doing one thing. I've been rejected because I don't write business cases in my sleep.
Yet, the companies that I've worked for have quickly thrown me more responsibilities and promotions, often well outside what they hired me to do. My reviews contain phrases and words like "flexible," "ramps up quickly," and "succeeds with any problem given."
Being a career polymath certainly hasn't held me back. Paying it forward, I have some advice for others with the same career path.
4 Job hunting tips for polymaths
- Not every company wants someone like you. Some companies need people to push a button. It may be a very important button with precise timing and calibration, but it's still a button. These types of companies are not a good fit for you. Look for aggressive-growth companies with smaller teams and less defined roles. You'll have to look harder to find these types of companies, but it's worth it to wait for the best fit.
- You'll have to work harder to prove yourself. You know that you can figure out new responsibilities and be successful with whatever someone asks of you. Other people might not be so sure, but don't wait for permission to go outside your lane. I was working for a team of economists who thought my psychology degree was fluff. The first couple of months, they would only give me small tasks. Boredom kicked in, and I found a request for proposal for the Department of Health and Human Services. I brought it to leadership, managed the proposal process and we won the contract — worth 25 percent of the prior year's revenue. After that, I took on more strategic work, and no one mentioned my degree again.
- Get used to feeling unemployable. I joke about this, but it's something I hear from my friends with similar backgrounds. You'll have people ask in interviews, "You've done a lot, but what do you do?" People like labeling you — analyst, marketer, financier. Career polymaths defy labels, so embrace your broad experience and various depths of knowledge.
- You will get bored in your job — and that's ok. I get creative when I'm bored. I look around the company for new projects. I identify what isn't being done, what needs to be fixed and what would make the company more money. It's up to you to keep yourself engaged and excited about your job — find that new something to master.
If you are just graduating with a liberal arts degree, you've spent the last four years focusing on different topics every semester. You are wired to jump into a new area, feet first and become an expert quickly. When you master your job, you will get antsy.
Being a career polymath is a blessing and a curse. But given the choice between having a single, focused path or what I've done, I’ll always pick the polymath path.