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What is a career path?

Types of career paths

Examples of career paths

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What is a career path

A career path describes the various steps and milestones of an individual’s professional journey, helping employees meet their career goals.

Each job in the sequence of the career plan becomes more specific and advanced, ultimately leading to your dream job.

What is a career path?

The different milestones in the career path contribute to the overall career plan, helping to achieve both short-term and long-term goals. 

On the one hand, establishing your own career path benefits the individual by offering guidance, accountability, progress, and feelings of accomplishment and purpose. 

On the other hand, employers also benefit when employees create a career path as it improves employee engagement, morale, and productivity, which impacts the company’s profitability.

It’s in the best interest for HR teams to discuss each employee’s goals and how the organization can encourage the chosen career path and provide new opportunities. These discussions can take place during performance reviews or during the onboarding phase

Types of career paths

Career development can happen in more ways than one. There is no single formula for professional development, and various factors impact career progression. 

Vertical vs. horizontal career paths

While each person’s story is unique, there are two different career paths.

  • Vertical career path

  • Horizontal career path

A vertical career path involves climbing up (or down) the career ladder depending on your goals and availability. Usually, following a vertical career path involves pursuing a higher-level position within an industry and refining your skill set in the process. 

A horizontal career path involves lateral moves and shifts. Employees may move to a different department within an organization, enter a new industry, or even consider internships and entry-level positions to boost their experience. 

Factors that impact a career path

The best career path for you will depend on your career values and personal goals. For example, a higher income, increasing job satisfaction or flexibility.

Factors to consider when choosing the career path for you include;

  • Personality- what are your core values and ambitions? Are there soft skills that you need to work on? What are your strengths and weaknesses?

  • Career goals - career goals shape your career path by guiding you toward certain positions and income brackets

  • Missing links - do you need to learn any new skills to make a career change? 

Following your career path may demand changes to your current situation. For example, conducting a job search on LinkedIn if there are no growth opportunities at your current organization, or entering a new job market to upskill in a certain area.

Examples of career paths

While some career paths are direct, others involve more back-and-forth. Ultimately, each of the job titles you work under will offer value to the one that follows (and so forth).

To put it into perspective, consider the following examples.

Vertical career path for an editorial position:

  • Internship
  • Editorial assistant
  • Assistant editor
  • Associate editor
  • Editor
  • Senior editor
  • Editorial director

Horizontal career path for a human resources specialist:

  • Assistant job recruiter
  • Human resource assistant
  • Benefits assistant
  • Insurance agent assistant

As you can see in the latter example, the career path won’t always lead to being a director of human resources for a global organization, but rather a position that best suits your individual goals. 

Sometimes, your career path will lead you to a series of jobs that differ rather than build on one another directly.

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