I’m in a Career Slump

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My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging. ~ Hank Aaron

At the beginning of my career, I was young, enthusiastic, and excited about my future as a federal employee. Now, I find myself in a career slump.

Doing well in life can suddenly come to a halt and be replaced by doubts, frustrations, and blues. Career slumps do not discriminate; there is no correlation to years of service, career choice, age, race, or sex.

Research says job satisfaction increases steadily with age, but I am an optimistic and tend to lean more towards the research that says that job satisfaction is more u-shaped. It starts strong early in your career and then, declines before steadily rising again. At least, I hope that is how it will work.

So what caused the career slump? I believe that as I rose the career ladder, my responsibilities increased, but the support received decreased. Support tends to decrease as peers compete for scarce resources. I can remember a time when federal offices and cubicles were filled with employees. As I look around my office today, there are a lot of empty cubicles and unused space.

I am constantly trying to get “my swing back” and have even considered a career change. However, this may require a significant pay cut. In my 20’s and 30’s, a pay cut would have had little to no impact. In my 40’s, a pay cut could “break the bank.”

I have also taken less drastic measures such as completing training classes to ensure that I have the necessary work skills; applying and interviewing for jobs to remain marketable; and networking to stay connected. Before the Great Recession[1], this would have “done the trick,” but now, the offers and opportunities are less and less.  Here again, we are all competing for the same scarce resources.

I have not given up, and it helps knowing that I am not alone. At least 5 or more friends and coworkers say they, too, are not where they want to be professionally.  We do our best to encourage one another.

For those of you who went through a career slump, what are some suggestions for making it out?  For those of you who are still in a career slump, what are you doing to stay motivated?  Remember, you are not alone.  “Keep on swinging.”

1 In 2008 and 2009, the U.S. labor market lost 8.4 million jobs.

Cynthia V White is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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25 Comments

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Leslie Peabody

I’ve been in Federal service for more than 20 years and I LOVE it! But we all go through ups and downs. The best advice I have is to find an activity you LOVE and weave that into your job if you can. For me, I’ve been lucky and my managers recognize my strengths. But you have to SHOW them your strengths. Be willing to step out and be a little crazy or different so that you can showcase your exceptional talents. And above all remember – we have the best JOB in the world. If we have to work for someone, the American people is the place to be.

For some, however, our bosses might not want to allow us latitude. In that case, you still have to show up and be awesome every day. Find an activity on your personal time that helps you thrive. Follow your dreams outside of the work place and you just might find you are creating dreams while at work as well. (Be sure to check with your HR department to make sure you can start a business or do the volunteer work or whatever you choose first.!) I did this once while I was in a slump and it took a little while, but it energized me at work as well. Just as your private life can negatively impact your work, it can also positively impact your work.

Profile Photo Hannah Moss

Cynthia – I totally feel you! I’ve been there before, and one piece of advice I got really helped me. A friend asked me to think about what I did love about my job–what actions (things like learning or writing or interacting one-on-one) were the bright spots in my day that made me feel a little less ‘slumpy’. Then think about how to either (a) grow those actions within your current role or (b) find a new job that has those same opportunities but in greater quantities.

This may also help with your pay cut woes, because when you focus on actions that are applicable to a variety of fields, it opens up the potential career moves you can make. Hopefully you can find one that amplifies the traits you like in a job without decreasing your income.

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Nice post, Cynthia. I think the quote to “Keep swinging” sums it up nicely. I might add one caveat, “Keep swinging”…for the fences (ie. home run). Some folks are afraid to dream big and think big for a variety of reasons. However, if one never tries then one never knows what might be possible. Sometimes, long shots come in.

Joyce

I’m in a career slump, too, but I keep swinging by continuing my education, and working toward personal goals I have set for myself. Something will eventually open up and the pay off for waiting will be worth it.

Lori Winterfeldt

Your comments and thoughts really resonated with me, Cynthia. I would love to keep this conversation going and am looking for positive suggestions on this topic. It’s nice to know that “you’re not alone”. I’ll try to incorporate some of the suggestions that others have posted.

Susan Sullivan, CRM

I wasn’t necessarily in a career slump, I was in a life slump. I’d been in the D.C. area for about 25 years. My commute was killing me, my GS-15 Director position was difficult as I was expected to do more with less, and may boss was under a lot of pressure from budget cuts. Stuff rolls downhill. The shutdown did it for me. I was done. I waited until I was old enough to do a deferred retirement and went to work for local government……..in Aspen! Former-Feds have a lot to offer local governments, there is less stress, and it’s a much small community. I kept my home in the D.C. area and the rent from that off-sets the pay cut I took. I still stay in touch with all my Federal colleagues and I would not rule out going back to the Federal gov’t (although not in D.C.). But I’ve no regrets!

Laura Free

Susan, do you have any tips for networking or searching for opportunities to make the switch from federal to local? Or was it more “right time, right opportunity”?

Profile Photo Dave Barton

Thanks for sharing something so personal. For me, change–on any level–seems to help. Sure there are the big changes like moving on to a different agency or even trying your hand at something new, but there are also sometimes opportunities to take on an interesting new project or developmental assignment that could provide a breath of fresh air.

Gerry La Londe-Berg

Keep your commitment while you exercise your passion outside work. A person can do their job as well as they possibly can, but also look for opportunities to explore, create, and participate in their own community. For me the new friends I found while advocating and participating in community organizing have made me feel better about work too.

Darrell

I’ve been in the slump several times in my past. Sometimes it was a great job that I had that changed around me until it wasn’t all that great anymore. Once it was a job I hated and the rug got pulled out from under me (read as lay-off). Optimism is your friend. The most significant slump I got out of was by taking a 24% pay cut while at the age of 49 with 3 kids in college or soon to be in college. I wasn’t even sure the job I was going to was a good job. I had only asked around and was consistently assured that it was the greatest place to work. I took the leap and have not regretted it once. It is the best fitting job I have ever had. While a 24% cut sounds significant, it is not nearly as significant as it seems. I was overqualified for the new job, so pay raises, promotions and bonuses have been coming. The new job is less commuting time (15 minutes is a bad day now). We moved into a smaller house. The day-to-day stress is nearly non-existent. I have not quite gotten back to what I lost when adjusted for inflation, but I am incredibly happy. Money isn’t everything and the cost of living of an area has more impact than the size of ones salary. The only downside that I can think of in this whole exchange is that my ego took a bruising because I discovered that I was measuring my worth by my take-home pay. Once I got over that, it has been great.

Autumn

Thanks Darrell for sharing. I’ve been in a slump for 10 years and I look forward to moving forward. Eight years ago, I moved to a larger MSA with a larger federal office thinking there would be more federal opportunities. Well there hasn’t been. This office has silent rules that have held me back and placed unnecessary obstacles to prevent myself and other staff below a GS-11 from moving forward. In 2011, HQ created a program for talented staff like myself. It was a national competition and I was selected for it. We had HQ’s support, two union supplements and the promise that at the end of the program, HQ would post 60 vacancy announcements for us to compete for. The program was created to take talented staff who were at the GS-11 grade level and below who are currently in an occupational series with no promotion potential to a GS-12 or higher and provide an upward mobility to the GS-9/11/12 level. I thought it was the answer I was waiting for. I was so enthused to participate and made the most of the program. I went over, above and beyond in the program. At the graduation ceremony, HQ promised they would post those 60 vacancy announcements. As time went by, they didn’t post the positions. Then last year HQ hired 100 PMF’s who didn’t even have to apply nor compete for those positions. One was placed in my division. Those 100 PMF’s were hired with a promised upward mobility to a GS-14 within a handful of years. I went to the union several times to enforce the union supplements and instead of fighting for us, they have supported the PMF’s. The larger union said they would file a grievance but never did. The smaller union said they couldn’t enforce the union supplements. I work in an office that measures the staff’s worth by our grade level. The federal government is top heavy, hires mainly at the GS-12 to GS-15 range and doesn’t support staff below a GS-11. The office is extremely hierarchical. I’ve been applying to other agencies. Unfortunately, there’s at least seven hiring preferences before my application is considered. In spite of all of this, I attend all offered training, I have over 2,300 hours documented mostly from training within the last 5 years, I’ve always been a consistent volunteer for several organizations, I’ve picked up new technical skills and work a 2nd job to support my son through college. I’m optimistic, I’m motivated, I work on keeping a good attitude. I’m applying to other agencies . . . . I read all of the comments. I’ve already completed everything that was suggested. What else can I do?

Profile Photo Junebfl

Keep swinging Autumn. A promise is a comfort to a fool. If it is not in writing, I do not trust. I was promised an upgrade after I was given a major program to manage. I worked hard, above and beyond, exceeded expectations and ten years later, though I absolutely love what I do, they failed to deliver.

Michelle

Thanks for the post. I opened it to read because, I feel like I’m in slump as well. I look daily at USAjobs, state and local agencies, and NGO job postings. I too am in my early 40’s and have been with the Federal gov’t for nearly a decade. I am fortunate enough to care deeply and passionately for the resources that are part of daily responsibility and duties, but I struggle with the general lack of support for government employees from both the public (e.g. the shutdown) and from our own leadership. I feel that when internal leadership sends out “messages” of how valued and important we are that they are not genuine. I believe that if it were true, the manta would not be, “do more with less…and less….and less…”, the message would be that we can’t do our jobs with so little. Our office environment is like a ghost town (from which we will soon be evicted because we have too many square feet per person). The expectation to continuously do more with less (“oh hi there high performer! here are some additional duties for you! you are so lucky to receive this additional opportunity!” is really wearing on me. If leadership wants to recognize my accomplishments and hard work, allow me the time to do my work well, not pile on more so that I am unable to do a good job because I can’t keep all the balls in the air. It is the lack of internal and structural support that are leading to my career slump, that make me question whether the government is the right place for me in the long-term. It is my job and the resources (endangered species) that I get to contribute to their conservation that keeps me engaged and working hard everyday. I feel strongly that these duties should be performed as a public servant, and I am proud to be working on behalf of the public and the endangered species. I have been told by people that have been with my agency for 30+ years that they need people like me to stay (dedicated, talented, motivated, etc.), and that the government is like the stock market, ups and downs, and to just ride it out. I am trying. I’m trying to ride out my slump, in hopes that leadership will recognize that they are losing their most valuable people, and create incentives outside of piling on more work to try to keep them.

Profile Photo Jason Rock

“the government is like the stock market, ups and downs”

I’m really curious how much market timing has caused the effect being discussed here. Are we stalling because of the financial crisis and the austerity budgets that remain in place through the jobless recovery? Or is the U-shaped career curve a function of our time in the public service regardless of the economic context? If it is the economy, is this a new normal that we have to get used to, or can we just hold our breath till government budgets expand again? Will the legendary government renewal happen within our lifetimes?

Melinda McLaughlin

I love my job. Sometimes there just a bit much to love. There’s burnout on a regular basis due to the pace and stress. Taking a daily breathing break is essential, as is taking time to learn a new skill from time to time. Have a chat with others in similar positions and you won’t feel so alone. Another technique: ask yourself ‘If I were to leave this job in two months, what great outcome/product/project would I like to leave behind with my stamp on it?’ Create that and it will energize you and help you realize you do love your work. Don’t quit on a bad day. Wait and see how you feel when everything is going very well.

Chris Carrera

Thanks for the great article, Cynthia! I really appreciate your insight. My experience to date has been consistent with your “U” shaped view of career satisfaction trajectory. Early on, there was some very satisfying work, then I hit a lull where making progress seemed increasingly difficult. I am in a place now that seems to be on the upswing.

Some things that have helped me stay energized:

Keep it in perspective – realizing that what I am doing now is not what I have to do for the rest of my life. There are options. The options may require major changes and risks, but the options are there if you are willing to pursue them.

Reminding myself why I got into whatever gig I am in. Did I do it to pursue a passion? To pay the bills? As a stepping stone to another level? The answers to these questions will either confirm that I am in the right place, or indicate that I need to move on as soon as possible.

Learning as much as I can in whatever role I am in. This is always a good practice, even if one does not care for one’s current position. Knowledge is always a good thing to accrue. This mindset helps the more difficult times to be more bearable.

Thanks!
Chris

Profile Photo Junebfl

Cynthia
As a career development program coordinator, I hear your narrative over and over. In fact, I sometimes feel this way.

One of the reasons I started to blog here and elsewhere is because of the daily stresses as a gov-e.

I love my position. I make an impact but growth is stagnated which sometimes seems like a slump.
However, I suggest
https://www.govloop.com/community/blog/selected-also-means-sustainability/
to remain relevant and keep swinging. Also, take a good luck at your resume and your interview skills. Read my previous blogs and I hope it is helpful.

Profile Photo Paul Alberti

After a 30 year career including 28 in the Army and 30 in the federal government I have come to the realization that careers have a biorhythm like life – there are slumps and peaks. I try to learn from the slumps, knowing one needs slumps to enjoy and appreciate the peaks. We need rain as much as sunny blue skys. It also helps to remember it’s a cycle and it’s not permanent.
But you do need to keep swinging, learning, and striving – cycles are cycles- but it does not absolve you from actively managing your own career(s).

Dijon Rolle

Cynthia,
Loved your article and definitely something I can also relate to. Excellent job! Very frustrating but what is helping me get through this period is first and foremost being thankful for having a position at all. I always remember how blessed I am no matter what, to be able to wake up and earn a paycheck. However, I don’t allow that to make me complacent. I’m going back to school, networking with people outside of my career field, focusing on things that interest me outside of work, volunteering in my community and BELIEVING that my breakthough is coming.The seeds that I sow today will determine my harvest tomorrow. Even if there’s no offer or progression in sight, always prepare your mind and resume for that next step. It’s coming!