Your Career May Look More Like a Subway Map, Not a Ladder

By: Carolyn Burton, Director of Human Resources at Sweet Briar College

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We’ve all heard about “climbing the corporate ladder.”  The idea is that our careers will have an upward progression marked with clear steps.  Well, as organizations get flatter and as people stay in the workforce longer (standing on the rungs above you), the ladders may not be leading you where you want to go.

So instead, think about your career as a subway map:

  • Multiple ways to get from Point A to Point B (lateral and upward moves)
  • Sights to see along the way (jobs/workplaces to experience)
  • You meet lots of people along the way (networking)


My first job after college was in the Metro Boston area, so I became really familiar with “the T” – Boston’s subway system.  Let’s use that as a visual.

I started near the beginning of the Red Line (let’s say Davis Square) with an entry level job in my field at a high-tech company.  I stayed on that route for a couple of years.  Along the way: new duties, some on-the-job training and then a promotion at my same company.

Then, I jumped onto the Green Line by changing who I worked for; I stayed in my same field but now in financial services.  Why did I change trains?  I had been working long work days (9am to 9pm most days) and wanted more work-life balance.  I also felt I was ready for new challenges sooner than my next promotion was likely to happen.  A friend of a friend shared the job opportunity, so who you meet along your professional travels is absolutely relevant.

Just like the Green Line has multiple tracks, I had multiple jobs at this next company: promotions, lateral job changes, different career path altogether for a time.  On each ride and at each stop, I learned new skills, met new people (networked) and made myself more marketable.   Some stops and tracks involved additional pay; some were at the same pay rate.  Money was not always driving the train; gathering experiences and having rewarding work opportunities were often more valuable to me.

Then I figured out a bit more about where I wanted to go and how I wanted to contribute to society through work, and I jumped on the Orange Line; I was ready to have my work have more meaning, so I shifted from financial services to a non-profit providing services for individuals with disabilities; large company to small organization; specialized role in HR to Jane-of-all-things HR.   To make this train change, I reached out to a variety of people I had met along the way – including people from my Red Line and Green Line travels – to explore different paths.

While on the Orange Line, I practiced what I already knew, learned through formal and informal training, and met more people.  I also explored a different professional area by taking workshops and seminars along the way.  Using all that I learned while on the Orange Line, I looked for an opportunity to jump onto the Blue Line – it seemed to me that doing what I was good at for a different non-profit was going to be a better fit for me.  And so my travels brought me to Sweet Briar.

You get the idea:  instead of one way to climb the ladder to get from entry level job to upper management, we are more likely to try different jobs, learn skills at different employers and in different roles, and change careers altogether, expanding our professional network along the way.

Instead of thinking of your work experiences as rungs on a ladder, think of them as stops on the incredible journey that is your work life, with your education as your ticket.

One response to “Your Career May Look More Like a Subway Map, Not a Ladder

  1. Kathryn Yunk

    Well said! Culture, opportunities, role, team and network all mean different things at different points in your career. There’s no one way ticket – it becomes a web of life experiences. Choices lead to interesting opportunities. They present themselves in many different packages.