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Minimizing the 'Side Effects' of Career Decisions

Surprising ways that finding a career direction is like the COVID-19 vaccine.

Key points

  • Choosing a career direction is a difficult process that might bring unwanted "side effects" of stress, confusion, and feeling stuck.
  • The psychological side of life transitions tells us that feeling unsettled and disoriented in the "messy middle" is normal.
  • Trusted career development approaches can help you rally through the uncertainty and confusion of not enough choices or too many good choices.

What could the COVID vaccine and career decision-making possibly have in common? Both have their own version of side effects, and the discomfort that comes with those means you’re on the right path.

The CDC (2021) tells us that the side effects one might experience after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination are normal and are signs that the body is building immunity against the virus. Suffering through a fever, chills, or other flu-like symptoms is no fun, but the discomfort means the vaccine is working. A similar discomfort can emerge when trying to figure out your career direction. This is not the kind of distress that registers on a thermometer but it can be frightening, confusing, and disruptive, nonetheless.

Why career exploration is stressful

Exploring possible career directions, whether for your first career out of college or as a pivot after working a while, is a process that inevitably involves emotional up and downs. After taking stock of who you are and what you want—your interests, strengths, values, work style, and needs—you turn to exploring career fields that might be a good fit. Unless you are exceptionally lucky, this process is likely to be arduous. Rarely does one career assessment tool (aka test) point to the one best career for you, and rarely does a clear passion bubble up from deep inside you to reveal your perfect vocational calling.

Instead, the process is surprisingly pedestrian. Like any big decision in life, you plow through lots of information to learn about and start to evaluate the fit of your options. As you do this, there are bound to be as many highs and lows as you see on that thermometer when your body fights a fever.

For example, you might explore a career direction that seems like a great fit, only to find that the employment growth outlook for it is poor and you do not want to be always scrambling to find jobs. Or you might find that a field you thought would be a great match for your creative side involves way more data analysis or operational work than creative expression. On the other hand, you might go down the path of career choices that bring nothing but green lights, resulting in having too many good options, and the thought of picking only one is anxiety-producing.

Minimizing the discomfort of career exploration side effects

Just as vaccine side effects will usually wear off in a matter of hours or days, your career exploration process will eventually come to an end—though more likely in a matter of weeks or months. As you go through the career research process and ongoing evaluation of your career wants and needs, some lessons from proven career development and transition theories may reduce your distress.

Recognize that you’re in the messy middle

Transitions have beginnings, middles, and ends. Whether your transition is from high school to college, college to career, old job to new job, or current career field to new career field, you will likely spend most of your time in the “messy middle.” Transitions expert William Bridges (2019) calls this the “Neutral Zone.” In career exploration and decision-making, this is the time when you are taking in an enormous amount of information from various sources to learn about your options, and you are reorienting yourself to possible new working identities.

How to get through the messy middle? Just go with it. Understand that it is normal to feel overwhelmed, confused, stuck, frustrated, and maybe even worried that you will never be able to pick a career you can be happy in and stick with. These are uncomfortable feelings, but they are signs that you are doing all the right things. You will get to a point where you have enough information to make an informed choice that you can feel confident in. But while you are still gathering information and continuing to learn about what you really want, you will not feel so confident and that's OK.

Your life is about more than your work

There’s a longstanding theoretical perspective in career development that is an oldie but a goodie. Donald Super’s theory of career development (1980) includes the concept of "Life-space." This is the common sense but easily forgotten idea that our lives consist of a combination of roles, each of which gets varying degrees of time and emotional commitment at various points in our lives. We do paid work to earn a living and to be fulfilled, but we also find fulfillment with our families, social lives, recreational or leisure-focused roles, community or global citizen roles, and many other ways we spend our time and give our attention.

Here’s why this matters as you muddle through the messy middle: Choosing a career direction inevitably means making some trade-offs. You might need and want high earnings but also want to make a positive impact on society or on individuals. You love working with computers but don't want to be stuck in front of one all day. Or, perhaps you want a career in academia but need to stay put in one city or town, which usually isn’t realistic since you have to go to the campuses where the jobs are.

These and many other examples are all about making trade-offs. Sure, there are do-gooder careers that are also lucrative. There are ways to survive as an extrovert tied to a desk. And so on. But the reality is that when making career decisions, you do a lot of deleting and revising of your wish list as you come to realize that you can’t necessarily have it all, and this can feel disappointing and even scary.

In Designing Your Work Life (2020), Burnett and Evans call this the “Maker Mix.” Like a sound engineer sliding the controls and turning the knobs to get the right mix of sounds for a song, you undergo a continual process of give-and-take with the factors that go into your career choice. The good news is that anything that doesn’t make the cut as being part of your primary career and job can play out in other parts of your life.

My mother, for example, majored in chemistry in college and worked as a chemist in the lab of a major food company for a few years. She then became an independent interior decorator to play to her artistic side and her desire for control over how high her income could go, but she missed science. She took care of that with her serious hobby of photography, which let her play out her love of chemistry as she developed film and printed photos in the basement darkroom of my childhood home.

When you agonize over what you might have to give up to meet your practical needs in a career or to align with the ever-evolving job market and economic conditions, keep Super’s Life-space concept top of mind. Think of ways you can satisfying all the glorious parts of you—your interests, the ways you like to express yourself, the values you hold—in spaces of your life beyond your primary work role. If you can do that and know that the messy middle is not forever, the painful side effects of career exploration will be a distant memory before you know it.


Bridges, W., & Bridges, S. (2019). Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes. Da Capo Lifelong Books.

Burnett, B., & Evans, D., (2020). Designing Your Work Life. Alfred A. Knopf.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). Understanding How COVID-19 Vaccines Work.….

Super, D. E., (1980). A life-span, life-space approach to career development. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 16 (3), 282-298.