What is a Career? Definition, Paths and Examples

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Updated September 29, 2023

Choosing a career can help you select the right education and skills you need to obtain to pursue and be successful in that career. Making careful and well-thought-out decisions regarding your career can increase your chance of success. Choosing the right career can take time and research.

In this article, we explore in-depth what a career is, share different kinds of career paths, plus offer some tips to help you find the right career.

Career definition

The word "career" usually has two definitions or meanings. "Career" is often used to refer to a profession, occupation, trade or vocation. A career could define what you do for a living and range from those that require extensive training and education to those you can perform with only a high school diploma and a willingness to learn. A career could mean working as a doctor, lawyer, teacher, carpenter, veterinary assistant, electrician, cashier, teacher or hairstylist. 

Career has another definition as well, though. It also refers to the progress and actions you have taken throughout the working years of your life, especially as they relate to your occupation. It is comprised of the different jobs you have held, titles you have earned and work you have accomplished over a long period of time. When viewed in this context, a career includes everything related to your career development, including your choice or profession and advancement. Your single career could include a variety of different paths.

Related: What Is the Difference Between a Job and a Career?

Types of career paths

There are several different kinds of career paths available. Here is an overview of the three most common types of career paths:

  • Multiple unrelated jobs: Your career could be made up of multiple jobs that are unrelated to one another. For example, you could work as a sales associate in a retail environment, then as a server in a restaurant and then as a receptionist in a veterinary clinic. Because each job is vastly different than the next, there is no way to predict what your next position will be. Because they have very little in common, you may not see significant pay increases from one to the next or significant increases in responsibility.

  • Advancing within one occupation: This path involves advancing in the same occupation, whether you work for the same organization or at different establishments. For example, if you are working as a cashier, you could eventually be moved to a customer service position where you operate a cash register but also handle customer service issues. Eventually, you could be moved to a head cashier position, supervising the other cashiers. 

  • Advancing in the same industry but not occupation: This path involves staying in the same industry, but not necessarily the same occupation. For example, if your goal is to be a manager at a restaurant, you could start out as a dish washer, then move to a server position, then head server or assistant manager and eventually manager.

Related: Guide: How to Choose a Career

Examples of career paths

In order to help you understand how career paths can progress, it can be helpful to review career paths for a variety of different careers. Be aware that some career paths, like those that advance within one occupation, are direct and others are indirect and can involve working in different industries or different types of jobs.

  • Customer service and sales: Customer service representative -> inside sales representative -> outside salesperson -> account executive -> sales manager

  • Editorial: Editorial assistant -> assistant editor -> editor -> senior editor -> editorial director

  • Education: Teacher -> curriculum coordinator -> assistant principal -> principal

  • Retail: Sales associate -> assistant management -> store manager -> regional manager

  • Human resources: HR assistant -> HR specialist -> assistant director of HR -> director of HR

Tips for finding the right career path

  • Network regularly

  • Be a lifelong learner

  • Pay attention to industry news

  • Make plans but be flexible

  • Be ready for career shifts

  • Be open to lateral moves

Related: How to Change Careers

Network regularly

Connecting with your peers and building and nurturing professional relationships can help you identify new directions for your career. You never know which connection will lead to a new opportunity.

Be a lifelong learner

The job market is always shifting and with technology and best practices continually changing, it’s important to always be in learning mode. Review the LinkedIn profiles of people who have similar careers or who are in your industry and look at the hard and soft skills that they currently have. Also review certifications they have obtained. Identify key areas where you need to enhance your skills and increase your knowledge.

Pay attention to industry news

Read industry blogs or magazines to keep up with trends. These will also give you an idea of what the occupational outlook is for your occupation. 

Make plans but be flexible

When developing your career path, don’t hold on too tightly to a specific plan. Be open to new opportunities that might present themselves and keep your goal in mind. Know what is important to you and what you enjoy about your job and your career. Also, be aware of what you would like in a future career that’s different than what you’re doing now.

Be ready for career shifts

If you’ve been in your position or are in an industry that is declining, it may be time to consider making a complete career change or at least shifting in a different direction.

Be open to lateral moves

Be open to the idea of a lateral move, or even a step backward, if it means you will have a chance to develop valuable skills or connections that can impact your career in the future.


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