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Finding Our Path

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sarah Sweeney
March 22, 2024

I recently had the opportunity to interview for a new position with a local nonprofit and through the process have started to wonder about my own professional development and what it means to have a job versus a career. To me the difference is simple: A job is what you do to make money and a career is what you do to follow your passions, a long term commitment. But I can appreciate those terms are fairly interchangeable and dependent on the interpretation of meaning, based on an individual’s professional life journey. In my own experience I have joined two established fields of study, Social Work and Public Administration, and while each have their own guidelines of practice, code of ethics and memberships within larger professional organizations, at their core they are responsible for moving society forward in an ethical and socially just manner. I have worked in several different capacities and performed many jobs designed to meet certain needs for specific populations, but hadn’t yet felt that I am in a career. Surely I have found passion in my work and can see myself remaining in these fields of practice, but what does it mean to be fulfilled in a career and not just satisfied in a job?

An article posted by Indeed explains the difference between a job and a career being that a job is what you do to meet your basic needs and could lead toward a career, and a career being something that fulfills your ambitions and allows for increased personal pride, satisfaction and self-worth. It goes on to explain that any and all jobs a person holds can be combined to help us better identify what we are passionate about and achieve our professional goals over time. When I first started out I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do so I hopped from job to job, testing the waters in different fields of practice within social work to determine at least the population or focus area I was passionate about. Now as a public administrator in a government agency many years later, I am still not quite sure what I want to do with my career and I have come to understand that is okay! I am glad for the ambiguity this experience has created because it allows me a fresh perspective on what things are important when mentoring and guiding others through their own professional growth journey. To remain curious and open to new possibilities is what helps us develop and be creative in meeting the needs of our communities.

So how do we move forward through uncertainty to lead social change in an equitable way, while maintaining our capacity for curiosity and growth? As professionals in our field it is important to understand and be able to describe our vision for impact in public service and why it is meaningful to us. When I returned to school to earn my degree in public administration, I wanted to make a difference on a systems level to better meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our society. I learned the skills and tools necessary to become a change agent and through my experience have found the passion to build a more equitable and clean future for my community. I have come to better understand that change takes time and efforts towards innovation must be ongoing and in partnership with community partners across all sectors of society. By asking questions about the work we are doing and the “why?” behind it can help us better understand if we are simply working in a job or creating a career path for ourselves.

The American Society for Public Administration Code of Ethics clearly outlines our responsibility as leaders in our field to maintain professionalism, increase awareness and be committed to providing ethical services to our constituents. Whether we are working a job just to get by or pursuing our passions within a career, we can rely on these guiding principles to help develop and strengthen our communities and our teams with whom we work. After having interviewed for that position with a local nonprofit I discovered, after some existential soul searching, that I want to continue along my current path to see where it goes. So after all I have come to realize I am in a career, working a job that has its good and bad days, but at the end of the day I am making a difference in my community. I am actively fulfilling my passion of changing the world one person at a time, and I challenge you to discover what is standing in your way of fulfilling your own passions and whether or not you are simply working a job or pursuing a career.

Author: Sarah Sweeney is a professional social worker and public administrator in Washington State.  She may be contacted at [email protected]

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