The 5 Stages of a Typical Career

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Career paths unfold in a variety of directions based on interests and opportunities. Ultimately, though, most workers encounter five typical stages throughout their careers.

The progression of steps differs for each person — some may spend more time at one level, others may hit bumps in the road, and many will even choose to redirect entirely.

But whether the journey is linear, winding, or circular, each stage provides valuable chances to grow and to craft a career route that works for you.

Recognizing the 5 Typical Career Stages

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It’s essential to have a general framework for your career to evaluate your current status and plan for the future.

The early career stage is a time of incredible energy and focus — and possibly changing jobs a few times. During the mid-stages of your career, you’ll need to be more intentional with career changes. In contrast, later stages of your career call for reflection and planning for the future.

Understanding the five typical career stages can help you navigate your career journey and set goals more effectively.

Stage 1: Exploration

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The first stage of a typical career is exploration. This is a time of trying out different roles and responsibilities and gaining your foundational experience — usually in the form of internships, entry-level jobs, or volunteer work.

A good focus during this stage is gaining exposure to various fields and workplaces so you can make more informed career decisions down the road.

Focus on Networking

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If this is where you’re at, now is the time to focus on building a network of contacts who can offer advice and support as your career progresses.

Take advantage of any mentorship programs at your company, or find your own through networking groups.

Find a Dream Company

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While the sky is the limit, you can start fine-tuning how you’d like to define your career. Explore dream companies to work for that have the same vision as you do and room for growth.

Build Flexible Goals

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Don’t box yourself in with too many boundaries around your choices, but consider what you want your career to look like in future stages.

Do you dream of a particular title, salary, or perhaps the ability to make an impact? Whatever your long-term goal, now is a great time to examine the steps you need to take to get there.

Stage 2: Establishment

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After spending some time exploring different options, you’ll likely settle into a particular field or role that feels like a good fit.

This second career stage is about developing expertise and beginning to move along your chosen path.

Continue Your Learning

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You might take on additional responsibilities at work or go back to school to get the specialized training needed to advance to leadership roles.

Continue to devote energy to networking efforts by meeting new people and building relationships with those in your field. These connections will be invaluable as you move forward in your career.

Reassess Your Plan

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As you become more established in your field, you’ll want to ensure that your career goals are still realistic and attainable. This is an excellent time to revisit your career plan and make necessary adjustments.

Remember that your career map is meant to be flexible — it can (and should) change as your goals and circumstances change.

Begin Retirement Savings

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And last but not least, if you haven’t already, now is an excellent time to save for retirement.

Take advantage of your company’s 401(k) or other retirement savings plan, if one is offered. The sooner you start saving, the more time your money has to grow.

Stage 3: Mid-Career

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The third stage of your career is usually a time of stability and consolidation as you settle into a role and begin to reap the rewards of your experience and expertise. You may also find yourself taking on leadership roles or mentoring younger workers.

The key to success at this stage is staying focused and learning. Even if you feel like you’ve mastered your job, there are always new things to learn.

And as you take on more responsibility, you must keep developing your skills to remain an effective leader. With a little effort, you can ensure that your mid-career years are both productive and fulfilling.

Plan for Retirement

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It’s also important to routinely assess your long-term and retirement goals. Are you on track to achieve them? If not, now is the time to make any necessary adjustments.

And if you haven’t already done so, this is an excellent time to start thinking about succession planning.

Consider Career Options

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Also key to this stage is zeroing in on what would improve your life if you’re considering a career change.

Are you dissatisfied with your pay, work, environment, lack of flexibility, or something else? Without pinpointing the problem, you may switch jobs just because the grass appears greener elsewhere—and you may soon end up with the same difficulties.

Once you know what you truly want, you can brainstorm ideas on how to achieve it.

Incorporate Work-Life Balance

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Perhaps you’re seeking a new role with the same employer or learning a new skill to increase your marketability. Many professionals explore flexible options to achieve a healthier work-life balance because, at this stage, there’s still plenty of time to establish a new career.

Stage 4: Late Career

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The fourth stage of your career is likely when you’ll begin to plan your retirement. But this doesn’t necessarily mean winding down at work.

Many people continue their careers in more flexible or part-time roles, and while some plan for retirement, others transition into new fields or second careers.

Stay the Course

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Whatever you decide, it’s crucial to stay engaged and active. This can help you stay up to date on industry trends to ensure that you’re relevant and marketable.

It can also be a great way to continue making a contribution and feeling fulfilled.

Brand Your Legacy

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This is also an excellent time to start thinking about your legacy. What do you want to be remembered for? How do you want to make an impact?

These are essential questions to consider as you enter the final stage of your career.

Stage 5: Retirement

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The fifth and final stage of a typical career is the coasting of your career into retirement. This is usually a time of transition, as you move from the working world into a more relaxed lifestyle.

For many people, retirement is a time to enjoy hobbies, travel, and spend more time with family and friends.

Discover Second-Act Career Choices

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But it’s important to remember that retirement doesn’t have to be the end of your working life. Many stay active by volunteering, starting a business, or pursuing a second career.

Others find joy in mentoring younger professionals in their field, teaching a class at the local community college, or mentoring with an organization, such as the Small Business Association.

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