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Debunking Three Job Myths You Learned Long Ago

It's time to update some rules you might have learned at your father's knee or from your guidance counselor. If you still are thinking this way, you could be in career trouble.

Myth No. 1: You shouldn't change jobs very often

This rule is grounded in the days when you were hired by a company and expected to ''work your way up'' by performing a succession of jobs often prescribed by the organization. Once you settled into a function -- if you weren't tapped for general management -- you tended to stay there. That's how a fellow I know in the finance function moved through the ranks at one of his company's manufacturing plants and then was transferred to corporate headquarters, where he handles national contracts.

What's really behind this rule is another, less explicit dictum: You don't change companies unless it's a really big opportunity.

One result of the old stay-in-place rule is the worried expressions you can see on the faces of many workers at mid-life, who are concerned their functions or skills are becoming obsolete or will be out-sourced. They have fallen behind, even if they don't accept it yet.

Watch young people today. They are more likely to choose jobs because of what they can learn. Finance professionals starting out today know that they need a thorough grounding in the latest relational database software, or a tour of duty in marketing, and look for assignments that will provide that learning. Without those kind of cross-functional experiences, they will never reach corporate headquarters, if indeed that is even their goal. Getting the right exposure to new ideas might mean moving around a lot within an organization or between organizations.

How do you keep from being seen as unstable if you change assignments often? First, make sure you have goals you are trying to meet when you make a move -- a plan for development. Second, don't be defensive; it is important to understand that job changing will be seen less and less as a problem because more and more people will be doing it. Assume that this is the norm, and enlist the support of your bosses and peers. Third, be pro-active in describing why you made job changes, so an interviewer will know you had definite, and good, reasons for moving on.

Myth No. 2: Your resume has to show a logical progression of jobs

This is related to No. 1, but it's worth discussing because people get so obsessed with resumes. Increasingly, hiring managers look at resumes to see if you have the right experiences to prepare you for their job.

What they want is both breadth and depth, along with up-to-date skills. You must be able to point out on your resume what you acquired in each position. That's as important as the list of companies and positions. If you took a lateral or even a downward move for a good reason, it's not likely to hurt as long as the reason is rooted in learning, not performance problems.

Myth No. 3: Only a graduate degree from a ''name'' school means anything

It's true that a master's degree in business or a law degree from Stanford or Harvard is a ticket to a network of power and connections that can't be rivaled, as well as an indication you probably received a good education. Even in the non-traditional world of high tech, I have been astounded at the power of the relationships some colleagues enjoy with their business-school classmates from The Farm.

Those connections can open doors in an unparalleled fashion. However, don't be discouraged if you are contemplating getting that MBA by attending night school or an engineering degree via satellite learning. You might not get the cachet, but you will get credit for two very important things: taking the initiative to learn and applying the knowledge you pick up. In fact, completing well-chosen courses from a university extension or other source can be effective for the same reasons.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I completed a graduate degree at night school last year, and I have taught university extension courses. If I didn't believe in their value, I would not have gone to the trouble.)

The key to getting the most from any kind of formal learning situation is to be clear on why you are enrolling, to be ready to articulate those reasons and to demonstrate some application for what you learned back at work. If you do that, you'll get career credits along the way.

Published: June 19, 1996
John Epperheimer is director of corporate programs at the Career Action Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping individuals become career self-reliant.