The potential dangers of `career creep’

By Ellen Anderson, Ph.D
January 8th, 2023
Ellen Anderson, Ph.D is a psychologist in private practice in Connecticut who specializes in working with adults coping with medical illness.
Ellen Anderson, Ph.D is a psychologist in private practice in Connecticut who specializes in working with adults coping with medical illness.

My younger colleague regards me with confusion. She is responding to my observation that she seems overwhelmed. “I don’t want to say no and risk limiting my opportunities in the future,” she says.

She is simultaneously writing a manuscript, putting together a conference presentation, seeing clients, and supervising trainees. She juggles these tasks with apparent ease, while also parenting two young children. I wince, remembering how I had felt similarly over the course of my career.

The psychology doctoral degree opens a plethora of potential career opportunities. Graduate students are advised to strive for a wide breadth of experience. In the early years of career development, it is natural to worry about prematurely closing doors.

Some psychologists work a side gig in adjunct teaching, part-time clinical practice, or research in addition to their primary job. Others find that there is a gradual broadening scope of their primary role, until the addition of responsibilities morphs into a Sisyphean effort.

Career creep is not unlike lifestyle creep. Your time, like your income, is finite. Without a budget, it is easy to spend increasing amounts of time on tasks that are outside or only remotely related to your primary source of income.

Career creep represents a gradual shift in thinking and behavior that sacrifices time and energy in the pursuit of career goals. While this is often necessary in graduate school or the early stages of a career, it can become detrimental if not checked. Over time, a job that is chaotic, pressured, and unrelenting may feel normal. Impulse spending of time as a reaction to having too many responsibilities can ensue.

Career creep can occur out of anxiety, as a method to ensure that all doors remain open. People with an inability to say no, particularly when the request is made by a respected mentor or authority figure, might be particularly susceptible!

Psychologists in traditional careers with clear demarcations for promotion often struggle with feeling boxed in either by the role itself or degree of specialization within the role. Psychologists in nontraditional careers potentially have the opposite problem. Without traditional career ladders and criteria for promotion, how is success to be measured?

Paradoxically, keeping options open leads to discontent. Harvard psychologist and author of the book, “Stumbling on Happiness,” Daniel Gilbert has conducted research on the topic.

His work has shown that although people believe that they will be happier if they can change their minds, those who make reversable decisions are less satisfied than those who make unchangeable decisions. Following this premise, it could be wise to spend time ruling out options and focusing energy on those tasks and responsibilities that add value to your career.

It is hard to slow down and reflect upon the reasons for taking on specific career responsibilities. A blunt supervisor once told me that there were only three reasons for taking on outside projects: 1) It is such an interesting project that such an opportunity may never come again; 2) The project is so financially lucrative, that it would be impossible to turn down; 3) Altruism compels us to take on the project though there is no direct benefit to the organization.

While I’m quite sure that my supervisor’s opinion would not be universally held, it is helpful to have personal guidelines for decision making about new projects or tasks.

An intentional approach prevents becoming overwhelmed by career creep. Identifying your core career values and working to align your work accordingly results in a better sense of contentment and fulfillment.

It can feel risky and anxiety provoking to not pursue a potential opportunity. What if, as my colleague pointed out, a wrong decision results in lost chance in the future? The world of potential career paths is alluring, and it is often painful to settle on a particular course or direction, letting go of other options.

Accept that time is limited and mindfully appreciate where you are at this point in your career. Envision letting go of responsibilities that are not essential, without fear. Every career will be unique. As American psychologist Robert Sternberg once said in an interview in the APA Monitor, “Don’t try to play the game. Make up your own game.”

Ellen Anderson, Ph.D is a psychologist in private practice in Connecticut who specializes in working with adults coping with medical illness. She is also an author who has written books for health care providers focused on the psychological aspects of heart disease and cancer and is the editor of the American Psychological Association’s clinical health psychology book series.

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