Types of Non-Linear Career Paths

While some people follow linear career paths, others find themselves wanting to change directions throughout their careers. According to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, 40% of the global workforce was thinking about leaving their jobs in 2021. Even though big career changes can be intimidating and present several challenges, they can also lead to more satisfying work and success. It’s time to reconsider non-linear career paths and what they offer.

Linear vs. Non-Linear Career Paths

Non-linear careers may begin in one direction, then transition to a different path, sometimes more than once. These shifts typically happen as people make discoveries about themselves and gain new insights about their preferences. They can also happen as unexpected opportunities present themselves.

For example, social media managers may discover that they’re especially drawn to the aspects of their jobs that involve analyzing data, leading them to pivot to careers as business analysts. As another example, during the course of their work, nurses may come up with innovative ideas for much-needed healthcare products or services. This may lead them to become entrepreneurs.

A person wearing a headset works on a computer in a home office.

Such non-linear career paths stand in contrast to what many may envision when initially mapping out their professional lives. The traditional career path etched in the minds of many typically involves the following steps:

1. Select a course of study.
2. Land an entry-level job aligned with that education.
3. Work toward promotions in their field.
4. Eventually reach a position seen as their “ideal job.”

While many people may stick to a single career, taking steps up the career ladder, more and more people are finding themselves in a different situation. In contrast to vertical career paths, today’s career paths look more like jungle gyms than ladders owing to a rapidly changing job market and emerging technologies.

In lieu of one field of study, many individuals now choose to return to school to study completely different subjects. Rather than accepting a promotion to management, some forgo fancy new job titles to make lateral moves into positions with similar pay grades but different and more stimulating work.

Why People Choose Non-Linear Career Paths

People may find themselves on non-linear career paths for any number of reasons. Job stability has taken second place to job satisfaction for many in the workforce. People want to feel challenged. They may also want work in sync with their values. When work becomes overly routine or when people’s values evolve in ways that conflict with their chosen profession, they may easily lose their motivation. Some have found that venturing into new fields or seeking out new skills can provide the antidote they need to overcome feelings of stagnation or dissatisfaction.

Additionally, technologies such as data analytics, automation, and artificial intelligence (AI) are transforming work. A recent World Economic Forum report forecasts that automation will replace around 85 million jobs by 2025. However, the report also suggests that technology will drive the creation of 97 million jobs.

Workforce changes brought on by technology have already impacted many. In response, people have shifted course midcareer both to take advantage of new opportunities and to avoid becoming obsolete. The numbers suggest that a growing number of people may likely find themselves on non-linear career paths in response to this emerging employment landscape.

Benefits and Challenges of Non-Linear Career Paths

Anyone considering a non-linear career path should approach the idea wide eyed, weighing its advantages while recognizing challenges that they may face along the way.

To start, acknowledging the fears that some may have about employers’ perceptions is important. Individuals may worry that hiring managers may view the starts and stops that are typical of non-linear career paths as a lack of job engagement. Individuals may also worry that back-and-forth career moves will make them look like risky investments to employers looking for candidates who’ll commit to a company for the long term.

While non-linear careers may have been frowned upon in the past, attitudes have shifted considerably. Employers now want workers who are capable of changing and adapting to evolving work situations. Hiring managers are more likely to view job candidates with non-linear histories as adaptable and open to reskilling if, or when, organizational needs change.

Additionally, today’s employers tend to see candidates’ varied work histories as assets, as diverse work experience typically means varied skill sets.

Finding a fulfilling career may require people to step outside their comfort zone or cope with the uncertainty of making big changes. In exchange however, individuals can gain flexibility and more opportunities to find gratifying and suitable work.

Non-linear career paths provide people with room to follow their passions as well as broaden their skills and knowledge. They also allow people to try out various roles and discover their calling.

Reskilling and Upskilling

As with linear career paths, non-linear career paths may likely require that individuals reskill or upskill. Reskilling or upskilling maximizes a person’s ability to successfully take on new types of work or advance existing skills. Pursuing a professional certificate in cybersecurity or software development, for example, can achieve both.

Enrolling in a degree program may also help individuals launch a new career or advance in a current one. Whatever the situation, factoring in how to address skill gaps is a necessary consideration for any career path.

How to Succeed on a Non-Linear Career Path

What then does it take to successfully navigate a non-linear career? Changing a career trajectory involves growth and discovery. Making successful transitions requires thoughtfulness and planning.

The following strategies can guide you along the way:

Reflect on Strengths, Interests, Goals, and Past Experiences

Before venturing into unfamiliar territory, individuals should first reflect on their strengths, interests, goals, and past experiences. Such reflection can help them determine suitable career moves.

Many strengths, interests, and goals remain constant. However, goals may shift in response to individuals’ personal and professional experiences. Additionally, these experiences may both reshape interests and reveal new strengths. In some cases, individuals may even discover that they don’t enjoy using certain skills or talents in their professional lives.

Developing an awareness of professional needs and desires, as well as understanding the direction to take one’s interests and skills, is key to making wise career decisions. With this in mind, those on nonlinear career paths should regularly self-assess and ask themselves questions such as:

  • What activities do I find most stimulating?
  • What lessons have I learned from my past work experiences?
  • What has and hasn’t worked for me in my past work experiences?

Find Common Threads That Tie Together Personal and Professional Experiences

People on non-linear career paths have likely worked a slew of unrelated jobs. Nevertheless, a close examination of those varied experiences usually reveals a common thread among them.

For example, people may find that in all their jobs they managed relationships with clients, conducted research, or developed more efficient systems.

A person may have worked for numerous employers and across different industries, and may have held a range of titles. Nevertheless, it’s likely that some factor connected their experiences. Perhaps every job involved some form of instruction, or maybe each position involved breaking down complicated ideas into more accessible ones.

To identify a common thread in diverse experiences, individuals should consider what kinds of problems they solved in their jobs, what skills they used to solve those problems, and what types of contributions they made to their organizations.

Identify Transferable Skills and Talents

People’s skills and talents mature over time, and while they may develop in one environment, that doesn’t mean they’re not relevant elsewhere. As such, people on non-linear career paths need to identify their transferable skills and talents. After all, skills essential to one job may also prove essential to another very different profession.

For example, instructional skills honed while working as a teacher could enable a human resources professional to successfully onboard employees. Organization skills refined while working as a project manager could play a pivotal role in the work of a public relations specialist.

In addition to taking a personal inventory to assess one’s skills and their relevance in other types of work, individuals can also search job profiles to gather insights. Reading up on various job profiles can reveal how various skill sets play out across different work duties and responsibilities. This activity can spark ideas about career opportunities one might not even have thought of.

Learn How to Talk About and Apply Transferable Skills

Identifying one’s transferable skills is a good start. However, people on non-linear career paths need to also learn how to effectively talk about and apply their transferable skills.

To begin, individuals need to find ways to communicate that their skills are in fact transferable. One way to do this is through evidence and explanations. Instead of simply telling a prospective employer that they excel at problem-solving or teamwork, job candidates can provide examples from their work experience that illustrate those skills.

For example, to illustrate their teamwork, job candidates could describe how as copywriters they collaborated with editors and clients, responding to feedback and cooperating on deadlines. To illustrate their problem-solving skills, job candidates could describe how as interns for a nonprofit they designed a database that improved donor outreach.

After providing tangible examples of their transferable skills, those pivoting into new careers need to  explain how those skills can be applied to different situations and other work duties.

Build a Career That Inspires You

Building a gratifying career sometimes comes with twists and turns. However, many rewards await those who bravely go after their passions and remain open to the unexpected and unpredictable. Pursuing a degree program can allow individuals to explore new horizons whether they’ve chosen a linear or non-linear career path.

Learn more about how the bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate, and certificate programs at Maryville University help people build inspiring careers.

Recommended Reading

Get a Head Start on Your Future by Earning Credits for Your Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees at the Same Time

The Importance of Celebrating Milestones

Popular Personality Tests — How to Gain Self-Understanding and Set Your Goals


Avenir Careers, How to Find the Thread in Your Non-Linear Career Path

Corporate Compliance Insights, “Linear vs. Nonlinear Career Paths

Forbes, “Three Ways to Make Your Non-Linear Career Path Work for (And Not Against) You”

LinkedIn, “The New Life Journey: A Non-Linear Career Path”

Microsoft, The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work — Are We Ready?

Quality Magazine, “The Career Path to Success May Not Be Linear”

Teal, 6 Benefits of Nonlinear Careers When Transitioning to a New Industry

VPI Working Solutions, “Three Ways To Identify Your Transferable Skills”

World Economic Forum, “Don’t Fear AI. It Will Lead to Long-Term Job Growth.”

Be Brave

Bring us your ambition and we’ll guide you along a personalized path to a quality education that’s designed to change your life.