Powering Through Career Plateaus

Q. I am 45 and have over ten years experience in the research field, but I am stuck. I can’t seem to get to another level. I keep seeing younger and less experienced people get the same jobs I apply for, but am deemed “unqualified” for. It feels like my career is over, as I am stuck at a low level job, making less than when I started out.
What can I do?

A. Plateaus in careers can happen for a few reasons, and with an honest assessment, you can identify your challenges and work on a development plan which may blast you out of your rut.

The range of areas to start your assessment is wide. But I’ll start with some basic questions. Are you healthy? Are you physically and emotionally fit? If not, I encourage you to seek support so that your answer can be a solid yes to both of these questions.
Take all of your past performance reviews. Read them carefully. Identify all direct and indirect comments regarding “opportunities for development”, or areas to work on. Don’t argue or disagree. Divide a blank sheet of paper with a line down the center of the sheet. Label one side “personal attributes” and the other “professional attributes”. Assign each comment into the appropriate column.


If this does not give you enough data, you will need to find colleagues and friends you trust, and ask them to deliver “brutally honest feedback” delivered kindly, to help you identify the personal and professional blind spots which may be stalling your movement. Add these to the list you started earlier. Is the personal attribute side more heavily weighted, or the professional side?

You may find that this review gives you insight to the areas which may be stalling your career. Does it look like you need professional skill development, or to address issues in your personal style or behaviors? As people become more senior on the job, career derailers are most often found in the personal style categories. Arrogance is one of the main offenders, joined by lack of team performance, and the inability to take constructive feedback. Pay extra attention if you find these on your areas for development.


If you identified professional skill set weaknesses, review what you can develop on your own, and what you may need external training or coursework to improve.

Putting together, and implementing a plan for action in both these areas will need the support of others. You can approach a human resources leader, or a trusted and supportive manager, or close colleagues. Taking charge of what you can change can have a significant positive impact on your career. Assuming that age discrimination at your young age is the culprit won’t help you go as far as you would like.

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