Navigating a Career Setback

by Ellen Mehling, Career Development Consultant, METRO

Work-related misfortunes happen to everyone. Beethoven lost his hearing. Stephen King was so discouraged by an early draft of his first novel that he threw it in the garbage. Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple, a company he had founded, by its board of directors. As the stories of these visionaries demonstrate, even with careful planning and hard work, you could still encounter unavoidable and unwelcome occurrences in your own career.

20130620_NavigatingCareerSetback_cropped.jpgThe first kind of career setback that may come to mind is job loss, and many information professionals have experienced that particular hardship in recent years. However, career roadblocks can come in many different forms, including a layoff or firing. For example:

K., a librarian and archivist, had to move across the country because of her spouse's new job, after working more than twelve years for her corporate employer.

M., a special librarian with the same employer for four years, was passed over for a promotion for which he was well-qualified, due in part to an obstructive supervisor.

N., an archivist and administrator, had to resign from her job and was unable to work for almost two years because she needed to care for her sick husband.

F., a public librarian, found herself facing a likely second layoff; the first one had been with a previous employer five years earlier.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to navigate setbacks like the ones like the ones K., M., N., and F. experienced.

Taking stock

It is crucial for you to evaluate as objectively and thoroughly as possible the situation you are in now. Some things to consider: is/was your work situation a good fit for you? If you could change the situation, how would you want it to be different? What is within and what is outside of your control? Do/did your own actions or choices have anything to do with the setback? What are your assets and who are your allies? What is your next goal? What are your challenges at the moment, to reaching that goal? What are your options now?


As you have a plan for your career, you should also come up with a plan regarding the setback. Backup plans are a good idea here too. They should be specific and have doable, measurable steps. Be flexible but not so flexible that there really is no plan, and be accountable to yourself. Brainstorm to come up with a broad range of options; your plans may include switching to a different kind of work or learning a new skill. Be open-minded; really think over an option before dismissing it. Your next opportunity may come in a form you’ve never imagined or with a type of work you'd never before considered.


Change, even if you are the one initiating it, can be stressful. For your own well-being and to have the best chance of getting past the setback successfully, you need to keep your frame of mind as positive as possible. Reduce the amount of time spent with those who are negative, and be kind to yourself.

Find a non-destructive way of negotiating frustration, fear, and other negative emotions (such as exercise, meditation, writing in a journal, or talking to a supportive, honest friend). Understand that there are going to be days when it will be a challenge to be optimistic; don’t expect perfection.

Remind yourself, repeatedly, of other professional and personal setbacks you've overcome in the past. Read success stories of other information professionals for tips and inspiration. Remember that no one occurrence, good or bad, or indeed, no one job, is your entire career. Celebrate victories and encouraging developments, even small ones.

Look forward

Stay focused on the future. Try not to dwell on past unpleasantness or current frustrations; let them go, remember your plan, and keep moving forward. If you are job hunting, once you’ve sent your application or had your interview and have followed up appropriately, put it out of your mind until you hear back from the employer. Evaluate your progress periodically and switch gears if necessary.

Visualization can help to keep you set on your goal. This is a strategy used by athletes and performers to prepare for competition or performances. Picture yourself succeeding in a future event (an interview, getting a promotion, etc.) or in a better work situation than the one preceding your setback. Worrying is envisioning a negative outcome; use your imagination to conjure the image of a positive result instead.

Mentors and Other Advisors

It is a good idea to discuss your situation with a professional mentor, and multiple mentors or advisors are better than just one. Ask for advice and insight, and for their own stories of overcoming career difficulties. Ideally your advisors will be information professionals, but those who have weathered a few career storms in another profession may have valuable opinions and suggestions too. Check in with them periodically, to get input and perspective on how your plans are progressing.

Here are updates on our setback-facing info pros:

K., the librarian and archivist who moved to support her husband’s career, immediately joined and became active in local info-pro organizations (including chapters of national organizations) and asked for references and local introductions and referrals from those already in her network. Within a few months she had secured a part-time position as an academic reference librarian, and is discussing with her employer the possibility of her position becoming full-time later in the year.

M., the information specialist who’d been passed up for a promotion, decided he'd reached a dead end at his current position. He began strengthening his connections with those already in his network and added new contacts to expand his network further. After evaluating what he most and least enjoyed about the work he was doing, he decided to try to switch to a different kind of employer. Nine months later he started a new full-time job with better pay and a much shorter commute, doing work he enjoys with a supportive supervisor.

N., who left the workforce to care for a family member, had only kept in contact with a few people in her network during her time out of the workforce. After her husband recovered from his illness, she had some catching up to do. It took time to re-establish connections, get her skills up to date, and get some recent experience to put on her resume (which she did by re-joining professional organizations, volunteering, and short-term contract work). She also got some professional advice regarding her resume and job search strategies. She was recently hired in a part-time position and is continuing to apply for full-time positions.

F., the public librarian facing a layoff, decided that her best bet was to expand and emphasize her skill set and experience outside of the employer that was considering cutting back its workforce. She started by doing more part-time work outside of her full-time job and letting a few people in her network know that she was looking for another position. She was discussing the possibility of a full-time position with a new employer before the layoff happened, and was offered the job three weeks later.

While career obstacles and detours can’t be avoided altogether, deliberately nurturing your own resilience and building a strong, supportive network can help to make your recovery quicker and less painful. Down the road you may find yourself in a better situation, having acquired some hard-won wisdom from a challenging experience, and in a position to counsel and encourage someone else contending with a setback.