From the outside, it might have looked like a bad decision, but my mind was made up. I could rationalize it, but the decision was in my gut. In my second year of grad school I decided not to take the Teaching Assistantship, but instead to take a job at the local department store. I could say it paid more per hour, which was true, and that I’d already TA’d these classes before so it wasn’t adding any new experiences, but it was more than that.

Stepping out of academia to “work” put me at the crossroads of having a job versus building a career. I was more comfortable dealing with the chaos at the mall than the professor that I disagreed with — I just couldn’t do it another semester. I knew I wasn’t going to be an academic, so taking a job was okay. I just needed something steady while I finished grad school.

I’ve made this calculation so many times in the past: the job that might pay more versus the career that tempts you with the possibility of a future opportunity. Sometimes, you set your hopes aside and just take the job, knowing it will pass, like all of the other jobs you’ve cycled through. But, the career — that’s the one you suffer for, working longer hours for less pay, that’s where the real risk is.

Usually, I know the difference, but I have confused them in the past. The job as an office manager that turned into a game design career. The opportunities to volunteer at prestigious art collectors’ houses in return for access and… well, I do have the stories. I’m not sure those opportunities really helped my career, but they did enrich my understanding of how those who never worried about having to pick up a job or two lived, while I donated my free labor for the privilege of bearing witness to a Brancusi on the table, a sculpture embedded in the lawn, an installation in an elevator.

How do you know if you have a job vs. a career? The job fills time, pays bills, and feels interchangeable. The career is a thing you build one piece at a time, fueled by passion, curiosity, and a deep need to be challenged and grow. It is a calling.

Writer, researcher, observer