Updated on 07.07.08

The Difference Between a Job and a Career

Trent Hamm

Convenience store by i_yudai on Flickr!Most of the emails I get from people asking for advice about their employment situation stem between a confusion between what a job is and what a career is.

A job is simply something you do to earn money. Career advancement is not something you’re interested in there and the work often doesn’t interest you at all. In five years, you’ll likely not be doing anything like your current job.

A career is a series of connected employment opportunities, where you build up skills at earlier employment opportunities to move you into higher paying and higher prestige employment opportunities later on. In five years, you’re planning to be doing something very similar to what you’re doing now, but hopefully with more income and more interesting problems to tackle.

Perhaps looking at some differences might help clarify it even further.

A job has minimal impact on future resumes and job applications because it’s completely unrelated to the stuff you’ll be applying for. A career is a series of heavily related jobs that will always be used on future applications and resumes.

A job is just there to put some easy cash in your pocket. A career provides the backbone of experiences and learning that will fuel your professional life for years, if not your entire life.

A job offers very few networking opportunities, because the people at a job are not people you’ll likely know at a future job. A career is loaded with networking opportunities, as most of the people around you are involved in similar careers to yours and they’ll keep popping up time and time again.

Advice About Jobs

At a typical job, your goal is usually just to get the task done and not annoy the boss. All you really want from a job is a regular paycheck and a positive reference from the boss, and all you have to do to get that done is to get your tasks done and stay out of the way.

This means that you shouldn’t be investing significant emotional energy into the job. Just do what you’re supposed to do with the minimum amount of expended mental and physical and emotional energy, and save that energy for other endeavors.

If your employment situation sounds more like a job than a career, you shouldn’t be killing yourself for it. You should be doing the tasks that are required, then conserving your energy for the other things going on in your life – a second job, raising a family, trying to jump-start a career, and so on.

Advice About Careers

In a career, however, your goal is to not only get the task done, but it’s also to learn skills, gain experiences, build connections, and put yourself in position for promotions, raises, and possibly similar positions in other organizations. That’s a lot more than just getting the task done, and that means putting your ear to the grindstone.

In other words, you should be investing at least some emotional energy into a career. You should be looking for ways that you can get promotions and raises and bonuses and useful resume-building skills and experience. This means always going the extra mile and doing tasks that are beyond your minimum job description, building positive relationships with people around you, and so on.

You should fight hard for a career until you get to the level of success that you want. That doesn’t mean alienating other pieces of your life. It means setting a professional goal, figuring out what you have to do to get there, and getting to work.

A Comparative Example: Convenience Store Clerk

Most people treat convenience store clerking as a job. They go in, do the minimal tasks that are assigned to them by the manager, and watch the clock until they can get out of there to do something else. You know what? That’s what they should be doing. It’s merely a job to them – a way to trade some time for some cash. They don’t want to work at this all their life – they just want a few bucks in their pocket.

Some people treat it as more than a job, though. They hope to become a manager at the store and, perhaps someday, own a store. They take the work seriously, and when there’s no clerking tasks to go around, they spend their time doing other things that need to be done: cleaning the store, learning how the accounting procedures work, and other things like that. They ask lots of questions of the manager and use that for fuel to learn what’s going on, and they often remain as a clerk for many years. Quite often, these people get promoted to assistant manager and sometimes do become the manager. I know at least one person who started working as a clerk at a Casey’s (a gas station/convenience store chain here in Iowa) and eventually wound up owning two of them.

The Big Point

Know going in whether or not this employment opportunity is a job or a career. Ask yourself whether you hope to be promoted at some point, or you just need to collect a paycheck.

If you just need a paycheck, simply don’t become emotionally involved at all. Do the tasks you’re told to do and conserve your emotional and mental energy for the other pieces of your life. If you’re hoping that this employment opportunity will push you on to other things, then turn on the passion.

Figuring this out right off the bat can save you a ton of investment in a job. Save that investment for your family, your passions, or your career.

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  1. Jules says:

    So true!

    Unfortunately I learned the difference the hard way–working in the sciences is fun, and I love it, but the more I learned about science as a career, the more I realized “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life writing papers!”

    Though ironically, I do want to spend the rest of my life writing.

  2. Dave says:

    Great post – and oh so true. I am just now going back to a part-time job that I left back in April. My (old) manager wants me back there because when I was there before, I did more than was expected – I took care of things that an assistant manager should be doing instead. It wore me out, though, and I felt – and rightfully so – that I wasn’t getting paid enough for the work I was doing.

    It just being a job and all, I really can’t afford, mentally, to invest myself into it except for the bare minimum.

  3. Johanna says:

    It seems like you’re saying that having a career is associated with a desire to advance within that field, and career advancement is associated with “more interesting problems to tackle.” I don’t know if I agree with either of those.

    When I was fairly young, my father was promoted from being an engineer to being someone who manages engineers. I got the distinct impression that he found his new job less interesting, not more interesting – and also more stressful and more time consuming.

    I’m a science writer. I look at the positions into which I could naturally “advance,” and they’re all people who manage science writers. They make more money than I do, and they have more prestige, but I don’t want their jobs, because mine is more interesting.

  4. Benjmain says:

    What if you have a full time career, and you take an occasional temporary “job” because you enjoy it (being an usher at Fenway Park because you love being around the game of baseball for example)?

  5. Benjmain says:

    I am verythankful that not only did I get a “career” job directly out of college, I have also been able to “move-up” within the organization.

    This has given me the advantage of seniority, full vesting in my company’s pension (not that these things are guarunteed anymore, and allowed me to establish a network of “friends” that I can rely on and trust when it comes to seeking guidance.

  6. Julie says:

    I think it’s all in how you look at it. I know people who most would consider in ‘careers’. They advance, they are good at what they do, it requires an advanced degree, they are near the top of their field, plan on continuing in the field, all the things you talk about defining a career.

    But, they don’t love it, it’s not a “passion”. It comes naturally, they are good at, can do it with their eyes closed, etc. To them, it’s a ‘job’. They go in, do their work, leave. They need it to make money. The money allows them to do what they really want to do in their spare time.

    I know a lot of people who are like this who are actually a lot happier than those who are always trying to find their “passion”. Not everyone is going to be able to do something they love and actually make money at it. I love lots of things, but nobody is going to pay me for it. So, I do a job I’m good at, so I can make money and do the things I love in my spare time.

  7. michael says:

    I don’t know. Most people who look at me think that I have a career. I work hard to excel at what I do, and have won multiple awards for my work.

    But I might as well be cleaning toilets. It’s just a paycheck to me.

  8. Anne K says:

    My last ‘real’ job started out as a way to advance my career. It turned into a job when several layoffs happened. There were only a few things I liked about the particular position, and I got some good out of it, but the interesting part died when the layoffs happened. The motivation changed from ‘let’s see what I can learn today and help make the world better’ to my new boss saying ‘if we do this right we won’t get fired’. After leaving that position right before my wedding, I’ve never gone back to working full time for anyone else. I started my own business, and am seriously considering starting another one to fill up spare time and work with my other interests.

  9. J.D. says:

    I don’t agree with you, Trent. A job is more than just something you do to earn money. I understand what you’re going for here, but I think you understate the importance of a job, and this sort of advice is what leads to people putting in half-ass effort. A job is always a chance to do your best. You can network at a job. I know many people who have done so. I’ve done so myself. I’ve cost myself dearly by treating jobs as if they were just a paycheck. I don’t agree with you on this one…

  10. Chris says:

    I can’t say I agree with your absolute job / career distinction.

    When I was a teenager I worked a ‘job’ at a grocery store. I was interested in computers and certainly not going to stay there the rest of my life, but I took pride in doing a good job. It wasn’t fair to the full-timers who did this for their career for me to just do the bare minimum. It wasn’t a good idea for me to get into bad habits of just getting by in my first real job. This was my first introduction to the working world and I chose to make it a positive experience where I went in and did a good job every day. I like to think that lesson has helped me in my current ‘career.’

    That’s what some might call character.

  11. nebula61 says:

    Wow, here I thought I had a job but according to your description I have a career! I found all these comments fascinating. I don’t agree with you either, Trent, but you do have a knack for initiating good discussions. My definition of a job versus career is “do you dream about it?” Not daydream, but actually dream at night. If you are emotionally invested in your career, you will dream about it regularly, if it’s just a job, you might have some nightmares, but generally it will not dwell in your mind enough to dream about. Ok, maybe this a weird way to classify it, but try it out. Like Johanna, I don’t want to advance further in my “career” and therefore sort of think of it as a job. I’m doing my job at the level I’m happy with. Like Julie pointed out, I’m good at it and I plan to stay in the field, but I “like” it rather than “love” it.

  12. Louie says:

    i tend to agree with J.D on this one. Being a college student i have had my fair share of “jobs” but i have displayed all of my excellent qualities in taking these “jobs” seriously and i think it is an excellent way of going about things. The small jobs i have now are creating a network of references etc for my future resume not to mention the experiences i have gained from, for example, my current job at a bike shop. Not only has it provided me with a lot of knowledge that will be extremely applicable to the rest of my life but a lot of people i will likely cross paths with ride bikes etc.
    just because it isnt your dream job doesnt mean you shouldnt treat it like a great opportunity.

  13. Michael says:

    I also agree with J.D. I do not believe one needs to worry about conserving mental energy except in stressful situations. If one’s mind is out of shape, it will get back into shape through sustained use.

  14. Mister E says:

    Meh, a job is a career is a job.

    I understand what you’re trying to say, but I have a “career” type job and it’s just a means to get by. I like that I get raises that outpace inflation that’s for sure but really I take no particular pride in my job title and the only reason that I’d ever like a more “important” title is for the dollars attached to it – junior data entry or VP, if the money was the same I could care less. I’ve never been impressed by a job title and I don’t seek to impress others with my own.

    I’m sure some people out there have a real passion for what they do, I’ve seen people say so on TV and I’ve read comments on here from people that claim that they do, but I’ve never met anyone at all in real life that really enjoys their job (/career) all THAT much.

    Not to say that everyone I know HATES their job either, in fact most (including me) don’t. But at the end of the day, if money was no object, the extreme majority of us wouldn’t be doing what we do, yuppie corporate nonsense OR McJob. In fact almost all of the corporate types I work with are all just in this until they can get out of it if that makes any sense at all. That’s where the interest in personal finance comes from for me.

  15. guinness416 says:

    I’m spared typing too much because I agree with everything Mister E wrote pretty much word for word. Nicely done sir!

  16. Yes, Trent I agree with so many of the disagreers above. I had jobs throughout college and when it came time to interview for careers, those “jobs” were all I had on my resume. They were SO important.

  17. Mark B. says:

    Mister E – Right on, could not have said it better myself.

    My job is technically a “career” and I continue to get raises/promotions even though I have absolutely zero passion for it and I really do not go “above and beyond” what is expected.

    My interest in personal finance is to find a way out of the daily office grind and do the things I love to do, which right now would mean being a stay at home dad.

  18. Becky@FamilyandFinances says:

    It seems I have a lot in common with the other commentors. I also have a “career” that also classifies as a “job”. I’m in the right line of work for my personality and interests, but I’m just putting in my time until my husband and I start our family. I don’t take the job home with me, don’t work overtime, and am not looking to “advance”.

  19. Benjamin says:

    Then again, I can’t even spell my own name right! (see above posts)lol!

  20. Bickie says:

    I whole heartedly agree with Julie’s comment; but a wise person once told me that a job is just really a ‘job’, and it’s what you make of it everyday, whether it’s a means to earn money or a way to advance your career. The majority of us don’t “love” what we do, but at least we can turn around and love what we do during our spare time.

  21. Izabelle says:

    I disagree with you, Trent. To me, the career is the forest, the jobs are the trees.

    The job I have now (which I usually love and always work very hard at) is part of my career. The previous one, where putting in only the required energy would have been a fair sanity-saving strategy, was still part of the same career.The 4-day receptionist stint I had before that also counts because I learned from it things that I still use everyday.

    If a job, no matter the glass ceiling or the lack of creative license, advances you towards achieving your greater plan (student job, anyone?), then why see it as anything less than a part of your career?

  22. Ari Herzog says:

    Unfortunately, most Americans are satisfied with a job, mundane or not, every day because they make money. And ultimately, many people feel it’s not so much how a job, or a career, fuels your passion if you’re not making as much money as the next job.

    Me, I’m between jobs right now but in the same career.

  23. Carlos says:

    It’s pretty hard to nail down these definitions, concretely. A job is what we all do. Calling it a career implies that it’s a chosen path, rather than a time filler. I’ve worked for the same employer for 22 years, and at times it’s been exceptionally boring, at times, the best place on earth. Either way, the checks keep coming, 401(k) matching remains in place, and I get 25 days of paid vacation (in addition to 13 holidays) a year.

    I’ve gotten other offers (higher paying, more exciting, etc.), but, it’s easier to stay. Sadly, I know that if I can just hang in another six years (no matter how good or bad it gets), I should be able to retire.

    Is this a good way to live? For me, it works. In the mean-time, I’m kayaking, biking, hiking, and having some fun when I’m not at work. Once I retire, I’ll be able to do more kayaking, biking, and hiking, and will also volunteer (part-time) for a charity I work with today.

  24. Ben says:

    All jobs should be part of your “career.” There is always something to be learned from any position. And, you can never predict how/when you will meet coworkers or customers in the future. It’s a small world.

  25. Melvin says:

    Nice post… Finding a good career will be tough though… While getting a paycheck/job is not.

  26. momof4 says:

    I don’t agree with you here at all. I can see value in the skills I learned and the connections I made at every empolyment opportunity.Also it feels to me that a “job” is something less because there is no status or title or opportunity to advance. I’m left with the impression that it’s okay to maybe do less than your best for just a job. There’s no shame in hard work done well, even if it just pays the bills and allows you to live the rest of your life. Not everyone wants the “career”

  27. This actually makes me feel better about how I approached my old job and how much energy I put into side projects like writing and blogging.

  28. Jeff says:

    Dan Miller spends a chapter discussing “job”, “career”, and “vocation” in his “48 Days to the Work You Love”. I actually thought that it was one of the best chapters in the book as it made me truly look inward at what I had and what I wanted between those three.

  29. sara says:

    Every job I have had has thought me something, mostly that I don’t want a career. But the distinction is a bit artificial, I think; just look at all the commenters above who don’t give two figs about their career, and perhaps the people you know ( or don’t know- I happen to be one of them) who are happy & fulfilled in what Trent would call a job & do not plan on moving on to greener pastures, at least not on a regular basis.

  30. "Mo" Money says:

    Good post. This would be good for all the grads to think about.

  31. Sharron says:

    I enjoy reading your posts very much, but I’d like you to consider another category–vocation. Being the Lutheran that I am, I’ve always been inspired by Martin Luther’s writings on the sacredness of vocation–i.e. the life’s work we all do. And I’ve found, too, that all the seemingly random “jobs” and my career choice as a teacher, led to my ultimate vocation as a pastor and community organizer. It seems to me that all work, when done well and to the best of our abilities, is part of our vocation and done to the glory of our Creator, whether you refer to the Divine one as God, Allah, Spirit, or YHWH. Keep up the good work with your vocation as a writer. Thanks!

  32. M says:

    Thanks thats just what I needed to pass on.
    The lines between job and career can be blured, I don’t think Trent ever said if you work a job you shouldn’t care about how it’s done, but a job is just a job and I agree with Trent as I have seen people work themself to death for a paycheck in a job they will go no where in, for a boss who doesn’t care and make themselves sick about it. And there are lots of people who love their jobs, and thats great but it’s a job not your life.
    “Save that investment for your family, your passions, or your career.” I’m going to use that.
    Great comments everyone.
    Great article.

  33. Jen says:

    Here’s a thought:

    Your job is the thing you do right now to earn money.

    Your career is the series of jobs you do and the way they progress and relate to each other.

    Your work is the thing you do throughout your life because it’s fulfilling.

    You may have a job that’s only a discrete point in your career. Your work may have nothing to do with your career, even if it becomes a job at some point. If you’re really, really lucky, you will be able to combine all three.

    (Have I confused anyone besides myself yet? Hee hee.)

  34. Gayle says:

    (sic) “putting your ear to the grindstone” should read “nose” not “ear” = )

  35. nebula says:

    I agree w/Jen’s definitions. As for Mr. E’s comments, I live w/someone who really does have a passion for what he does for a living (that’s how I know I’m not on the same level) and he doesn’t consider it a job or a career, to him, it’s his work and he would do it whether he was paid or not. The fact that some nice people pay him for it is a bonus to him! He’s talented at it, he’s educated for it, and he inspires everyone with his enduring enthusiasm for his field. Plus, he one of the happiest people I know!

  36. Mister E says:


    I’m glad to hear it. Like I said, I’ve heard rumour of such people. Good luck to both of you!

  37. Hi Trent,
    I’m a first time poster but a long time reader. I really enjoy you blog :) I normally agree with your advice (except the one about the clothesline…We have one and it’s great!) but I have to heartily disagree with you on this one. The only difference between me and your example is that I work in a video store. I don’t see this as a career since I have no desire to become the manager but I do all those things you mentioned anyway (cleaning the store, asking a lot of questions, etc). I do this because I believe in doing the best job you can. We have a staff of about 20 people ranging in ages from 14 to 49; high school students, university students, and part-time working Moms and if they all took your advice of not putting in the effort then our store would fall to pieces. Thankfully most of them do their job and more because they take pride in a job well done. I think it sends the wrong message to the youth of today that it’s okay to stand around and do nothing since it’s “only” a job. If anything, they should be taught to have a stronger work ethic rather than a weaker one.

  38. Mrs. P says:

    I think a job is the function you serve for a paycheck which could be related to your career or not. Whatever you are tasked to do, you should do it the best you can and put in the correct amount of heart and soul to ensure that the job is well done. If you are a french fry cook or the president, you are paid to do the job and do it to your best ability.

    A career is a series of jobs that are related. Your career is going well if your jobs build on each other and your jobs continue to be interesting and economically rewarding. If you have a fairly long career, it’s likely that you will hold a variety of jobs. Most people crave opportunities for growth and learning.

    I am a teacher. Before I was a college student then a secretary. I’ve also worked in the food industry and educational films and other kinds of jobs that weren’t really related to each other. Thankfully I learned a lot about the business world and computers and the information and experiences I gained helped me get more and better work. All of these experiences have been useful since becoming a teacher–now I teach career education.

  39. pam munro says:

    If we are lucky we have passions which lead to careers (mine is theatrical) – and if you are VERY lucky that leads to a well-paying position (mine has occasionally for very short periods). In the meantime someone like me has has many jobs just to make ends meet. Some of them have side benefits, as learning skills (for me it was business skills and typing and using computers) – hopefully if the money isn’t great, you are at least LEARNING something! And in this reapis changing world being diversified is a definite plus for survival!.

  40. Career Outlook says:

    Excellent post, after a long time I have read something worthwhile about career

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