In a Mid-Career Rut? Here’s How To Escape It

Maryland Smith Experts Share New Ways To Reinvigorate Your 9-5

Oct 19, 2018
Management and Organization

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Work can become a bit mundane, even for people who truly love what they do. It often happens when we’re mid-career; things become so predictable and unexciting that we start to operate on autopilot.

“If you’ve been in a rut for a long time, you assume that’s just the way things are,” says J. Gerald Suarez, an executive coach and Maryland Smith professor of the practice in systems thinking and design. “You probably aren’t even aware of how complacent you’ve become. It becomes a pervasive, chronic attitude.”

Neta Moye, a Maryland Smith clinical professor of management, says people often fall into a career rut when they aren’t being challenged at work. She points to research that finds one of the things people value most at work is the opportunity to learn new skills. “In fact, a lot of the time people leave a job because they don’t feel like they are stretching themselves,” Moye says.

Before you start drafting your resignation letter, say Moye and Suarez, look for ways to escape your rut and find new challenges where you are.

Suarez recommends taking a step back to do a thorough and candid self-assessment, asking yourself whether you like what you’re doing now, whether you feel fulfilled by it and whether you’re moving in a direction you want to go. These are the questions people should ask themselves once or twice a year, he says.

“I think it’s essential that we break with the pattern of busyness and create time to say objectively, to the best of your ability, how you’d assess your day, your career, your progression, your contribution, your impact,” says Suarez, who wrote a book on the subject, “Leader of One: Shaping Your Future Through Imagination and Design.”

“If you don’t like the answer to any of those, you need to go deeper and ask why.”

Many workplaces have programs that encourage employees to seek out new development courses and other training. If yours doesn’t, and you’re ready to learn new skills, seek out development experiences on your own, Moye says. There are a range of options out there, with varying time and financial commitments. 

Are you ready to start working toward an MBA? The University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School has full-time, part-time and online options designed to fit into your schedule.

And if you're not ready to commit to a full MBA program, Maryland Smith recently introduced a MicroMasters in MBA Core Curriculum program on the edX platform, where online participants learn core business skills from Smith faculty and interact with fellow students on message boards to build their professional networks.

The program offers seven courses – covering topics in marketing, leadership, finance, data analytics, strategy, accounting and IT – and participants can sign up for individual course modules at no cost. Each course has seven modules that can be viewed in any order, including videos and exercises. Participants can enroll in the full program for $1,350 and earn a certificate or credits they can transfer toward a degree in Smith’s online MBA program.

Moye teaches leadership and influence in the MicroMasters program, which launched on Oct. 8 and has more than 10,000 participants enrolled. She says it’s the perfect course to help escape a career rut.

“You don’t have to change jobs to keep developing mastery,” she says. “That’s the way the class is developed; it offers sets of behaviors that you can put into practice right away. It’s all about using day-to-day experiences for ongoing personal development.”

Building a personal development plan is one of Moye’s assignments in the course, along with encouragement to try to things. “We call it ‘deliberate practice,’” she says.

“Leaders get better through repeated cycles of deliberate practices. If I were bored in my current job, engaging in a couple of rounds of deliberate practice for six months or a year might make it more fun and interesting, and build my skills at the same time.”

Suarez says being in a program like the MicroMasters isn’t about just stretching yourself to learn new skills; it’s also about self-discovery. For people who aren’t sure what they want next in their career, it offers some great benefits and requires less of a time commitment than a full- or part-time degree program, he says.

“There is incredible collateral value in being exposed to others and to new information in these programs,” he says. “We tend to focus on degrees, but the experiential value of a program is nurturing and revitalizing possibilities for us, and helping us gain new insights about things that could be exciting, appealing and interesting.”

Don’t overreact to boredom at work and the feeling of being in a rut by thinking you need to change jobs, he says. Instead, ask yourself the basic question, “What do I want?”

Joining a program like the MicroMasters may offer the stimulation that you need to revitalize your curiosity and explore new options. It could help you escape the rut, could lead you to new opportunities or could open the doors to further educational opportunities. Suarez says participants should see the class and program as a bridge to get you where you want to go.

“It’s a tactic that accelerates the pursuit of what you want to accomplish.”



About the Expert(s)

Neta Moye

Dr. Moye has over 25 years of experience in the field of human resources with particular expertise in helping individuals develop leader skills. She has spent the last 10 years focused on the practice of leadership development across academic, industry, and government settings. She has experience both designing and delivering leadership development solutions across the full range of development activities including formal classroom curricula, experiential development activities, executive coaching, and leader assessments and debriefs.


Dr. J. Gerald Suarez is a premier educator, speaker and consultant in the fields of Organizational Design, Systems Thinking and Total Quality Management. Suarez joined Smith in 2005 as Executive Director of the multidisciplinary Quality Enhancement Systems and Teams (QUEST) Honors Fellows program. He was a Ralph J. Tyser Teaching Fellow and an Executive Education Senior Fellow. From 2008 to 2010 he served as Associate Dean of External Strategy, leading the offices of marketing communications, recruitment and career services.

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