How to Progress Your Career Pathway in Architecture or Design—Without “Climbing the Ladder”

Does “climbing the ladder” make you think of horrible 80’s shoulder pads, teased hair, and backstabbing colleagues? If you never connected with the idea of climbing the ladder, you’re not alone. 

If you do creative work, you just may not be motivated by simply climbing the ladder. But that doesn’t mean you’re not longing for more certainty around what your career pathway should be. If you’re longing for more personal and professional development in your creative work or are feeling bored in your job, it might be a sign that it’s time to look for some career progression strategies that fit the unique nature of creative work.

Career Progression Strategies for Creative Work

One of the biggest misconceptions I see in the women in architecture and design that I work with is that they think  “career progression” only means switching jobs or getting a promotion.

That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yes, there will be points in our careers when we get promotions or change jobs, but there are so many career progression strategies that are just as important as moving up in title.

These strategies involve setting personal and professional development goals for what you want to achieve in your creative career. And when you fill your career pathway with these milestones and accomplishments, it lines you up for promotions and other great career opportunities coming your way.

Here are just a few alternative career development goal examples to get you thinking:

  • Landing an incredible career-making project
  • Steering a project of yours so that it becomes category-defining and changes the game in your region, market or industry. 
  • Starting that new internal project that fills your days with purpose
  • Having the word get out about your internal leadership – so you’re asked on panels and onto boards and committee

Early vs. Mid Career Progression for Architects and Designers

Early on in our careers “career growth“ is so very clear in the architecture and design fields.

Master the skill, complete the project, take this effort through that phase. Get your first promotion. Pass that test.

But as we grow in our careers, career stages and career pathways still exist, they’re just a lot more subtle.

Here are three of the most common places I see women in architecture and design get stuck when it comes to career progression as we grow in our career pathway.

1. We feel too tired to grow. As life gets busier and we get more responsibility at work, we start to feel like we just can’t sustain the pace of hustle and bustle that allowed us to shine earlier in our careers and work work work all the time that allowed us to meet those early milestones.

There’s constant deadline pressure. It may feel like you’re moving from one design deadline to another.

Everything feels like a squeeze. We don’t feel like we are being fairly compensated for all we do, and the path ahead just doesn’t seem sustainable. We look around and think, “What is this all adding up to? Why did I work so hard?”

It seems like there’s no way forward, so we settle, sit tight, and sometimes stop looking for growth and fulfillment at work—and look only to our personal lives.

2. We get overly focused on ladder climbing: Chasing the next title, the next job. We do this because we feel we need to grow… and mistakenly think that titles are the only way.

3. Give up because we can’t figure out where to go next. This is often an outcome of merciless ladder climbing. We get to the end of the rainbow and realize that what we achieved isn’t filling us up. 

Professional Development Creates Your Career Pathway in Architecture and Design

When we face some of these pitfalls, we get disillusioned because we feel that the system has been tricking us by forcing us to go from carrot to carrot, and it’s time to opt out. That looks different for different people, but it often shows up as just coasting at work, quitting for something that we don’t love but pays more, or turning to our personal lives as our sole source of fulfillment and growth.

This is a mistake. Because work can be meaningful—and should be meaningful—at all stages of the way. 

You don’t need to quiet that inner voice that says “I want more.”

You just need to find an appropriate way to meet its call.

And that looks different at midcareer and late career than it does early on in our work lives.

And here’s why it’s so important:

If you let yourself coast at work—because you can’t figure out what your next career growth should look like—it’s very risky for your career. 

Because bored people become invisible. They bring less and less value to what they do. They bring less of their energy and intention to work. Their coworkers feel less connected to them. They aren’t on the list of those considered when that next stretch project or opportunity comes in the door. Their career progression and professional development slows down.

In short, it’s like giving yourself an early retirement. In moments of crisis in our industries, that’s when people get offered those voluntary early retirement packages. Or those not so voluntary layoffs.

And engaged and valuable people are often paid more and recognized more—in all ways. Whether it’s a raise (my clients have gotten $25k, $40k, and even $80k and $100k salary bumps) or getting to lead that industry-changing project.

Career Progression Examples for Architects and Designers

So this is what it looks like to take the other path.

Here are just a few recent stories from my clients to inspire you.

  • The client who worked with me a few years ago and just got promoted into a senior role. Her career progression resulted from the good work she was doing: She spent the last few years initiating amazing visionary projects that changed the game in her city.
  • The client who pivoted to a new career where she could bring her favorite skills to the table. She didn’t have to make do with a cookie cutter career pathway—she was offered a position created just for her leading an initiative that came out of a project she convened. 
  • The client who just steered her office towards earning its most revenue ever in a month while freeing herself up to be more of the face of the company—by training her staff to anticipate deadlines and come to meetings with solutions. Learning to stop micromanaging was one of her professional and personal development goals of the last few years.

Each of these women defined their own career pathway through pursuing the professional development goals that excited them. Chasing titles only goes so far in creative work. It’s totally possible to find the career progression pathway that works best for you by following what drives you in your creative work.


Want to understand what drives you and understand how to translate into the right career growth pathway for you? Register for my free masterclass: Fulfilling Career Growth on Your Own Terms.

Hi I'm Maya

Mia Scharphie , career coach, headshot

I’m a career coach and strategist with a secret power (I mean, past career) as a designer. I love road trips, graphic novels and helping people like you design the career you love on your own terms.