What does a career path for a generalist look like?

My traditional career path

I spent over a decade building my engineering career. I worked for 2 multinational engineering  consultancies and a state government transport department. My engineering career to date looked just like this:

  • I started with a role as a Graduate Engineer which I did for the three years, building up my technical experience and skills within structural engineering and then traffic engineering.

  • I achieved chartered status with Engineers Australia, CPEng (Chartered Professional Engineer), within 3 years of graduation. The average timeframe to achieve this at the time was 8 years after graduation.

  • I was promoted to Professional Engineer and did this role for the next two years, building up my technical and project management experience within traffic engineering and transport planning.

  • I took on a role as Senior Transport Planner, which I held for three and a half years, specialising in transport planning and in particular sustainable transport planning: public transport, cycling, and pedestrians.

  • My final role in this career was as a Principal Engineer with a state government department for one and half years, delivering transport planning projects as a project manager.

My career could have kept going in this trajectory whether in the private or public sector:

  • Associate Director

  • Technical Director

  • And so on, climbing the corporate ladder.

But it was not what I was born to do. It was not my calling. Nor was it an expression of my values and my potential.

My not-so-traditional career path

Actually, that was not the whole truth. I lied, just a little bit. That is how I like to show off my career to potential engineering employers. Let’s review my career path with a different lens, my career journey looks a little bit more chaotic, haphazard and perhaps generalist. It looked more like this:

  • Engineering for 5 years

  • Teaching English to adults as a freelancer working for multiple companies, teaching in a kindergarten, and teaching English in children’s school-holiday and after-school programs in Germany for 2 years

  • Engineering for four and a half years

  • A sabbatical year: volunteering at various non-profits: teaching children to code at local libraries, digital marketing and community engagement with a social enterprise startup, as well as completing my Certificate IV in Small Business Management at TAFE, and starting an ecommerce business which failed.

To some people, 12 years of engineering, teaching English, teaching at a kindergarten, going back to engineering, volunteering with non-profits & social enterprises, and getting my Certificate IV in TAFE would have looked like the career path of someone who did not know what they were doing with themselves. It looks quite messy and directionless. In part, they can be right, because I did not have a clear and clever strategy guiding all of these decisions. But, all of these experiences had one common denominator: I was curious and hungry to learn. All of my roles I chose specifically because I wanted to learn, I was actively learning about topics that were of interest to me.

In 12 years I built up experience in a broad range of industries and skills: engineering, project management, leadership, digital marketing, business administration, education, sales, corporate partnerships, and community engagement. I had in fact developed a generalist career path. I had a ‘good enough’ level of achievement across a broad range of skills, but I was not a specialist in anything. Even my engineering experience was quite broad, rather than delving into deep technical expertise.

After 12 years of doing a bunch of random professions, I decided to start my own business. It is this unique 12 years of experience that I allowed me to hit the ground running in starting my own business.

The generalist career path can be devalued in the eyes of recruitment. But effective teams are built on a foundation of specialists lead at the top by generalists. Generalists have their place in effective teams, but it is not a path for everyone.

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It is a fine line between doing random jobs because you don’t know what to do with yourself and doing seemingly random jobs because you have a generalist career path you would like to pursue. Although I admit that I did not have a clear strategy, it is important to keep this mind with important career decisions. My unintentional strategy was to pursue learning in all areas that I was curious.

Lucky for me, my curious professional choices lead to a broad range of experiences that allowed me to build my business. For this generalist path, I am grateful.


Before you start your own business, have a look at these workbooks and spreadsheets to help you make sense of what it means to start and run your own business.

Feel free to contact me, I would love to hear from you.