Nobody likes losing a job. Imagine showing up at a place you’ve worked for decades, and before you’ve even had your first cup of coffee, you’re being escorted out by security with a warning about disclosing trade secrets or poaching clients.

You can’t go back. The doors are locked.

Horrible as this is, for most of you, it’s not insurmountable. You’ve got a transferable skill set (everybody likes a tax attorney who’s good with depreciation). You know a lot of people in your field (shocked clients will recommend you even if your ex-boss hates you). You have a family and social life to help you deal with stress. You’ll live.

For other professionals, what looks like a manageable setback is in fact catastrophic. Where other professionals get fired from a job, these professionals get fired from a career. I call this the “Career Catastrophe Syndrome” (CCS).

These careers have a number of characteristics:

  • A credential that takes many years to achieve and maintain
  • A skill set that is not easily transferable
  • Many years of employment with the same organization with little promotion
  • Positions in which the job title itself  describes the primary achievement

These jobs occur most often in

  • The arts
  • Academia
  • Nonprofits
  • Some branches of government
  • Specializations in aspects of conventional professions for which there is limited demand

Here are some examples to illustrate CCS:

  • An employee at a fine arts nonprofit with many years of study of a minor artist runs afoul of a major donor, finds herself blacklisted, and cannot find other employment (this happens when an academic is denied tenure as well).
  • A specialist in analysis of covert operations has an ill-advised one night stand and loses his security clearance.
  • Budget cuts result in cancellation of a grant supporting a doctor who specializes in a rare disease, and there are no similar positions available.
  • A foreign affairs specialist on an exotic country quits a job in order to care for a dying loved one, and cannot find a job when he returns because he is too far out of the loop.

Here are some problems unique to CCS:

  • CCS professionals (CCPs) find their job loss particularly traumatic because of the (in some cases) decades they have devoted to their specialized knowledge and skills.
  • CCPs become deeply isolated, more rapidly than others because their social lives are more than usually tied to their work; in the case of loss of a security clearance, former colleagues may be forbidden from continued socialization.
  • CCP networks tend to be smaller and more specialized, and therefore harder to leverage; some CCPs have to build networks from scratch.
  • CCPs are undergoing not just a forced job search, but a forced career change, on short notice with no forethought. They may rarely or never have had to search for jobs, and have far worse job search skills than other professionals.
  • CCPs’ jobs and achievements can work against them in modern resume-writing. Many small organizations promote very slowly, leading to the impression of career stagnation. Esoteric fields can be difficult to describe even in person. Achievements may be encapsulated in job titles, and skill sets involved in these jobs may not be immediately obvious.

Because of all of this, CCPs can have trouble identifying potential employers. In addition, there are two important psychological notes: CCPs succeed in fields where intelligence is prized, and often feel themselves “in charge,” either in terms of significant management and functional responsibilities, or being the authority on some issue, or both. The realization that this is permanently gone is a serious blow to the CCP’s self-image, and may be accompanied by a degree of denial that hinders actions to deal with the situation.

Second, like a lot of intelligent, successful people CCPs can be narcissistic. It feels like they should have a job, and they don’t understand why they don’t. They can give up surprisingly easily or fall into despair very quickly, and sometimes not try as hard as they need to, because they are used to things coming if not easily, then as a matter of course.

If you are suffering from CCP, please stay tuned for next month’s article with some helpful tips.

The Career Catastrophe Part 2