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Career vs. Job: How They're Different and Why It Matters

By Publisher
| Last Updated April 22, 2022

Is your work central to who you are, or is it just a source of income? This question lies at the heart of any discussion about career vs. job. Most of us have to have a job in order to earn money and meet our basic needs. But when does a job become a career?

As you will see below, the answer is more complicated than you might think. But in essence, the difference between a job and a career is related to perception and motivation. In other words, how you view the work and why you choose to undertake it are key factors. A Pew Research Center survey found that roughly half of American workers characterize their occupations as careers because they derive a sense of identity from the work. But 30 percent see their jobs as just something they do to make money.

This article details the meaning of and difference between "career" and "job." It also explains why it's important to choose a career and what you should consider when making your choice. And it offers several practical tips about how you can evaluate job offers, negotiate the terms, and accept opportunities that move your career forward.

Job vs. Career: Definitions and Differences

Smiling man using a tabletWhile the two terms are often used interchangeably, "jobs" and "careers" are not the same things.

A job is a task or series of tasks performed in exchange for money. It's a specific position of employment that can be full-time, part-time, or temporary (i.e., for a fixed term). It may or may not require special skills or training. The primary motivation for undertaking a job is to earn money, but you might also choose to try out different jobs in order to see which occupations suit you the best.

The typical career definition is more complicated. A career is the entire sequence of jobs you hold throughout your lifetime. It encompasses all the training and experiences that help you advance toward a larger aim, such as greater knowledge, increased satisfaction, higher earnings, or more responsibility. Building a career requires setting goals and often involves getting formal education or special training.

If you have a career, it means you have started out on a path that you are invested in and want to advance along. Thus, any occupation that you choose to dedicate yourself to over the long term is considered a career. Examples of careers are teacher, chef, pilot, nurse, electrician, graphic designer, accountant, and software developer. There are hundreds of others.

So, what's the difference between a job and a career? A job is something that is given to you, whereas a career is something that is created by you. You apply for jobs and may work a series of them without a lot of thought for the future. However, a career usually involves progressing in one occupational area or aiming for some sort of long-term goal. Thus, one of the key differences between "job" and "career" lies in the way you perceive the work.

For example, a student who takes a part-time position as a housecleaner in order to earn some spending money would probably label it as a job rather than a career. That's because his or her sole purpose for doing the work is to earn a paycheck. He or she is not particularly passionate about cleaning and is not thinking about turning it into his or her life's work. The role is simply a means to make some cash.

On the other hand, a student who spends a summer as a camp counselor may discover that he or she loves the job and ultimately wants to follow a career path that involves working with children. In this case, a job becomes the beginning of a career journey.

Most people believe that a career is better than a job because a career typically utilizes your skills and interests; it also involves progress and growth. If you see something as "just a job," you probably aren't deriving much fulfillment from it. But if you commit to something as a career, you are inspired to learn more about that field and pursue jobs that further your goals.

Additional Terms

Two other terms also deserve some discussion: "profession" and "vocation."

While profession is often used to mean a specific career field, it also has a narrower meaning. It is sometimes defined as an occupational sector that is primarily intellectual, requires formal education, and is governed by specific licensing regulations or a code of conduct. Law, medicine, engineering, architecture, and psychology are examples of professions. Someone in a profession is paid to use or share knowledge (whereas someone in a trade is paid to render physical services or produce a tangible good).

A vocation is a calling or an occupation for which you are immensely well-suited due to your values, interests, abilities, or beliefs. Some people say that the difference between a vocation and a career is that a vocation is an activity that you are truly passionate about, while a career is the line of work you choose. But those can be the same thing. For instance, your vocation might be to heal people, and your career might be in medicine. But your vocation and your career can also be different. For example, you may be passionately drawn to music production, but for various reasons, you choose to build a career in information technology.

In common usage, vocation is often a synonym for career. Thus, vocational training is a type of education focused on developing the skills that are needed for a specific occupation (such as carpentry, dental hygiene, or hairstyling).

The job vs. career vs. profession vs. vocation distinctions are subtle, but they can be important.

What to Consider When Choosing a Career

Professional women working on a laptopChoosing a career is important because it gives you a direction and a sense of purpose. After all, you will likely spend 30 or 40 years in the paid workforce, and you don't want to devote all that time to work that doesn't engage or challenge you. Of course, over time, your values may shift and your goals may change. But your aim should always be to find a path that's right for you.

Here are four things you should think about when choosing a career:

1. What do you enjoy doing?

You choose a career in life by first examining your interests. What hobbies do you have? How do you choose to spend your time? Here are just a few examples of interests that can help lead you to a potential career path:

  • Writing
  • Drawing
  • Cooking
  • Building or fixing things
  • Solving puzzles
  • Playing an instrument
  • Leading a team
  • Helping people
  • Manipulating numbers
  • Taking pictures
  • Caring for children
  • Discovering new technology

2. What skills and abilities do you have?

Think about what you're good at. Make a list of your natural talents as well as the abilities you've developed through formal educational programs, self-study, or life experience. Have you acquired communication, critical-thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, teamwork, or organizational skills? Are you adept at analyzing data, managing money, or inspiring others to action? Can you relate to people and put them at ease? Identifying your unique skill set will help you understand where your strengths lie.

3. What's your preferred work style?

Reflect on the type of environment in which you are most comfortable. Do you value structure and routine, or do you prefer work that is more free-form? Are you content to work at a computer, or would you rather have an active job that doesn't keep you tied to a desk? Do you perform better when you have a supervisor to guide you and keep you accountable, or do you thrive when you can set your own agenda and schedule? Do you cherish working independently, or are you happiest when you have lots of social interaction?

You may not have all of these answers yet, particularly if you're new to the workforce. That's OK. But it's wise to keep such questions in mind when choosing a focus for your working life.

4. What are your goals and priorities?

Many people get fixated on making money. But while earning potential is an important consideration, a bigger paycheck does not automatically bring greater job satisfaction. The trick is to find work that fulfills you and pays enough for you to live the kind of life you want.

That requires balancing priorities. For instance, do you want to be able to come home at a certain time each day, or are you OK with a more unpredictable schedule that may involve overtime or travel?

Also, some careers require you to live in certain types of locations. For example, a marine mechanic will likely need to live near water, while a fashion designer will probably have to be based in a big city. If the kind of work you want to do isn't readily available in your area, you'll have to decide whether you're willing to move to a place with more opportunities.

True contentment comes from pursuing a career that aligns with the interests, values, and goals that are most important to you. Considering each of the questions above will help you set a course for getting to where you ultimately want to go.

6 Tips on Evaluating, Negotiating, and Accepting Job Offers

Accepting Job OffersMoving forward in a career requires careful planning. Every job provides a chance to learn new things, but the best ones allow you to develop relevant skills, acquire useful experience, and make valuable contacts that can advance your ambitions. So it's important to weigh all the factors and determine what you can gain from each job opportunity.

Keep in mind that even if you ace an interview, it might take a while to hear back from a potential employer. Be patient (but don't stop looking for other opportunities). You should wait a few weeks for a job offer.

A job offer means you got the job—if you want it. However, it's not official until you sign on the dotted line, and even then, things can change. In a 2018 Jobvite survey of recruiters, 75 percent said they'd seen job seekers back out after signing a job offer letter, mostly because those candidates had received more compelling offers from other organizations. Plus, some job offers are contingent upon passing a drug test and/or criminal background check.

You're within your legal rights to walk away if you haven't actually signed an employment contract. However, declining an offer after you've already accepted it is awkward, so you want to be sure you make the right choice.

With that in mind, here's what to do if you get a job offer:

1. Find out when you need to respond.

Don't feel like you have to say yes or no right away. Normally, you can wait a couple days before accepting a job offer. Feel free to politely ask whether there is a deadline, but always express your thanks and let the hiring manager know how enthusiastic you are about the opportunity (even if you need more time to review it). If the company demands an immediate answer, that's a potential sign of trouble. You deserve a bit of time. After all, you should consider whether the job requirements are in line with your long-term career goals before accepting a job offer.

2. Evaluate the details of the offer.

Assess the whole compensation package, including base salary as well as any performance bonuses, stock options, or profit-sharing arrangements. A typical job offer letter includes benefits details, but some companies don't provide that information. If you don't have it, ask for it so that you can determine whether you'll receive key perks like health insurance or a retirement plan. Also, reflect on the work schedule and company culture. Above all, be absolutely certain that you understand everything you are agreeing to. Don't just assume you'll figure out all the details later on.

If you have more than one offer, create a comparison chart to help you assess the pros and cons of each. Accepting a job is a major life decision; you owe it to yourself to consider every angle.

3. Think about the commute.

If you can, do a test run of your commute (if there is one) before committing to the position. Simulate the real thing as much as possible so that you can get a true sense of how it will go. For example, if you will be working weekdays from 9 to 5, don't try to judge the drive at noon on a Saturday, since the traffic experience will be vastly different.

If you find the commute too long or too aggravating, it might be worth asking about flexible hours or work-from-home options before accepting the job.

4. Negotiate your salary.

Many experts believe that you should never accept the first salary offer. That's because there may be some wiggle room, and you don't want to leave money on the table. Close to three-quarters of recruiters in the Jobvite survey said they'd noticed a greater number of job candidates stepping up to negotiate salaries. And in most cases, doing so didn't hurt the candidates' chances of getting hired.

You can negotiate salary after receiving an offer letter. By that point, the employer is sold on you and is likely extremely invested in bringing you on board, which gives you some leverage to go after a better deal. That's true even if you are looking at an entry-level position. (Just be aware that in most cases, you can't negotiate after accepting a job offer, so you need to have all your ducks in a row early on.)

When offered a job, you ask for a higher salary by presenting a counteroffer. Emphasize the positive impact you will have on the company and present solid reasons as to why you're worth more. For example, maybe you have many years of experience in a similar role. Or maybe you have unique specialized skills that can benefit the company. Or perhaps your research on job titles and earnings has shown that the typical salary for the position is higher.

Keep in mind that negotiation should be a collaborative process; you don't want to become confrontational or adversarial. Here are a few examples of what you might say:

  • "I'm thrilled about the opportunity to join the team, but I'd be more comfortable if we could discuss a slightly higher salary of $X. Based on my market research, that's the industry average for this type of position in this area."
  • "Given my skills and experience that we discussed during the interview, I'm confident that I will achieve outstanding results for the company. So I'd like to talk about moving the starting salary closer to $X."
  • "I'm very excited about working here and I'm certain that I will add a lot of value to the team. With my specific skill set and background, I think $X is a more appropriate starting point for a discussion."

As a general rule, you can ask for 10 to 20 percent more in salary negotiation. The exact percentage you choose will depend on how satisfied you are with the opening offer. You should have two figures in mind: the amount you really want to earn and the minimum amount you're willing to accept.

When you present your counteroffer, aim high. Most companies expect a bit of give-and-take, and you want to leave room for them to come back with a figure that is lower than your asking price but higher than your secret minimum. It also pays to be precise: Research has shown that job seekers who ask for a non-rounded-off amount (such as $65,370 rather than $65,000) do better in negotiations because they give the impression that they are better informed about their market value.

5. Send an acceptance note.

Once you're happy with all the terms, thank the company and let them know that you're ready to accept the job. That could be as simple as signing and returning the offer letter. However, if you negotiated changes to the original offer, it's wise to recap the details so that everyone involved is clear about what's been agreed to. It's also a smart move to get the final offer in writing before moving forward.

In your acceptance letter, you may want to ask about what comes next. Is there paperwork you need to fill out? What does the onboarding process involve? How can you get ready to hit the ground running in your new role?

6. Back out of other job opportunities.

If you have interviewed for more than one position, you should let the other companies know that you've accepted a job elsewhere. Send the hiring managers a short note that expresses your appreciation and withdraws your name from consideration. You owe them that courtesy so that they can focus on truly interested candidates.

Set a Course for Your Future

Now that you understand the career vs. job distinctions, it's time to look at where you currently stand and where you hope to go. Have you chosen a career path and identified the job opportunities that can help you reach your goals? Do you have the skills you need to achieve real progress?

It's worth checking out the career-oriented training offered by trade schools and vocational colleges. These types of schools offer a huge range of streamlined programs that can help propel you toward a more satisfying future.