The first time I switched careers, I was in my mid-20s. I spent several years working for nonprofits after college and learned I love helping people. I wanted to be more hands-on, so I went back to school to become a nurse.
The second time I switched careers, I was in my early 30s. This time, I moved from nursing to health technology. My vision was to design systems that improve the work experience for nurses. I went back to school again and spent the next decade building a career in health tech.
Now I am in my 40s and facing another career change. Six months ago, I launched a freelance writing business focused on health tech. This was my first attempt at being my own boss. I am not unique in making a change at my age. The average age of people who switch careers is 39.
Changing careers is becoming the norm rather than the exception. According to CNBC, 49% of workers make a dramatic shift at some point in their careers. Many more people are considering or already changed careers as a result of the pandemic.
Still, many questions and doubts arise: How will I learn what I need to do? What if I fail? What if I embarrass myself?
What centers me is drawing on what I learned switching careers in the past. Hopefully, these lessons help you if you are switching careers as well.
1. Many skills are transferrable.
Even in fields requiring special training and expertise like nursing, many basic skills are transferrable. The abilities to communicate clearly, stay organized, prioritize based on larger goals and collaborate on a team are valuable in every industry.
The skills needed to be a good leader translated across domains, especially as I went higher up the ladder. Depending on the field you choose, you may be able to move from a leadership role in one industry to a leadership role in another.
That being said, domain-specific knowledge is often needed in roles below the executive level. Many people switching careers can expect to start near entry-level, or at least a level down from where they are currently. This is where training to gain new skills can be important.
2. Training may be a good (and necessary) investment.
After a close friend finished law school, she struggled to stay employed for almost eight years. Law school was her family’s idea, not hers, and she told me she wanted to switch careers. She could not stomach the idea of going back to school after investing so much in her law degree.
Going back to school to learn a new field can sound overwhelming, but switching careers does not have to mean getting another degree. It can mean investing in a professional coach, joining a mentorship program, taking free courses online or getting a certificate from a community college.
I recently invested in a coaching and mentorship program to help me get my freelancing business off the ground.
Even if you do need another degree—as I did when I switched careers in my 20s and 30s—there is no shame in admitting you need to learn new skills. Depending on the field, it may be unrealistic to think you can switch careers without any training. I knew nothing about technology before getting a degree in Informatics, and I credit my master’s program with preparing me for that field.
3. Keep in perspective what people in the industry say.
Usually, the first step most of us take is talking to someone already working in the role we want. However, it's important to remember that everyone is colored by their experiences. Some people love the work they do and may paint an overly rosy picture. Others cannot stand their boss and will make it sound like everything about their field is garbage.
When I was considering becoming a nurse, the nurses I spoke with were 20 years into their careers. They already moved up the ladder into administrative roles and described a rewarding job that was not as stressful as people say. This is true of their experience, but they skipped over that first nursing job on the night shift of an overwhelmed city hospital.
4. Find early allies.
Transitioning into a new career can be stressful and isolating at the start, especially when you leave behind friends and colleagues tied to your previous career. Finding people who can be your early allies is immensely valuable. These are folks who can serve as mini-mentors and your support network.
When I made the transition into health tech, I leveraged the connections I made in internships. I formed an informal network of people who could answer questions and understood my frustrations. Finding these folks made me feel at home in my new career.
Many people will change careers multiple times in their working lives as I did. Transitioning into a new field can be a great move that opens doors. Successfully changing careers involves combining the skills you have with the skills you can learn, and always building relationships.
Lisa Jenkins Brooks is a Registered Nurse and writer on a mission to help people transition to the digital health era. In her career, she has taught information system classes for nurses and led large technology projects at healthcare companies.
She is the writer behind Writing the Future of Health, and holds a Master’s Degree in Nursing Informatics. When not writing, Lisa loves recreating dishes from her travels (Shanghai pan-fried dumplings are a favorite) and relaxing with her lazy pit bull.