A Realistic Look at What It Takes to Change Careers
Photo credit: opensourceway / Foter / CC BY-SA
Did you know that the average job tenure these days is only 4 years? Whether or not you can relate to this statistic, many of us have at one point wondered about changing our careers. Its not an easy decision to make, but if you've set your sights on an entirely new career, this guide provides the most comprehensive and helpful advice we could find on the topic. Our guide is a compilation of the best resources, tips and strategies to help you prepare for and manage through the change. While we understand that every situation is different, we believe successful career change is something that does follow certain patterns.
1. Be sure you want it, because career change is not for the faint of heart.
We would call that an understatement. The world is competitive and just getting a good job is hard enough. A career change? Its infinitely harder. So you need to be prepared and committed to it. The grass can sometimes look greener from the outside, and sometimes certain industries or sectors are "ho" and seem more promising than the one you work in. These are all temptations that make us wistful but a career change is dead-serious and a multi-year commitment. What we mean is that as much work as it will be to actually land a new position in a new industry or field, it will then also take years to master it and succeed. In other words, this is the furthest thing from an impulse buy.
To keep things real, we advise you to talk to actual people who work in the field about what their jobs and careers are really like. Even if they don't do what you want to do, it might be a blessing in disguise. That's because they will still help you get a fuller, better picture of what the whole ecosystem of that profession or type of company will be like. Want to work at a hedge fund? Its fine -- and a good thing -- to talk to someone who reconciles trades in operations even if you want to become a portfolio manager. You will get a better sense of how the business works. Want to work as a product manager at a hot tech start-up? Well, talk to someone who does customer service there or at a similar company and find out what the grittier parts of the company are like. Relatedly, we think it's a bad idea is to focus too much on the glamorous stories and online profiles that seem to abound on the internet. We love inspiration as much as the next person, but these profiles are written to make people -- and their companies and careers -- look good! They are in no way a substitute to talking to all the people who make these places run smoothly and don't have internet articles profiling their airbrushed lives. |
2. Do your research.
This is really another way of belaboring our first point. In addition to the conversations that we just recommended you have, if you're sure you want to make the leap, read everything you can about your desired new profession and industry. In our experience, it's best to be thorough both online and offline (i.e. in actual books!) The reason we recommend books is that for many professions (internet and tech aside), many more things have been memorialized in print (i.e. before the internet age) and are simply not replaced by the more temporary articles that you may find online. This is especially true of more "traditional" professions where the digital age still hasn't completely caught up.
Be sure to go beyond books trying to help you understand how to get the job. If you want to do marketing but have never done it before, make sure you understand industry trends, where people came from, what is happening in the industry itself - not just where the jobs are. This way, you will be double-checking that you understand what you're getting into. And of course you will be and sound incredibly informed and prepared when you do start interviewing (or even networking).
3. Decide whether you have to go back to school or need to get an educational or professional credential.
Sometimes, you can make a career change much more easily if you go back to school, or simply take some courses or pursue some sort of professional credential. Other times, it's absolutely necessary because it's a prerequisite of the job. For example, you obviously can't practice medicine or law without degrees and passing certain exams. Even if the career you're interested in doesn't require these things, education can still smooth your entry into a new field. You can certainly try to do without, but if you find you're having an especially hard time, remember that career change is hard for even the best of us -- so you might want to consider it.
Specifically, network with people who've travelled on your desired path. Tell everyone you know that you want to work in X field, or do Y. Ask them if you know anyone who worked in X field or do Y. Reach put to Mr. X and Ms. Y and find out about their backgrounds and get their advice about how to break in. If they aren't very helpful, or you have terrible personal chemistry, don't stop there! You can always ask them if they know anyone else you can speak to. Ideally, you want to speak to multiple people who've had a similar background to yours and still ended up doing what you want to do. You want to hear every story and detail about how they broke into the field even if the answer ends up involving a good dosage of non-replicable "luck".
The more non-linear your career change, the harder it will be to find someone with your background. But don't give up. Someone out there has probably done it and typically people who have been there are quite sympathetic to your plight. After all, it probably took that person a lot of work and perseverance to make their own career change and that increases their empathy towards you. Be sure to network in all the standard ways and if you run out of people you know, don't be afraid to keep pushing beyond your comfort zone. What you're doing is harder than the typical job search (sorry, we know we sound like a broken record). Use every tool available to you. Use your alumni network, contact strangers on LinkedIn, contact women on Fairygodboss, or other online communities. Go to events for the industry, Meetups, and conferences. Career changes are made by pounding the pavement.
5. Talk to recruiters. But not to get a job.
Recruiters make money when they place candidates and they will typically lean back on their usual processes and talent pipelines. In other words, they are trained to see patterns and are unlikely to love that your background deviates from what they know will work. In other words they are unlikely to help you find a job if you don't fit the profile. So why do we recommend talking to them?
First, we think its a huge reality check in terms of what you're up against. And it helps you understand where all your prospective employers may be coming from without the high stakes of being involved in an actual job interview situation. Recruiters will tend to see you as a resume template but at least they have no reason to sugarcoat their opinions which means you'll get an honest assessment. Second, and more importantly, recruiters will tell you what the cookie-cutter, standard candidate looks like. This is a very efficient way to learn what sort of backgrounds they think your desired position requires. Based on their feedback, you'll improve the way you position yourself and/or prepare yourself for the career change.
6. Apply for (lots of) jobs.
Get ready to prepare a lot of job applications. You will have to apply for jobs more aggressively than a candidate with the "standard" background. This is because your resume will not have the keywords and experiences that fit into cookie-cutter roles. To some extent, for all candidates, job applications is a numbers game. Whatever number of applications you believed you would have to typically put out -- is the bare minimum. Make sure you go beyond that.
One way in which you'll probably have to apply for jobs differently now, is that you should apply to positions around the periphery of your desired role. In other words, you might have to do something related to your ultimate goal if you're really trying to do something new but don't have the right background for it. So for example, if you want to be a TV producer but you're a writer for a newspaper, you might have to get a job being a writer at the TV show first. That's a simple example, but, well, nothing stops you from applying to both positions with resumes that emphasize slightly different things (especially if you're pretty sure that different people will be evaluating your applications in each department).
7. Be willing to take financial risk.
Making more money may be one of the reasons you want to make a career change in the first place. That's fine and it may all eventually work out, but that doesn't mean your finances will look linear in the short- or medium-term. If you're just out of school or are young with little debt, consider whether you're willing to work for less - or even no pay - to bridge the experience gap. Many times, career changers have to accept a position that's less prestigious or pays less in order to gain the requisite experience and perspective they need for the bigger change they're after. If you've accepted that, you've come a long way but you will also need to convince your future employer that money isn't going to motivate you because many hiring managers may be suspicious of someone who is taking a step down relative to their existing salary levels. You will have to tell a story that is compelling and truthful - which is a lot easier if you believe it yourself.
8. Set realistic expectations.
You may be able to switch careers but it's unlikely that it won't affect your pay grade or seniority negatively. After all, in some senses you are "starting over" and there is no reason someone should pay you to gain this new experience as if you are, well, already experienced. That's one of the reasons we think that if you're interested in career change, you shouldn't sit on it. Make the change as quickly as you can because the younger you are and the less responsibility you have to support families or others, the more likely you will accept the reduction in salary or title. These things don't get easier over time.
9. Do the thing you want to do - even if you're doing it for yourself.
If you want to become a designer, design something. If you want to become a writer, write something. If you want to become a software engineer, write some code. Instead of waiting for someone to pay you to do something, launch your own project. Not only can you do this on your own time (i.e. nights and weekends), nobody is judging you except yourself. And you will learn huge amounts about both your willingness to do what it takes to actually change careers, and also whether you have what it takes. Plus you will, by definition, be getting the experience you need for your desired position.
10. Get relevant experience at your existing employer.
Sometimes if you want to make a career change, the easiest way to do it is at your own company. That way you've eliminated having to actually get a job at the same time. Even if you don't love the place you work, it might be worth it to stick around and get relevant experience somewhere you know — and that will pay you while you're doing it. If you can't get an actual job in a different department, consider talking to the manager in a department in which you are interested about how to help them out on an unofficial basis. Perhaps there is a project you can work on temporarily. If you do this within your own company, be sure to clear this -- and spin this -- in a way that your manager approves of and can support. Its probably not ideal to tell him/her you want a different job.
If you want to become a marketing professional and you work in finance, volunteer to help a non-profit, a startup or anyone who has marketing needs. Don't expect to be paid cash but the experience and lessons -- plus the resume fodder -- may help you tremendously when it does come time to actually apply to a position. From your prospective employer's point of view, you've already demonstrated you're passionate about the field. Plus, you never know, the organization you volunteer for just may want to actually hire you make them realize how much they need you.
The bottom line is that a very big career change can take years. Depending on how far away you are from your desired goal, you might have to go back to school, take a lower paying position, take a transition position (or two), volunteer and network. And you're doing this all while holding down your day job!
If your expectations are properly set, however, you should not be too hard on yourself or impatient about the time it will take for you to get there. Be sure to lean on friends and family during the tough moments and if you can afford it, consider consulting with a career coach, who will help you with specific career change tactics but just as importantly, provide you with encouragement when the going gets tough.
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