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Nearly 1 in 2 U.S. adults who quit in 2021 changed their occupation or field of work, according to Pew Research.
Whether motivated by the Great Resignation or not, many of us have at one point wondered whether it’s time to change our career paths and work in a new field. Sometimes it’s as simple as the fact that we dislike not just our current job, but our future career trajectory in our current job, even assuming great success in it.
It’s 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 the change.
Career change is not for the fainthearted — there are what can be intimidating steps you need to take to change careers. The world is competitive and just getting a good job is hard enough. A career change? It’s infinitely harder. So you need to be prepared and committed to it. It’s certainly not going to be something as simple as explaining you want a career change in a well-written cover letter. The grass can sometimes look greener from the outside, and sometimes certain industries or sectors 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, but life is short so if you really want to do it, go for it.
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 — go on informational interviews. 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? It’s fine — and a good thing — to talk to someone who reconciles trades in operations even if you want to become a portfolio manager.
Some people find it helpful to get the objective feedback and guidance of a professional career coach or career counselor about their career field and whether they are really up for a midlife career change. For a career changer, the experienced advice of a professional can be very helpful in making a career change that involves some major career choice adjustments from your current career.
In addition to the conversations that we just recommended you have if you're sure you want to make a successful leap away from your current career into one you feel more passionate about, 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 before you even embark on the job search process itself. 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). A successful career change requires that you are overly prepared when it comes into both what you're getting into — as well as how you actually get into it, which is where job seekers typically spend most of their time.
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 and you may not have a relevant, transferable skill. 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, a new educational degree can still smooth your entry into a new field with an arsenal of new job skills.
Your bachelor's degree may not be very relevant to your new desired line of work, but perhaps you can get a master degree in a related area or simply on-the-job training that can prepare you better for a career transition. While you can certainly try to do without more education, 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 beefing up your educational credentials if you don't have a lot of obvious transferable skills.
Specifically, network with people who've traveled 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 out to Mr. X and Ms. Y and find out about their backgrounds and get their advice about how to break in and make a career transition. 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 and landing your dream job are likely made by pounding the pavement. Here are some more networking tips to help you.
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 it's 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.
Get ready to prepare a lot of job applications if you're trying to break into a new career. 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 for 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).
While some of us look for a career change to provide better work-life balance, making more money may be one of the reasons you want to make a different career choice 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. Or take on a part-time job to cover your financial shortfall.
Many times, career changers (particularly those in midlife careers) 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.
You can get a job in a new industry with zero experience, but you have to be realistic here, too. It's unlikely that it won't affect your pay grade or seniority negatively. This is particularly the case if you're engaging in a mid-life career change. After all, in some senses, you are "starting over" with a potential employer 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.
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.
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 and develop important resume skills 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 in 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 to 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!
This career change checklist will help you. Just remember: You can always hire a career counselor or career coach if you want professional assistance. But be sure to lean on friends and family during the tough moments, as well.
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