Conventional career wisdom states that the average person will make a change in her career three to seven times in her lifetime. We’ve all hopscotched through various jobs in our early twenties: waitressing, seasonal positions, part-time gigs to finance textbooks and school fees, but what about bidding sayonara to the career routine you’ve finally crafted with age and experience to try something completely–and thrillingly–new?
If this prospect seems daunting, you’re certainly not alone–I made the risky switch from a solid job working as the director of photography for a thriving, nationwide studio to a “foot-in-the-door” opportunity at an up-and-coming internet startup. Looking back, do I have any regrets about this move? Nope! However, I do have some advice to share about the steps I took to ease my transition from old to new.
First Things First: Self-Assessment
An important question to ask yourself is this one: am I just fed up with this specific office/boss/commute, or am I fed up with this entire line of work? If the latter, it’s time for some soul searching, baby! I started out by diagramming on a couple of different fronts. First, I made a list of the strengths and skills I felt I could bring to a position–any position. For me, this included creativity, a love of writing, and an undying passion for learning about the latest trends in technology (seriously, I was always on the internet researching the “latest-and-greatest” update for this, or reading tech reviews on that).
Your list may be different than mine, but do not hesitate to sing your own career-related praises! Next, make a list of the attributes you value most in a career, which includes how you will maintain your work/life balance. Are there things you would be willing to negotiate for the right position, like relocating to a new city? Or, like me, is one of your deal-breakers working in a traditional corporate structure?
When you are making your list, it’s worth thinking more generally about your values as well as the practical, work-related stuff. For example, is it important to you that your work leaves a positive impact on the world in some way? Do you want a career that involves helping those less fortunate than yourself? Do you value financial stability over job satisfaction or the other way around?
It’s common for people to switch careers and still be dissatisfied because neither their old career nor their new one is in line with their overall values. In fact, the reason that many people consider a career change later in life in the first place is that their choice of job goes against their priorities. When you’re young, it’s easy to convince yourself that the highest paying job is the best, but as you get older and start a family, you begin to realize that other things are more important. Think carefully about what is most important to you and you may realize that you want to do a public safety Master’s degree so you can help others, for example. On the other hand, you might want to work for an environmental charity so you can help protect the planet. By using your core values to direct your career search, you open up a whole range of new possibilities.
Remember, this is your life and your career, so it’s personal to you. Don’t feel that you have to stick to traditional career choices or that something you want is out of reach. If you want to be a dolphin trainer or you want to look into accelerated nursing programs then write it down and think about how you can go about it.
Reflect, reflect, reflect, and come up with a list of the skills you hope to use in a new position, as well as the requirements you have. This might be a great time to consult a career counselor, or, if you’re short on cash, a career change resource website such as CareerShifters.
Step Two: Hit the Pavement
So, you’ve settled on your dream job(s). What next?
Now’s the time to reap the benefits of your LinkedIn profile and your Facebook friends list. Got a friend who has your dream job? Send him an email and invite him out for coffee. Conversations with professionals already in-the-know about your new chosen line of work can provide invaluable information about all the things that don’t get mentioned in a dry job description. Early on in my job change, I took a “techie” friend out to lunch. Not only did I get my questions answered, but next thing I knew, I had the business card of a company who embodied everything I knew I was looking for in my next career. All by way of saying: don’t be shy.
Beyond networking with your own circle and extended group of contacts, volunteering can also be a great way to make connections in your new field and learn if it’s for you. Often, a dedicated volunteer will be first in line should a paying position open up.
But Wait a Second…Can I Afford This?
Of course the elephant in the room during all this soul-searching and networking you’ve been doing is how, exactly, can you finance what often seems like a full-time searching job? There are no easy answers here, and a lot depends on your current situation. For me, it was about giving notice, dipping into my savings, and taking some temp work while I figured everything out. If you’ve got a partner with a steady income, he/she may be willing to cut you some financial slack for a time. Or, if the loss of income would be too great of a loss to bear, the evenings and weekends will become your exploration time.
Creating a timeline and financial plan is essential. Give yourself some deadlines in order to facilitate a transition that won’t drain you emotionally and financially. Once you start reading up on your new line of work, it may seem like there are endless sources and people you’ll need to consult before making the switch. Don’t go there. Give yourself a realistic window of time to both get your affairs in order and prepare to approach your new career.
Finally, be realistic about the changes to your accustomed salary that may accompany pursuing your dream. I moved into a smaller apartment in order to have less overhead after accepting my new position –it’s all about trade-offs.
Almost There: Shining Yourself Up
To the outside observer, the jump from my comfy (but stifling) position in the photography world to the tech and internet industry was probably pretty random, or even weird. I knew I was up against people with more experience, so why should an employer hire me, a virtual outsider to this world I was trying to enter? It’s a legitimate question; however, if you are able to successfully articulate the personal characteristics that will make you a good fit for the position rather than focusing on experience, it is totally within your power to sell yourself to new potential employers. Once more, consulting with a consultant or job change website could be a good move here. I know I found myself on Monster.com’s career advice page more times than I care to admit, absorbing as many tips as I could. Remember that every job in your past has provided you with that key phrase: transferable skills. Worked retail or in the restaurant biz? Go ahead and emphasize your impeccable customer service skills. Were you known around the office as “the human spell checker?” There you go: polished editorial skills and meticulous attention to detail.
As you prepare to apply for job openings in your new field, reach out to your network contacts once more. What are they looking for in a new hire? What are past interview questions that have impressed them? Finally, are there any last hoops you need to jump through, like a certification program or a training class?
Remember, a rejection or two along this new road you’re taking is not an excuse to give up. Every interview might not go perfectly, or you may be overwhelmed by the learning curve at first, but take it from me, these bumps along the road will only make you stronger if you view them not as defeats, but as opportunities to work harder and re-commit yourself to an exciting new career.
Gulp. It’s Time!
If you’re reading my story while bored at work and procrastinating on a mounting inbox, then deep down, you may already know that you’re ready. However your journey plays out, you are not alone! A year from now, you could be doing something entirely different, and loving it. It’s okay to take your first step now.