Career changes often sound big and scary — so much so that many people put off making a change even when they are stuck. But there are ways to tackle a career change incrementally, which is much more aligned with how the modern workforce works. You don’t need to make a 180 degree turn away from one career and into the next one. Instead you can take small steps that allow you to move toward something new without losing your past experiences and without jumping into a new career that still isn’t the right fit. Here are five steps to take to evaluate if you’re ready to make a change and set yourself up to move forward, one step at a time.
Talk to real people who have the job you want: There are two reasons this advice is at the top of the list. First, you can’t possibly know if the job you think you want is for you without talking to people who have that job. (Hint: if your only encounter with the profession is watching reality shows on Bravo, you need to get some real-world information.) Second, if you can’t network your way into informational interviews in your new chosen field, how are you going to get a job in that field? Sending resumes into the virtual dark when you are making a career change is unlikely to work. Figuring out how to get connected to people in the field is a critical step. Once you’ve got meetings set up, prepare a list of questions that will help you figure out if you really are interested in this job and what skills you need to be successful in it. Try to meet with about five people to get a well-rounded view.
Consider taking a class, but invest wisely. For many people considering a career switch the first thought is “I need to go back to school.” But going back into a full-time university program is expensive — both in time and money. And the prospects on the other side of that degree are far from certain. Instead, look into individual courses you can take to gain specific skills. You can also look into boot camps, particularly for tech. Some of these are also pricey, so shop around. If you’ve decided you want to be a doctor, clearly you need to go to medical school. But most changes are far less drastic than that and don’t require years of schooling to make a first leap.
Figure out what skills you have that will transfer. Part of the reason many people believe they need to go back to school in order to make a career change is because they assume they need a completely new skill set. But that’s not always true. Lots of jobs require core skills like collaboration, communication, organization, and self-management. Use what you learned from your informational interviews and from reading job descriptions to figure out the skills that can be adapted from your past experiences. This step will also help you figure out exactly which classes you need to take to fill in true skill gaps. The crucial step is then to craft a narrative of how your prior experience combined with recent coursework makes you the perfect fit for the new career. It’s your job — not the recruiter’s — to draw the connection between your experiences and the work they need done.
Find a way to “try it out” before you commit: Most people think any kind of career move requires a move into a new full-time job. But that’s not necessarily true. There are temp or freelance opportunities in many jobs. It helps to know someone who’s willing to take a chance on you (see tip #1). You can also consider a midcareer internship. Some of these are specifically for people who’ve taken a career break for caregiving, but some are open to anyone who’s taken time off or is making a career switch. You may even be able to talk someone into letting you take a college intern slot if you are truly entry level in your new field. And don’t overlook volunteering. Many volunteer jobs won’t lead to professional jobs, but nonprofits of all kinds need help in many aspects of running their organizations. Check out Catchafire.org for listings of professional and strategic projects that nonprofits are looking for help with.
Explore alternative changes you can make. Is the problem really your career? Maybe you need to consider a similar job but in a different company or industry. If you love the company you work for but not the job you do, you can explore making lateral moves within the company. Do some internal networking to learn more about other areas of the company. This also offers another “try before you buy” opportunity — you can look for a manager who’s willing to let you shadow them for a few weeks or you can take on a project for another department.