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How to Change Careers, According to a Career Coach

With each passing day, you realize this career isn’t for you. It sounded great when you got the offer, when you studied it in college, or when your parents and teachers encouraged you to pursue it.

Now, however, you’ve come to resent going to work and can’t wait for 5 pm to roll around. Clearly, it’s time for a change.

However, changing careers can be a daunting process. You’re leaving the security and familiarity of your present work for uncharted territory. What if the risk doesn’t pay off? How do you know if you should change careers to begin with?

In this article, we’re going to set you on the right path. I sat down with professional career coach Kass Moore to get her insights into how to make a successful career change.

Below, you’ll find her advice for planning a career change, job application and interview tips, and some common career change mistakes to avoid.

How to Decide If You Should Change Careers

Changing careers is a risk, make no mistake. Therefore, it’s not something to decide lightly. How can you know that you should make the move to a new field? And how do you tell the difference between a dissatisfying career and a bad job?

Generally, you can let your feelings guide you here. If you’re in a particular industry and wake up every day not wanting to go to work, that’s a fairly sure sign you should make a change. Besides that, feeling drained by your work as opposed to invigorated is another good indicator.

Mind you, be sure to do some self-reflection to ensure your career is the problem and not your job. If you have a bad boss, unpleasant coworkers, or a company that doesn’t treat you well, the solution might be to find a better place to work. In this case, you don’t need to change fields at all.

Furthermore, recognize that no career is exciting, fulfilling, and interesting 100% of the time. No matter how much you love a field, you’ll still have to do things that are boring, draining, or unpleasant at times. Changing careers won’t change this reality.

But if your work is consistently awful, then it’s likely time to start planning for a career change. Read on to find out how.

Planning for a Career Change

So you’ve made up your mind that you want out of your current field. Now what?

You shouldn’t jump into a new career without some planning. And the first step of that, of course, is deciding what field to pursue.

Deciding What Field to Pursue

For this phase of the process, Kass recommends you start with researching yourself. Take some time to learn more about two key things:

  • What interests you
  • What you’re good at (and not)

Some of this is as simple as asking open-ended questions such as, “What excites you?” However, Kass also suggests taking a free career and personality assessment on the 16Personalities website.

This test is based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a classic personality test. While MBTI isn’t perfect, the “Career Paths” section of the 16Personalities test results can provide a good overview of careers that might suit your personality. From there, you can start getting more specific.

Finally, if you’d like something that’s more career-specific, try out this free career interests quiz from CareerHunter:

Discover Your Career Interests

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How to Learn About Specific Careers

Once you’ve researched yourself, you can start researching more specific careers. Luckily, the internet has made this process easier than ever.

First, you can get a good overview of any job by searching for it on sites like Glassdoor, Vault, O*NET, and LinkedIn Jobs. This will also help you figure out if you need to get any new degrees or certifications to pursue your new career.

For instance, let’s say you’re currently a social media manager who wants to transition into a career in social work. Presumably, this requires some kind of certification or credential. To find out what, go to a site such as O*NET and type in “social worker.”

You’ll then be able to see the necessary education, certification, and skill set for the job. In the case of social work, you see that you’ll need to get a master’s, which might require some preparatory coursework as well.

Beyond job search sites, both Kass and I strongly recommend interviewing working professionals in fields that interest you. While websites can give an objective overview of the skills and education a job requires, real people can give you more insight into the day-to-day. This is hugely valuable, since it prevents you from falling into a different but equally unfulfilling career.

When interviewing people about their jobs, be sure to ask about the good and the bad. People who are highly passionate about their work will naturally paint it in a good light, particularly when talking to a potential recruit. So if the person you’re interviewing is only discussing the good aspects of their job, be sure to probe further and ask about the less desirable parts.

Not sure how to reach out to a professional about their job? Here’s how.

How to Try Out a New Field

After doing some research and interviews, you’ve narrowed down your potential new career to one or two fields. To get an even better idea of whether or not it’s for you, Kass recommends getting some real-world experience.

There are lots of options here. You can test the waters through volunteer work, an internship, freelancing, or even a part-time position.

Mind you, the degree to which you can try out a new field will depend on your level of qualification and experience. For instance, you shouldn’t expect to get a freelance web development job if you don’t know how to code.

Preparing Financially for a Career Change

When you’re changing careers, you have to consider the financial implications. In some cases, money may be one of your motivators for making a change in the first place. But even then, you should recognize that changing careers could require you to tighten your belt for a bit.

Here are some financial considerations when you’re changing careers:

  • Cost of additional education, training, or certification
  • How to cover your living expenses while you find a new job or go back to school
  • Potential pay cuts – Either because you’ll be in an entry-level position or because salaries in your new field are lower overall

None of the above challenges are insurmountable, but they could require you to increase your savings rate or downgrade your lifestyle. If you’re not willing to make these sacrifices to change careers, that could be a sign you should pursue something else.

Looking for ways to save more money while you prepare to change careers? Check out our budgeting guide.

Job Application Tips for Career Changes

Now that you’ve planned things out, it’s time to apply for some jobs. This can be intimidating. For while you’ve applied to jobs before, applying in a new field can feel like starting from scratch.

Here’s how to put together a great job application when changing careers:

Make Your Resume as Transferable as Possible

When you’re moving into a new field, it can feel impossible to put together a solid resume. After all, you don’t have experience in the job you’re applying for. What are you to do?

One tip Kass gave was to focus on transferable soft skills that any industry needs. This makes a much stronger case than focusing only on specific workplace skills.

For instance, my friend is currently transitioning from a career in customer support to one in software development. While he lacks much experience in software, he does have strong people and managerial skills. These are useful in any industry, and could even set him apart from other job candidates who only have technical skills.

Here are just a few of the essential soft skills that are useful across industries:

Beyond this specific advice, the principles of good resume writing still apply. Check out our guide to creating a winning resume for more tips.

Use the Right Keywords

When applying for nearly any job online, a human rarely reads your application at first. To sift through the vast volumes of potential candidates, most companies now use applicant tracking systems. This software uses algorithms to determine if someone’s resume and cover letter suit the job requirements.

Because of this, it’s incredibly important to refer to the job posting and be sure to use some of the same language and words in your application materials. This can be challenging when changing careers, but it’s still possible.

For instance, you could refer to an internship or volunteer experience related to the job you’re applying for. This way, you can still include the right keywords while remaining truthful.

Discuss the Career Change in Your Cover Letter

Cover letters are never fun to write, but they can be especially difficult when entering a new field. A common mistake, Kass noted, is for people to write a cover letter that ignores their career change. While understandable, this approach is likely to backfire; hiring managers know how to detect b.s.

Instead, you should embrace the career change in your cover letter. This way, you have an opportunity to address potential objections about your lack of experience in the new field. The general template is something like the following:

“You may notice from my resume that I have lots of experience in X field, but here’s how my skills transfer to this new position.”

I won’t deny it; writing a cover letter for this case is even more challenging than usual. Expect to spend some extra time thinking about how you can connect your previous experiences to this new job.

Job Interview Advice for Career Changes

If all goes according to plan, you should now have some interviews lined up. Congrats! You’ve made it past the computers and now you have a chance to talk to a real person. What can you do to present your career change positively while still getting the job?

Most of the same principles of good job interviewing will apply here. The main thing to keep in mind, according to Kass, is to find talking points that connect your previous industry and experience to this new job. In particular, you should find stories from your previous career or education that demonstrate the skill sets this employer is looking for.

This way, when the interviewer asks you the classic, “Tell me about a time when…” question, you have a good answer. Again, it’s okay to embrace the career change. You can even say, “Yes, I come from a different field, but here’s how my experience there relates to this new one.”

For more job interview tips, check out this post.

Common Career Change Mistakes to Avoid

To round out this post, I’ll cover a few common career change mistakes that Kass identified. Avoid these to make your career transition more successful:

Reusing Application Materials from Your Previous Industry

We’re big proponents of tailoring your resume to each job you apply for. While this is good advice for any job, it’s even more important when you’re switching careers. If you’re applying for a job at an investment bank, for instance, your paralegal resume isn’t going to work without some modifications.

Whatever the position, tailor your resume to include the right keywords and relevant information. Otherwise, your application will never make it past the automated systems.

Thinking You Have to Tell Your Boss

In a time of career transition, it’s natural to worry what your boss will think. If you have a supportive boss, then feel free to mention it to them. They might even be able to help you and connect you with people in the new field.

However, you don’t have to tell your boss that you’re moving to a new job or field until you’ve received another offer of employment. If you know your boss might retaliate against you, there’s no need to mention your career change plans prematurely.

Assuming an Employer Wants a Particular Degree

As you review the job postings for your new field, you may notice that an employer requires a degree in a field you haven’t studied. Don’t let this discourage you from applying!

Sure, there are obviously cases where you need a particular degree to do a job (most states won’t let you practice law without a law degree, for instance). But generally, the specific degree you have matters less than how you present the degree.

Let’s say you have a degree in biology. While you could obviously use this to work in a biology lab, many of the things you learned as part of that degree would transfer to other fields. You could work in many scientific settings, public or private. And you could even branch out to positions that require the analytic, quantitative, and systems-oriented thinking that a biology degree teaches.

Your major doesn’t define you, unless you let it. Go ahead and apply for that job, even if your major is different than what the job posting lists. The worst that will happen is you get rejected and move on to another application.

Giving Up Too Soon

I don’t want to sugarcoat it: changing careers can be a slog at first. Even after doing the prep work and applying for a bunch of new jobs, you might get rejected. If this happens, don’t give up!

You might need to go back to the drawing board, refine your application materials, and hone your interview skills. Seek advice and support from connections you have in the field; they can often reveal weaknesses in your written materials or interviews

Beyond that, recognize that changing careers takes time. This article lays everything out in a neat, step-by-step fashion, but the real process will be messier. It could take months or even years to get a job in a new field, especially if you need to go back to school.

When Changing Careers, You’re Not Alone

Changing careers is hard, but it’s far from impossible. With the right support network and process in place, you can make a successful transition.

Many, many thanks to Kass Moore for lending her advice and insight to this article. She’s always happy to help anyone looking for career advice. You can learn more about her and get in contact below:

Looking for more career advice? Read this next.

Image Credits: bored woman at desk