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How to Change Your Career Track

August 31, 2020
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You’ve been working at your current job for a while and you’re looking to make a change. Perhaps you want to make more money or have a greater sense of purpose in your work, or maybe you’ve learned all there is to learn in your role and are bored with your day-to-day tasks and responsibilities.

Or maybe it’s something bigger: You want to change your career track altogether. This is a lot more involved than simply switching jobs. When you change jobs but remain on the same career path, you’ll know how to perform your essential job functions and you’ll make a similar, if not a better, salary. But with a career track change, you’re starting over. However, making such a dramatic shift could ultimately lead to greater satisfaction in your professional and personal life if done right.

Whether you’re looking to pivot into an entirely new function or industry at a different company, or you’d like to stay at your current organization but move into a different career path, here are seven steps that will help you make this transition as smoothly and successfully as possible.  

1. Gain relevant experience.

Even if you’ve proved to be very competent throughout your entire career and you know you can do this new type of role, unfortunately many employers won’t give you a shot unless you have relevant experience on your resume.

That’s why before you can make a career change, you need to gain that experience in your new desired career path, said Tim Reitsma, Cofounder of HR blog People Managing People.

“Whether this means taking on a volunteer or internship position, starting a side gig, or [employing] another tactic, you'll need fresh content for your resume,” said Reitsma.

Look for volunteer and internship opportunities that could help you make the switch on job sites like Indeed.com and Internships.com. VolunteerMatch connects volunteers with nonprofits and inspiring causes, and Idealist is a job board that focuses on positions at nonprofit organizations as well as volunteer opportunities.

Since you’re coming at this a little later in your career and are no longer fresh out of college, this could be a humbling process. Going back to “the bottom” and starting over can be intimidating, but if you feel you’ve gotten off-track in your career and want to course correct, the rewards you’ll reap from making a change will make up for it. Remember, the step backward is only temporary, and the change you make for the better will be long-term.

2. Hustle outside of work.

Unless you’re the rare exception who has enough of a financial cushion to take a substantial amount of time off work to gain this (often unpaid) necessary experience and learn the new skills you’ll need to make such a big change, you’re going to have to burn the candle at both ends for a little while. That means you’ll likely have to hustle outside of work, dedicating time to your new chosen career path on nights and weekends.

But if you feel yourself getting burnt out from working at a full-time job and then filling all your off-hours with tasks for your career change, take some time off and come back to it. Create a schedule and goals for yourself that feel manageable so you don’t become overwhelmed or fall into patterns of self-neglect. And don’t worry that you’re not making progress if you’re not working on your career change every free moment you have; if you’re determined, and consistent with the steps you take, you’ll get there in time.

3. Get your manager’s buy-in.

If you want to make a dramatic career change that involves leaving your company or even the industry altogether, you obviously don’t want to broadcast this to your boss as you’re doing your career research and putting your plans in place — especially because this transition could take a while and you may need to stay in your current role, and on good terms with your manager, for a fair amount of time.

However, if you wish to make a switch within your organization, Reitsma recommended letting your manager know about your plans as early as possible so they can keep you in mind for internal transfers.

One way to start this type of conversation with your employer is by talking about what you’ve already learned for your new career path and how you want to pivot. For instance, public speaking and executive coach Maryna Shkvorets suggested that you could say something like, “I've spent a lot of time learning and testing the ins and outs of social media management over the past year, and I have lots of ideas that could improve our online presence. Can we talk about ways I could transition into that role?"

Lori B. Rassas, HR consultant, executive coach, and author of The Perpetual Paycheck: 5 Secrets to Getting a Job, Keeping a Job, and Earning Income for Life in the Loyalty-Free Workplace, said that to get your manager’s buy-in, you should illustrate that you possess the skills your company is looking for and show that you can hit the ground running and get the job done.

“You have to remember that in today’s workplace, especially when employers are looking for ways to streamline their operations and get more done with fewer employees, your career development path is not about you,” said Rassas. “It’s about what you can [do] in the new role.”

Rassas recommended focusing on the added value you’ll bring to the table because you’re already an employee at the company. That means you’re onboarded, you know the policies, and you fit in with the company culture.

“Right from the beginning you will be saving the prospective manager precious time because neither they, nor members of their team, will have to dedicate time to the critical and time-consuming [onboarding] process,” said Rassas.

4. Articulate why you're making the switch. 

People are going to want to know why you’re making such a big change in your career — and they’re going to ask you, so you need to be prepared with your answer.

Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder and CEO of global strategic marketing consulting firm Mavens & Moguls, experienced this firsthand when she went from a career in finance on Wall Street to opening her own consulting firm. She found that by having an answer to why you’re making the switch, you can open yourself up to more opportunities.

“It is important to have a story to explain your transition and show confidence in your decision and not to be defensive about it,” Arnof-Fenn said. “I realized the skills and activities I liked best in my finance career were the ones that would make me a better marketer. Once I shared that perspective the recruiters understood my interest and offered me jobs.”

5. Educate yourself.

If your desired career path requires skills or qualifications you don’t already possess, you may need to take some courses to learn the skills you’ll need to make the switch. This could be anything from enrolling in an undergraduate course, to taking a continuing education class at a local university, to taking online classes at an institute specializing in your chosen field, to, in some cases, pursuing a graduate degree.

For example, when Roger Osorio, a coach, speaker, and educator with a focus on leadership, success strategies, and entrepreneurship, wanted to make a big career change from being a national account sales manager to becoming an education consultant, he went back to school to get a masters degree in psychology so he could apply these skills to advising his clients.

Osorio said another thing you could do to expand your knowledge in the field you want to go into is watch educational videos online. But note, you’ll want to do your research here and make sure the webinars and videos you watch are put out by credible, credentialed experts and/or established institutions. Read up on an instructor before signing up for their class, and be wary of anyone who’s not a legitimate expert charging huge sums of money to access their content.

“Find a few people who have successfully mastered the skill [you wish to acquire] and are teaching it, and follow them,” Osorio suggested. ”If they have courses, programs, and videos, start watching. The more specialized the skill you want to learn, the more carefully you'll have to evaluate what you watch before you watch it.”

6. Note the risks, but don’t let them stop you.

Change is scary, especially when it involves your livelihood, and it’s natural that you’d be hesitant to pivot in your career because you’re afraid of the risks involved. But it’s important to remind yourself that as scary as it is, taking risks can pay off.

“There is always the risk of failing,” Reitsma said. “People may say you lack an adequate amount of experience or relevant skills. You may not find a job in your new desired field or find a lower-paying one than you'd like. However, if you see something you truly want to do, the risks are worth the reward.”

Taking a lower salary is undoubtedly a hard pill to swallow, and it brings up some very important questions: How will you get used to your new budget? Will you have to move to a cheaper home or cut back on some luxuries? What can you afford to go without?

Personal money-management expert, radio host, and author Dave Ramsey advised in one of his radio segments that if you have to take a pay cut, make sure you put together some hypothetical budgets first to see if you can make it work. And if you can get a part-time job on the side, that could boost your income a bit.

The pay cut could be temporary or permanent, depending on your career change. If you’re going from being a hedge fund manager to working at a nonprofit, you’ll probably never make that same kind of money again. Conversely, if you’re going into a more lucrative field but have to start off in a more junior position, then the pay cut will likely only be temporary. Either way, putting together a budget, preparing yourself for a lifestyle change, and even cutting back on certain expenses are going to be crucial. If you’re a lot more satisfied in your new career, those changes could be worth it.

You also have to weigh what would happen if you don’t take the risk. Ask yourself how you’ll feel several years from now if you’re still in the same job that you don’t enjoy.

“The main risk is an unfulfilling career or dead-end job where you feel you are wasting your time and not bringing your whole self to work,” said Arnof-Fenn. “The point of life is to find your gifts and then share them with the world. I believe everyone has special talents and skills that can improve the lives of others. Figuring out what brings you joy and being grateful and appreciative for what you can do to make the world a better place gives your life meaning and purpose.”

7. Make the switch.

Once you’ve looked into what kind of education and skills you’ll need, worked on your new career on the side, found possible internships and volunteer opportunities, and gotten your finances in order, then all that’s left to do is go for it.

“There will be bumps, but that will become part of your journey and part of your new level of strength and experience,” said Osorio. “That new level of toughness will make you stronger when you start those new roles.”