Career transitions are not for the faint of heart. Overhauling your entire daily routine — along with potentially jeopardizing your income stream — requires a strategic approach, a clear vision of what you really want, and nerves of steel.
But by following some tested advice from career experts and job revisionists who’ve been there and done that, you can navigate your new professional reality much more smoothly.
Follow the six steps below to first figure out what you want to do, and then actually pursue it.
You may know that you want to shake up your career by doing something different than what you’re doing now, but maybe you aren’t quite sure exactly what that something might be.
This was the case for Saranya Ramanathan, now a content writer and personal finance blogger at One Fine Wallet, who made a major move from her previous career as a dentist. Yet when Ramanathan first decided it was time for a change, her vision of being a work-from-home mom was cloudy in that she didn’t know exactly what her options for remote work were.
So her career transition began with a thorough investigation into what types of virtual work she might be qualified for and also enjoy.
“I first wrote down the different types of remote jobs available — virtual assisting, proofreading, bookkeeping, or blogging,” recalls Ramanathan. “The last one seemed to be the right job for me as it didn’t have timelines or commitments.”
Armed with this information, she set up her blog in 2018 with a minimal investment of around $100, giving herself three months to decide if it would be a good fit. Lucky for her, she ended up loving it, and a year later began earning a full-time income from home. Ramanathan reports that she has consistently been earning “well over $5,000 a month” from her blog since March 2019.
The lesson here is to look before you leap. And be sure you dig beyond the larger categories (remote jobs, technology jobs, finance jobs) to understand the nuances of specific roles.
Dr. Vincenzo Repaci, a senior coach at LOVR Atlantic who works with clients on career transitions, flags finding a new niche as the first vital step when preparing to make a career transition — yet validates the need to approach this step with intentionality.
“A lot of advice is about following your dreams, and sometimes that’s a good idea,” says Repaci. “Often though, it’s a way to make retirement much more difficult and turn a passion into a poorly paid chore.” Instead, like Ramanathan did, Repaci advises focusing on identifying opportunities and interests where you may have expertise and a competitive advantage.
Sarah Johnston, who is a job search strategist and the founder of The Briefcase Coach, advises aspiring career changers to be very specific when figuring out and winnowing down their next move.
“The biggest mistake that I see job seekers in transition make is that they aren’t crystal clear on their next step or they are too open — I’ll often hear, ‘I want to do X or X or X,'” says Johnston. “Jobseekers who know what they are targeting (title, opportunity, etc.), who hires for these opportunities (company and specific hiring managers), and why they are uniquely qualified for these opportunities are significantly more likely to have job search success.”
Imagine investing all of the time, stress, and expense into engineering a shift to a new career and then discovering once you get there that you actually don’t enjoy it.
To avoid this unsettling possibility, it’s smart to test the waters first. William Taylor, a career development officer at MintResume, believes that volunteering in your area of interest is the best way to determine whether or not you should actually go through with a possible career transition.
“The biggest fear people have when transitioning their career is the fear of the unknown,” says Taylor. “They’re afraid whether they’d be the right fit for the new role. So, I often recommend people volunteer in organizations that will help them test-drive the skills needed for the new career. This way, they can determine whether they possess the right skills before making the big move.” He adds that doing so can also help you expand your network.
Repaci agrees with the importance of checking the course before driving on it, noting that just because you can get into a new field doesn’t mean you should.
“If you don’t like the uncertainty of contract work, project management will be a tough field,” he gives as an example. “And if you want a 40-hour workweek, consulting isn’t a great idea no matter how well it pays.”
Besides volunteering, other kinds of “trial runs” to consider before committing to a career move include freelancing on the side, picking up a side hustle, or taking on a temporary or part-time internship or fellowship.
Let’s say you’re ready to take the next step — but then your inner critic kicks in with a million reasons why you shouldn’t.
Career coach Dexter Zhuang explains that this type of reaction is extremely common. “The greatest challenges I see that job switchers face are managing their own psychology and developing a focused vision of what they want,” says Zhuang. “My clients tend to face emotional obstacles (fear, guilt, anxiety) that get in their way of seeing a clear picture and pursuing their goals.”
Zhuang emphasizes that some of this heightened stress and confusion comes about from clients feeling like they haven’t yet clearly identified what they really want to do in their new career. If that’s the case for you, revisit steps one and two above.
But if you feel you have a firm grasp on your vision, then Zhuang recommends focusing on your strengths rather than your apprehension about your new direction. In other words, “leveraging your talents for quick wins, which will help you build confidence and create a positive feedback cycle,” he says.
Building on Zhuang’s advice, you can take the following steps to manage that critical voice inside your head:
- Revisit a “highlights reel” from your previous position/career. This might include positive reviews and feedback you received, education and trainings you completed, awards you won, and key projects that you successfully executed. Use this tangible evidence as proof of your professional competence and potential.
- Keep taking the next step forward. Anxiety can stop you in your tracks if you let it, while forward momentum (even taking the tiniest of steps) toward your goals can help dissipate your worry about whether you’re making the right decision.
- Recognize that stress is a normal part of any transition. If you’ve carved out a plan and thought through your options, chances are you’ll be just fine.
To build on any volunteering or other trial-run efforts that you may have tried, another way to get an idea of whether a particular destination appeals to you or not is to reach out directly to mid- and late-career professionals in the field you’d like to be in.
“Buy them coffee and ask them about their workdays, their responsibilities, and what they enjoy and are challenged by in their positions,” Repaci says. “If you don’t like the destination, don’t get on the boat.”
The types of questions you can ask during such coffee dates might include:
- What’s your typical workday like?
- What do your primary responsibilities entail?
- What do you like most about your job?
- What’s your least favorite part of your job?
- Is there anything that you wish you’d known before you started your job?
- Are you glad that you chose this as your career?
Dr. Amanda Holdsworth, the founder of Courses for Communicators, has ample experience in informational interviews, having made a career transition herself into a field where she now helps others to do the same.
“I went from being a full-time communications director, making in the six figures, to a full-time assistant professor (making half that),” she says. “I then transitioned again to a consultant, career coach, and online entrepreneur.” The reason behind these big changes was that despite being well compensated, she felt “burnt out” as a communications director. “I was leaving the house at 7 a.m. and not getting home until 6:15 or later each night,” recalls Holdsworth. “I was missing out on my girls’ activities and was constantly stressed.”
But after becoming an assistant professor, the university where she worked unexpectedly cut some professor positions — including hers. This gave her the impetus to shift gears completely into consulting and entrepreneurship, where she could potentially have more control over her livelihood.
Holdsworth suggests that once you’ve pinpointed a career path of interest, informational interviews are also an excellent way to gain insight into specific roles and what they’re looking for in candidates (and may even land you a job).
She says to add these two queries to the list of questions above:
- If you were hiring today, what would you look for in a candidate?
- What skills does a top candidate need to have for this job?
Johnston agrees with this line of thinking. “Job seekers in transition who commit to doing informational interviews — and I’m not just talking about doing only one of them — are more likely to land a target job versus job seekers who exclusively apply for positions online,” she says. “I’ve seen informational interviews open unexpected doors for my clients.”
Many of the career coaches we interviewed noted that people who want to switch their professional aspirations frequently begin where they should end — with launching an intensive job search in a new industry. But the coaches emphasized that it’s only after you’ve taken all five steps above that should you consider getting serious about a full-on career change.
If you’ve cleared all the hurdles and truly feel ready to take the plunge, then Holdsworth suggests taking a methodical approach to move you from Point A to Point B, beginning with a proper job search in your new field of interest.
“Print out and save interesting postings of jobs you think sound like something you’d like to do,” she recommends. “Go through each job posting and highlight the required skills in one color, circling what you already have. Next, in a different color, highlight the skills/requirements you do not currently have. Finally, highlight the components of the posting that drew you to the job.”
By tracking the details in this way, Holdsworth maintains that patterns will begin to emerge regarding skills, shortfalls, or other valuable intelligence that can guide your next steps. This type of paper trail can also be invaluable in crafting your resume, cover letters, and other job search materials.
“If there are major requirements you need immediately, such as certifications or degrees, begin exploring your options and create a timeline as to how you can fit the extra studying and work into your schedule,” she says.
Finally, before you start the application process in earnest, Holdsworth believes you should conduct a resume audit to ensure your application materials are appropriately targeted toward your current goals. “This might mean scrapping your resume completely and starting over,” she says. “It needs to align with the career you want to transition into, not with your old one.”