Switching Careers – 7 Key Steps


Are you thinking about switching careers? If you are, you’re not alone. Most Americans switch careers three times in their lifetime. Nevertheless, switching careers is scary. And it’s especially paralyzing the older you get. But making a career switch is very possible and much more common than you might think. Before you’re ready to leap, realize that it’s a heavyweight decision that deserves some time and solid thought. Here are seven steps to help you on your way.

1. Gain insight from your current situation.

When considering a career switch, the first thing you should do is learn from your current situation. To do this, take a step back and study what you do for a living today and why you do it. Examine the reasons that you are in your current job or career. Was it what you went to school for? Was it what your parents wanted you to do? Was it the “hot career” at one time? Did you just “fall into it”? Did you love it at one time? Did you do it for the money you could make? Was it just to pay the bills? The answers to these questions can provide valuable insight into the core reasons that you want or need to change.

Now examine why you want to leave your current career field. Remove any company or management related politics that are specific to your current employer from the picture. See your situation for what it is and ask yourself why you are looking to switch. Are you being forced out because of market shifts of business trends? Are you burnt out? Do you want to make more money? Are you miserable doing what you do? Have you tried your best but found that your career is “just not a good fit”? Have you decided its time to pursue a long lost career love?

Inspecting your current situation and reasons for your desire to change careers will provide a foundation for your next step.

2. Look inside

Whether you already have a career in mind or you are searching for a new career, you must look inward. In order to gain the most from your reflection, it is essential to start with a clean slate. Set aside any notions (real or imagined) about what type of money certain careers offer. Discard any stereotypes or judgments of occupations. Distance yourself from any pre-conceived ideas about what you are right or destined for.

Now seriously examine what you truly love. First start with the obvious. Look at your hobbies and interests. List out the things you are passionate about or in which you have talent. Give yourself credit for things you are good at and don’t be afraid to write things down that you love, but are not yet good at. Write them all down, even if you think they may not be a possible career path. You’re just brainstorming at this point and you should not eliminate anything right out of the gate. And it’s important to bear in mind that what you may think are your interests are not necessarily all of your interests. To help you get a good look at your interests, observe the simple things. What kinds of news stories perk your interest? What kinds of TV shows do you enjoy? What kinds of books magazines do you find yourself drawn to? What kind of people do you like to associate with or find interesting? What parts of your current career have brought you the most satisfaction?

Next, remind yourself of what you wanted to be when you grew up. Is it something you still want to be? Do you still get stars in your eyes when you think about it? This may give you some real clues. And of course, depending on what you wanted to be, that young dream may be out of reach. Or…is it? Think about it. If your ideal career aspiration at the age of 10 was to be an astronaut and you are now over the age limit or are not physically able to, you can rule it out. But what about other careers associated with astronauts or astronomy? There is a wide array of careers that touch upon astronomy from teaching, to marketing telescopes, to writing for a science magazine, to building models or sets for movies to working at a museum on a space exhibit! When you look at your passion and then use a little imagination, the sky (or should I say space) becomes the limit.

Lastly, look at what type of person you are. Be honest with yourself. Do you enjoy working with your hands? Do you enjoy working alone? Do you enjoy a social work setting? Do you enjoy being part of a team? Do you enjoy working at night? These are all examples of questions that will lead you down the path to discovering and evaluating whether a given career path is right for you.

As you are going through the exercise of looking inside, it is important to avoid cluttering your mind or list with any “buts”. If your answer to the question “do you enjoy working with your hands” was “yes”, leave it at “yes”. Don’t append any knee jerk reactions to your answers such as “yes, but I am clumsy” or “yes, but those jobs don’t pay as much”. Leave your mind open and you will be pleasantly surprised at how easily any natural human discouragement subsides.

3. Explore what’s out there

Now that you’re armed with a list of personal interests and talents, sit on them for a few days and let them cook. Let yourself get used to your newfound list. You may find yourself adding a few more during this time or even crossing a few out.

Begin your next step by opening your eyes to what’s out there (not what you perceive to be out there, but rather what is out there). Pick up your local community college catalog and flip through both credit and continuing education courses. Look online for education or career programs. Make a list of the careers of your friends and family. On your next ride to work or to the store, turn off the radio, look around and take notice of the buildings and businesses around you. Look at the people you see outside and start piecing together what their days are like.

The object of this exercise is to compare what is out there, with what interests you. Let’s stick with the astronomy example. You’re interested in astronomy. So what? Well…now you’ve begun looking through the local community college catalog and there, you see a continuing education course on astronomy. You’ve now found something concrete, a class that you can take that will allow you to pursue your interest. But what is a continuing education course going to get you? A couple of things. One, you will meet other people who share your interest. These people bring information to the table. They may know of groups or clubs that you can join. Or perhaps, they may have friends or relatives who are looking for someone to do research work or work part-time in their science store. Two, you will be able to further your interest…or be able to rule it out as a career path. You may learn that you really love astronomy and would like to pursue it further. On the other hand, you may learn that it really isn’t what you thought it was and you really don’t care enough about it to pursue it as a career. Any way you slice it, you will learn something about yourself and at the very least will have met others who share your interest.

Let’s try another example. Perhaps, on your way to work, you start to notice a road construction worker. The first day you see him, you’re in a suit, he’s in jeans and he’s joking with a coworker as he shovels asphalt under a sunny sky. You think to yourself, “Boy it’d be nice to get out of this suit, work outside…break a sweat for once! Maybe I’d like to do that…” The next day you see him and you watch as a driver leans out his window and curses at him. “Hmmm”, you think. The third day you see him, it’s raining and cold and he’s out braving the elements while you’re dry and warm inside your car. “Cross that one off the list”, you think. If you had only noticed the man on the first day, you’d only have seen him on a good day. If you had only noticed him on the last day, you’d have seen him at the worst. Either way, without really opening your eyes full time, you may have a fragmented impression on what it means to be this or that. The point here is not to look for distinctly negative or positive things about a given occupation, but to begin to see it as a whole. With this type of information, you will be able to form an opinion on whether a given occupation could be a possibility for you.

In addition to concrete and mindful exploration, talking to your friends and family is an invaluable type of investigation. When you start bringing up your interests or ideas for possible career paths in conversations or e-mails, you will no doubt hear a lot of “Oh! Susan’s son teaches astronomy at the university, he’s writing a book on the Hubble telescope this year.” or “Oh John does construction on the side, he loves it!” By talking to other people, you may make connections or gain insight into the experiences and opinions of people connected with your interest areas. It will also trigger some more ideas for you. Perhaps it never occurred to you to pair a love of writing with a love of astronomy until you talked with your cousin.

4. Do your homework

So, you’ve looked inside. You’ve come up with several interests and you’ve taken steps to explore what’s out there. By this time, you’ve come up with a few things you might like to do or have found one you’ve decided you want to pursue. Now it’s time to get to work. It’s time to delve into what it really means to have a job in a particular career field. To accomplish this part of your journey, you need to do serious research.

Your research homework consists of concrete exploration of available paths for your career options. For the majority of careers, you will need to embark on some type of structured educational path. Examples of this are things like sponsored career programs, college degrees, certification programs, professional designations, internships or apprenticeships. Even if your chosen career path does not require ordered training or education, you will no doubt have to “put in your time” and you will need to find out what and how much time you will realistically be expected to “put in”.

So how do you find out? Let’s say you’ve decided you want to seriously explore being a pharmacist. Wonderful! How do you get to be a pharmacist? For starters, inquire with your friends and family to see if anyone knows a pharmacist that you can speak with. Talk to your neighborhood pharmacist, find out where she went to school and ask her about any professional designations she holds or ongoing education she may be taking. If you’re brave, ask her what kind of salary pharmacists can expect to earn. In addition, pick up that college course catalog again and inspect the pharmacology program. Look at the prerequisites and notice how long the program will take to complete and how much the courses cost. Read the course descriptions. Do they peak your interest or do they make you want to throw the book down? A great supplement to all of your research is the internet. There are plenty of newsgroup, blog, forum and professional association sites out there. Any of these can give you a solid peak into what it means and takes to be a given occupation.

For each career path you are interested in, you will want to know the following:

  • What are the education requirements?
  • Does it require any job certification?
  • Is there an apprenticeship required?
  • Does it require travel?
  • How much money can you make?
  • Where are the regions of the country that people in this career field are more successful? more in supply? more in demand? make more money?
  • Will it require you to relocate?
  • Will it require regular, ongoing education?
  • Will it require you to have your own business or work for another company?
  • Are there yearly fees? (e.g. license renewal, union dues, association membership, equipment, etc.)
  • How many hours will you normally work in a week?
  • Are there any age requirements or cut-offs?
  • How much will it cost you to become gainfully employed in the field?
  • How long will it take you to become gainfully employed in the field?

The answers to these questions will help you narrow your career choices further and may even get a fire burning under your feet.

5. Take financial stock

Okay. You’ve done it! You’ve come up with one or more career paths that you’d like to embark on. You have looked into what it means to be employed in the career field(s) and you are now powerfully armed with the knowledge of what it takes to get you where you want to go! But like everything in life, it’s going to cost you. You now need to list out all the costs, add them up and compare them with what you will be able to swing. There’s no doubt you will be able to accomplish your goals, no matter what your financial situation. It may take you longer than you like or may come at the expense of some other items or conveniences in your life, but you can do it if you set your mind to it and approach it methodically. This may mean you have to call upon your research skills again and explore financial options such as grants, scholarships, payment plans, or 401K or private institution education loans. You even may be able to pay for education or experience by doing an internship or by performing work using a skill that you currently have in exchange for training or experience.

When you are taking financial stock, allow yourself breathing room. Perhaps your goals are not financially feasible at this moment in time. Perhaps you just had a baby, your youngest son needs braces, or you’ve just paid an absorbent amount of money to repair your car. It’s okay. Rejoice in the fact that you’ve come this far. You can put a plan together and start saving or start applying for aid or other means of financing. There may even be things you can start to do that will be free or cheap, such as volunteering in the field or reading books to prepare you for your studies. Most people don’t have the luxury of quitting their jobs while they switch careers, so most likely you will be living a “double life” while you prepare for the switch. Whatever you do, don’t break the bank, because you’ll inevitably find yourself right back where you started.

6. Check your calendar

Great! You’ve got it all under control. You know where you’re going, how you’re going to get there and how you’re going to pay for it. But can you afford the time? Do you have enough free time or flexibility to meet the educational requirements? Are you young enough or old enough to fall within any professional age requirements? If you have the time and the age, skip this step. If not, the last step of your journey is to shuffle your calendar!

Shuffling your calendar may be easy. You may know right away what to eliminate or move in order to make room for your new career path. Conversely, finding the time might be downright complicated. Maybe you have small children, maybe you have an ailing parent, maybe you have church or community commitments…any of these things would make working towards a new career an uphill battle. Here again, it may mean that you have to post-pone your journey for a little while. Or, it could mean that you have to settle for beginning your education informally by reading books or taking online courses when you can. Whatever your challenge, don’t lose hope! Faith in yourself and perseverance will get you where you want to go.

7. Take the plunge

You’ve arrived at the last step. It’s time to jump in! Time to register for that first class, accept that internship, or apply for that entry level or part-time job in your chosen field. Whatever you’ve found to be the first step towards your new career, delight in the fact that you’ve come a long way and you’re doing it! You’ve done a lot of hard, thorough work and you have a lot to be proud of. Start down that path with your chin up and your shoulders back!

Food for your trip

You can’t take this trip without packing! If you leave home with one thing, leave home with the comforting knowledge that your approach to a new career is circular. This means that you can always go back to the beginning of the circle or to any point within the circle. If you’ve started a class or program and found that you hate it. So what? You’ve learned to cross it off you list and go back and take another look. Even if you get all the way to end of the path and decide it is not for you, take comfort that you did your best and its time to go back to another number in the circle. There is no shame in that.

So go on now…get out of here! Your train is leaving and you better be on it! Just don’t forget to take some pictures along the way, stop and smell the flowers, buy a few souvenirs and by all means, don’t forget where you came from!

Alotta Candor is a staff writer and commentator for JobSchmob.com, the “lighter” side of the working world. She is proud to be a liberated ex-corporate office worker.