Question: “How can I make a career change, with no contacts in the field and no idea how to sell myself to new employers?”
A true career change involves three smart steps: 1) planning, 2) self-exploration, and 3) communication and networking.
You can’t make a good career change without following these steps. Other choices you make along the way, such as what education you get, whom you contact, how you market yourself, etc. will vary based on your experience and personal situation. The use of a career coach can help expedite the process, keeping you on track and suggesting new and creative ways of approaching your transition.
For the wrong approach to career planning, see our article, “Ten Common Career Change Mistakes.” Usually the biggest mistake we see is that clients let frustration build up at work, then take any new job that’s available or quit their jobs suddenly without having used their time wisely and planned ahead for the change.
Here’s what we think are the right steps for you to take in order to find a career you love:
“Measure twice, cut once,” as the old carpenter rule of thumb goes. The more issues you can anticipate in advance, the less stress you will have throughout the career change process. We believe that in the planning stage you should incorporate your other life goals (having children, buying a house, retiring, etc.) into your career planning process.
For example, if you are currently employed, are you saving 20% or more of your income towards a “career fund”, helping provide a cushion for any pay reduction you might encounter? If you think you might want to move into interior design, have you talked to at least two interior designers to find out what their roles entail? If you are thinking of moving or buying a house, have you determined how much money you will need to live on? If you’re thinking of starting a business, have you fully researched the market?
A career change can be scary for most people. Unfortunately, the fear usually translates into tunnel vision, where people don’t want to put a plan together to systematically make a change. Many people will take the “hold your nose and jump in” approach without truly testing the water first.
If you don’t know where you’re headed, how will you know when you get there? We recommend that you set some larger goals for yourself that include career, family needs, and finances. In as much detail as you can envision, what do you want your life to look like one year from now? What are the specific steps you think you can take to get there? Start planning well before you need to make a specific decision, so that your life doesn’t get thrown out of balance when you do make a change.
Many clients will come to us saying, “I know I don’t like my current situation, but I don’t know what else I want to do.”
There are many resources that can help you with this question, including many good career books (see our Book Recommendations). Typically, we find that career change books are a great place to start the process of self-exploration.
You can also take career tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), to help narrow down some career choices for yourself. You can take these tests either online or through an experienced facilitator who can help explain more about your results.
When we’ve worked with clients in the self-exploration phase, we’ve found that you already have a good source of information about what career you might like – your own past experience. For example, are you good at solving analytical problems? Connecting friends together? Absorbing technical details? Regardless of what specific job title you choose, you should build your new career around some of the strengths you’ve already developed.
Communication and Networking
After we take a client through the self-exploration stage, then we will help the person communicate their new career goals clearly, and help them start networking with others. Never underestimate the power of asking for what you want.
Most of us have had the experience of attending a party and being asked by someone else what we do for a living. In this setting, you may be tempted to say, “I am currently working at Company X as a _____.” Wouldn’t it be far more powerful to respond to that question by saying, “I’ve been thinking a lot about that topic! I’m currently thinking I’d really like to go into the field of _____.”
The second approach, where you describe what you want instead of where you currently are, helps the person help you. You never know who you might run into who might be able to help you either now or down the road.
You will also need to reach out to people you know, and explain what you’re interested in doing. Don’t wait to run into them at a party- call them up and invite them to lunch. Be respectful of their time, but you can also be excited about what you’re interested in pursuing. Excitement is infectious, and your contact may have another friend who can help you.
These three major steps, Planning, Self-Exploration, and Communication and Networking, are the most important things you can do to keep on track during your career transition.
Often, you will find that you cycle through these stages- you plan a little, discover a new career idea, talk to people about it, adjust your plan, experiment some more, etc. If after self-exploration you think you want to be a nurse, but after talking with nurses you realize there are parts of it you won’t like, don’t give up! There may be a related profession (lab technician, patient care administrator, etc.) that may actually be a better fit for you. The point of a good career transition is to be disciplined about setting aside time for these major steps, but being flexible with the details.
As long as you keep thinking about what you want, talking to people about it, and taking action, you will be moving in a positive direction. Before you know it, you will have a career that gets you excited to get to work every day!