A Practical Approach to Career Change

As promised, I’m going to try to crystallize some of the advice I’ve shared with my various readers and correspondence seeking to answer this question:

“I have X experience and I’m trying to pursue a career in Y field. How do I go about getting the job I want?”

Identify what you really want

I think it’s important to do a little self-evaluation and determine what about your current situation/career is or is not working for you. Do you love your work but hate your leader, or vice versa? Will a change of manager, company, or job fix what’s bothering you? If the way you approach a job or react to people creates problems for you, a change of scenery will result in the same problems with merely a different cast of characters.

Also, I have to admit that I’m one of those emotional types who wants or needs to feel personally invested in the work I’m doing…one of the luxuries of working in a nebulous, philosophical career like writing. Take some time to identify what you specifically want to do and why. Changing your career/lifestyle isn’t always a great idea just because you’re temporarily bored or burned out. If the boredom or burnout have been long-running, take the time to identify what it is that is causing those responses to your work. This way, you have a combination of positives and negatives pulling and pushing you along the path you want to pursue.

No job is going to be without static or downsides, but you can usually identify potential deal-killers during the interview process by asking about specific content, organizational, or cultural practices (without saying something ugly like, “I hate that about my last job”).

Determine if you’ve got relevant experience

There’s a slight gap sometimes between what’s possible and what’s realistic when it comes to career change. Much of what it boils down to is past experience.

  • Have you ever done anything related to the industry you’re interested in doing?
  • Have you ever done anything similar to the work you’re interested in doing–for pay or as a volunteer?
  • Are you blogging about the topic/industry that interests you in your free time?
  • Have ever done any reading/research about the work you’re interested in doing in your free time?

Some of this goes to your experience, some of it goes to your real level of interest. True story: as I was close to graduating from my B.A., one of the things I considered was teaching English in Japan. This, despite taking no teaching classes or bothering to learn Japanese in any remedial fashion. I’d read Shogun a couple times. You can’t make up stories that stupid.

On the flip side, I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating: I wanted to write for the space industry fresh out of that B.A. When I started dropping resumes on the big aerospace contractors in Central Florida, I was informed that I lacked the appropriate experience or background. Fast forward a dozen years, and by that time I’d worked as a space advocate, written policy papers, held a job in a technical field, and had a bunch of strong references from acquaintances in the industry.

Study the pay scale

One of the standard things I do when looking at various job prospects is visit Salary.com. They have a few tools worth investigating, including:

You might also take a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook to see if the type of work you’re wanting to do is on the rise or the decline. Another good thing to look for if you consider moving is a cost of living comparison calculator

Check your network

I’ve addressed networking before, but it bears repeating in this specific context. The people you meet through face-to-face events or experiences (always the best) can help you by answering specific questions you might have about an industry, ideally before you’ve applied for a job. It’s also good to let your network know–without being so tactless as to let your employer know–what specific sort of work you’re looking to do. There’s a lot less pressure on the other person if you’re just seeking information rather than trying to get help getting hired. These would be questions such as:

  • What sorts of skills/background/experience/knowledge are necessary to get a job doing X?
  • Is Company X hiring? If so, what types of positions?
  • What would I need to do/have/be to have an advantage over other candidates?

Of course you could take an alternate approach and explain to your current manager that you are looking for a change. I would only do this in a large, diverse company with more opportunities than you’d find elsewhere. An understanding leader might be able to suggest a new/different area of the same company where you might find what you’re seeking.

Take action on your own behalf

I really can’t emphasize this enough. If you’re gung-ho to change your career, you need to do the legwork and figure out the practical realities of the new position or career you want. This means diving into the research: knowing not just what type of work you want to do, but what industries are hiring people with your skill sets and where. Once you’ve drunk from the data fire hose a bit, you’ll be able to narrow down your search to specific locations, specific companies, and specific jobs and from there customize your resume to best reflect your ability to meet employer or customer needs. Someone else won’t do this for you. You’re the one who’s most invested in your own success. Taking those constructive steps will put you in a positive frame of mind to make the changes you want.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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