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Trading Places

Moving from one career path into a glam media one instead doesn't mean starting over again—if you do it right.

By Susan A. Patton - March 31, 2004

Do you want to trade in your job as a lawyer for a career in consumer publishing? Are you a promotion art director who wants to move into feature writing? A broadcast-company market researcher who wants to be a magazine business manager? Perhaps even an ad saleswoman who wants to be an HR babe?

Don't be discouraged that you're not in the career you're suddenly dreaming of. It is possible to move into media careers—or to move to a different kind of media career—without starting entirely over. But, depending on your level of experience, the cost of making a career change can be enormous if it's not handled the right way.

If you're a relatively junior person—with, say, fewer than three years on the job—a career change will still set you back, but the cost is minimal and you'll probably make up the difference in little time. If you've stayed too long at the fair, however, the cut in salary, title, and dignity may be more than you're willing to sacrifice—if you are offered the opportunity to do so at all.

I've had more than 20 years of experience as a human-resources expert, and I often speak with senior people who are so motivated to do a different media job that they emphatically state their willingness to start over from the bottom, whether it means taking a major pay cut or entering a training program. But, as I advise them, before you strip yourself of your stripes and status, consider honestly how you'd feel about running errands, being ordered about by whippersnappers half your age, and being given the least glammy assignments and most undesirable work hours. It's harder than you think to start over, and many more accomplished professionals can't handle it—and shouldn't have to.

And even if you are willing to suffer the indignities of the Junior Assistant Gofer, it's unlikely that an employer would want to have you. Think about the problems your retrogressive candidacy would pose to a prospective boss. Will you be a happy and productive employee for long, starting at entry level—again? Can you manage on an entry-level salary after having earned much more? Have you acquired work habits in your previous job that are inconsistent with a new work environment? And what effect will your employment have on the newbies? Will you creep out the 22-year-olds you'll be training with? The truth is, another homogeneous green bean right out of college is often a safer, more predictable entry-level hire than Baby Huey.

The trick to successfully transitioning careers is to ignore the instinct to give it all up for the cause—no matter how noble it might seem. Actually, rather than demonstrating to potential employers your commitment to making a career change, such a move can smell instead a bit like martyrdom, which no employer wants any part of. But, more important, it's totally unnecessary to go back to square one. There's a better way to position yourself for career change, retain most of your status, and afford your prospective employer a modicum of comfort in your candidacy.

Here's what you should do: Capitalize on what you've got, and then move to what you want. Regardless of your industry or job function, you have a portable skill set which can position you as more senior than junior. The key is to identify the transferable skills you've acquired and repackage them for an alternative audience. If you've been a high-school math teacher, for example, think about the need educational publishers have for your expertise in development of course guides and textbooks. Or, think about your worth to a textbook publisher in selling their publications at a district or state level. You speak the language. You know how the school system works. Take what you know and parlay it into what you want. That can be done regardless of your background.

Let's say you're that lawyer who wants to be a magazine publisher. Leverage your law background. Leave your law firm and instead join a publishing company that specializes in publications for the legal profession. Or join the legal department of a more generic publishing company. Do what you know, in the new environment you want to move into. When the time is right, as an insider you can more easily transition to the new career you want. Adam Liptak, the national legal correspondent for The New York Times, worked first as a lawyer for the paper before becoming a reporter there.

Or what if you're that promotion art director who really wants to be a feature writer. Even though you are an insider, transitioning within your company from the ad side to editorial will be difficult. If you have genuine writing abilities, your best bet is to write on spec for the publications you already have connections at. If your writing really is good enough for publication, the editors you know may consider putting your words in print. And then, once you've accumulated a respectable portfolio of your writing, you can pursue your career change to feature writing in any venue.

And some skill sets are very straightforwardly transferable. Your experience as a market researcher in broadcasting is quite portable to a market-research position in magazine publishing. The tools of analyzing consumer measurement, whether provided by MMR, MRI, the Audit Bureau of Circulations, or Nielsen, all require the same analytical approach. Capitalize on your transferable skills to enter a new industry. Once you're inside, you have access to the job you want and the people who make the hiring decisions.

Ultimately, there are a few key points to seriously consider as you embark upon a career change:

1. Be purposeful in explaining why you are changing direction at this time. "I just felt like a change" is an unsatisfactory explanation. Give prospective employers strong reasons to want you and your experience; don't suggest they're just doing you a favor by helping you try something new.

2. Expect the transition process to take at least two years, and don't expect your financial picture to be unaffected. Depending on the change you're looking to make, it can take significantly longer for your salary to be restored to its pre-career change level.

3. Don't be discouraged. You have only one life to live. If you want to live it as an editor, or as a circulation director, or as a special events manager, go for it! (Unless, that is, you're the ad saleswoman who wants to be an HR babe. In that case, give up. No ad salesperson should want to be in HR. Although both are ultimately in the business of selling, marketing, and overcoming objections, ad sales always out-earns HR.)

Whatever you do, abandon the notion that making a professional transition requires going back to square one. If you are committed to changing careers, craft your candidacy around the experiences, contacts, processes, skills and expertise that you've acquired and can contribute in your next job. Entry level people don't bring that to the party. You do.

Susan A. Patton is a human-resource consultant to media companies including Conde Nast Publications, American Express Publishing, and The Knot, as well as a personal career coach to senior media executives. Learn more about tonight's mb seminar on making a lateral career move here.

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