In a perfect world, we would have all been 100% sure of our career paths as early as middle school, and, subsequently, every internship and college course would have moved us swiftly along that path.
The reality, though, is that our personal interests and circumstances change—not to mention the fact that the very industries in which we work seem to be in constant states of upheaval.
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So we find ourselves not just looking for a new job, but checking out the grass on the other side and planning for the ultimate career switch.
It can be daunting, to forsake all relevant experience and well-cultivated networks in the name of a new gig, but it is possible to make the switch somewhat seamless. Here’s how:
Do Your Research
Isaac Asimov, the great American author and intellectual, once said that self-education is the only kind of education there is. That’s great news for folks who find themselves shopping for a new job in a field wholly unrelated to their current degree, but it also means that you must be prepared—and willing—to study your new career path as earnestly as you did college algebra.
“The first step to any career change is research,” says Aaron Michel, CEO of PathSource, a career navigation app. “Learn about your new field: what skills are required, what types of jobs are available, and what it’s like to work in the industry.”
Michel created PathSource as a resource for folks embarking on a new profession, with detailed information on a variety of fields in areas including localized salary data and job openings, projected job growth and typical work environment.
But PathSource isn’t the only way to study your new career. Read a book (or ten), get your Google on, or ask someone who already works in the field what it’s really like.
Leverage Your Transferable Skills
One of the greatest advantages of thoroughly researching your new field is that you will get a good sense of the types of skills necessary to not only land a job—but to do it well.
And, says Sam McIntire, founder of the online career education platform Deskbright, you will likely find that you already have many of those skills, even if you didn’t develop them in a comparable environment. (Read: If you’re looking for a copywriting gig, whether you previously wrote press releases or technical briefs is of little concern to your new boss.)
“Think about how you can position yourself to prospective employers by using these skills as indicators of your future capabilities and success,” McIntire says. “And don’t forget to think about softer skills, like leadership, communication and teamwork; these are often just as valuable to companies as harder skills like programming and media management.”
Once you’ve determined which skills will be attractive your prospective employer, be sure to lead with those on your resume and in interviews.
Gain New Skills
Working with what you’ve already got in your arsenal is a great way to shift careers with the least chance of backward movement (i.e., landing in an entry level job), but if you really want to make forward progress, you’re going to have to learn some new tricks.
“For example,” says Cheryl Rogers, founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, “a former newspaper reporter can start out in freelancing by writing newspaper and magazine articles. That reporter also likely has to broaden his or her computer skills and learn how to market himself or herself.
“He or she also has to learn how to manage a writing business. At some point, as a freelance writer, he or she may take on a wider variety of writing projects. Eventually, that may result in a new specialty such as public relations or marketing or even being an author.”
Everyone may not want to freelance, Rogers notes, but there are still other ways to gain in-the-field experience that hone chops and appeal to hiring managers. “You may prefer to volunteer in a new career field, or take a temporary job, as the stakes for the employer are not as high,” Rogers says. “If you want to try something wildly different [from your previous career], training is advisable. Consider an apprenticeship program or advanced degree. An internship may be useful.” Sometimes all you need is an online course to familiarize yourself with some more specialized skills.
Build Your Network
Even when you’re completely confident that you’ll be able to crush any job in your new field, the reality is that you have to at least get your foot in the door for an interview. And sometimes that can prove to be the most difficult of your career-switching endeavors.
McIntire recommends using LinkedIn and other tools to tap your network for warm introductions with executives and hiring managers, but what happens when your current circle doesn’t have any connections in your new field? You build a new network, of course!
When L’Oreal Payton decided to leave her journalism career for work in the nonprofit world, she knew she would need allies on the inside who could help her land a new job.
“First, I made a short list of dream companies I’d like to work for, and then I researched their staff to find people who worked in communications or marketing,” Payton says. “From there, I’d research them on LinkedIn to see if we had any mutual contacts and Twitter to learn more about their interests. Once I thought I’d found a good fit, I’d reach out either on social media or by email.”
Payton was clear about her intentions in her initial correspondence, noting that she was a journalist looking to break into nonprofits. And after an in-person meeting, she made sure to stay in touch with any contacts, mentioning “an interesting tidbit from our conversation, or a link to an article I thought they would be interested in—or if they mentioned an upcoming vacation, I’d send tips for that location if I’d been, or a deal I’d seen online.”
Payton’s efforts paid off. A coffee meeting she had more than two years ago helped her land her current position of media relations manager for Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana.