THE ULTIMATE GUIDE
How to Prepare for a Career Change
Making a career change is a bold choice. It can be destabilizing, scary, and risky. However, there are many, many reasons why making a career change is right for you. In fact, approximately 70% of working people are looking for a job change.
Our lives are constantly evolving, and as a result, the work we value, the skills we’ve gained, and the things we want to invest in also change. There is a great deal of reward on the other side of the scary parts of a career change, and it’s absolutely worth it to take the steps towards the working life that you want.
To help you prepare for a career change, we’ve written this guide to help you think through and navigate this pivotal moment. Everyone’s circumstances are different, but many people have walked this path before you and ended up in very successful, happy and stable careers after making a change. Now it’s your turn!
How to Change Careers
Changing careers is a fresh start, but not without its complications. There is a lot to consider as you contemplate making such a big life change.
You may have already decided to take the leap and have your new career all planned out. Or maybe you know what industry you’d like to pursue but want to make sure you’ve considered all the angles and are looking for encouragement.
Or maybe, you feel like you simply aren’t making enough money where you are and need to switch industries to earn a higher salary.
You may be considering questions like, “should I pursue a career in IT?” “Should I pursue a career in medicine?” “Should I change my career at all?” “Is 50 too old to change careers?” “Can I make a career change at 40?” “Are my best working days behind me and I just need to keep my head down and plow on until retirement?
Whatever your situation, we hope to give you some ideas, guidance, and encouragement as you plan your career change.
Evaluating the risk of a career change
The primary thing on everyone’s mind when they start to think about changing their career is how risky it will be.
This is an important thought. The level of risk involved in your career change will determine the structure of your whole plan. Do you have savings to fall back on? Do you need more training or to go back to school for your career change? Are you the primary breadwinner of your household? These are all concerns you’ll have when evaluating your risk.
So let’s think through it.
What is your job now? How do you feel about it?
We’ve already talked about how age and time can change your perspective on what you do for a living.
But sometimes you aimed for a certain career path when you were in school and landed in a different field entirely. Perhaps you studied engineering because you wanted to design cars, but ended up a Business Analyst and then just stayed because the pay was good or you got comfortable or you decided this was all there was to life anyway and therefore why shake things up.
Many people make a career change for financial reasons. They simply want or need to be making more money and so feel like they have to leave their current job, company, or entire industry in order to reach those financial goals.
How you feel about your job now is important because your reasons for staying are the price you will pay for not changing anything.
Can you imagine bearing the same circumstances you are in for another 15 years? Another 5? One year? Can you barely stand the thought of being there another month? Another week?
In the broadest sense, the question boils down to this: is your unhappiness with your current role, salary, duties, etc. worth the effort and risk it will take to make a career change?
You’ve probably been thinking about this in pieces non-stop, but let’s get a little more organized.
Career change self-evaluation
Get yourself a good old-fashioned piece of paper and a pen or open up a Word document. On one piece of paper, write out all of the magnificent things that could come of changing your career. These could be things like:
- More money
- More work/life balance
- A better commute
- More time to spend with partner and kids
- Greater satisfaction in what I do
- The ability to help people
This is your time to dream. Let yourself feel the happiness of living a life working in the career you want to change to.
On a different piece of paper, write down all the things that could go badly or stand in your way of changing your career. These things could include:
- Having to start from the bottom again
- Having to go back to school
- Making less (or no) money for a time
- Worried about letting down my current boss or colleagues
Let your mind worry a little bit about the potential risks involved in your decision. How many things on your cons list are actually insurmountable? Or actually problems at all?
For instance, your boss and colleagues may be thrilled that you decided to make a better decision for yourself. You may have more transferable skills than you thought and don’t need a full-fledged degree to transition to your new field.
The mind’s job is to make us worry. It thinks by making us anxious it’s keeping us safe. But it’s important to take back the reins and realize that all of those thoughts your brain is throwing at you aren’t the entire story. You are smart, talented, and resourceful. A career change likely won’t happen overnight and it may be stressful and even challenging at times, but that doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done.
Now that you have both lists in front of you, you can better evaluate the risk of taking the leap into a career change and assessing how you feel about it. Is it 100% possible, but just scary? Then do it! Is everything in you telling you this is the wrong move? Then heed that voice too. But be mindful about throwing up roadblocks in your own way simply because it’s new and scary terrain to explore.
How to choose a new career
If you’ve been considering a career change, you likely already have a new career in mind. If you don’t, there are a few things you can try to determine what industry you would like to move into next.
What are your career values?
Many people think about the job they want by considering their skill set and aptitudes. This approach makes a lot of sense, but it’s also very reductionist. There is more to a person and what kind of work will enrich their life than simply evaluating what they’re good at.
If you’re struggling to find a career path, it may be because you’ve taken this standard approach. You may think things like, “how do I choose a career when I’m not good at anything?” or “how do I choose a career when I don’t know what I like to do?” or “how can I change my career when I am too old to learn new things?”
Instead of taking the skills-centric approach to finding a new career, try taking a value-based approach.
What does this mean?
It means evaluating your life and finding the things you care about. Particularly in regards to how the things you care about translate into your working life.
For instance, maybe a value you hold is working to live and not living to work. In your career, this will translate to valuing work/life balance. If you choose a career based on this value, it will automatically eliminate some industries and positions that don’t honor a healthy work/life balance, and therefore you don’t need to consider them when choosing a career.
Just as we did before when making our pros and cons list to evaluate risk, take out your notepad again and write down some of your values.
Examples of values:
- Prioritizing mental health
- Beauty and creativity
- Flexibility and autonomy
- Honesty and integrity
- Human connection and socialization
- Doing your part
- Meaningful work
Once you have a list of things you value, get a new piece of paper and start writing down skills you have, both social skills (sometimes called “soft skills”) and technical skills (sometimes called “hard skills”).
Examples of skills:
- Great listener
- Deep thinker
- Hard worker
- HTML and CSS
Now that you have both your values list and your skills list, start brainstorming career paths that you could follow by merging the two.
NOTE: Don’t think about the obstacles in your path right now. For instance, don’t stop yourself from writing something down by thinking, “well I can’t afford to go back to school, so this one’s out.” Just let your mind free flow and entertain all possibilities for now. You can go back and evaluate your answers later.
From the example lists above, we could think of several career paths that would perfectly fit with both your skills and values.
Psychologist/Counselor – (mental health, human connection, great listener, articulate)
Graphics Editor – (Photoshop, creativity, flexibility)
Web Designer – (CSS, HTML, creative, organization)
Social Worker – (empathetic, reliable, great listener, hard worker, honest)
Volunteer Coordinator – (human connection, organization, meaningful work)
Project Manager – (deep thinker, organizer, creative, human connection)
These are just a handful of the possible career paths for someone with the kinds of skills and values we have in our examples. As you brainstorm, you’ll find yours. This is a great way to narrow down what you’re looking for, what you’ll be great at, and what kind of work will be meaningful to you.
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Answering Career Change Questions in an Interview
When it comes time to interview for your new job, you will be asked about your career change.
It’s the interviewer’s job to ask about anything that could possibly be a red flag, and making a career shift is a big change that they will want to know about.
The good news is there are many, many reasons to change careers, and hiring managers are aware of this.
Additionally, lots of people who were teachers or working in customer service are leaving those fields en masse due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the complications it posed to their jobs.
Teachers, food service workers, retail workers, and those in healthcare are not the only ones who have had a shift in priorities either. At the time of this writing, tens of thousands of people are searching for a new career, perhaps of their own choice, and perhaps not.
Whatever your circumstances, hiring managers are aware of the global situation, so don’t be afraid to be honest about your reasons for a career change.
As always, stay away from negative language, even if you left a very rough situation. For instance, if you left your field due to COVID, shy away from going off on rants about how difficult it was to get people to comply with the mask mandate or your opinion about the vaccine.
Your frustration may be valid and understandable, but no one wants to hire someone who appears angry and unhinged. Be honest, but keep your language and attitude about your career change professional.
How to talk about your career change in an interview
Though your interviewer will likely understand your reasons for making a career change, they still need to have proof that you can do the job they’re hiring for.
To demonstrate that you are a good hire for the role, you will need to learn how to discuss your transferable skills.
A transferable skill is a skill you have that you used in your old job but could also be applied to your new career path.
Some of your technical skills may transfer (basic computer literacy for example is needed in nearly every job), but your competencies like organization, communication skills, and leadership will also transfer.
Don’t assume they will put the pieces together themselves, however. Your job is to demonstrate that your skills can be transferred to your new role seamlessly.
Let’s take a look at some examples of answering interview questions about your career change by demonstrating your transferable skills.
Transferable skills sample answer #1
Let’s say you’re someone who is thinking through how to change careers from teaching. You’ve taken stock of all your skills and values as we discussed in chapter one and are now ready to talk about your career change into horticulture, something you’ve dearly loved for a long time.
Why this is a good answer: Changing careers from teaching to horticulture is not a transition one would expect. They are very different fields. But here the candidate was able to reasonably explain her reason for the career shift and how some of her strengths will contribute to her new job. This steers the conversation into a discussion about the positives and strengths she possesses and doesn’t dwell too long on the negatives that prompted her to leave her last job.
Transferable skills sample answer #2
Here is another example of someone changing careers due to the adjustments brought about by the pandemic.
Why this is a good answer: Here is another pretty big career shift. This candidate is making a fresh start as a computer programmer from working in hospitality. He does an excellent job of showing how his attention to detail transfers to his new career path, as well as demonstrating initiative and resilience in using the time in lockdown to learn a skill as technically difficult as computer programming. These are all strong positives for a career changer to show an interviewer.
Transferable skills sample answer #3
Now let’s look at a situation that wasn’t prompted by the pandemic. Maybe you want to change careers because you want to be earning more or you simply lost interest in what you were doing before. How do you discuss this in an interview?
Why this is a good answer: This candidate recognized that her skills can fill a need for a skill set that is hard to find in one person; the ability to be technical and also good at communicating. She explains how her knowledge of engineering will help her understand the nature of the products she is communicating about while her writing skills will help her be focused and articulate.
NOTE: If your career change is primarily motivated by financial concerns, be tactful in how you explain your career shift. Everyone works so that they can live, that is understood, and it’s not wrong to want to make more money. However, employers don’t want to feel that they are just a means to an end and that you have no interest in the work, company, or product. Keep your focus on your skills and enthusiasm about the new work you’ll be doing as a result of your career change.
Career change questions to expect in an interview
Your career change is going to come up in the interview, but how will it be asked? Below are some typical interview questions you may be asked about your career change. Study them and prepare your answers before your next interview.
Career change question examples:
Tell me about yourself – this question is a classic opener for any job seeker and it can make or break the interview. As a career changer, you’ll want to give the highlights of your career while also discussing your decision to make a career change by referencing your transferable skills as we talked about above. Give a strong answer to this question and you’ll be starting the interview off on an excellent foot.
Why do you want to work here? – this question may also come as, “why this company?” “why this role?” or “why this industry?” This is an extremely important question for you as a career changer because what they are really asking is, “why are you changing your career to this specifically?” You want to answer as enthusiastically and positively as possible, conveying to your interviewer that you are happily running towards something amazing and not away from something terrible.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? – although no one can know where they’ll be in 5 years, this is still a very common interview question, and it will likely come up for you because the interviewer is trying to assess how reliable you are. After all, if you will completely change careers once, what’s to say you won’t do it again and leave them with another role to fill? This is your chance to assure them you are not a risky hire and are dedicated to your new career path for the long haul.
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How to Search for a Job When You Have a Job
Anyone looking to change jobs or careers has had to navigate the tricky territory of looking for a job when they are already employed.
It’s perfectly within your rights to look for another job. You are employed by your own free will and free to leave anytime.
However, the unspoken social code of professional life makes it pretty clear that broadcasting your job search is not the best thing to do. It is viewed as unprofessional and may result in you being fired before you’ve had the chance to resign.
Best practices for finding another job while employed
Many of these best practices are common sense but can be easy to forget in all the anxiety and excitement of choosing to leave your current job. Use this list as a refresh and reminder about how to conduct yourself professionally in the coming weeks of your job search.
You probably have some workplace buddies that you eat lunch and kill time around the water cooler with, and they may be able to keep your secret. However, it’s best to assume that if you tell one person, you may as well have told the whole office. Workplace politics can get complicated and getting the rumor mill running about your job change can cause a lot of problems for you, from your boss and colleagues taking it personally, to being back-stabbed or treated differently after the news. Play it safe and keep it to yourself until you’ve put in your notice and have a new job in hand.
Don’t use your work computer or network for your job search
Companies have the right to monitor what you are accessing on their networks and devices. Searching for and applying to new jobs on company property is not a good idea. If you are discovered, it will result in an uncomfortable conversation at best and termination at worst.
If possible, you can bring your personal laptop to work with you and use the network of a nearby coffee shop before or after work or during your lunch break to apply to and search for jobs.
NOTE: Remember not to use your company’s wifi on your phone if you are job searching using mobile. Switch to cellular data so that you will not be discoverable on their networks.
Don’t drop the ball
It’s really easy to mentally check out when you are planning on leaving a job, but do your best to stay on task, not drop the ball, and not burn any bridges. Make sure you are still hitting your deadlines, completing your duties, and contributing to the team. A job search–and especially a career change–is a time when you need all of the good professional references you can get. It’s not a time to be severing connections with poor performance.
How to interview when you have a job
Giving your current employer your full attention means that you are going to be at work during standard interview hours. So how do you interview for your new job when you are already employed?
Ask for flexibility
Based on the dates of your resume or LinkedIn profile, the person who called you in to interview already knows you’re currently employed and will likely be willing to work with you on a time that works.
NOTE: If you are meeting a lot of resistance or outright rudeness when trying to find a flexible time with your interviewer, this is a red flag. If they are not willing to be reasonably flexible and accommodate you, they are probably not the best people or company to work for.
Good interviewers understand that you are being a good employee to your current employer by arranging for an interview during your non-working hours and will see it as a positive in your professionalism and integrity.
You can also try to arrange that any interviews you get be on the same day so you can plan ahead and take a personal day to meet with potential employers.
Keep in mind however that you want to be fresh and prepared for each individual interview, so don’t overbook yourself or take this approach if you are very anxious or easily frazzled. The ground you gained by doing all your interviews in one day could easily be lost by not performing well during the interview due to nerves, exhaustion, or overwhelm.
Use remote working to your advantage
COVID-19 has drastically changed the workforce, and one of the advantages to this is people are a lot more open to meeting remotely than they were before.
Having an interview at 7 pm on a Tuesday over video no longer seems like a strange anomaly. Be honest with your interviewer about your job search and ask if interviewing over video in the early morning, evening, or over your lunch hour is a possibility.
Prepare for your interview (even if you have to do so quickly)
Working full time while conducting a job search and taking care of your other life responsibilities is a lot to have on your plate at one time. You may be so focused on actually getting an interview that you completely forget to prepare for it.
Even if you’ve interviewed many times before, answering interview questions well is a skill that can get rusty very fast.
You don’t have to devote hours and hours to your interview prep, but you should take some time to think through the interview questions you’ll be asked, especially if you’re a career changer who is already employed elsewhere.
You’ll be asked questions like, “why are you looking to leave your current job?” and “why this company?” and you need to have a good answer.
Situations like this are why we developed the Fast Track inside Big Interview. We’ve taken every area of the interview process you will need to refresh on and put them together inside a curriculum you can access quickly and effectively.
Sign up today to get access to our Fast Track curriculum. (We have a 30-day money-back guarantee if you are not completely satisfied.)
The non-typical approach to changing jobs
It’s not typically done, but there is no law that says you have to have a new job lined up before you quit your current one. If you know you want to change careers and want some time off, you’ll be quitting to go back to school, or your job is simply sucking the joy out of your life and you can’t take it another day, you can quit without something else lined up.
Obviously you’ll want to be in a good financial place before you take this step, but if all your ducks are in a row otherwise, having the extra time to take your job search and career change at your own pace could be just what you need.
Do keep in mind that future interviewers will ask about the gap in your work history, so that is a question you’ll want to prepare for when it comes time to interview again.
But there is no reason you can’t answer honestly and professionally about any gaps that may be in your resume. If anything, taking the extra time allows you to get focused and prepared for your new career, and you’ll come back into the workforce happier and more productive than ever.
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Common Challenges for Career Changers
Many people who change careers have to face the same challenges. According to a recent poll, 52% of middle-income workers in America are considering changing their careers in 2021.
The COVID-19 pandemic has a lot to do with this, but the silver lining is that a very large portion of the workforce is already overcoming these challenges and starting new careers. That means you can do it too.
Let’s take a look at some of the common challenges career changers face and how to think about overcoming them.
The learning curve
If you’ve been in your career awhile, you’ve likely gained a certain level of seniority that you have started to take for granted. You’re not the new guy who knows how nothing works, or has never handled a big project or has to learn some basic functionalities of the job.
When you change careers, however, you’ll be starting from the bottom. Perhaps not in knowledge (you may be changing to something you already have a good handle on) but you’ll have to prove yourself in the workplace all over again, make a name for yourself, and earn the trust of your boss and colleagues.
Remember that there is no magic number for happiness in your career. Society is set up a certain way and may try to tell you you are “too old” to go back and retrace these steps, but that isn’t true. You are continuing to grow in your career, you chose yourself and what will give you the most happiness out of your career and there is zero shame in that. Remind yourself of this on the hard days.
Earning the credentials for your career change
You may have to go back to school for your career change. Depending on what industry you’ve chosen (medicine, law, mental health) you may have to be in school for some time. Pursuing higher education in adulthood is quite a different experience than when you were going in straight out of high school, but you have the added benefit of focus, maturity, and knowing exactly what you want to do.
If going back to school is not really a feasible possibility for you at the moment, consider a career you can transition to with very little additional training, such as something that only requires a certification or completing a shorter program than a degree.
Making ends meet during a career transition
Whether your working hours are cut so you can go to school, you have a gap of time where you don’t have any clients as you start your own business, or you are not working at all for a time, changing careers can often result in a minimized income.
You’ll want to plan for this as part of your career change plan. Start combing through your budget to see if you can trim down any monthly costs to help balance the deficit.
Even if your career change makes things a little tighter at first, remind yourself why you are making these sacrifices now, that they are temporary, and once you begin your new career it will all have been worth it.
Dealing with imposter syndrome
When you’ve made a fresh start in your new career, you may look around and start to feel like you don’t belong. You’re the new person who started this career late and you’re surrounded by people who have many years in the industry, are very accomplished, and knew that this was their career path straight out of college.
You can start to feel like an imposter, that you’re not up to their level, that any day now someone will ask you to leave because they suddenly realized you’re a big fat phony and have no idea what you’re doing.
The secret? Everyone feels like this from time to time. Even the suavest and most accomplished and well-liked of your colleagues has moments where they feel like an idiot, or they forgot something important, or they just feel like a kid wearing their parent’s clothes to work and they aren’t a grown-up at all.
You have as much right to be in the room as anybody else. You have earned your seat at the table. You have been evaluated by interviewers and you won the job. YOU did. Because you’re qualified and capable and good at what you do.
You will gain the years of experience and ease in the industry, and it’s okay that you don’t know everything yet and are still getting your feet in this new world. It doesn’t make you an imposter and it doesn’t mean you’re not worthy of the opportunity. Hold your head up high and do your best every day. Ask questions when you don’t know, and climb the ladder of success two rungs at a time.
Making a career change at 40 (and beyond)
We’ve already touched on this, but it warrants repeating; there is no such thing as too old to start a new career. Will there be challenges? Yes. Will it take a lot of resilience, courage, and planning? Yes. But it’s absolutely possible and if it’s the best move for you, you should absolutely pursue it regardless of how old you are.
You are smart and resilient and can enter any career you set your mind to. Don’t pay any mind to the status quo or what you’re being told is the “right” thing to do for your age.
Despite any of the challenges that may come with a career change, ultimately the only thing stopping you from making a career change at 40 (or beyond) is believing that you can’t. That it’s too late for you. That you made your bed and now you must lie in it forever.
If you want a career change to happen, you absolutely can make it happen. At 40, 52, 63, whenever.
Of course there are things to consider. Of course you’ll want to think about it pragmatically. Of course you’ll want to consider the financial impact (retirement fund, starting salary, health insurance, etc.). But don’t let those things rule your life. They are important, but they are not the most important. Your happiness and quality of life should be paramount in your concerns.
Life is a repeating loop of cycles. We learn something new, dedicate ourselves to it, reach our peak, wane, and then start again. This is true in ourselves as we age, in our relationships, and in our careers. Choose to do what aligns with your values, skills, and meets your financial requirements and you will be on your way to a happy, fulfilling career.
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