In the past 10 years, I have eagerly and actively pursued a number of different career paths. I’ve worked in both direct service and communications in the non-profit sector, I’ve explored research and teaching options in higher education, and I’ve dabbled (ok a bit more than dabbled) in entrepreneurship, specifically in digital media and marketing. It has definitely been an interesting journey landing me where I am today, and I’ve learned so much along the way. So, I’m sharing some advice on changing career paths with key things to consider before shifting gears.
Reframe How You Think About the Word ‘Career’
Oftentimes when people say they want to switch careers, they become afraid to do so because they don’t want to feel like they’ve wasted all their time in their previous jobs/roles (I’ve been there!). A job is simply a means of employment, while a career is your entire professional journey. So there’s technically no such thing as a career switch, it’s more just you taking a different fork in the road.
Identify What’s Driving the Change
If you say you want to change career paths, do you mean you want to perform the same job but for a different employer? Are you looking to do the same tasks but service a different industry? Or would you like to learn an entirely new skill but serve the same population? Before you jump ship, take some time to figure out exactly what you like and don’t like about the work that you currently do and have been doing, so that you can make informed decisions about your next steps.
Recognize the Skills You’ve Learned Along the Way
Again, your career is a journey, so every single job that you’ve had contributes to your career. It’s important to think about the skills and knowledge that you’ve gained in the roles you’ve had so far. If you’ve worked in retail, you probably have a good deal of customer service experience. That can translate to a position in hospitality or even in tech support. If you’ve worked in a chemistry lab, you might be really good at complex processes and detailed task execution — and so maybe you’d be great at being an accountant or a virtual assistant. Think about your previous roles in the context of what you learned, rather than your title, and you might be surprised what other doors can open.
People often write about the importance of informational interviewing when you are looking for work. Perhaps one of my most important pieces of advice on changing career paths is to start chatting with people about the work that they do before you make the switch. You’ll start recognizing what common skills or knowledge people in your ideal roles have or don’t have, and you’ll be able to cross-check that you have or need to obtain those skills too.
Learn & Experiment
I’m a huge advocate of learning as you go, so if you do need to develop a new skill set, start learning and put it to use! Sign up for an online course if you need to, or consider shadowing someone (doing an internship) to learn the ropes. You can even volunteer somewhere, but be clear that you’re still learning and getting your feet wet, just to manage expectations.
Tying It All Together
Sometimes it’s hard to see things at the moment, but if you take a step back, you’ll see that all of your professional experiences are linked together. Take it from me: the research, writing, and oral presentation skills that I learned during my doctoral degree made me a consistent blogger able to retain longevity in the field, despite the ebbs and flows of social media. The part-time role I had at an after-school non-profit program for over a year that I thought I’d never use? Seven years later, I’ve started my own education non-profit serving a different population and in a different format, but using the principles of community-led partnership and service that I learned while teaching nutrition to high schoolers.
Also, learning to independently manage projects and campaigns as a blogger while juggling other responsibilities has made me a pretty darn good project manager. This helps both in my academic and non-profit work, as well as now that I’ve expanded my team and am managing both projects and individuals. So all my work and experiences are connected!
If you’re thinking of switching gears and are actively seeking advice on changing career paths this year, please consider this: it doesn’t have to be a huge scary ordeal. Going in a different direction professionally is not starting over, it’s just taking a different exit on the highway. Figure out what exactly you want to change, ask a ton of questions, learn and experiment, and remember that all your experiences come together to make up your career.