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Making a Career Change - 4 Steps to Successfully Jumping Off the Cliff

by Julie Maddock

· Portfolio and Clips

It's what you've always wanted to do...

Wouldn’t it be great if the real world was as easy as the board game Life? Think about it: With just a spin of a plastic wheel, it is not only fun, but relatively easy, to choose a career, make money, get married, have a bunch of pink or blue plastic children, and retire comfortably with your amassed millions. And the best part? You can change careers by merely landing on a specified square. Bingo! You can go from hair dresser to surgeon in an instant.

Reality check: In the game of life we play every day, making a career change is a much more serious decision. Without a doubt, switching tracks professionally will have an impact on every aspect of your life. It may mean a better salary but more hours; you might lose all your employee benefits but enjoy the satisfaction of running your own business; or, you might discover a way to turn a part-time hobby into a full-time profitable career. Yes, dreaming of the perfect job is easy; making it a reality is another thing. This is where the heart starts to race with the painful swirl of “what ifs?” assaulting your brain.

However, despite the stress of uncertainty, changing careers is a step the majority of us will take during our lifetime. At times, circumstances will force a change of employment, for example, sexual harassment, unethical behaviors, violent threats or attacks from coworkers, or over-burdening stress that negatively impacts your health. Conversely, you may simply come to the realization that if work is a huge part of your life, why not work at a job you love. If your current job situation offers no outlet for creativity, stunts personal growth, or makes you profoundly unhappy or even depressed, this may be the time to spin the wheel and find a new career path that is both interesting and fulfilling. As one man put it, “I knew I had to make a change. I began to hate the repetitive, computerized work I was doing. I wanted a job where I could learn something new, be creative.” The solution? Having always had an interest in residential painting, he gave his employer notice and began working for an experienced painting contractor. He relates he found a sense of freedom and happiness in acquiring valuable new skills. He eventually started his own painting business.

What about you? Do you find yourself at work daydreaming of the job you wish you had, your heart and mind telling you it is time to take charge and make it happen? If you have reached the stage of seriously considering a career change, there are practical steps you can follow that will help minimize the anxiety and facilitate a smoother transition.

Step 1: Identify your dream. In the book “Changing Careers For Dummies” Carol L. McCleeland, Ph.D. states “the way you work impacts how you live. By thinking through the pros and cons of how you work, you gain insights about what you eventually need to live the life you want.” Reclaim your life by remembering what your dreams were as a young adult. Consider your values, health needs, and location. Write down your areas of intelligence, skills, and the industries that interest you. List your “dream jobs” even if they seem unreachable. You can pare it down later as you figure in the reality factor. The key is to narrow down your interests to one or two, then find similar fields that are within your means of acquisition.

Example: If you dreamed of being a doctor or nurse, but presently have neither the time or money for a full-fledged medical/nursing school, combine your desire to help people with your strong interpersonal skills, add a technical college course, and find fulfillment working as a CNA, EMT, physical or occupational therapist, art or music therapist, or even a therapeutic riding instructor.

Step 2: Think Jerry Maguire - write a mission statement. This is your game plan in writing. List your immediate and long-term goals to reach the decided upon job. Next, endeavor to learn all you can about the field including salary and the pros and cons of a typical work schedule. Attend a local conference or job fair and talk to professionals to get their perspective on your targeted career. Identify the educational requirements and devise a plan on how to pay for the courses.

Example: After deciphering what courses you need to take, talk with your company’s HR representative. Some companies actually sponsor and pay tuition for employees furthering their education. This may lead to a better position, such as manager or director, while staying on at your current company. Perhaps you only need to brush up on your previously acquired skills, continuing your education through obtaining a degree or certification. If you must pay your own tuition, explore the many avenues of federal and state financial aid.

Step 3: Gain experience. Take a part-time job in the field to learn the ins and outs. Focus on building contacts for future use when you are out on your own. A great way to learn the ropes is to offer to volunteer your time in exchange for learning a trade, or work as an apprentice, getting paid while learning a new skill.

Example: Before bidding on your first commercial landscaping job, work as an apprentice for a landscaping contractor. Learn how to prepare a professional estimate, factoring in all your expenses so as not to underbid and end up working for free. If your goal is to work from home copywriting, apply to work as an intern at a local newspaper to gain experience in both writing and copyediting (proofing).

Step 4: It’s time to sell yourself. Draft a new resume outlining your job target and recently obtained certification, skills, or experience. Make use of the professional contacts you’ve met along the way at workshops and conferences. Tell them you are looking for work. Post your resume online. Prepare and meticulously edit a cover letter to prospective employers/clients. Ask to set up an interview and then memorize your resume. Be ready to explain your experience, or lack thereof. Dress professionally and speak clearly – this is your only chance to make a great first impression. Conversely, this is your chance to interview them and get a feel for whether or not this particular company meets your expectations.

Example: At the interview, do you like what you see and hear? How do the employees greet you? Can you see yourself fitting in? Or, are you immediately turned off by the gray wall-to-wall cubicles? Does your gut tell you this is not the working atmosphere you were envisioning? If so, don’t settle just because it is a job in the field you want. Be patient. Line up more interviews. When the right job comes, you will know it.

When you are finally ready to make the break from your present employer to start your new career, give at least two weeks notice. Depending on the type of work you do and how valuable you are to the company, it would be not only considerate, but professional, to offer four weeks notice in order to help train a replacement. If at all possible, leave on good terms. Ask for a letter of recommendation from a manager. A positive letter highlighting your strengths and abilities will complement your resume. Finally, don’t forget to go out with a few friends and celebrate. You survived the chaos of getting to this fresh chapter in your life. Starting a new career in a field you have chosen is definitely a cause for celebration.

However, what if your circumstances and financial obligations dictate that you stick it out in your current job for the present time? It is crucial to implement a plan of action that will help you preserve your mental and physical well-being while never losing sight of your goal. Here are a few tips:

  • Do not hesitate to have an open, honest conversation with your employer regarding your concerns and ask for their suggestions. 
  • Take your accrued vacation time now.  Use the time to reenergize.  
  • Ask for a transfer within the company to a less stressful position even though it may mean less money.
  • Ease some of your burden by appropriately delegating responsibilities to others if allowable.
  • Propose a plan that allows you to work from home.   
  • Subscribe to an online newsletter relating to your targeted career to keep informed of the latest trends in the field.  You may have a chance to use that knowledge sooner than you think.  

Yes, changing careers in the real world can be intimidating. But, it is also an exciting chance to reclaim your life. Keep your objective clearly in focus and savor the satisfaction of getting ever closer to the job of your dreams.