How to Change Your Career at Any Age
Tips on what you can do if you hate your job or need to find a new one
On Story Cauldron, I usually discuss things having to do with storytelling and where to find stories. Since the pandemic began, however, lots of people I know have either lost their jobs or have been prompted to consider a career change for many different reasons. I thought I’d refresh an article I wrote a couple of years ago and send it as a bonus newsletter. Perhaps it will help you or someone you know. Feel free to reach out in the comments if you have further questions or need a little encouragement.
The great resignation
According to news reports, 55% of the American workforce—people currently working or who are looking for a job—believe they are likely to be on the job market within the next 12 months.
Just think about that for a moment. Over half of working Americans expect to be looking for a new job in the next year. According to CNBC, they’re looking for more flexible work options, likely either because they liked remote working, because child care is an issue, or because they don’t want to send their kids back to schools that they deem to be unsafe. Others likely are hoping to cash in on the job vacancies in some fields or have used the past year to reconsider their values and personal goals.
As a former academic and career advisor who successfully made a couple of major career changes myself after the age of 40, I’m going to share everything you need to know about changing your career — so so you can stop dreaming about it and make it happen.
My own career change
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, here’s my own story in a nutshell.
I worked as an academic advisor at a major university for 17 years helping students plan out their courses and their careers. Over time, the bureaucracy grew and the nature of my job changed dramatically. Eventually, I no longer wanted to remain in that career and decided I needed an exit strategy.
Knowing I wanted to do something in the tech field, I started taking computer classes (everything from online advertising to programming) and taught myself WordPress. As a side gig, I started building websites for clients and volunteered with my local WordPress meetup. Eventually, I was able to quit my advising job and work on supporting WordPress users full-time. A couple of years later, I shifted gears again and started my own freelance business as a writer and editor, using all of the skills I had developed in grad school and over 20 years of full-time work—and I haven’t been happier!
So if you’re unhappy with your current situation, trust me when I say that I’ve been where you are, and I can help you take the next step.
Signs that you might need a career change
Do you wake up in the morning and dread going into the office?
Boredom and frustration at work are the best indicators that something isn’t going well. As humans, we crave new experiences, as well as challenges that force us to grow and learn new things. With the ever-present threat of illness, you may also not consider your workplace to be a safe place to spend a third of your day. Or you might be struggling to balance family obligations and work.
Whatever your reasons, change may be in order.
At the same time, it’s worth noting that most of us tend to be change- and risk-averse. It’s scary to make huge life changes such as quitting a job or even pursuing a whole new career.
Do you need a new job or a new career?
If you lost your job, or you’re thinking of quitting in favor of something new, you may be at a crossroads: do you just need a new job in the same field, but with better pay/working conditions, or should you be considering an entirely different career path?
Sometimes people are so frustrated that they can’t really see the forest for the trees, so to speak, where their job is concerned. If you’re not 100% sure what direction you should take, here’s an exercise you can try.
Write down your biggest complaints about your current (or most recent) job, as well as your professional goals (as in, where you’d like to be in a few years). Spill your guts here—write down everything you can think of about where you’ve been and where you would like to be.
Next, review your list according to some of the points you might have included.
Supervisor. If your biggest complaints are about your boss, you might benefit from an internal transfer within the company — if that’s an option. Otherwise, you might try looking for another job similar to your current one. But supervisory issues aren’t generally enough of a reason to change careers.
Salary/pay rate and benefits. Like the supervisor issue, your pay and benefits are likely a company issue, rather than a career one. If you’ve tried unsuccessfully more than once to ask for a raise, it might be time to apply elsewhere. However, before you do so, you should research salary ranges in your job field and in your city/region on sites like Glassdoor or Indeed. It’s possible that you’ve hit a salary ceiling in your current profession and it might be time to consider something new.
Work environment. Do you feel safe where you work (or in the type of work you do)? Some professions will be inherently less safe during a pandemic, so this is a reasonable consideration, and no one should judge you if you don’t want to show up every day and run the risk of getting sick just for doing your job. Also, would you like to continue to work remotely, but your company requires everyone to return to the office?
Job duties. If you’re looking to grow in your position and there are no opportunities for advancement at your current employer, then you should look for a new job in the same field. However, if you hate the core of what you’re doing, or don’t believe in it any longer, then a career change is likely in your future.
Company/organizational structure or policies. If your company just underwent a reorganization and you no longer like the way things are done, or the middle management is killing your spirit and productivity, then it’s probably a better idea to switch companies — or try working in your same field but for a smaller company or a nonprofit. But if the whole industry is undergoing major shifts (such as journalism and manufacturing) you might want to consider other career options.
Professional growth or new interests. Sometimes after many years doing the same thing, you might be bored or find yourself in “autopilot mode.” That doesn’t mean the quality of your work is slipping, but it is a sign you need new challenges. You might also have maxed out on your upwards trajectory due to your skillset. Sometimes a lateral move to a new department at your current company, or a similar job elsewhere, can give your career a jumpstart. But more likely, if you find you’re not interested in the kind of thing you’re doing, it’s time to try something completely different.
Deciding on the right career field
After reviewing your situation, if you recognize that you need to change careers rather than just apply for a new job, you’ll need to take some time to examine your options so you can make the best decision for yourself.
There are a few ways to choose a new career.
1. Brainstorm careers based on personal priorities.
Do another inventory of your job, but this time list out all of the things you like about your job, or things you’re really good at. From there, pick your top five or seven skills and interests, and give them to a few friends to brainstorm jobs that could be a good match.
For example, let’s say your list included:
Effective problem solver
Strong communication skills
Good technical skills
What jobs might include all five of those things?
In my case, those were all true for my first career as an academic advisor. They also apply to a career as a professor, which I worked towards for a while but ended up not pursuing. I also considered software development, public relations, and project management before finally trying out a career in technical support and documentation writing, which was a good direction but still not quite right. In the end, I decided to focus on writing, and that was a perfect fit.
2. Be a sponge.
Well, not literally! Instead, pay attention to the jobs of people you know or meet, as well as people you might read about in the news or a blog, or see on TV. If something sounds interesting, Google it and learn more about it. What kinds of education, training, or other background do you need? Are these things you think you could tackle?
3. Ask the Internet!
There are tons of online resources that can help you audition new careers. Here are a few ideas:
The Occupational Outlook Handbook from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics lists jobs in every major industry.
Personality and career aptitude tests can help you brainstorm and narrow down options, but be careful not to let them limit you too much.
4. Consult a professional.
If all else fails, you can hire a career or life coach to help you figure out your next step in life. Be sure if you go this route that you do your homework, as what they offer (and what they charge) will vary widely. Most reputable coaches will charge by the hour or session, rather than try to sell a costly package. LinkedIn provides a tool to find coaches in your area, or there may be nonprofit organizations in your town that can provide referrals. And here’s a great resource for how to choose a good coach.
How to get a job in a brand-new field
So you’ve decided to go from human resources to real estate. Or from retail management to auto repair. These are huge leaps. Is it even possible?
If you’ve been in the same job for a decade or more, it might seem impossible to make such a radical change, especially if you’re in your 40s or 50s. Can you really make it happen?
Absolutely. But there are a few things you need to keep in mind before you make the leap.
You (probably) need new skills. To make a successful career change, you likely will need to invest time into building skills, knowledge, and/or experience. You might need to take a few classes at a community college or online, or even sign up for a full degree or certification program. Checking out job descriptions for the positions you want will help you find the holes in your own background.
Experience counts. Once you’ve acquired the skills you need for your new profession, you need to be able to prove yourself in that field. Depending on what you’re shifting to, you might need to do an official (or unofficial) internship, become a freelancer, write code or build websites pro bono to demonstrate technical proficiency, or perform volunteer work related to your new field. And get creative — employers often won’t care how you gain experience, just that you can demonstrate that you’ve done the work somewhere. (In my case, until I could get paying clients, I designed websites for fake businesses and bands.)
Create a portfolio or personal website. Everyone these days should have a personal website that tells your personal story or documents your career journey in photos, blog posts, or even on an “about me” page. (Bonus points if you can get a domain at yourname.com). For many jobs, being able to show your work (writing, graphic design, coding projects, photo editing, documentation, etc.) is critical. If you have given any talks or taught workshops, you can include videos on your website.
Consider creating your own company. As a consultant or freelancer, you can offer your services to individuals who are more concerned with your portfolio than your resume. Bonus: you’ll also demonstrate that you’re organized, a self-starter, and highly motivated, which are great qualities for a potential employer to see.
Set a deadline. Choose a realistic time to be out of your current job. Having a deadline will instill more “urgency” into your planning. (In my case, I started telling my friends in 2010 that I would no longer be in my advising job by December 2012, either because I had found a new one or because the world had ended — a joke based on the Mayan prophecy that was all the talk that year. And it worked — I started a new job in June 2012.)
Be patient. If you really want this career change to happen, it can take a while — even years. You need to hang in there as you take classes and build experience. But no matter how long it takes, it’s always worth it, so hang in there.
Don’t just quit your job. Unless you have considerable savings or a spouse who can support you, or you’ve decided to enroll in a full-time degree program, it’s usually best to keep the job you have until you have a new position lined up. And if you’re between jobs, it’s totally okay to get a temporary job in the meantime so you can keep paying bills as you work towards your new career.
Recognize that career changes aren’t always linear. You might hop from one career to another, and then find a third field that’s an even better fit. This is normal and totally okay.
Accept that it can be hard work. I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Taking classes, working a side gig, or building your portfolio—all on top of a full-time job—can be exhausting. Just remind yourself that it’s a temporary situation.
Don’t burn bridges. Once you get a new job, you might want to tell your old boss to take that job and shove it—but you never know when your paths may cross in the future, or when you might need that reference. Always leave in good graces.
Don’t shortchange your resume
Most people don’t realize how important the resume is as part of a career change.
When you’re going from sales to software development, you don’t want to just update your resume by adding lines to account for your new education and skills.
Instead, your resume needs to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up.
Your previous resume was written to get the job you’re leaving, not the job you want now. So you will need an entirely different resume that describes your journey to your new career in a logical way. Your previous jobs should be made to fit as part of a logical progression to where you are now. This might mean revising how you describe previous jobs or ditching some of your older experience entirely.
For example, if you want to get a job in the tech industry, you’d want to demonstrate how each of your previous jobs prepared you for the job you want. You might focus on how you kept the company website updated, or how you led a major project involving several team members. These might not be direct experience matches for your new position, but they should show how you learned skills or processes that the new job will also require, just in a different way.
In other words, you want to retrofit everything on your resume so that it shows how you’ll be a great fit in the new position.
You’ll also want to demonstrate your passion for your new career field in your cover letter with some concrete examples, so a potential employer will see how hard you worked to get to where you are.
If you want more tips on how to write a top-notch resume that will get you noticed, check out my previous article on why your resume should tell a story.
Are you ready to make the leap?
You might read through this article and think, wow, this is a lot of work. You might feel overwhelmed or flat-out terrified.
All of that is completely normal.
To make it more manageable, start small: ask yourself what you could do this week to start the process.
Maybe you just need to spend a few minutes looking for your “dream job” on Indeed. Or maybe it’s time to start browsing the local community college courses. Make it something so easy that it doesn’t feel like “work.”
Once you’ve started down that road, try to build on it. Make a list of what you need to add to your resume to get that dream job. Try to find someone in that position that you could connect with online via Facebook or LinkedIn. Start reading articles about the field you want to enter.
If you take one step this week, and another next week, before long you’ll have made real progress, and suddenly you’ll look back and realize that you’ve actually made it happen!
I hope this article has been helpful for you. If you know anyone who could use a little guidance, please share it with them. And if you have any suggestions for others looking for a new career, or you have questions, please reach out in the comments!
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