How to Shift Careers When You’re in the Middle of One

What do you do for a living? What do you want to do for a living? Do the two answers align? For most of us, at one time or another, the answer is no.

If you’ve spent years in a field that doesn’t feel quite right, you may dream about making a change. Then you open your eyes to an email from your boss, lunch plans with a colleague you can’t let down, and texts from family members who need your time, your money or both. You might worry that you have a mortgage, a car loan and not enough hours in the day to make any big changes.

Take heart: You’re not alone. Almost 60 percent of all working adults would like to change careers. That number leaps to 73 percent for people in their 30s.

It’s hard to reconcile what you want to do with what you already know how to do. But bringing those two things together could be the definition of success. Here’s how to start. 

  1. Take inventory of your happiness and what’s missing. A deep self-assessment should be your first step. Why do you want a change? What do you like about your current role? How many years of working life do you have left? If you’re 10 years from retirement, will the investment of time and energy – and possible pay cut – be worthwhile? If you’re 27 years old, what are you waiting for? What do you want from your work that you aren’t getting? Be sure you are aiming toward a goal, not looking for a change just because it’s different.
  2. Ask a lot of questions. Are you seeking more money, a field more in line with your interests, or a chance to make a difference in the world? Then start researching with an open mind. What would it take to start your own nonprofit? Does your desired field offer a position similar to the one you hold now? What companies in your area have a reputation as the kind of place you’d enjoy – whether for pay, benefits, culture or type of work they do?
  3. Don’t automatically jump back into school. Some people think getting an MBA is like drinking a magic ideal-career elixir. Before you enroll, make sure the degree you’re thinking about is in line with the career shift you are considering. For instance, a 50-year-old with a new degree may still start near the bottom in a new field – with decades less time than younger workers to repay student loans. 
  4. Look at your skills and experience with new eyes. To change careers, you’ll need to dramatically update your resume. Write an objective that explains, concisely and persuasively, why you are seeking the position you are. Focus on what your unique set of skills can offer a company. Then rephrase your career successes to appeal to employers in your new field, based on what you’ve learned from your research. You’ll probably want to use a functional resume instead of a chronological one.
  5. Use your connections – wisely. Through your personal and professional network, or LinkedIn connections, seek out people in fields that interest you. Set up a few informational interviews. You might even arrange a day or two of job shadowing to see firsthand if the environments suit you. (Ask a friend, family member or your college career and alumni relations office for connections.)
  6. Take your time, but make a plan. Changing jobs is stressful. Changing careers can be overwhelming. Sure, some Instagrammer started designing baby clothes while she was a single mother of three children under age 5. Not everyone needs to take that route to engineer a career shift. Maybe it makes sense to leap now. Maybe it makes sense to wait. Be realistic. You may need to work long hours to catch up in your new field. You may need to invest in conferences and social events to expand your network. To get started, plan the milestones that will get you there, and post your plan somewhere visible (refrigerator door, bathroom mirror) to help you remember that you’re on your way.

Whether you wind up forging a new path or simply changing your attitude about your current employment, the time and thought you put into your career can pay off in greater self-understanding and greater job satisfaction.

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