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Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.
Laura E. Buffardi Ph.D.

Insider Interview: An Expert’s Thoughts on Changing Careers

A post for those considering a career shift to psychology

I need a change?

In my consulting, I have worked with former marketers, IT executives, professional musicians, and those from other fields, all seeking admission to top graduate programs in order to complete degrees that will qualify them for new careers in psychology. These clients all cite their desire to change fields because they discovered a passion for psychology: be it in therapy, teaching, or conducting research. Career shifting is common today in part because studies show that younger generations value fulfillment in their career choices over money. It makes sense that many find passion in helping others thrive and working towards a better understanding of human psychology.

My guess is that changing fields has crossed the mind of many Psychology Today readers. Some may even be considering it seriously. That is why I asked Melissa Llarena, Founder and President of Career Outcomes Matter, LLC, and an expert in career transitions to respond to questions about changing careers. Melissa has over a decade of experience helping professionals craft messages that lead to successful careers transitions. She also has a lot of first hand experience to draw from having personally been through 16 different business unit changes!

Career shifting can be risky, daunting, and downright scary, but the payoffs could make it all worthwhile. I greatly admire those who take the leap and cheer them on wholeheartedly. I think you will learn a lot about ways to begin gathering information about a potential new career and how to find the courage and motivation to actually make the transition from Melissa in this post. For information about specifically shifting to the field of psychology, check back for an upcoming post that I am preparing on how career changers can best prepare for graduate school.

Grad School Guru: What should be considered before making a career change?

Melissa Llarena: Your motivation matters when evaluating whether to change careers or simply change bosses. Changing careers can be a behemoth task. As a result, it’s crucial to consider alternative ways to increase your professional satisfaction before making a leap. One way to test new careers is simply to seek an internal transfer from accounting to finance for instance. Otherwise, going on a vacation is sometimes good enough to get you refocused and motivated at work.

If these ideas nor others work, then it’s time to listen to your internal voice. This voice can be encouraging you to try something new or return to something old so heed its wisdom. Move forward with the exploration phase of changing careers. This entails interviewing as little as five people, or as many as ten, who are currently employed in your desired field. It’s always a good idea to ask the questions whose answers will really matter to you. I’ve helped a myriad of clients think through what to ask their network. Following these informational interviews, I’ve help them interpret their findings, and then I give them direction on what to do with that data.

Side note: It is during this exploration stage that you should be thinking about your transition story… this is the story that connects your past experiences with your current aspirations – without a refined and informed tale you will not make your desired leap. Your story must convince others to take a risk on hiring you and the only way they will do so is if they understand how what you’ve done in the past is transferable to the business challenges they are facing today.

Grad School Guru: What are some possible risks and payoffs associated with career shifting?

Melissa Llarena: The possible risks associated with changing careers depend on your professional stage. If you are early on in your career then it’s practically expected that you’ll be experimenting across industries until you eventually find your sweet spot. In these instances, a career shift will not have major risks. On the other hand, if you have been in an industry more than about six years then you’ll have more to risk. If you’ve risen through the ranks, had the opportunity to manage people, or yielded pay raises, then breaking out from your industry will bring drawbacks. In a new industry, you may need to enter at a lower level, you may have to relinquish your ability to manage anyone, and your expected compensation may fall shy of your prior salary.

However, there are payoffs that make this short-term setback worth it. You’ll be aligning your interests, passions, and skills which means you’ll be producing higher quality work. The days will fly by because you’ll be in your zone more often. Personally, you’ll be a happier individual and ultimately your time away from your loved ones will be further justified beyond simply financially supporting yourself and/or them.

Grad School Guru: How can one minimize the risks?

Melissa Llarena: The best way to minimize the risks is to ensure that you know the value that you are bringing to the table and then that you confidently sell this value any chance you get. It’s tough to clearly connect the dots between what you’ve done in one sector with what you envision being able to do in a new sector. This is where partnering with an objective expert pays off the most. Rather than testing your transition story with decision-makers, it makes the most sense to refine it with someone who has heard good ones as well as bad ones. While many clients have tried to elicit the same candid feedback from friends and families – the difference is that your contacts know you and subconsciously they will make connections and miss the gaps that only an objective expert will catch.

For instance, while I was working with an accountant looking to transition into TV sitcom writing, I probed until we got to the core of why she wanted to write TV sitcoms. Her interest came from watching The Cosby Show as a child. Seeing this ideal family gave her hope that family life should be closer to this fiction than her own reality. This was such a personal insight that she would have never been able to bring up if she had relied on family and friends. They would not have pushed her towards such a revealing response. Yet, her entry into TV sitcom writing will rely on conveying this deep-set interest despite her long-term accounting career and even having a Masters in the topic. Her personal story (in conjunction with the steps she’s taken to learn and become qualified) will substantiate her interest in the field and distinguish her candidacy as a TV sitcom writer. It’s a very different response than her peers will give and a writer’s story is just as important in making an impression on media executives as their sample script. Ultimately, a good story must address why you are making a change and then explain how the experiences you have sought out make sense in light of that aspiration.

Grad School Guru: In your experience, how often do career changers need additional education to meet their goals?

Melissa Llarena: There are so many ways you can enter new sectors and sometimes additional education is necessary. I do caution however that anyone interested in shifting gears first test out the field in any capacity before quitting their job and investing in a niche education. My guidance is based on my personal experience. I applied and was accepted into Fordham Law School. Yes, I interned in employment law. However, I never tried out the real thing by being a paralegal on a full-time basis in advertising law (which was my ultimate goal).

As a result, when I enrolled at Fordham and went through my first year courses, I never had the vivid story that my peers had. They wanted to pursue their JDs because they saw an issue at play that they aspired to solve as a lawyer. I, on the other hand, relied on my JD experience to figure out what I ultimately wanted to do.

When I quit law school during that first semester, I vowed to never make that mistake again so I applied for marketing jobs, found my niche, and then applied to business school. Although I was already in my field of interest (advertising) before going to business school, I opted for a business degree because my undergraduate Psychology degree did not provide me with enough credibility to talk about the financial implications of running advertising programs.

I imagine that there is a similar dynamic when it comes to folks who studied Psych as undergrads yet require advanced Psychology degrees to practice in the field or to teach – and also for those who do not have a psychology background, but would like to enter the field. Net, net…an education can provide some form of credibility.

Grad School Guru: There are many, but what are some of the biggest challenges career changers face?

Melissa Llarena: The biggest challenges career changers face are a) finding the courage to make the shift and b) garnering less money than they would have attracted if they stayed the original course in their careers. When I gave a talk at NYU guiding folks in finance on how to transition out of finance, an attendee asked me: how she could find the courage to make a shift. My advice to her was to vividly imagine her target audience or clients today vs. who she desired to help. I encourage my clients to think about it this way. You can only give of your talents (for 40+ hours) to one audience. If you are giving your talents to one that can only mean that you are withholding them from someone else. I asked her how that made her feel. Everyone needs to conduct a similar exercise periodically in their careers. If you feel good about the people who are currently benefiting from your talents then keep going. If not, then start changing.

When it comes to finances, this becomes a question of needs and wants. If you can cover your needs, then thinking about how much your wants matter becomes vital. Many of my clients are in their 30s and 40s – basically on the cusp of their income earning years. When they decide to shift gears, they are letting go of a great deal of income – most of the time. They’ll need to assess their expenses and what they are getting out of those luxuries (comfort, pride, joy, etc.). It’s a trade-off.

Grad School Guru: How can career changers arm themselves for the challenges ahead?

Melissa Llarena: I wish I could sell courage. However, since I can’t then what I sell is accountability. The only way to be in a different position is to take different actions. This involves closing one door to open another. Some of the toughest things my clients have done include simply refreshing their LinkedIn profiles to market their new interests and that means they have to delete their old interests – this switch is so difficult but necessary and it too takes courage. As part of my service, I’ll check in intermittently to ensure that they stay the course and they love me for that.

Additionally, the financial setbacks are a reality of many career changes. The way that I prepare my clients for this lifestyle change is by asking them if they are willing to avoid buying $20 cocktails. It’s hard to not socialize and “live it up” but the only way to prepare for a lower salary is to reduce unnecessary expenses. I have found that by providing candid and tangible realities of what a change in salary means my clients have been better prepared when they are faced with having to make those decisions.

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D. is a graduate school admission consultant in psychology and related fields. Visit to learn more about working with Laura to improve your application. Follow her on Twitter for current grad school admissions news.

About the Author
Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral researcher in the iScience Group at Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, Spain.

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