Is It Time to Change Careers?

Do your research before changing careers.

Posted Nov 30, 2010

It's hard to know when the coast is clear- is now a good time to change jobs? Or are you better off sticking with a sure thing until the economy improves?

As you might suspect there is no one right answer. Situations are unique and a lot will depend on the career field you're in, your geographic location, and other personal factors such as whether you have adequate savings or a spouse/partner who can support you if you hit rough times. Starting a new career can be exhilarating; it's an opportunity to start over again and learn to do something else well-- but it's also true that some organizations follow a "last hired, first fired" policy and that great new job can disappear in a minute.

At one time people changing career fields faced bias in the interviewing process, but the recession has changed some of those old perceptions. Employers know that not everyone can return to their previous job title or even career field.  But it is still imperative that you know what you want to do and why you're seeking the new field so that the interviewer won't assume you're just seeking a "port in the storm" in a bad economy. And you will still have to work hard in the interview to explain how your acquired skills and knowledge in another field have prepared you for your new field.

You will also need to be realistic about your starting salary in your new field. It is not uncommon to take a drop in pay when you switch to a new field, particularly if the job has a lesser title than the one you're leaving. The drop in salary can be more dramatic if you're switching from a relatively high paying field (e.g., business or law) to a traditionally lower-paying such as the nonprofit or education sectors.

Unless your current position is abusive, causing undue stress or mental anguish, or has other serious problems, it is generally a good idea to remain on your current job until you find a new job or enroll in an educational institution. People who are currently employed are hired more readily than those who are not working- even in this economy-- see this report from NPR about the bias against those who are unemployed. So before you quit your present job, consider your reasons for changing careers.

1. Evaluate your present job.

Make a list of what is good about it and what isn't. Consider all factors including salary, possibility for growth and promotion, working environment, and job duties. What parts of your job do you most enjoy? Will the new job you're considering allow you to spend more time on those activities or related ones? Is there a way to fix the problems rather than move on?  What do you want to do that you're not doing now? Have you investigated any way to change your current position to align more closely with your interests? Create a list of characteristics you want or don't want on your next job.

2. Evaluate yourself.

What skills have you acquired over the years and what skills do you want to learn? What level of education do you currently have? With whom do you want to work (clients as well as co workers)? Do you want to be your own boss?

Make a list of your assets and best traits: what makes you marketable? How can your skills and education apply to the new field you're considering? Be sure to note your liabilities as well so you can counter them in the interview. Establish the geographic area in which you want to work so you can focus your job search.

3. Do your homework.

Unless you're a strong risk-taker, you don't want to leave your job for a new career in a shaky field. Research the level of education you'll need for your desired position and the schools which offer the best training in your new field. How many job vacancies are in the field, what are the typical salaries, what is the future of the profession, and how much time and money will you need to switch to this new field? Talk to people who are in the field already (LinkedIn can be a possible source for information- considering joining some groups related to the career field you're considering. Your college's alumni office might be able to provide the names of alumni working in the field you're considering.) Use the Encyclopedia of Associations (located in the reference section of your local library) to find professional groups in your new field. Call to find out if there is a local chapter and attend some of their meetings or conferences if possible.

4. Develop an action plan for switching to your new career.

Cultivate patience. Generally you can't make a significant change overnight. Consider creating a one-year plan. Decide if you can you stay at your present job while you seek the new career. Consider using your weekends, vacations, etc., to work part time or volunteer in your new field. Most important: Prepare your resume and cover letter using terminology from your new field and develop your target audience. Build up your skills for the new job while you're still in the old job.

Finally, after all your research you may find that you can't or aren't willing to make the sacrifices needed to change careers. In that case, you may want to seek ways to make your current job more palatable. Sometimes re-crafting your current position may be the safest way to overcome boredom, become more energized, and ride out the recession securely.

Find me on Facebook.  Follow me on Twitter. Copyright 2010 Katharine Brooks

Photo credit: David Reece