Making a Radical Career Change

Tactics that boost your chances.

Posted Jun 28, 2018

Vector Toons/Wikimedia, Public Domain,
Source: Vector Toons/Wikimedia, Public Domain,

​​​​​​​You know that a career tweak won’t do—It’s time for a radical career change. But it’s scary. After all, you’ll have to convince an employer to hire you for a better job without a significant pay cut even though she or he likely has many applicants with experience. Plus, you may not have the time or money for a long back-to-school stint.

Yes, it’s difficult but often done. Here are tactics derived from a chapter of my new book Careers for Dummies.

Target

Some fields are more open to career changers. These, for example, might appeal to Psychology Today readers:

Employee trainer:  This is an option for people who like teaching but are daunted by the long university-based training or by the challenge of managing a classful of kids.

Communication specialist for a company, government agency, or nonprofit: This job could be in internal communication, media relations, or public or community relations.

Personnel recruiter:  This job requires the ability to persuade employers to consider the candidate you’ve unearthed. Of course, you also need a nose for finding a good person for the particular job.

Grant writer:  Money is a nonprofit’s lifeblood, and a key vehicle for getting money is to answer requests for proposals from government or foundations. Grant writers write those proposals. You get to live in the world of new ideas, projects, and hope, and this career offers a nice blend of writing and human interaction.

Fundraiser:  This is another revenue-enhancing job in the nonprofit sector and because of that, the pay tends to be better than for most nonprofit work. You may or may not need to be the person who makes The Ask. Nonprofits use organized types to develop dossiers on prospective donors, plan fundraising events, and manage the donor database.

Politician:  Many people want to make a difference, and though the wheels of government turn slowly, its massive size allows the potential for broad impact. No, you won’t start out as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee but many people make at least a part-time living in entry-level political careers — for example, as members of the school board or parks commission.

Political campaign manager:  Are you intrigued by being in politics but are better at handling details and managing people than being the front person?

Personal assistant:  Many people like being the right arm to a kind, respect-worthy person.

Learn

Let’s assume you don’t have time to go for a degree in your new field. The good news is that you can often learn more practical material faster and cheaper. And by writing a good white paper (see below), you can often convince at least one good employer that you're a better bet than a degreed-candidate. After all, wise bosses know that the heavily theoretical education typically provided by universities, even for a practical career like psychology or business, is far from a guarantor of good performance in the real world.

Here’s how to get good career preparation without going back to school:

1. Google-search for articles and videos in your new field. Top-ranked ones have been read the most and forwarded the most—a good way to curate. Take notes of not-obvious nuggets in a Word file. Keep adding to that nugget file as you learn in steps 2 through 5.

2. Step 1 may unearth trade publications, usually available on the web. Scan recent issues’ table of contents and read on-target articles.

3. In Steps 1 and 2, you may well have discovered one or more professional associations for your field, for example, the American Psychological Association. Browse its articles and the books in its web store. If a book intrigues, you’ll probably find more reader reviews on Amazon. Read them and if you’re so moved, buy.

3. Your professional association, LinkedIn, and Yahoo likely have groups, online forums where engaged professionals share insights and raise questions for group members to address. Lurk on one or more groups and when you have a feel for its culture and you have something to contribute or ask, go for it.

4. Attend meetings of your professional association, perhaps just a local meeting or the big annual conference, perhaps including the often offered pre-conference workshop for newbies. To avoid getting overwhelmed by all the input, take just a small amount of notes to insert into your nugget file.

5. Peruse the myriad online one-shot classes and longer courses offered through your professional association, your local university extension, and on sites such as LinkedIn Learning, Udemy, Treehouse or Udacity for tech, and for longer more academic courses, Coursera and edX.

Land

I hope you can see that the above, which can be accomplished in months not years and at far less cost than a degree can, in many cases, give you sufficient knowledge to succeed in your first job in your new field. Now you just have to convince a good employer of that.

1. Use your nugget file to create the aforementioned white paper, a fancy term for a short paper like you did in college. A title might be, What’s New in (insert your target career.)  Two or three pages is probably the right length. Submit that to all your lead generators. (See step 2.)

2. You start your job search with a full tank of emotional gas. Every rejection and no-response burns some, so you need to put your efforts where they have a reasonable chance of success. That’s why I recommend that career changers not apply for openly advertised jobs. If the employer wanted to hire someone for a good job despite no experience, she or he would have hired a friend or relative. Your best shot is to make a list of your extended network: everyone who likes you, including people not in a position to hire you—people know people. I’m no dentist but I know a good one. For each person on your list, decide the wisest way to contact them: email, text, phone, “run into" them, invite them for coffee, a drink, a hike, an event, a party. Make the ask at the right time. With a given person, it could be in your initial email. For others, you may need to first nurture the relationship.

If your network is too small (perhaps fewer than 20), expand it by joining activities that involve repeated contact: volunteer for a committee in your professional association, even if it’s just the local chapter. Or join the board of a nonprofit. Small ones may require only your time, not your money. Or take a class in your field and sit next to, and otherwise chat with, people you sense might be helpful.

Before contacting your network, prepare a 10-second pitch: why you’re changing to this field, why you’d be good, and concluding with the ask. For example, “I’ve been in marketing for eight years but it’s feeling a bit empty so, after a lot of exploring, I’ve decided to become a substance abuse counselor. I’ve done rather a deep dive into the field so I feel I’m ready for my first job. Might you know someone I should talk with?” For anyone who says yes, email your white paper and, instead of a resume which lays bare your lack of experience, a highlights letter summarizing what you’ve learned in the new field, the relevant skills and experiences from your previous career and perhaps avocations, and why you’re worth considering for an entry-level job in the new field.

The takeaway

As with all counsel, there are no guarantees but I’ve advised many people who wanted to change careers and the ideas in this article assemble some effective tactics.

I also read this article aloud, available on YouTube.