Changing Career

Myths and best practice

Posted Oct 26, 2018

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

I’m honored that I’ll be giving a Public Lecture at the University of California, Berkeley on the topic: Changing Careers: Myths and Best Practice. Here's what I'm planning to say.

Media outlets make career-change seem easier than it is. Pop-psych gurus like Dr. Phil and Oprah and even the news media profile people who made a 180 and imply that with some hard work, if you can dream it, you can do it.

Fact is, most would-be career changers end up making just a career tweak,  for example, changing their specialization from general psychotherapist to eating disorder specialist. Or they might change bosses or places of employment.  But they don’t make the dramatic career change that the media would have us believe.

Successfully changing careers usually requires the use of best practices. Here, I’ll share what has worked best for my countless clients who wanted to change careers.

Which career?

Consider under-the-radar careers that build on previous experience (if only your transferable skills) and that don’t require the time and money risk of a degree-worth of training. Examples: health advocate, health informatics, college admissions and career planning, fundraising and volunteer management, grant writer, program evaluator, political campaign manager, owner of cloneable shoestring business, for example, a small chain of gift carts at mass-transit stations, and TherapyMatch in which clients pick psychotherapists based on their videos and profiles. I profile 340 careers and self-employment ideas in my new book, Careers for Dummies.

The virtual informational interview is easier and more representative than the standard one. It’s a combination of Google-search-identified articles and videos, online forums, conference or chapter meeting, and perhaps a book(s) found in the professional association’s bookstore or from an Amazon search, especially one that tells many people's stories, for example, I Wasn't Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse.


You may be able to avoid the time and cost of a university degree with You U, a combination of articles, videos, individual courses or a certificate's worth at a university extension, professional conferences, observing masters in action, and/or apprenticing. Log your learnings for use in your job applications.

Finding good work

If you focus on answering ads, you risk running out of emotional gas before landing a good job. If an employer wanted to hire someone with no experience, s/he wouldn't have placed an ad. S/he would likely have hired Cousin Gomer.  Instead:

  •  Use your network to open doors. If it needs expansion, consider getting involved in a chapter of your professional association, perhaps on its program committee.
  • Document your learnings in your cover letter and perhaps in a portfolio.
  • Consider writing a white paper on a topic that would help your target employer realize you’re up-to-speed, for example, “Five Trends in Counseling Interracial Couples.”
  • In the interview, substantiate your transferable skills with PAR stories: a career-relevant Problem you face, the clever or dogged way you Approached it, and the positive Result.
  • When asked how you’d solve a complex problem, consider going to the whiteboard to diagram how you’d approach it.
  • Write an Influencing Letter rather than a mere thank-you letter. An influencing letter highlights what impressed the interviewers. Also, it allows you a second shot at a question you flubbed, and to share new information that would bolster your case.

Succeeding on the job

Get comfortable being uncomfortable.  It's a myth that one should aim for a job in which you’re jumping out of bed to get to work and are happy most of the time. In reality, even people in “cool” careers don’t do so much jumping. The successful person needs to get comfortable being uncomfortable when faced with the job’s inevitable challenges. If a person too often escapes discomfort by procrastinating, s/he'll likely fail, especially in a new career.

The one-second task. A more tactical approach to managing procrastination is, when facing a dreaded big task, to follow this corollary of the baby-step tactic: Ask yourself, “What’s my next one-second task?” A few of those is often enough to get that object at rest into motion.

The Traffic Light Rule. During the first 30 seconds of an utterance, your light’s green. In the next 30 seconds, it’s yellow: The chance is increasing the listener wishes you’d stop. After a minute, it’s red: Stop or ask a question. If the person wants more, s/he can ask.

Consider forming a Board of Advisors. On, I meet monthly with a half-dozen people I respect. One person asks the group for input on a problem. After, another person takes the floor.

Remember the lesson in my Holocaust-surviving dad’s story: When I asked him why he rarely talked about the Holocaust, he said, “The Nazis took five years from my life. I won’t give them one minute more. Martin, stop looking back. Take the next step forward.”  I can end the talk with no better advice.