Want to Switch Career Lanes (or Make a Total U-Turn)? Here’s How, Even When You’re Far on One Path

Photo: Getty Images/Mauro Grigollo
Ever wondered what it would be like to swap your spreadsheets for saucepans? Or daydreamed about leaving your desk job to become a dog walker? Or wished your business card read "Pilates instructor" instead of "publicist?" If you’ve seriously contemplated a career switch, you’re not alone: According to one 2013 Harris survey, 80 percent of workers in their twenties and 64 percent of workers in their thirties want to change fields.

No matter the reason you’re unsatisfied with your current career—be it boredom or burnout or something else entirely—you don’t have to stay the course. Despite what you may think, it’s totally possible to switch paths no matter how many years you've already been in the workforce. With some savvy strategizing and expectation management, you can have that dream job. Here’s how, according to a career coach.

Want to change career lanes—or even make a professional U-turn? Keep reading for 6 tips to make it happen.

Changing career paths is possible—here are 6 tips to do it
Photo: Getty Images/Morsa Images

1. Figure out why you’re craving a change

First things first: Do a little soul-searching and ask yourself, "why now?" “Find out what’s actually driving your decision to switch careers,” says certified professional career coach David Wiacek. “Is it the boss? Is it the toxic environment? Is it the commute? Maybe you’ve been at the same company for years. If you did the same job at a different company that’s more innovative, it could re-spark the professional drive you lost. Sometimes you don’t necessarily have to switch your career.” If after you’ve done a thorough career consult with yourself you’re still determined to ditch the dead-end job, you have the green light to go ahead and seek super-new beginnings.

2. Find the path of least resistance

As you think about how to rebrand yourself, it's key to identify points of connection, says Wiacek. For instance, if you’re a lawyer who wants to jump into journalism, the obvious (and probably easiest) transition would be to find a job as a legal journalist.

“To change your discipline and also change your industry at the same time, it’s not necessarily setting yourself up for failure, but it’s so many more mountains to overcome,” says Wiacek. “Find the path of least resistance so you can convince whoever is listening to you—whether it’s a recruiter or a hiring manager—that the job [change] is not actually as drastic as it may sound.”

3. Start making connections

Networking, networking, networking. You’ve heard it a thousand times before. But it’s doubly important when you’re switching career fields. Think about it: After you’ve been in a particular career for 5 or 10 years, your contacts will be brimming with mentors, colleagues, and acquaintances willing to vouch for you professionally. When you switch lanes, however, those same people may not have the insight or clout to be of much help. So how do you go about finding new allies?

"Eventually you’re going to find someone who’s going to be your mentor or who’s going to want to keep in in touch with you. That person can be the point of contact between you and this new industry.” —career coach David Wiacek

Wiacek recommends attending industry conferences for the dual purpose of learning about your new field, as well as for making connections. And, of course, there’s always the tried-and-true coffee date. But be strategic: Talk less and listen more. “Ask good questions,” says Wiacek. “Just say, ‘I’m in a career transition. I’m really interested in and passionate about this new field, but I want to ask you a few questions.’ Most people are willing to talk about themselves. Absorb as many bits of information as you can and make as many connections and you can. Do that 10 to 20 times, and eventually you’re going to find someone who’s going to be your mentor or who’s going to want to keep in in touch with you. That person can be the point of contact between you and this new industry.”

4. Get experience through volunteering

It’s the unfortunate catch-22 of job hunting: You can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. That’s where volunteering comes in. Many nonprofits are in dire need of help, and you're in dire need of testing the new-to-you career waters.

Wiacek also recommends asking friends or friends of friends who have start-ups or mom-and-pop businesses if they could use any pro-bono assistance. “Maybe take the first project unpaid, and that first client you can use as a testimonial to get your second [paying] client. Then you’re considered a paid professional in that field," he says. And voilà, you have a new bullet point at the top of your résumé for your recent, relevant consulting gig.

Front-load your résumé with transferable skills, like analysis or communication or leadership that are vital in any job or industry.

Another tip for revamping your résumé? Front-loading it with transferable skills—things like analysis or communication or leadership that are vital in any job or industry. Small tweaks like this can take you from the slush pile to the top of the heap.

5. Give yourself time

Don’t expect to land your dream job overnight. In fact, Wiacek says you can expect to wait 6 to 12 months before clocking in after a complete career overhaul. Furthermore, prepare to make some financial investment in your future; conference fees, networking events, and other job-hunting expenses can all add up.

In light of this, Wiacek suggests, if at all possible, to not quit your current job while hunting for a new one. (“If you’ve been miserable at your current job for the last five years what’s another six months?”) But if you just can’t stand it any longer, make sure you at least have an emergency fund in place—most financial planners recommend a minimum of six months’ worth of expenses.

6. Manage your expectations

That senior-level title? You may have to kiss it goodbye since your previous experience may not translate in the context of your switch. And a title change may bring about a salary cut, too—so be prepared.

“You don’t have the 10 years of experience in this new field, and you’re just starting out,” says Wiacek. “Is a salary cut a worthy investment if five or 10 years from today you’re going to be in a career that you’re proud of and enjoy?” Use your answer to that question as an indicator of how confident you can be in your decision to seek a new professional beginning.

Want to save a ton of money this year so you have the financial freedom to make big life changes? Here are expert-approved strategies. Plus, some healthy-cooking hacks to save you tons, too.

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