Six Interview Tips for Career Changers

Six Interview Tips for Career Changers

It takes courage to interview for a lateral career change, whether you’re a journalist moving into marketing communications or a CPA internal auditor making the transition to financial planning. After all, you’ve got to hard-sell your transferable skills while showing that if you get the job, you’ll know how to go about filling your gaps in professional experience. 

So we’d like to encourage your career change, in the form of experience-tested tips from folks who have sat on both sides of the desk for these particularly challenging interviews.

Sell Your Transferable Skills

Diane Danielson made an unusual career change: from environmental lawyer to director of marketing at a commercial real estate firm. She met the interview challenge by deeply preparing to demonstrate how her communications skills would translate to success in her new role.

“What got their attention at the interview was that I had gotten my hands on their marketing materials, laid them out and explained that they had no consistent look and feel,” Danielson says. “Their old materials made them look like the 125-year-old firm they no longer wanted to be.” She even mocked up a brochure for the interview to show her prospective employer the new marketing approach she was suggesting.

Prepare to Talk About How You’ll Fill Your Gaps

No matter how much you know about your legacy occupation, when interviewing for a career change, you need to show you’ll be able to fill unavoidable gaps in knowledge required for your target field.

“People make jokes about their lack of understanding of technology; you can’t do that,” says Tamara Erickson, a management consultant and author of Retire Retirement: Career Strategies for the Boomer Generation. Instead, be prepared to demonstrate understanding of common technologies in your target industry and to project comfort with learning new technologies.

And although employers these days tend to present ever-longer lists of “required” job qualifications, most eventually show some flexibility. “In the real world, every candidate has a gap,” says Ian Jones, director of recruiting at Clearspring, an information technology startup.

Demonstrate the Value of Your Professional Network

In many lateral career changes, your professional connections will retain much of their value, so you should point that out to prospective employers.

“In media relations, you’re networking with journalists, some of whom you may have gone to school with,” says Manny Otiko, a senior media relations associate with WunderMarx PR. “That makes it easier to do business.” Otiko is a journalism graduate who left a career as a newspaper reporter to become a public relations professional.

Show You Get the Environment and Culture

When professionals fail to make a successful transition to a new company, it’s often due as much to a cultural mismatch as a lack of domain-specific skills.

“I look at people’s environment,” says Jones. This is because a candidate who has worked solely for large corporations is less likely to thrive in a startup situation, for example.

Conversely, career changers with deep experience may be more welcome at traditional firms than the coming-up generation of Millennials, who some perceive to be high-maintenance.

“Older workers are fantastic for companies, because they’ll be aligned with value systems, work ethics and protocols,” says Erickson.

Demonstrate You Know How to Change

Don’t just tell the interviewer you’re adaptable -- show them how you’ve adapted throughout your career.

“Those who have come prepared with examples of transitions they’ve made have impressed me,” Jones says.

Don’t Dwell in the Past

Finally, whatever tendency you might have to defend your departure from your legacy career field, minimize any mention of what you don’t like about your recent work experience. “Show that you’re not being thrown out of your last career -- you’re leaping to your next career,” says Danielson.