A career-change strategy for any level

It takes some extra patience, says ‘Switchers’ author Dr. Dawn Marie Graham, but changing careers is possible.

A career-change strategy for any level

How to change careers

How old were you when you decided what you wanted to be when you grew up? Chances are, you picked your occupation in your early 20s, or even your late teens, before you even had a clue about all of the opportunities out there. Fast forward to the present, and maybe you feel stuck, are considering a career change, and wishing you could go back in time and pick an entirely different field.

But who’s going to hire you now, with your years of experience in the “wrong” business? And forget going back to school.

Nevertheless, Dr. Dawn Marie Graham says a career change is doable. Host of Sirius XM radio’s weekly show “Career Talk,” career director at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and a licensed psychologist, Graham knows, firsthand, how to make a career change, having started her professional life as a corporate recruiter.

“If you’re determined to make a switch, nothing will stand in your way,” Graham writes in Switchers: How Smart Professionals Change Careers and Seize Success. “Limitations can lead to creative solutions, and persistence will take you far.”

Monster recently spoke with Graham about smart strategies for pursuing your dream job in a whole different field.

Q. Switchers starts off with a 12-question quiz to pinpoint how much change a person is willing to accept. Why is that?

A. Everything in life entails a trade-off, and only you can decide what is important to you and what is non-negotiable. So, the quiz asks you to think hard about a dozen aspects of a career change that you may not have considered. For instance, are you willing, or able, to accept a pay cut, at least temporarily? How much of one? Are you open to the idea of relocating? How far? How much networking are you willing to do?

Once you’ve written down the answers to these questions, you can begin to put together a workable strategy for reaching your goal.

Q. Callers to your radio show often ask whether they should launch a career change by going back to school. What do you tell them?

A. Unless you’re switching to a field like nursing or law, which require specific degrees and licensing, the short answer is no. Going back to school often appeals to people because it offers structure and seems straightforward, but it’s not a good first step. You’ll still have a tough job search afterward, and you’ll probably have piled up student debt.

Instead, aim at getting some practical experience first, either by volunteering for a project at your current company or by finding an internship. This does two things: It’s more likely than a degree to impress a potential employer, and it gives you a close-up, day-to-day  look at this new career.

Q. You note that hiring managers often perceive career switchers as far riskier than candidates with the “right” experience. What are some ways around that?

A. Start by understanding that hiring mistakes are costly, in several different ways, and hiring managers are motivated to avoid them. So, while every job hunter should think hard about a hiring manager’s concerns and address those pain points in your resume or cover letter, or during your interview, it’s especially essential for switchers. Try to put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes. If you frame the discussion in terms of what the company needs, instead of making it all about you, your chances of being hired go way up.

Another tactic that works beautifully is to get close to the inner circle of your new field or industry. Join trade associations, attend conferences, and post on relevant social media sites. The goal is an introduction or a referral from an “insider,” which, in interviewers’ eyes, makes you much less of an unknown quantity.

Q. There’s quite a bit of insight in your book about networking, which many people worry they’re “not good at.” Any advice?

A. Most people are better at it than they think! It’s about having conversations and forming human connections, which we all know how to do. Relationships start to form when you’re genuinely curious. Two of my favorite conversation starters are: “What do you love about what you do?” and “What has surprised you about your job (or company)?”

Q. You say people entering a new field shouldn’t be nervous about negotiating pay. Why not?

A. It’s true that many switchers feel they’re “lucky” just to get an offer in a new field. Wrong! Don’t be apologetic. Never negotiate pay before you have a firm offer in hand—and at that point, realize that means the company recognizes the value you bring, and they want you to start off excited and motivated.

You may also be questioning your ability to do the job as well as a more traditional candidate would. Don’t. While things may feel ambiguous now, in six months, you’ll no doubt be up to speed and wondering why you were worried in the first place.

Don’t forget to change your resume before changing your career

As you can see, making a career change can present its own unique set of challenges, including how to convey it in your resume. Could you use some help fine-tuning the details of your career change in your resume? Get a free resume evaluation today from the experts at Monster's Resume Writing Service. You'll get detailed feedback in two business days, including a review of your resume's appearance and content, and a prediction of a recruiter's first impression. It's a quick and easy way to be sure you're coming across as professional and ready to make that change.

Anne Fisher has been writing about career and workplace trends and topics since 1996. She is the author of If My Career’s on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map?