Ask LH: What Should I Know Before I Change Careers?

Ask LH: What Should I Know Before I Change Careers?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m thinking about changing careers. My current job feels like a dead end, and I’m thinking about doing what I love for a living. What should I do before I make the leap? How can I make sure I get a decent job when do? Thanks, Jumping Ship

Photos by Africa Rising (Shutterstock), Andy Dean Photography (Shutterstock), lightpoet (Shutterstock), Mount Rainer National Park, and Egan Snow.

Dear Jumping Ship,

You’re not alone! A lot of people change careers; the life-long job is a rarity these days. Changing careers and trying something new can be a good way to switch things up and get a fresh start in a new field. At the same time, it can put your career progression back, and make you overqualified, underpaid and entry level when you need to be making professional-level money.

Before you make that change, you should make sure it’s the right decision for you. Here’s how to find out, and where to go for help making the choice.

Make Sure You Can Live On Your New Salary

Whatever your dream job is, or whatever the industry you’re thinking about jumping into is, the first thing you need to do is make sure you can survive on whatever you’ll make. Check out job search sites to see indicated salary ranges. For an overview of what a wide range of roles pay, check out data from the ABS. We regularly cover IT pro salaries here at Lifehacker as well.

Remember: as an entry-level staffer, you’ll be at the lower end of any range. Ask yourself whether you’d be able to survive on that if you got one of those jobs.

Be careful of looking at a job title that’s middle-career when you should be looking at something more entry level. For example, if you’re interested in becoming a project manager, you may want to look first at “project coordinator” salaries and openings first, which generally require less experience and often serve as an entry-level stepping stone into the industry. Those are the jobs someone switching to a new career — with newly minted skills but not necessarily experience — will likely fill first.

Second, Refresh Your Skills

Before you can make a smooth move into a new career or field, you’ll need the skills required to be applicable in that field. What’s a bit more complicated is how to get those skills so you’ll qualify for a new job in a new career, and beat back the competition to earn the job you’ve been dreaming of. Here are a few ways to get your skill set up to par:

  • Research What’s In Demand. Your first stop should be the boards and company websites that post the jobs you’re interested in. Read the job descriptions and desired skills, and make note of which ones you see repeated across all of the openings. Beyond experience, what programming languages does your future career in web development demand? What applications or software packages do all of the companies you’re interested in want you to know? Once you have a list of skills, you’ll be able to start training yourself for your new career.
  • Beef Up Your Resume. Don’t neglect the experience you already bring to the table. With luck, some of your experience and work history can be applied to your future career. Do your homework and make sure that it can, and even if it isn’t directly applicable, the soft skills you may have learned (management skills, organisational skills) may be a huge benefit, so don’t write them off completely. Remember, you’re not starting from scratch.
  • Go Back To School. Whether you enrol in classroom courses or you decide to take free online options (such as the ones we round up in Lifehacker U), guided instruction is a great way to pick up those new skills and techniques required to be competitive in your chosen field. Depending on the type of learner you are, classroom instruction led by an expert may be best, or you may prefer to just study on your own at your own pace. Choose whatever works best for you. You may even be able to get your current job to pay for the training or the tuition reimbursement if the direction you want to go is applicable to your current job, or a switch you can make with your current employer.
  • Build Your Network. Now’s the time when you want to start meeting and getting familiar with people who are experts in the field you want to move to. If you meet people in your courses or online classes, that’s great. If you reach out to people you admire in the field, even better. Start to develop your network if by doing nothing else than following the people you admire or want to emulate on social media and interact with them from time to time. Ask them how they got their start, and how they would suggest someone like you get your start breaking into the industry. Get acquainted not just with the people you want to emulate, but other people who are doing what you do now. If you need help, here are some tips to build a better professional network.

Take some time to learn as much as possible about the field you want to move into, and the skills required to do the jobs you want to do. Obviously that’s not a replacement for real-world experience, but demonstrable knowledge is a great thing to have even if you don’t have a lengthy work history. Examples of your work and skills — even if they’re pet projects and side projects — are also great.

Next, Get Some Experience

Getting a job with no experience is next to impossible, but you need experience to get a job, right? Well, it’s not impossible to get some solid, usable experience in your chosen field without leaving the one you’re in. Here are a couple of options to get — and show off — your experience in your chosen field, even if you haven’t worked a full-time job in it yet:

  • Use Your Skills For Personal Projects. In some tech roles, a GitHub profile is virtually a requirement to score a job. Employers want to see the kinds of applications and projects you build in your spare time. Whatever you choose to do, start off by applying those skills on your own, so you’ll have something to show for your work and effort. Start your own blog, or host your own portfolio. Write up your own research reports and post them publicly. Stand behind your work, and you can use it in interviews and on resumes.
  • Intern Or Volunteer. We’ve seen heated discussions about working for free in the past. However you feel about it, you might want to at least consider that step if you’re trying to get a new start in a new industry. Internships are a great way to get your foot in the door with a new company — one that may eventually turn into a full-time job — and volunteering can help you learn the skills employers want by giving you a way to learn and gain experience in an environment where you can take your time, there’s less stress, and you may even be able to learn as you go along.
  • Freelance Or Start A Side Gig. Another great way to get some experience before you take the full-time plunge is to freelance in your chosen field, or do the whole self-employed thing first. We’ve shown you in detail how to start freelancing without quitting your day job first, and helped you prepare with what you should expect if you start, so you’re not without instruction on how to start doing a little side work on your own. You’ll need to learn how to price your skills and how to market yourself (ideally, the people you reached out to earlier will be able to help you with that). Remember, freelancing and contracting aren’t necessarily the domains of creatives, like writers or designers. Many companies hire contractors who specialise in specific technologies or work on dedicated projects, manage software or system deployments, or train staff in something they already know. Look for those opportunities through your network. You may even be able to do a lot of it without quitting your day job, which will give you valuable experience in your chosen field while you draw the paycheck you need from the one you’re already in.

Once you have some experience under your belt, you may be ready to go toe-to-toe with people who have been working in the field you want to work in full time. Alternatively, once you get a taste for being self-employed or freelancing for a living, you might even decide to stop and do that professionally. We have some tips that can help.

Finally, Get The Job

With all that said, if you’re willing to make the jump with the skills you have, just go for it! If you’ve done your homework and you’re building the skills you’ll need to succeed in your new field, you’re already most of the way there. If you’re lucky enough to find someone willing to take a risk on you and give you a job where you can further develop those skills in a real-world setting, even better. You may have to take an entry level position and entry level pay to get there, but if the job is in the field you really want, it may be worth it in the end.

However, if you’re looking for something a little more than an entry level position, or you’re having trouble finding any jobs in your field, you might have to do a little more work. Lean on your professional network, not just for opportunities, but for introductions and information that might lead you to opportunities.

Remember though, if you’re aiming at the same job as someone with years of experience in the field and more developed skills, you probably won’t beat them for the same gig. Aim strategically and choose opportunities that you know you can excel in. Make sure to draw parallels between your old career and your new one as frequently as possible so interviewers don’t see it as lost, useless time, and make sure you shine in your interviews. Your energy will be best put to use looking at opportunities no one else has discovered yet and making a great personal pitch so potential employers are willing to take a risk on you because you’re excited, energised and really want the job. Finally, once you have the whole package — homework, skills, and experience — a personal story about why you wanted to change careers and explore something new won’t hurt either. Whether it’s because you wanted to do something you love or you’ve always had an interest in what you’re trying, it’s helpful to share it, and it sounds better in an interview than “I was looking for a change.”

We hope this helps you make the switch as smoothly as possible, Jumping Ship. Remember, if you do try freelancing for a living, you may find that working for yourself in your chosen field is better than working for someone else. If you do decide to go for a full-time gig in your future career, hopefully these tips will help you get the job you want. Good luck!


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