1.4 Changing Careers

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand how career change is different from a traditional job search.
  2. Get strategies for how to modify your job search to account for a career change.

Transitioning from School to Work Is the First Career Change

In a way, we are all career changers because the transition from school to work is a career change. You have a different role (from student to whatever your new job is). You are in a different environment (unless your new employer is an institute of higher education). You might even be in a different geography because many people go to school in a different place from where they settle.

Sometimes the career change is more pronounced, such as an executive who decides after decades of experience that she wants to try something new. Martha Stewart’s early jobs were in financial services, not hospitality. You may have built up your expertise and accomplishments in an area very different from where you want to be working.

Changing Careers Is Different from Changing Jobs

When you change jobs, you do essentially the same role in the same industry. If you are a hotel concierge for a Hilton property and then move to a Sheraton hotel, this is a job change. If you are a hotel concierge for Hilton and become an office manager for an architecture firm, this is a career change—you are doing a different role in a different industry.

In the subsequent chapters on job search, you need to execute the same six steps as other job seekers. In the areas of marketing yourself and talking about yourself in networking and interviewing situations, however, you won’t be able to rely on your past track record for examples or evidence of how you are suitable for the job. This doesn’t mean you should simply ask prospective employers to take a leap of faith and trust that you will learn. Instead, you should do enough preparation that you fit in with the new area you are targeting.

Changing Careers Successfully Means You Look Like You Aren’t Changing Careers

Essentially, you want to make yourself equal to someone already doing the job, so you don’t want to appear like a career changer, but rather already a career insider. While you might not have a specific employment situation to point to, you can develop the skills and expertise of an insider by volunteering or consulting in that new job area.

A student might point to her work as a tutor when she interviews with schools for teaching positions. An aspiring marketer might highlight his role in the advertising campaign for his school’s homecoming event. A more experienced executive who doesn’t have the campus opportunities of clubs and extracurricular activities can look at community organizations for opportunities to volunteer.

As you go along the six-step job search process, pay close attention to Step 3, Conduct In-Depth Research. If you can showcase your understanding of your new target area by your exhaustive research and grasp of trends, challenges, and competitor information, then you will be valuable to prospective employers.

Changing Careers Requires Additional Search Skills Compared to Changing Jobs

Career changers have more convincing to do and need additional search skills. This means that the career changer’s job search will be different:

It will likely take longer. You have to establish a track record in your new area. You have to find people who will listen to your story. Students should start their job search long before graduation. They can use the years in school to build a track record in areas where they might want to work after graduation. In the six-step job search process, step 5 includes strategies for maintaining long-term motivation, which also would be particularly helpful when changing careers.

It may be more expensive. A longer search means that you have no money coming in from your new job. If you have another job while you are looking, that might be fine, but if you are unemployed you have to factor in enough cash to last throughout the longer search.

It might require additional education or training. Depending on the new job requirements, you might need a specific degree or certification you don’t already have. Experienced professionals might consider taking advantage of tuition benefits at their current employer to learn new skills while still at their old career. Students should look at specific courses they can take before graduation to enhance their marketability.

You have to hustle more. Because you don’t have the track record in other workplaces, your résumé won’t demonstrate a track record. If all prospective employers know about you is your résumé, you likely will not be seen. Therefore, you must network and get in front of people to have a chance to tell your story. In the six-step job search process, step 4 focuses on networking and interviewing, which will help with the hustling, as well as crafting a compelling story about your career change.

Key Takeaways

  • Changing careers is different from finding a new job in the same area, but we have all done it at least once, when we moved from school to the workplace.
  • Changing careers requires you to convince prospective employers that you can do the job even though you don’t have a track record at another workplace.
  • Making a compelling case is easier when you are already doing the job (e.g., as a volunteer or consultant) and have the skills, expertise, and network in your new area.
  • Having additional search resources and skills will help you successfully execute a career change. You need more time, more money, more (or different) credentials, and more hustle.


  1. If you are a student, take out your transcript and résumé to date and think about what types of jobs your history suggests. If you are not sure, get a group of students to do this exercise together or ask a trusted mentor to join you. If the answers you get are not areas of interest, list related courses you can take or experiences you can get before you graduate.
  2. If you are an experienced professional considering a career change, map your existing résumé to a job description in the area you are targeting. What is missing? Make a list of action items with a timetable for how you can fill in the gaps.
  3. If you have assumed that you need specific job experience or a specific degree, call a professional association for your area of interest and ask about typical member profiles. Check your assumptions before adding items to your to-do list, especially additional schooling.