The average age at which Americans hope to stop working is 62 years old. That means professionals are looking down the barrel of ~40 years on the job when they enter the workforce. That’s an intimidating prospect to most — but even more so for those who don’t know exactly what they want to do, or their previous attempts to find contentment at work have been unsuccessful.
And with the number of people quitting their jobs reaching an all-time high amid the “Great Resignation,” many are at an inflection point in their career, ready to decide what comes next.
Finding the right career is a complex undertaking that requires the alignment of many different components, including work environment, industry, and stress level, among many other factors. And finding balance can be hard even for the most self-aware professionals.
While a career change should not be taken lightly, career coach Jasmine Escalera, Ph.D., who specializes in coaching women of color, cautions that people should also be wary of staying too long in a position that makes them unhappy.
“We should not gaslight ourselves. I’m a firm believer that if you’re thinking your career is not right, it’s likely not,” she says.
Whether you want to leave the corporate world altogether to start your own business, or switch to a different industry, we spoke to experts to gather tips and tricks on how to make a successful career change.
How to Find the Right Career
Start With Your Why
Before strategizing how you’re going to make a career change, you first need to identify the career that’s right for you to pursue. Samorn Selim, career coach and founder of Career Unicorns, a company focused on coaching BIPOC, women, and first-generation professionals, says she advises clients to start by thinking about their “why.”
“You need to think about what it is that you want to do and why you want to do it,” she says. “Then you need to ask yourself what the challenges you’ll be facing to get there are.”
This process shouldn’t be rushed — due diligence needs to be done early on to ensure you don’t jump into a different career path that ends up being the same, or worse, than your current one, says Jess Wass, a career coach and consultant.
“Part of that is thinking about how you like to work, and if you are currently working in a way that suits you. A big part of my personal career change was realizing that I wasn’t working in the way my brain naturally worked, so no one was getting the most out of me.”
Escalera says that awareness and introspection are important when starting to consider a possible career switch to avoid making the wrong move.
“I’ve seen things go wrong when people don’t actually take the time to think about what they want to do next and why they want to do it,” she says. “A lot of people want to escape a situation and immediately jump into another one, but we repeat patterns when we don’t first recognize what those patterns are. It’s important to step back and reflect internally.”
Identify Your Strengths
Wass, who left her career in startups to run her own business, says you need to consider a path that plays to your strengths — and not just look to change for change’s sake.
“If you’re going to go into entrepreneurship, think about what it is that you’re going to gain from it that maybe you’re not able to gain working for someone else, and make sure that those are things that are actually important to you and not things that you think you should want or should do,” Wass advises.
Escalera agrees that those trying to switch careers need to look retrospectively to identify their strengths and apply that to a future endeavor.
“I’m a firm believer that when you work in your strengths, you work in your power. And so whatever that next step might be, it's really important to think about what you already can do really well,” she says. “Use that strength as a pillar for what your next step will be.”
Taking an assessment test may help you hone in on your skill set. Some tools include:
To further identify what your strengths are, it can help to think of times in the past when you were completely absorbed in your work, and it felt easy.
“You want to ask yourself when in the past you’ve been in peak flow,” says Selim. “That moment where you are so zoned in that you lose touch of time because you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing.”
Explore Your Options
Test Careers in a Low-Stakes Environment
If all you know is that you’re unhappy in your current position, but you don’t know what should come next, there are ways to test out changing careers without much risk.
“Start with assessing why you’re unhappy — is it the industry you’re in, the people around you, the lack of work-life balance? You need to be really clear about what those things are to get a sense of where to go next,” says Selim.
Experts agree that dipping your toe into a new industry before making the jump can be a helpful, safer way to explore a career transition.
Some ways to dip your toes into a new career include:
Exploring other industries on LinkedIn - Look up keywords of industries you’re interested in to research specific companies as well as the roles and titles that exist within that sector
Interning - Once you’ve identified companies that interest you, see if there are opportunities for part-time internships
Joining professional groups
Networking - Plan coffee chats with people whose roles interest you; tap your existing network for introductions to people working in your industry of interest; send targeted outreach emails to recruiters and hiring managers at companies you’re interested in
If you’re feeling lost, Wass recommends looking around at those you admire.
“Envy can be a really valuable tool — almost like a metal detector,” she says. “It’s different than jealousy; envy means you want what they have, too. And if you ask yourself why you’re envious of that person’s career, you can start to answer some questions.”
Speaking to other people about their careers can also help you understand what’s out there — especially if you’ve functioned in only one industry for the entirety of your career, or if you’ve been in the workforce for a long time.
“It’s about creating what I like to call mini tests,” says Wass. “You have a hypothesis of what you think you want to do, so now you can challenge yourself to find out if that’s really the case. To create a low-stakes environment, take informational interviews, talk to someone who has the job you want, or even create a side hustle doing what it is that you ultimately want to do.”
Wass notes that for those looking to switch to a career in entrepreneurship, this is an important step to not only test out a new career but to also see how customers react to what you create and to test the market.
Learn by Networking
Networking with those who have the position you’re interested in is about more than just securing a job — it also gives you a realistic look at what your day-to-day would be like in that industry.
“Ask what their typical workday looks like, their workload, some projects they are working on currently,” suggests Escalera. “Those are the types of things you want to take notes on and utilize when you’re formulating your new brand to fit your next step.”
Luckily, an online-centric world has made career searches much easier, removing a lot of friction around finding and contacting individuals and companies.
“We are all so interconnected now with social media; you can easily find people to connect with now in different industries,” says Selim. “You can start with cold outreach or be introduced through a connection — but either way it’s about understanding that you can’t live somebody else’s life, so you really have to do the research yourself.”
Align Your Skills to Your New Path
For those making drastic jumps, be strategic about positioning and framing your skills to make sure you present yourself as a fit for the role you want, not the role you’re leaving.
“You need to learn how to speak the lingo in a new field,” says Escalera. “You need to align your personal brand with what you want to do next.”
Selim notes that being purposeful about your future career path and taking careful note of job descriptions can further help you with alignment.
“If you’re looking for a specific role, you need to be clear about what’s required in the job description. Take an assessment of your transferable skills that you can utilize to show that you can work in that job,” says Selim.
And while it might be commonly believed that those entering new industries might need to be prepared to take a pay cut or a demotion, experts say that’s actually not the case.
“I think it’s a huge misconception that when you transition into a new field you have to take a pay cut or a step back,” says Escalera. “You're taking all of the experience you’ve accumulated with you into the new field — you’re not completely starting over.
How to Navigate the Career Transition
When it comes to how long a career transition should take — or what it should look like — experts have varied thoughts, but this only further reflects the individualistic nature of careers. What they do agree on is that how quickly you handle your career change should be realistic for your personal situation and the level of risk you can safely shoulder.
“Ripping off the Band-Aid can make sense when you’re in a toxic work environment and you’re being exploited or simply can’t do it anymore,” says Escalera. “With my clients, I do like to foster more gradual transitions where you’re still working in your role while doing things that allow you to learn about a new sector.”
The right way to transition between careers also depends on how risk-averse an individual is, or how flexible their current lifestyle allows them to be.
For Selim, the faster the transition, the better. She cautions that when a career change is too prolonged, it can cause more harm than good.
“If you think about it too long, the momentum and motivation are going to die, so it’s critical to make that change,” she says. “If you’re going to do it, put the time and commitment into it to make it happen fast — I recommend 3 months to my clients. Get a system in place and get really strategic week by week.”
While moving quickly can have its perks, keep in mind that you can only control your end of the job search. Rejection is a normal part of the process, particularly when starting an entirely new career. Time spent for applying to and interviewing for jobs, possibly repeatedly, should be factored into your decision making.
Selim points out that finances play a major role. “Money’s a big thing if you’re making a career change; you need to make sure you are financially in a place where you can still take care of yourself. There are bills to pay, you might be supporting your family, it’s not realistic to abandon all of that.”
Selim notes that assessing your finances is particularly important for those wanting to become entrepreneurs, as starting a business can be unpredictable and often takes years to make money. She suggests having enough squirreled away to support your lifestyle for at least 1, if not 2 years, as most businesses are not profitable until year 3.
Not only do future entrepreneurs need to take particular care when planning the financial side of a career change, but also they need to overhaul their way of thinking and working.
“I didn’t realize that the hardest part of entrepreneurship was actually going to be retraining my brain to not think like an employee and actually think like a business owner,” says Escalera. “In an employee mindset, your value comes from the work you put in. But as a business owner, you are the product — you have to show up differently and brand, sell, and position yourself as your product.”
Ultimately, experts agree that while a career transition is a major life decision, and should be well-researched and thought through, it’s also an extremely individual experience. Through all steps of the process, people need to do what works best for them and assess their personal risk level, needs, and priorities.