Changing Careers? Zigzag Your Way Into New Territory!

Thinking about changing careers? People always ask me, “How do I change paths without having to begin at the bottom all over again?” Annoyingly, as with most things careers related; it depends. Clearly, if you want to become a doctor, you’ll have to go to med school and start from scratch. A lawyer: back to law school, my friend. But in most fields, there isn’t just one ticket to enter. Even though your preferred field asks for a specific educational background, chances are you may be able to bypass that.

Meet Maria

A while back, I spoke with Maria. She's a “renaissance woman,” meaning she loves variety and is one of those people trying to fit a million passions into one lifetime. She majored in computer science and started her career in technology; coding, programming, and so on. Several years into her first job, her employer facilitated a lunch hour volunteer program through which Maria got to teach career-related workshops to young adults. It wasn’t long before working with people had become Maria’s main interest. Maria also volunteered trough Chicago Cares, which connects volunteers to 200+ opportunities in various areas. They offer one-time volunteer opportunities. No weekly or monthly commitment. She joined field trips with seniors, did art activities with children, helped create resumes for homeless adults, tutored in the lab, helped prepare food being donated to an event, and helped serve meals at a Salvation Army.

From Science To Social Services

When the company she worked for folded two years later, she saw it as an opportunity to pursue her new passion. Her goal: moving into social services – without the ‘right’ academic background. Make that: without a ‘remotely related’ academic background! Maria was very organized about her transition. She even leveraged her analytical abilities she used in her technology career (in which, by the way, she flourished) to plan the next chapter. She considered her options, talked to people, and saved up her money. A few months later, she landed a training position at a for-profit university that specializes in technology. Maria trained homeless and at-risk adults (18 - 60+ years old) in soft skills and hard skills needed in the workplace. Here, she leveraged her technology background and volunteer experience with young adults. How did she get this job? Networking without realizing she was doing it! She sort of sheepishly mentioned her plans to a college friend over dinner. His wife happened to know someone who was looking for a trainer. Within two years, she had become the director of training; she managed the entire career development department and she even created a new workforce center.

Another Change Of Direction

After another few years, Maria was getting restless again and shifted to a non-profit function in higher education – working with college students and alumni on career development. Here are some pointers you can take away from Maria’s story if you want to pull off a similar transition:

Put It Out There

Share your story, ask for help, and do some soul searching to make sure your desire for change comes from positive motivation to want to do something new, not from wanting to escape something old. It’s important to talk with others about your dreams. Not just to get the mental and moral support, but also because when you do, you’re apt to receive valuable input. People may have ideas you hadn’t thought of, or connections you weren’t aware of – just as in Maria’s example. And, as Barbara Sher says, “isolation is a dream killer.” So, get it out into the world – even if it seems an unattainable goal to you right now! Others can help you realize your dream.

Use A Phased Approach

If your new field or position is quite a stretch and you’re sure you can’t enter it directly, do a phased approach – just like Maria did. Look at your transition as a multi-step plan. First into the area that offers you the easiest entry. Once you’re in; get some experience under your belt, acquire some new skills along the way, and then move on to the area you really want to be in. Volunteering or doing an internship is often a successful entryway into a new field. This may require a financial step back, so plan ahead, or do this on a part-time basis, if at all possible.

Zigzag Into New Territory

Not keen on starting all over again? You don’t have to! As Maria put it; renaissance folks should take a “zigzag” approach to their career. Each time you move on to the next field, you may have to take a small step back, but not all the way to entry-level the way someone fresh out of college would. Then, you'll work your way up again, zigzagging your way through different careers. How do you do this? By leveraging your experience and skill set and quickly acquiring new abilities. Figuring out how to promote your transferable skills and experience (on your resume, in conversations and interviews) will take some effort. If needed, work with a career coach. Then, there's this nice side effect of being a renaissance person - you're probably very passionate about your new professional focus and you’re quick to learn new skills. Don't underestimate your passion; people notice it and are drawn to it. More often than not, the combination of transferable skills, the ability to quickly learn new ones, and noticeable passion for this new field will get you there.

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