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How to Change Careers

The bad news is that changing careers is one of the most difficult challenges we face in adulthood. You may be asking: How do I reinvent ourselves after all these years?  The good news is that changing career is not only acceptable it may keep you more marketable by further developing your skills sets.  More and more Americans are doing it.  There is no magic to changing jobs and careers.  There is a three step sequential process for making a career change in mid-life: self-assessment, career exploration and job/education search.

Getting focused is the most important part of an effective job search and the most neglected.   To get a better sense of direction, always start with a strong foundation of self-assessment.  In the self-assessment stage you will want to do an extensive inventory of the four aspects of your character: 1) skills, 2) values, 3) interests, 4) and personality. You are trying to answer the key question: Who am I?  As a practicing career counselor for over 17 years, I see many clients that have career problems because they have not conducted adequate self-assessment.  I recommend taking some standardized tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Campbell Interest and Skill Survey and the Strong Interest Inventory.  There are also online assessments that you can find if you Google: “career assessments”.

The second step is career exploration.  The fundamental question you are trying to answer at this point is: Where am I going?  In this stage you are taking the important information from the first stage and matching it with career options and prioritizing it into your three part Job Options List.

The first is your “Ideal Job.”  This is the job that you really want.  This is the gold medal of your career.  However, it may not be realistic or possible right now.  You should list it anyway.  Don’t ever lose sight of your “Ideal Job” because life is too short doing work that you don’t love.

I never tell my clients they can not achieve their Ideal Jobs.  I will tell them the specific sacrifices they will need to make in order to obtain a particular Ideal Job.  The client can then determine for themselves if they are ready to go for the Ideal Job or bump down to the next category.

The second type of job is the “Realistic Job.”  This is the job that you probably could get in the market.  This is a reasonable career or job to shoot for.  It’s your backup plan if you can’t get your Ideal.  You will need to consider what your goals are for taking this type of position.  Where will this job take you in the next three to five years?  Can it be a stepping stone that will help you get closer to your Ideal?

The third type of job is the “Safety Job.”  This is the job that you must take as a last resort.  No one wants to settle for Safety, but if your job search continues longer than you expect you might have to take a Safety job in the short-term in order to get by.  Ask yourself: How long will this job stabilize my present situation so that I can be shooting for the higher level Realistic and Ideal Jobs?

There is a fourth type of job that you can land, but it is not something you can plan for.  It’s the “Wildcard Job.”  This is the job that comes up that you don’t expect and turns out to be a great job.  You may be out networking your way into a new position when a friend tells you of an opening in an area you never imaged.  Your friend opens the backdoor to an interview and you nail this great new job that meets your needs.  It just landed in your lap.

After you have prioritized your option there are three steps to the career exploration stage.  First, you want to read and research all of the careers of interest from you Ideal, Realistic and Safety Job list.  I recommend you create file folders for each field and conduct Google searches.  I had one client that wanted to go into human resources, so he typed in “careers in human resources” and found detailed information on how to break into the field.

Second, you will want to talk and listen to people in those fields.  This is also known as informational interviewing or networking.  The goal here is not to ask for a job, but to learn how these professionals entered the field and get advice on how you can do it too.  They can help you explore the various jobs within that field.

Third, you will want to close the gap between where you are now and where you want to be.  There is a gap between: 1) the qualifications you need to enter your field of choice and 2) your current education and experience.  From the informational interviewing, you can determine what areas you need to work on to close this gap and increase your chances of more interviews and eventually job offers.  Perhaps you will learn from this process that you need to return to school to retool.  You may learn that you need to volunteer to build and transition your resume with additional experience.

At the end of the first two stages is the job search or further learning search.  This is where you are actively applying for positions and using techniques such as networking, direct contact, university career centers, classified ads, placement agencies, job search clubs, etc.  Only you can determine how much time you are willing to spend applying for positions in each of these key categories.  The job search is much more effect once you have your focus.  Without it, your job search will not go in the right direction.  In other words, if you don’t see yourself somewhere, you will end up nowhere.

Changing careers requires persistence, commitment, organization and follow-through.  We spend more time at work than any other aspect of our lives including our family.  It is our life work.  Our careers are either by chance or by choice.  I encourage you to take charge of your career and make the change that will be more fulfilling.

(This article originally appeared in Saratoga Today's Employment Quarterly – February 2008 Issue.)


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