How to Make a Career Change

It’s New Year’s resolution season! That time of year where reflection and evaluation are the name of the game, and people start to think about the changes that they want to make over the next twelve months. When people come to me about making a change, it’s often with regards to their careers. (No shocker there!) Their reasons run the gamut but what it takes to successfully change careers follows a pretty methodical process. In this post, we’ll go over that process so that your career change is as smart and painless as possible.

One stat line that gets bandied about quite often in career services spaces is that the average person makes 7-10 career changes throughout their professional lives. Like, full-on career moves – not just job changes. To keep it 100, I’ve never seen the data for this so it could be complete nonsense. Still, I find myself saying this to students and clients because it helps to normalize the idea that it’s okay to make changes. It’s okay to change careers if you’re not satisfied or don’t see yourself moving forward… and it’s okay to change careers if you are satisfied and see a path! Too many people think they need to keep plugging along because they’re in a career that they’ve prepared for or in one they thought they’d like, even if they’re miserable. To them, the 7-10 changes data point eases their minds and shows them that career changes are totally normal.

Some folks don’t need this assurance, however. Some folks know that they want (or need) to make a career change, but have no idea how to do it. If you’re in that boat, the following steps should help you plan out your moves so that they will be much more successful once you decide to make them.

Step 1: Know that you’re not a failure for wanting to make a career change.

For some people, contending with this mental noise is the hardest part of making a career change. Cutting through the idea that changing your career means that you’ve failed at what you’re trying to do is the first step towards making a career change. If you continue with this negative mindset, you’ll never be able to move forward because you’ll never allow yourself to move forward. You’ll just be stuck with doubt and shame, which is all bad.

I see this mindset most often with people who have gone through a lot of personal or professional struggles to get where they are. The years of training and degree-seeking feel wasted but they don’t want to give up on their chosen field, despite the fact that the payoff isn’t there. Engineers who wish they had been English majors. Lawyers who hate practicing law. People with doctorates who struggle with the pressures of academia. I’ve been there myself, and it’s not a pleasant place.

This is why you have to actively give yourself permission to move on. You have to know that change doesn’t equal failure, and that your past experiences won’t be for naught. Acknowledge what you may lose, but embrace what you could gain. Once you make the decision to accept your new start, you’re ready to act on it.

Step 2: Figure out what you want to do and why you want to do it.

Now that you’ve freed your mind to change careers, it’s time to decide the what and why of your move. The first part is probably easier than the second, but I don’t want to make any assumptions since everyone’s situation is different. So let’s dig into both.

The What. It should go without saying that if you’re trying to make a career change, you have to know what you want to do. This will determine the rest of your transition process. When thinking about a new path, it’s good to be as narrow as possible so that you don’t overwhelm yourself with possibilities. Now, if you have zero clue then you should start big with an industry or two that you’re interested in, then funnel your thoughts into specific environments and positions that you believe best suit you. For example, if you’re interested in education, you could narrow it down by sector (higher ed, elementary, private schools) and also by role (administrator, counselor, teacher). The more granular you get with this, the easier it will be for you to act on your ideas.

[Having trouble making a decision? This post can help!]

The Why. Figuring out why you want to make a change it perhaps more important than figuring out what you want the change to be because this knowledge will give you something to hold on to when things get tough. (And pinky swear, they will.) I’ve written about this with regards to staying in a less than ideal job, and the idea holds true with making career changes. Your motive for this move will be your motivation as you’re making it. If you’re like me and need tangible reminders of things, write down your why and post it somewhere prominent so that you don’t forget it. (And can’t escape it!)

(For another way to look at these points, read 10 Steps for Effective Job Search Prep.)

Step 3: Gather information on what it will take to do what you want.

Using your what (while remembering your why), do research on what it will take for you to make it a reality. Websites like the Bureau of Labor Statistics ( and the O*Net ( give broad, national information on the various access points and required education necessary for the industry and job you want. While these are a great place to get the basics, the best way to find information relevant to your impending search is to get local. Look for information that is specific to both your chosen career and the area in which you live. The big databases mentioned above can provide unrealistic data on things like necessary education and growth since the numbers are skewed by large (and largely over-educated/highly credentialed) markets like New York and San Francisco. In order to have the most accurate picture of what your next steps should be, gather information that is specific to where you live (or where you want to live).

The quickest and easiest way to do this is by setting up job agents and reading the descriptions that come into your inbox. Pull out the ones that you find most interesting and record their details. Use a spreadsheet to keep track of information like education levels (desired and required), years of experience, and specific hard and soft skills mentioned. If corporate culture or work environment are important to you, make note of these details, too. After you’ve been doing this for 2-3 weeks (or have at least 20 jobs on your list), go back through your document and assess the data that you’ve collected. This will be helpful for the next few steps!

Note: You should only keep track of the information of jobs you like! Keeping a record of ones that wouldn’t interest you if you were on an active job search is a huge waste of time and could set you up for failure if you try to emulate what they’re looking for. Doing this could make your Step 3 longer, but it’ll be worth it to have truly useful data.

Step 4: See where the goal gig overlaps with what you can already do.

Go over your list and compare it to your resume (and any relevant experiences that aren’t on it). Now ask yourself:

1) What are the points of overlap?
2) What are your relevant transferable skills?

(There are probably more than you think. I told you that past experiences wouldn’t be for naught!)

3) What experiences are you lacking?
4) What skills do you need to build?

The answers to these questions are what will guide your professional development as you move toward a career change.

A SWOT analysis could also work for this step. It’s essentially the same self-reflection process but in a different format. (Sometimes I need to do a mental remix, so that’s where this suggestion comes from!) Here’s how to translate the SWOT strategy to the questions above.

Strengths: What skills and experiences do you have that will make you a good candidate for your chosen career?
Weaknesses: What skills and experiences are you lacking?
Opportunities: How can you leverage your strengths to make your career change easier?
Threats: What (real or potential) could derail your career transition?

Step 5: Assess your current situation for ways to fill your skill gaps.

Let’s go back to the last two questions from Step 4 (or the W and the T if you did a SWOT analysis). Take your responses and look around you to see what opportunities you have to ensure that these negatives don’t come to fruition. In other words, look for places where you could engage in professional development that would facilitate your career change.

I wrote an entire post about how to set and follow through on professional development goals so I won’t rehash the entire process. (This post is long enough as it is!) But in case you’re having a case of the TL;DRs, here are the highlights:

Plan for your plan. Group your skills into families so that 1) there are less of them and 2) you can chunk your learning together.
Create an action plan. Decide the order in which you want to tackle your skill families, and set realistic deadlines for accomplishing them. Use your personal best practices to create a meaningful timeline for yourself.
Make it impossible to ignore your plan. Put your deadlines in multiple places that you always access, like your phone, on a bulletin board, and in a planner.
Start right away. Feel accomplished for creating a workable plan, but don’t celebrate your momentum away! Instead, use it to propel yourself into action as soon as possible.
Build in rewards. Celebrate the steps you’re taking by consistently rewarding yourself when you accomplish a task from your action plan. It’s easy to ignore this, so put the treat days in your calendar.

The above process will help you with the ‘how’ of filling in goals, but you still need to figure out the ‘when.’ If you’re currently working, look for ways to work on your skill gaps as part of your everyday job. If you’re not working or if the skills you want to gain aren’t related to what you’re doing, then plan on doing this work in your off hours. It might be tough to get the motivation, but revisit your ‘why’ and make it happen!

Step 6: Fill your skill gaps.

Now act! Using the plan you just created, work on closing your skill gaps. Give yourself time to achieve mastery so that you will be able to use your new skill set effectively in the future. This is especially true of the ones that are most essential to the career you’re pursuing. When you feel that you’ve sufficiently filled your skill gaps, add them to your resume, LinkedIn profile, and other places where people can see your expertise.

Step 7: Network and/or conduct informational interviews.

In addition to sharing your skills across the internet, it’s very important to connect with physical people in your desired career. In-person networking is critical for moving forward, especially if you’re new to the career you’re pursuing. Go to networking events sponsored by industry associations, your school networks, and other groups that you’re part of. (If you’re not part of any, is a great place to find your tribe!)

In this same vein, informational interviews are another place for you to connect with people who are doing what you want to do. For the unfamiliar, informational interviews are exactly what they sound like: You interview someone and gather information about their career path and experiences in a particular industry. While they don’t typically lead to a job, these types of interactions are great for learning about companies and careers from an insider’s perspective. You can find people to interview on LinkedIn and at networking events.

When preparing for an informational interview, keep in mind that you need to be concise. These meetings typically happen during normal business hours, so have your questions ready and be on your toes to adapt to time constraints. I’ve been on informational interviews where the person pulled out pages of notes and got miffed when I reminded them that I only had an hour. Don’t be that person!

Step 8: Apply! (But be patient.)

Once you feel confident in your qualifications, begin to apply to jobs that fit your desired career. Be confident in your new skill set and don’t apologize for your lack of experience. You’ve done the work, now it’s time to reap the reward!

But you should definitely be patient.

Even though you believe in your abilities, employers may be a tad reticent to give you a shot. This is especially true if you’re making a complete industry change and trying to do things you’ve never done before. While you can still get hired, you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it not happening right away. Every job search takes time, so just keep at it. If you think it will help, consider revamping your resume to a style that shows off your skill set instead of your work history. This way, you can wow a potential employer with what you can do and take the focus off of what you’ve been doing.

Whew, that was a lot! But you have to be methodical about your career change if you want it to be successful. By working through the steps and setting yourself up for a positive outcome, you’re more likely to find satisfaction in your new start.


Dr. Lindsay is career development & academic success coach who loves helping people figure out and proceed to the next levels of their lives.