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Navigating a Career Change: A Roadmap
October 16, 2017

As we’ve explored in previous YALI Network resources, the foundation of a successful Professional Development journey is understanding your goals, skills, and areas of interest.

But what happens if these change during the course of your career?

It’s not unusual for this to happen: With each professional step forward, we get a clearer idea of what we do best, what we’re most passionate about, and what our goals are. And many people come to a point in their professional journey when they want to make a career change.

Taking that first step toward a career change can be both thrilling and daunting: How do you even start? And is it worth the risk of leaving an industry or role you know for something unknown?

To help you answer these questions, the YALI Network has developed a roadmap that takes you through each step of a career change, exploring key considerations and helping you make decisions along the way.

Map showing considerations when making a change in your career
Map showing considerations when making a change in your career


1. Understand Why

We begin with “why” because it’s the most important consideration in your career change process: Why, exactly, do you want to make this monumental change?

Being unhappy in your job is a good first indicator that something has to change, but switching industries or roles based entirely on this feeling is unadvisable. Before committing to a major step, consider these deeper questions:

  • Why do I want a change?
  • What exactly am I unsatisfied or unhappy with?
  • Would a different subject matter, manager, colleagues, or employer satisfy my need for change, instead of a full industry change?
  • Why do I think this new career will make my life better?
  • What are some possible downsides or risks?

In going through this exercise, you may realize a career change isn’t the right approach. Other times, you’ll gain greater resolve and want to move forward with the switch.

2. Define a Clear Vision & Action Plan

Once you’ve pinpointed why you want to make a career transition, you have two immediate next steps: Develop a detailed vision of yourself in your new role and industry, and lay out an action plan to get there.

First, stop and really think about exactly what you want in this next role. Study the industry and think about what aspects, positions, organizations, and responsibilities would make you most fulfilled. Ask yourself questions, such as:

  • What should my new my day-to-day role look like?
  • What should it not look like?
  • What do I want to have achieved in this new role, five years from now?
  • What’s my new ideal title?

Next, build an action plan for achieving this vision. Based on your end goal—your vision —and your ideal timeline, break down your transition into into milestones like:

  • Skills you need to gain;
  • Contacts you need to make;
  • Logistics (e.g. finances, location) that need to be in place for a successful transition.

Assign milestones to yourself as daily or weekly tasks to structure your progress: Small steps may seem trivial at the beginning, but as you move through your transition, you’ll likely find they give you momentum and confidence.

Note: As you define your vision and action plan, at times you may feel stumped, or even realize you don’t want to to make the transition you thought you did. At these junctures, you should return to step one and reconsider why you want to leave your current role.

Based on your action plan, you’ll have a clearer idea what skills you need to gain in order to make a career change. There are two main ways to build these skills: training and studying.

3. Train & Study

Often, you’ll need to gain specific skills to make yourself an attractive candidate for jobs in a new industry. That’s okay: These are easily within your reach through open online courses and free resources like those provided by the YALI Network. Additionally, as 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow Ikenna Anyadike notes, you can access extensive academic materials through your local library, and receive helpful advice and context through school guidance counselors.

If you need more extensive education or specific certifications, research learning options provided by local or online universities, many of which offer flexible curricula and schedules.

Also throughout this phase, be sure to study the industry you want to switch to by reading industry publications and gaining familiarity with their terminology, key figures, current trends, etc.

4. Try It Out

If possible, consider taking on a temporary, unpaid position to experience the industry and role you’re interested in transitioning to. Whether it’s a volunteer role, an internship, or a “shadow” position (where you’ll follow and observe an employee through their day), getting hands-on experience in your desired field will give you valuable training for a switch, as well as a better idea of whether you’ll really like it.

Note: If you’re stumped or come to a conclusion you don’t like, consider returning to step 1 and rethinking why you want a career change. The point of this process is to ensure you’re making not just any move, but the right move.

5. Brand & Pivot

After gaining the skills needed to make the switch, you’ll want to reconsider how you present yourself as an attractive candidate in this new industry.

You can help “brand” (or position) yourself as a viable candidate in this new role by emphasizing your newly acquired skills on your resume, your LinkedIn profile, and in your written cover letter. Further, across each of these, use proper industry language and terminology (gained by studying the industry described in steps 2 and 3) to eliminate any concerns about your suitability for the role.

Perhaps most importantly, think about how your past experience can be “pivoted” to this new role and industry. Highlight transferable skills and relevant contacts that will help you succeed in the new job. Nothing you’ve learned is a waste—think creatively about how to use it as existing “career capital.” Doing so will distinguish you from other candidates.

6. Activate Your Network & Extended Network

Once you’re ready to enter the job market with your new skills and professional persona, leverage your network of supporters to make sure your resume goes far. As we’ve explored, letting people—friends, family, coworkers (if appropriate, given your goals)—know what you’re seeking is crucial to finding the right opportunity. Here are some tips to activating your network for help with a career change:

  • Mention your aspiration to change careers whenever it seems remotely relevant. You never know who knows someone who can help you.
  • Be specific: Telling people what you need, or how they can help, makes it easier for them to do so.
  • Identify potential mentors—passionate and successful people working within your new industry of interest—and ask them for advice on how to break into that field.
  • Remember to thank those who give you feedback and advice along the way.

Patience and Persistence

Probably the top reason many people don’t make a career change is because they’re scared. Change can be scary, especially when your livelihood hinges on your success.

So what’s the secret of those who make it through a transition to their dream job?

It’s pretty simple: Each day they took one small, brave step toward their goal, building momentum and confidence to face those larger, scarier tasks and challenges as they came. You can transition successfully to your dream career by keeping focused on those small steps!

Interested in taking the next step with your business? Check out our #YALIEntrepreneurs page.