Soft Skills

15 minute read

How to Change Careers: Key Tips for Making the Switch

Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

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You’re ready for a change—a career change, that is.

There’s a big piece of you that’s enthusiastic. You’re eager for a new opportunity and to feel challenged and passionate about your work again.

But, let’s be honest: There’s an even bigger part of you that’s terrified. 

The job search is intimidating to begin with. But, when you have so much seemingly unrelated experience under your belt, it becomes even tougher. 

If you are wondering how to change careers you might have already had these thoughts: How can you possibly prove yourself as a worthy fit for an entirely different role? What should you do to prepare yourself? What skills should you call attention to? Are people going to think you’re a joke for wanting to make a switch at this point?

First of all, rest assured that you’re not the only person to pivot careers. One Harris poll found that: only 14% of workers in the U.S. thought that they had the perfect job—and more than half wanted to change careers. So, you’re definitely not the only person being kept awake at night by these totally justified career change concerns.

There’s no need to start hyperventilating into a paper bag quite yet. Let’s dig into everything you need to know to change careers successfully. 

How to change careers: What to know to transition seamlessly

You’ve taken the first step: deciding that you want to make a change. Now, let’s lay the rest of the groundwork that you need for a more seamless career change. 

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1. Be realistic

First things first, it’s time for a little bit of tough love. Before you roll up your sleeves and dive into tailoring your resume, you need to ensure that you’re being realistic with your expectations.

Some career changes—like moving from marketing into sales, for example—are more straightforward and won’t require a ton of extra training and education on your part.

But, if you’ve decided that you want to bid adieu to your career in finance and pursue becoming a nurse practitioner? Well, that’s probably not something you’re going to be able to do with some clever resume tweaking and a few online courses—you’re going to need to further your formal education.

This point doesn’t exist to discourage you. Any career change that you want to make is possible. You just need to make sure you have the appropriate expectations of what will be required of you in order to make it happen. 

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2. Level up your skills

With that reality check out of the way, it’s time to take a good look at what you need to be qualified for your ideal position. 

Start by pulling a few different job descriptions for roles that you would like to apply for. Turn your attention to the requirements and qualifications. What do you see listed there?

For example, perhaps you want to make the switch from marketing to graphic design. In several graphic design job descriptions, you see that ideal candidates will possess:

  • A strong portfolio of previous design work
  • Proficiency with Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign
  • Experience working with WordPress templates

Treat that as your checklist. You already have a portfolio that you can dust off and showcase, and you have a lot of experience working with WordPress templates through managing your previous employer’s website.

However, you know that your skills in Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign could use some polishing and refining. It’s best to do that—before you start applying for jobs.

Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities you can take advantage of to bolster your skills. You could:

  • Check out online courses (GoSkills has some!) that will take your expertise in those programs to the next level
  • Ask someone who’s already an expert to teach and mentor you
  • Watch video tutorials
  • Just get started and learn through trial and error

There’s no shortage of options. The important thing is to take the time to make sure you at least have the core requirements of that role satisfied. 

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3. Look for common threads

You’ve taken steps to meet the basic qualifications of the role, but you’re still feeling low in confidence. Despite the fact that you have the skills, won’t hiring managers be turned off when they see that the bulk of your experience is in marketing—as opposed to graphic design?

That’s a legitimate concern. But, this is where the importance of transferable skills comes into play. By understanding what experience you already have that applies to your desired role, you can speak the language of your new industry and present yourself as a solid fit—despite the fact that your experience might be a little untraditional. 

Let’s start by returning to one of the job descriptions for a graphic design role that you want. You’ve already pulled out the technical competencies that you needed to meet (and you’ve leveled up those skills accordingly). 

But, what other skills (particularly soft skills) are needed to excel in this position? Take a fine-tooth comb to the job description and jot down any keywords or skills that stand out.

For example, in addition to the portfolio and technical skills you identified in the previous step, you see that they’re also looking for a graphic designer who:

  • Can juggle multiple projects and priorities at one time
  • Is skilled at communicating with other departments
  • Is deadline-driven
  • Can lead and manage a team of graphic designers to complete larger projects

Now, how can you tie those things to the experience you already have under your belt? Write down any nuggets of experience you have that prove you possess those qualities. 

Perhaps your previous marketing job required you to balance a lot of different projects, meet tight deadlines, gather information from outside departments, and oversee the entire graphics team. You’ve just satisfied all of the desired qualifications above—despite not having any experience in a graphics design role!

These parallels will be easier to draw in some roles, and more challenging in others. However, going through this exercise to identify what your desired position requires and how you can meet those qualifications (even if it’s a little out-of-the-box!) will help you set yourself up for success. 

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4. Tell your story

You’re armed with your list of what your dream job is looking for and how you meet those requirements. Now what?

Having that information is only one piece of the puzzle—you need to figure out how to present it to employers in a way that resonates and proves that you’re deserving of an interview.

You should be tweaking your resume and creating customized cover letters for every single job you apply to (groan, right?). But, doing so ensures that you’re showing how you fit with that particular position and company—and not just any generic job or employer.

The key here is to keep all of those bullet points you pulled from the job description in mind and then inject them in your own resume wherever you can (while always being honest, of course). 

You need to make yourself as relevant as possible. So, even though those other facets of your marketing roles are important, the ones that are applicable to a career in design deserve far more emphasis at this stage in the game. 

Let’s look at an example for some clarity. Here’s an existing section of your resume that describes what you did in your most recent marketing job:

Marketing Manager, Company XYZ (2011-2018)

  • Oversaw a team of writers, SEO experts, and designers to complete marketing projects
  • Maintained a cohesive brand identity
  • Managed the company’s website

And, here’s how you could tweak it when applying for a design role:

Marketing Manager, Company XYZ (2011-2018)

  • Oversaw a team of designers, writers, and SEO experts to complete marketing projects on time and under budget
  • Led the creation of a company-wide branding guide to ensure the maintenance of a cohesive visual identity across all departments
  • Managed the company’s WordPress website
  • Communicated across the company to create a variety of marketing assets

Do you see how that pulled all of the design-relevant experience (including your proficiency with WordPress) to the front and placed way more emphasis on the facets of your experience that make you qualified for a design role? 

Regardless of what specific change you’re trying to make, you should do the same thing with your own career documents. Make it your goal to speak the language of your desired position. 

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The numbers game: Changing careers when you’re more experienced

The above steps will help you make yourself more relevant for your dream job. However, changing careers can still be challenging—particularly when you have decades of experience in a specific job under your belt. 

Professionals in their twenties have so much time left in their careers, making it seem far more sensible for them to make a change. But, when you’re in your thirties, forties, or fifties, the idea of making a switch can seem totally unreasonable. 

Here’s the encouraging news: It’s never too late to make a pivot, and we’ve pulled together a few quick career change tips depending on what age bracket you fall into. 

Make no mistake—these tips could be helpful regardless of where you fall on the age spectrum. So, if you’re in your fifties, don’t feel like the tips for 30-year-olds don’t still apply to you. Using all of these tips will only make you better prepared! 

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How to change  careers at 30

You have almost a decade of work experience, which can make you feel like you have too much time invested to switch. But, in the grand scheme of things, you’re still early in your career. 

  • If your desired career is going to require additional education, see if your existing employer offers opportunities for learning and development that you could take advantage of. It’s a great way to level up your skills, without taking a giant leap right away. 

  • See if your existing employer offers cross-functional opportunities or lateral moves. To retain talent, many companies provide opportunities for staff members to try out different departments and roles. 

  • Get out and network. When you’re still relatively young in your career, you’re still actively building your web of professional contacts. Get out there, shake some hands, and see who you can connect and learn from. 

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How to change careers at 40

You’re a more seasoned and experienced worker. You have a lot to offer an employer—and much of it likely involves skills that you can only develop in a work environment. That gives you an advantage over some other job seekers.

  • With a great amount of experience, you have tons of strengths and skills to offer. Really take the time to zone in on your core competencies, and then narrow those down to the ones that apply to your desired role.

  • Throughout your years in the working world, you’ve likely built a strong network. Loop them in on the fact that you’re planning to make a change—you never know what opportunities and connections they might have! 

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How to change  careers at 50

You’re further into your career than a lot of the competition that’s out there. But, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing! In fact, you can leverage your years of experience to your advantage.

  • Depending on the last time you job searched, a lot might have changed in the job hunt landscape. Get up to speed not only on the qualifications of your desired position but also any job searching norms that might have shifted. 

  • After being in the working world for several decades, you’re probably used to being the one doing the teaching and training. But, now is a good opportunity to find a mentor who can show you the ropes of your desired position. 

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Inspirational career stories: Career change advice from people who've done it

Learning best practices is helpful, but sometimes it’s extra encouraging to hear some tips from people who have been there before.

We got in touch with a few people who have successfully changed careers and asked them this question: What piece of advice would you give to someone else who wants to switch careers?

Here’s what they had to say! 

Learning is a big part of any career, and it becomes a vital trait if you are changing careers. If you want to dip your feet into a new industry, give yourself some time to grow. Nothing happens overnight, and it's good to go slow.

- Sireesha, who transitioned from a job in science to a career as a blogger.

If you have a strong network, it will come in handy even in an unrelated industry as you seek out referrals and word of mouth advertising.

- Caroline Castrillon, who pivoted from a 25-year career in marketing to founding her own coaching business.

My advice would be to explore and grow your skill sets no matter what profession you are in. I worked as a parole worker in the day, but outside of work, I decided to study psychology. This would open up avenues for me in many different ways later that I would never have imagined.

- Saj Devshi, who switched from a career as a parole worker to running his own online education startup.

“I would recommend emphasizing the underlying skills you have that are applicable across-industry in your new industry job interview, as well as how you could apply them in this specific situation to be of great value to the current company you're interviewing with.” 

- Stacy Caprio, who changed from a career working with agencies to a role with a single company in the leasing finance industry.

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Changing careers: Both challenging and rewarding

We won’t sugarcoat it—making a career change isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s going to take some work on your end to prove that you’re a qualified fit and make that transition as seamless as possible.

However, remember this: You deserve a career that’s rewarding and fulfilling—and, if you need to make a change in order to get that, then it’s more than worth the effort. 

Put the above advice to work in order to tackle your career change strategically, and you’ll be well on your way to the career of your dreams. You’ve got this! 

If you need some help with interview prep, check out our interview question guides:

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Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

Kat is a writer specializing in career, self-development, and productivity topics. When she escapes her computer, she enjoys reading, hiking, golfing, and dishing out tips for prospective freelancers on her website.

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