We’ve received more than a few messages that go something like this:
“I'm currently a graphic designer and would like to add some skills and training to get a better job. I'm not sure where to start.”
“I have so many ideas and am excited by all these possibilities, but at the end of the day I still feel trapped in my current situation. I don’t know what to do.”
“Can you reassure me that I’m doing the right things to get a job?”
While a brave few have the guts to dive in headlong and risk their financial security, standard of living, and professional gains until now, the rest of us are usually a little more skeptical. And rightly so. A career change seemingly demands that you give up what you've achieved so far, with no guarantee of success in return.
Taking the first step is always the hardest. Here are a few concrete strategies that helped me tackle my own transition from copywriter to designer and a co-founder of Switchup.org:
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
— Benjamin Franklin
If you have the blessings of your family’s or partner’s bank account, be grateful and feel free to discount this advice. For the rest of us, there’s a time to dream, but there’s also a time to be responsible.
The starving artist — or in this scenario, you might even say “the bootstrapping entrepreneur” — is a myth that doesn’t help you achieve results. At its romantic best, poverty will be a distraction, and at its worst, it will be a serious threat to your livelihood. It’s important to remember that taking risks and taking precautions don’t always have to be at odds.
Be bold, but also be prepared.
Create a career fund. Saving a portion of your money expressly in preparation for your career change should be high on your priority list, if possible. Calculate your monthly minimum expenses (e.g. rent or mortgage, utilities, car payment, groceries, transportation, tuition for classes, taxes, insurance) and note how much you can save after all that is accounted for.
If you decide to leave your old job or to attend classes, having this money set aside to support yourself during your transition will mean you can pursue your new work with far less distraction. While there’s some disagreement over how much money should go into emergency funds, most of the sources we’ve seen suggest enough to last three to six months as a rule of thumb, since you’ll need the time to secure a new job.
Grow your network with your new career in mind. A safety net isn’t just financial, but social as well. Draw on your friends and past connections, not only for their expertise but for introductions to others whose work may be relevant to your new target field. Getting insight from mentors and peers who are currently where you want to be in 5, 10, or 25 years will be invaluable. They'll help you:
- Learn the most effective order of operations. They’ll be able to tell you what’s the most important thing for you to know and study, and what's the fluff that you can brush over.
- Avoid mistakes. But be respectful and do your homework. If it’s commonly known that, say, client management is a major problem in freelance design, don’t waste someone’s time with something you could’ve taken 10 minutes to read online. Dig a little deeper.
- Stay accountable and follow through. Having someone else other than a friend (and someone who has your dream career, to boot!) monitor your progress will be an effective way to keep yourself in check.
- Find projects to work on. Until you’re ready to charge for your services, you’ll need to hone your new abilities. To find opportunities, be curious. Don’t be afraid to ask them, “Is there any way a beginner like myself can get involved?”
What many think of as "networking" — standing awkwardly holding a drink and passing around business cards — isn't what I'm advocating for here. Networking isn’t asking for job leads. It's sharing knowledge and nurturing relationships. Listen to others, demonstrate your own value in return.
Personal finance guru Ramit Sethi writes, “Top performers build their network BEFORE they need it. That’s how they can get laid off on a Monday and have a better job lined up by Friday.” Be proactive and frontload your work by setting up support mechanisms and a contingency plan. You’ll thank yourself for it when trouble comes knocking.
"I don't need time, I need a deadline."
— Duke Ellington
It’s imperative that you set reasonable goals and a hard deadline for yourself. Ask yourself, "Where am I now in my career transition, and where do I want to be by the time my safety net starts to fray?" Do you need to learn new skills? Build a portfolio? Expand your network? Are you ready to start pursuing that new job?
If you don’t hit said targets by said date, it may be wise to redirect your energies toward figuring out how to maintain financial stability before trying again.
Putting an ultimatum on your career change may seem dramatic, but by giving the task at hand an enormous sense of urgency, you'll be far more motivated to put in the time and effort.
At the end of the day, you need to have the good sense to acknowledge if you're actually serious, or if your game plan isn’t working.
“What we find changes who we become.”
— Peter Morville
A few years ago, I encountered several commercials for the MLB on TV. I'd see incredible acts of athleticism as players slid for home. Fans sobbed and cradled one another in sheer joy. So like the chump I was, I began to convince myself that I liked the idea of baseball.
Not long after, I found myself sitting in the stands at the bottom of the eighth inning, bored out of my mind as hitters continued to strike out and the sun pummeled my back. Some people find deep satisfaction in baseball, and that's wonderful. I don't.
While that was a minor and unfortunate detour in my life, it absolutely BOGGLES my mind when people make similar kinds of mistakes with their career.
Confirm whether your idea of the job aligns with what that job actually has you do on a day to day basis. Using websites like LinkedIn, Monster.com, and Indeed.com — or more industry-specific boards like Krop for design and tech or Gamasutra for the video game industry — you can research the actual skills and duties required for the new jobs you're interested in. What programming languages are in demand for a software engineer right now? What citation style do news outlets require you to practice? Notice the recurring requirements and write them down on a list.
What's more, websites like Glassdoor or Salary.com feature reviews from both current and past employees. Use these to better understand the culture and workplace life of companies in your field. All this information will help form the roadmap and checklist for the education and qualities you'll need to bring to the table in order to fit the bill.
Develop ways to demonstrate each and every one of these listed requirements to an employer. Do you need code repositories on Github or a design portfolio on Behance? Do you need rehearsed stories of past examples for which you did something similar? Consider using these requirements as the final targets you'll want to meet by your deadline.
Don't forget to do research on salaries. With your lack of experience in your new career, chances are you'll be forgoing your progress in a past life to start in a junior role elsewhere. Glassdoor and Salary.com also report salaries. Lifehacker recommends that you start by viewing the entry level versions of your desired position (e.g. "project coordinator" in lieu of "project manager). As always, make sure that these numbers align with your perception.
"The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go."
— Dr. Seuss
Finally — and perhaps most crucially — you'll need to ensure your skillset is up to par with the working professional's. There are multiple avenues to help you get there:
- Swing your original career to your advantage. It's a huge mistake and, in fact, a lost opportunity if you discount your past experiences. Seek out ways to make your pre-existing talents intersect with your new work. Present a unique angle to distinguish yourself as a candidate. Can you both design layouts AND write the copy? Can you program an application AND sell the product to clients?
- Work on side projects or freelance to test the waters. If you're not ready to take the sink-or-swim approach, you might want to consider contributing to small projects tangentially related to your new area of interest. Because they're not full-time business ideas, this will allow you to quickly build a body of work and experiment.
- Take a class. Learn or refine the skills that'll be expected in your new career. Local workshops, accelerated bootcamps, and online course platforms like Coursera or Udacity are just some of the recent popular options addressing the skills gap in ways that are potentially more effective and affordable than traditional continuing education.
That's why we built Switchup.org: we're building interactive tools and a community of learners to help you discover a educational track that's best for your specific needs.
Just like eating an enormous cheeseburger, it's hard to figure out how or where to begin with a career switch. Changing industries or even jobs sometimes seems like an impossibly monumental task. But as someone who went from studying Shakespearean plays in college to designing digital games and websites for startups and universities a year later, I know that it can be done.