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Thinking about a career change? Here's how to start.

A consistent theme comes up now in discussions with friends and colleagues. It is an overall dissatisfaction with their professional place in life. Not just job dissatisfaction, but something a bit bigger. It sounds like this:

Am I really going to be doing this job or be in this industry for the next 20 years?

I want to do something different, but I have no idea how to go about it.

I’d love to change careers, but I need this paycheck.

Likely these comments resonate with you or someone you know. Especially considering Fast Company reported that 52% of U.S. workers were considering a job change in 2021.

That said, if you’re in or around your 40’s, you’re almost guaranteed to feel this way. It’s because “self reported life satisfaction takes the form of a gently curving U, beginning high in youth, bottoming out in our 40’s, and then recovering as we get older.” (Harvard Business Review)

Call it a slump, a mid-life crisis, or just generally living and working long enough that you start to wonder, “Okay, so I just keep doing this job until I retire?! Is this all there is?!”. Career dissatisfaction at mid-life is expected.

It’s easy to recognize when we’re at the bottom of the U. Yet, doing something about it is the tricky part. You may start to feel like you can’t change, you have too much invested in your current career, or there is too much in your life riding on what you are doing now.

Maybe that's the case. But maybe not.

Many articles will advise identifying your values and life purpose to make a career change. That’s helpful, but there are often more pressing topics to address.

If you want to make a career change, here are four things to consider to help you get started.

Make Sure a Career Change is What you Need

Are you truly dissatisfied with your career or is it something else? Because we spend so much of our time at work, it’s natural to think that the career is the source of our dissatisfaction. But if the job were “fixed”, if all the things you don’t like were corrected, are you certain you would feel satisfied?

For many, the desire for a career change has nothing to do with career. Rather, it has to do with an absence of something else such as meaningful relationships or a strong mind and body. A career change cannot make up for being lonely or unhealthy. For some, poor work habits like an inability to set boundaries or poor time management is the root of the issue. These are skill gaps. A career change won’t fix that either.

Get honest with yourself and if you find that the real reason for wanting a career change doesn’t have to do with your career, then refocus your energy, emotions, and actions toward whatever is missing.

Embrace the Long Game

If it is a new career that you desire, then set your mind toward a marathon, not a sprint. The numbers are inconsistent but plan for at least a year, if not longer to make the move. This means, if you are truly unhappy with your current situation, finding short-term coping strategies is key. Here are few ideas:

  1. Write down what you want your career to look like one-two years from today. Post it in a place to remind you and keep you motivated. If you have no idea, give it a shot any way. Getting your thoughts on paper gives you something to work with and shape.

  2. Changing careers is a project, treat it like one. Dedicate 1-2 hours each week to read career change articles, explore your interests, take notes, schedule or conduct informational interviews, surf job postings, or watch webinars. The structure will help maintain motivation.

  3. Coping effectively with the stress of your current job is crucial. You’ll need space, mental and physical. Learning to detach psychologically and take breaks is key. Here's a great article on how to do that: How to Recover from Work Stress, According to Science - Harvard Business Review.

Know Your Numbers

Careers are jungle gyms, not ladders. This means taking a step side-ways or down in salary is likely. This can be scary and for some a brick wall, stopping them from pursuing the change altogether.

However, walls come down. Money doesn’t have to stop a career change. Here are three ways to think about it:

  1. Determine your lowest salary. Examine your finances, weed out unnecessary spending and determine what salary is the lowest you can take to meet the financial obligations you have.

  2. Save now for a cushion. Determine what amount of cash savings you need to cover the cost of living while in the first two years of your career change.

  3. Again, embrace the long-game. Consider a five-year plan to make the changes you need to position yourself financially for the career change you want.

Here are two real-life examples, both names have been changed.

  • Jane wanted to start her own consulting business, but she was the “bread-winner”. The family was dependent on her paycheck. They had school loans, credit card debt, and a mortgage. Also, they preferred she not start a business unless they could live on one paycheck, in the event the business didn’t succeed. It took five years, but her partner’s career grew, and they paid bills down. She was then able to start her new career as an entrepreneur with the security they both needed. Better yet, her business succeeded.

  • Russ wanted to leave his accounting job to become a middle school math teacher. Often, what stopped him was this “What if I don’t like it?” He feared making the wrong decision and then being stuck. To overcome this, he determined the least amount of money he could live on and saved an 8-month cushion so that if things didn’t work out, he had money to fall back on. He saved while taking the coursework needed to be licensed. It took 2 years but that cushion gave him the freedom to make a change. Even better, he ended up loving teaching.

Notice that both Jane’s and Russ’s fears didn’t come to fruition.

Hire a Coach

If waiting 1-5 years is untenable, meaning your health and well-being cannot stand being in your current career that long and you need to switch faster, then hire an experienced and certified career coach. While the coach can’t find the career for you, they provide the accountability that many need to do the work required for switching careers.

Career coaches also help clients overcome the fears (financial, social, etc.) that may be holding them back from changing careers. Ask your network for referrals and interview at least three to find the right one for you. Read more about it here: Is Hiring a Coach Right for You?

Once it’s clear a career change is needed, getting started is half the battle. Putting structure into place, nailing down finances, and maybe getting the help from a coach can help put anyone on the right track.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.

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