How to Make a Successful Career Change

Changing careers is a big decision, and a big process. You certainly don't want to make your choice too hastily, without carefully considering the various factors involved. This guide is intended to help you make the right choice for your situation, and to clarify some of the most important questions you need to answer for yourself.

Do You Need to Change Careers, or Just Jobs?
There's a big difference between changing your career and finding a new job. Finding a new job within your current field is certainly a big commitment, but it's not nearly so complex as changing careers entirely. Here are a few of the most common reasons people choose to change careers:

Your Life Situation is Completely Different Now

We all change and grow over time, and what may have worked for us ten years ago doesn't necessarily work for us now. One of the most common and most life-altering changes that happen to people is having a family. Perhaps you started your current career as an ambitious, career-focused single person, and now you find yourself a parent of several kids, living in a cozy suburban house. Your priorities have changed, and that all-consuming passion for your career may have been tempered somewhat.

The question you need to answer, then, is: Does your career support your current lifestyle, or does it contradict it? Is there another path you think would be more in alignment with your desired lifestyle?

You're Burnt Out and Unhappy

It happens to lots of us: our career seems so thrilling, so engaging, and so challenging, and we can't wait to sink our teeth into the many tasks of our day. But perhaps, as the years went on, the sense of excitement was transformed into a sense of burden and stress. Perhaps now you dread Monday morning, and your job feels more like a prison sentence than anything. Perhaps you've even tried changing jobs within your chosen field, and that hasn't made you any happier.

Do you dread your work? Do you feel exhausted and fed up too much of the time? If so, it may be time to find something new.

The Prospects for Your Field Are Looking Grim

We're living in days of great changes, and what once was a thriving sector of the economy may now be on the downfall. If you happen to be working in one of these fields--fields which seemed promising, but are now going the way of the dodo, thanks to technological or economic changes--you may need to find yourself a career with a brighter future.

You're Bored

Careers often look good on paper: lots of advancement opportunities, good benefits, decent scheduling. However, that doesn't mean the work itself is satisfying or engaging. If you've been working for a while, have really mined the depths of what your career has to offer, and have still found your job intolerably dull and boring, you may need to find something more interesting for yourself. Your work is too big a part of your life to spend it in boredom and listlessness.

You're Stressed

Some careers are just stressful, by their very nature. This may be a good fit for some, but it's certainly not for everyone. If you find that the stress of your work is compromising your physical and mental well-being, it may be time to look elsewhere. You shouldn't sacrifice your health for your career; it's simply not worth it.

You're Not Earning Enough Money

Perhaps your life has gone in a new direction, and you've reached a ceiling in your earnings which just isn't cutting it. Even if the other aspects of your career are working really well for you, money is a very real and very pressing concern. If your current career isn't meeting your financial needs, you may need to make a change.

Make an Accurate Self-Assessment
Many people find the task of changing careers particularly daunting, simply because they've only vaguely defined the things that are most important to them. They know they want to be somewhere else, but they don't know where, specifically.

In order to make a successful career change, you'll want to take a good hard look at yourself, your values, your interests, and your skills, and decide which career is the best fit for your unique personality. Luckily, there are several tools and tests which have been designed specifically for this purpose, many of which are available for free online.

A thorough self-assessment should include tests (or "inventories") which cover four areas: values, interests, personality, and aptitude.


Your values are what's most important to you. Unsurprisingly, then, your values are the most important of the four self-assessment factors. A good value inventory will ask you questions such as "How important is a high salary to you?", "How important is it to know you're positively contributing to society?", or "How important is it to work with people?" The inventory will then compile your answers and give you a clear idea of what, of all the many factors involved in a career change, you consider most important.

Some examples of the most commonly used--and most effective--value inventories are: the Survey of Interpersonal Values (SIV), the Temperament and Values Inventory (TVI), and the Minnesota Importance Questionnaire (MIQ).


Your personal interests and your degree of job satisfaction are closely related. Studies have shown that individuals who work in the same career, and who report a high degree of career satisfaction, often share similar interests. The purpose of an interest inventory, then, is to accurately assess the things you're most interested in and then point you in the direction of a career which is most likely to foster and satisfy those interests.

The most popular interest inventory available is the Strong Interest Inventory (SII). This inventory is not available online, however; it must be administered and interpreted by a professional career counselor.


The field of psychology offers many different theories of what the personality is and how it works. In terms of career assessment, however, the majority of inventories are based on the work of renowned psychologist Carl Jung. Jung describes the personality as being a system of four sets of opposites. Each pair of opposites represents a choice that the individual must make, or a preference for interacting with the world. The four pairs are: thinking vs. feeling, sensing vs. intuition, introversion vs. extroversion, and judging vs. perceiving. Your personality, according to this model, is determined by your preference in each of these pairs.

Career assessment inventories use this model to help individuals find careers which are the best fit for their particular personality type. One such inventory is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which is used by career counselors throughout the world. It's important to note, however, that your personality type will not tell you what career to pursue. Your personality inventory is only useful when interpreted together with the results from your other assessment inventories.


An aptitude is a talent or a skill. Aptitudes may be inherent (a natural talent), or you may have acquired it through education or training. Your aptitudes are crucial to consider when choosing a career, because they are the skills which will allow you to perform certain job responsibilities in certain situations.

Just as important as what you do well, is how much you enjoy doing it. If you're very talented in a certain area, but absolutely hate working in that area, you don't want to pursue a career based on that talent. Aptitudes are important, though, because we generally find the most satisfaction doing something well.

You may have a talent in a certain area, but not necessarily the skills. Talent is a natural ability, skill is the product of practice and training. If a career path requires certain skills, you'll need to decide whether you're willing to devote the time and energy necessary to develop those skills.

Other Factors

It's important to remember that these self-assessment tools are not a magic wand, which you can wave and suddenly know which job to apply for. They are simply tools to point you in the right direction. Once you know what that direction is, however, you'll need to balance that knowledge with the many other factors of your life: family, financial responsibilities, educational requirements, time commitments, etc. Self-assessment is an important step in the career-change process, but it's only one step of several.

Explore Your Options
So, you've made an accurate self-assessment, and you have a general idea of which direction to move. The assessment tools have likely resulted in a long list of occupations which could potentially be a good fit for your personality and lifestyle. Now, the next step is to narrow that list of results down to your top 5 or 10 choices. Do some occupations appear over and over on your assessment results? Are there occupations that seem particularly attractive to you, or which you've already been thinking about? Circle those options, and compile them into a "Top Choices" list.

Once you have this "Top Choices" list (again, consisting of 5 to 10 options), it's time to start exploring each career, with the goal of narrowing down the list to only 3 choices. This first wave of exploration shouldn't be super intense; you should begin by learning about the most basic aspects of each career.

Basic Research

The most basic aspects to consider are: a description of the actual duties you'd perform in the occupation, the outlook of the occupation in the foreseeable future (are job prospects growing or declining?), employment statistics, average and median earnings, and educational/training requirements.

Once you've learned about these basic aspects of your 10 top choices, you'll probably discover that some of them aren't quite as appealing as you thought. Perhaps the job requires more education than you're able or willing to pursue, or perhaps the earnings aren't high enough for your current situation. You might even find that the duties you'd perform weren't at all what you expected, and that the occupation would require you to do work that you're not interested in doing. Whatever the reason, go ahead and eliminate some choices off the list. Ideally, you should narrow your 10 choices down to only 3.

More Advanced Research: The Informational Interview

Now that you have your "finalists," so to speak, it's time to do some more in-depth and thorough research. You'll want to learn more about the actual reality of a job: the day-to-day details that no website, book, article, or report could really provide.

The best way to find out what a career is truly like is to talk to someone who already works in that career. This is one of the most important benefits of your professional network; it connects you to a wide range of professionals in a wide range of careers, and offers everyone the opportunity to make mutually beneficial arrangements. If you haven't developed your professional network yet, do so immediately. When making a career change, a healthy network will be your greatest asset.

Using your network, make a list of people you know or are connected with who work in your field of interest. Contact these people and arrange an informational interview with each of them.

What's an informational interview? It's simply an interview with the specific purpose of learning about a job or career from someone who has personal experience with it. The informational interview should be thought of as a professional exchange akin to a job interview, and should be treated with the same formality and decorum. Your interviewee may in fact be a key reference later on, or may have influence with the hiring managers of the company, so you'll want to present yourself as a prepared, focused professional.

Anyone who has applicable knowledge about your top career choices is a good candidate for an informational interview. They may be your aunt, former classmate, friend of a friend, neighbor, or teacher. Don't be afraid to reach out to them and respectfully ask them for help. Most of the time, your contacts will be all too happy to tell you about themselves and their work.

Make sure you're prepared for the interview. Read up about the career before going into the interview, so you know which questions to ask and which points to clarify. Also research the interviewees themselves. Find out what specific position they hold, if they've received any awards or recognition lately, and how you're connected in your network (which common contacts you share). Being aware of your interviewee's status and accomplishments will help you make a great first impression.

Here are a few great questions you could ask at an informational interview:

  • What's a typical day at work like for you?
  • What is your schedule like? How many hours a week do you work?
  • Are there opportunities for advancement in this field?
  • What should be my first step towards becoming employed in this field?
  • What are the best parts about your job? What are the worst parts?

Remember, you're interviewing a professional who has taken time out of his or her busy schedule to do you a favor. As such, you should approach the situation with the appropriate respect and etiquette. Don't be late, don't allow the interview to drag on beyond the scheduled amount of time, and always send a thank you note afterwards.

Once you've completed this stage of research, you should have narrowed your list of 3 finalists down to your one top choice. If you haven't yet, continue researching your choices until you can clearly and confidently choose the one career path you want to pursue.

Set Some Clearly-Defined Goals
Now that you've figured out exactly which career you want to change to, the next step is setting some goals to help you make the transition. Not all goals are created equal, however. Effective, meaningful goals should fulfill certain criteria:

Your goals must be Clearly Defined. Vague goals are useless. Don't say, "I want a good job"--you need to be more specific! Instead, try something like, "I want to work as a speech pathologist." Who's to say what a "good job" is? However, there are very clear requirements to become a speech pathologist, which anyone with enough skill and dedication can fulfill.

Your goals must be Conceivable. You must be able to declare your goal in concrete terms, instead of just feeling vague emotions and hopes.

Your goals should be Measurable. Otherwise, how will you know if you've completed your goal? Set specific time limits, and even exact amounts corresponding to your goal. For example, you could say, "I want to complete my bachelor's degree in two years." Two years from now (and all along the way), you'll be able to easily measure how close you are to achieving your goal, and what changes you need to make in order to reach your goal.

Your goals should be Realistic. This means they must be both achievable and believable. You could say, "I want to earn a hundred million dollars in three months," which is very clearly defined and measurable, but do you really believe you can earn that much so fast? Do you have the skills, the training, the aptitude, or the plan for actually achieving that goal? If you keep your goals realistic, you'll be much more likely to actually accomplish them.

Your goals should be Positively Phrased. Declaring your goals in negative terms is very counterproductive. If your goal, for example, was "I don't want to work here anymore," you haven't actually given yourself a direction to go at all. Positively phrased, the same goal might be, "I want to find a new job within the year." Suddenly, you have a goal which can inspire positive, definite action, and which can be measured and achieved.

Your goals should inspire Action. One way or another, you'll need to perform various actions to accomplish your goal; sitting around and wishing will accomplish nothing. If your goal is to find a new job within the year, you'll need to research your job options, conduct your informational interviews, choose a job to pursue, develop your resume and network, apply for positions, and so on. Each goal you make should have an action associated with it.

Your goals should be Flexible. Life happens, all the time, and unforeseen circumstances can certainly get in the way of our goals. If this should happen to you, don't give up on your goals. Instead, adjust them to accommodate your new circumstances. This may mean modifying your time frame, or rephrasing your desired end result. You may even find that goals you made several years ago are no longer important to you. If this is the case, don't be afraid to let them go. Being flexible will greatly increase your chances of success overall.

Long-Term and Short-Term Goals

You should set both long-term and short-term goals, and strive towards both simultaneously. Long-term goals are those which you expect to take three to five years to accomplish; short-term goals are those which you expect to take six months to three years to accomplish.

Typically, your long-term goals can be broken up into many short-term goals. For example, your long-term goal might be "I want to earn a bachelor's degree in four years." If that's the case, your short-term goals might be "I want to complete my FAFSA by June," "I want to complete my general education requirements in two years," and "I want to find a great apartment near campus next summer."

Keep working on your short-term goals, and don't lose sight of the long-term goals to which they lead.

Your Career Action Plan
Your career action plan is a valuable tool to help you focus your time and energy, and keep pace with all those goals you've been setting. It's basically a map, detailing your journey towards your new career and the important milestones you must pass along the way. Career counselors can be very helpful in creating a career action plan, but you can also create one by yourself.

The first step of creating your career action plan is to compile your work history and educational background. This is basically the information you would put on your resume: list your previous employers in reverse chronological order, including your job title, the dates you were employed, and the company's location. Next, do the same for your education and training: list any schools, colleges, or universities you've attended (again, in reverse chronological order), the dates you studied there, and any degrees or certifications you earned. You'll also want to list any professional training or licensure courses you may have taken, as well as any volunteer work you've done. It will be very useful to have all this information organized and compiled in one place, especially when you start creating your resume and applying for jobs or schools.

The next step of the career action plan you've already done: the self-assessment results. The information you gathered during your self-assessment should be compiled, organized, and saved, so you can return to it and reference it whenever you want to (it may be useful in the future, for any number of reasons).

You've also done the following step: write down your short-term and long-term goals. Each of these goals, remember, should have a clearly-defined time limit attached to them. With these goals, you can construct a overall framework--a plan--for using the next five years most effectively. It may take some time to construct your plan, because many long-term goals will require several short-term goals to be completed first. Take your time, and design your plan carefully and thoughtfully. As you design your plan, be optimistic and positive. One part of your plan might be "get accepted into grad school." Of course you can't know whether or not you will get accepted at that time, but a positive, confident attitude can make a world of difference when it comes to achieving your goals.

The last step of the career plan: Write down the barriers you think you might face along the way. These barriers are the challenges you might face that could hinder you from achieving your goals. List any barriers that you could imagine getting in your way, and then (very important) list how will deal with and overcome them. An example: you may not have enough money to go to grad school, which may prevent you from being hired in your dream occupation. To overcome this, you could apply for a teaching fellowship and earn tuition money by working for the school. If you do a thorough job of this step, you'll have a significant advantage when life actually does throw you those curve balls.

Hone Your Skills
Of course, your new career path may require you to complete some sort of training or education course. You may need to go back to school for a degree, earn a certification, or complete an internship. The specifics will vary by profession, and you'll need to know ahead of time what your new job will require of you.

Beyond your job-specific skills, you'll also want to brush up on your general workplace skills, which may have become a bit rusty since you last looked for a job. To become the most appealing candidate for a position, you'll want to hone the following skills in particular: active listening, computer literacy, effective writing, problem solving, and time management.

Listening is a crucial workplace skill. Listening will enable you to build better relationships with your co-workers, clients, and bosses, and will help you better understand the tasks expected of you. When listening to someone speak, make sure you maintain eye contact, nod your head to indicate that you understand, lean toward the speaker, sit still, and repeat instructions and ask questions when appropriate. Develop your active listening skills, and you'll surely enjoy much more success in your career.

Practically every career and every occupation uses computers these days--it's simply a standard tool which everyone is expected to use to some degree or another. If you're not up to speed on your computer skills, your dream job may be given to someone else. If you feel uncomfortable using computers and would like to improve your skills, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Many community education programs (usually offered through school districts or community colleges for a low cost) offer computer literacy courses that will bring you up to speed in a very reasonable amount of time. Additionally, you could contact your Labor Department Office to see if there are any career retraining programs available in your area. You could even go to the library to use one of their public computers, and take a computer literacy course or tutorial online.

Effective writing skills are also crucially important, whether or not writing is part of your job description. In your new career, you may be expected to write company memos, design sales briefs, or correspond with clients or colleagues via email. A common mistake which people make is excessive wordiness. Usually, the simplest option is the best option. If you're not sure about what you've written, trying reading it aloud to yourself. If it flows well as verbal speech, it likely works well as written language. If it's clunky or awkward as verbal speech, you probably want to rewrite it. If you know you need to work on your writing skills, there are many resources available to you. Community classes are a great option, as are online tutorials and classes.

Problem solving can be a slippery concept, because problems are typically the result of unexpected or unforeseen circumstances, and as such the solution to each problem is completely different. The key to problem solving, then, is not necessarily preventing every possible unexpected event, but rather developing and utilizing effective strategies for dealing with the unexpected. One of the greatest enemies to effective problem solving is panic. When something goes wrong, our first impulse is to panic, worry, and give in to frustration or even anger. This does nothing to solve the problem--in fact, it usually makes the problem worse. Problems are solved by clear, level heads who can take a good look at a situation, weigh the factors, and quickly arrive at a decision. How does one cultivate a "clear, level head"? There are several ways, actually. One of the most powerful is meditation, which is the practice of focusing the mind and detaching from detrimental emotions. Meditation has been repeatedly proven by science to improve problem solving skills, and can be learned in a wide range of settings, such as health centers and yoga studios, as well as online. Additionally, you could enlist in a "brain exercise" course, such as the ones offered by These courses improve the brain's plasticity and attentiveness, which directly influence our ability to solve problems.

Time management is the last of the crucial workplace skills, and one of the most important. Learning to manage your time effectively will make you an effective and valued member of any team. There are several strategies you could employ to improve your time management. First, keep a "To Do" list, with the most important items on top. This will help you stay organized, and will prevent you from feeling overwhelmed. Next, give yourself regular breaks. If you try to work relentlessly without any breaks, you risk experiencing burnout and all its negative effects. Learn to delegate. You don't need to carry the whole world on your shoulders; let someone else lend a hand. Lastly, don't allow yourself to procrastinate! If you allow procrastination to become a habit, you could find your career in ruin. Stay on top of your obligations, and don't put off until tomorrow what must be done today.

Leaving Your Current Career
It's been a long journey to your new career, but you've finally done it: you've chosen a new career, you've followed your career action plan faithfully, and you've honed your skills for your new profession. Now all that's left is to officially leave your current career. This should be done carefully, professionally, and thoughtfully.

When you're ready to leave your job, make sure you leave in a professional, courteous way. Speak to your boss in person, and inform him or her of your decision. Write a formal resignation letter, and keep a copy for yourself on file. Make sure, above all, that you give your current employer plenty of notice to find a replacement. Two weeks is the standard, but many professional positions may need a longer period--three or four weeks, perhaps. If you work in a position that will require you to train your replacement, make sure you take that into account when making your transition.

It's important to leave your job on a positive note, regardless of how you may have been treated or what you actually think of them. If you leave in a professional and courteous manner, without any spiteful words being exchanged or vengeful acts being committed, you'll be in a much stronger position in the long run. You'll be able to list your work experience as a reference, without fear of a tarnished reputation coming back to haunt you. Despite any disagreements you may have had, you'll be able to move forward with pride, knowing your reputation is intact.

It's a big transition, to be sure. Hopefully this guide has helped to clarify some issues for you, and has been of some assistance as you work out the details of your unique situation. Best of luck to you on your career path!

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