Making a Career Change? 3 Pitfalls to Avoid

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After three years, Caleb started feeling restless in his job. As an urban planner, he had progressed steadily in his career, and at 36, he loved being a new dad. Still, he felt constrained by financial obligations in his growing household. He trolled job boards in search of exciting opportunities in his field, but nothing caught his eye.

“I wanted to make a difference in climate change, but I didn’t see a direct line from my position to that realm,” he confessed.

Caleb is typical of sector-switcher in many ways:

  • He yearned for something more meaningful, but his passion didn’t align with his current role.
  • He stifled his restlessness, thinking that a major change was out of the question.
  • His unhappiness at work crept into his personal life, and he found himself irritable, taking his frustration out on the people closest to him.

Within months of committing to explore new avenues (and sectors), Caleb landed an offer with a nonprofit that supports local green energy projects and was able to bridge the gap between a stagnant career path and his dream of contributing in a bigger way.

If you have aspirations that are similar to Caleb’s, here are some common mistakes to avoid as you search for the perfect switch.

On waiting until your plan is complete and perfect

Perfectionism casts a long shadow across a career changer’s dreams. Most people strive to draw a detailed pathway from the “you are here” spot on their personal map to a place they covet, and only when they have each step carefully marked, are they ready to take action.

The problem with this approach is that no one can anticipate and plan for everything. As Bill Burnett and Dave Evans say in their popular career exploration book, Designing Your Life, “plans don’t survive first contact with reality.” Everything looks pretty on paper when there are no moving parts, cranky children, or economic downturns.

One woman I spoke with, Alicia, shared her “best laid plans” experience.

“I thought I had at least five more years in my job before I needed to make a move,” Alicia said, “but then the bottom fell out of my industry, and there went the so-called ‘extras,’ which unfortunately included the whole training department.”

Alicia weathered her layoff and seized the opportunity to enroll in a wellness coaching program so that she could become a smoking cessation specialist at her local health district. “I had my eye on that wellness program for a few years, but I hadn’t figured out where I could use it, so I didn’t enroll – until my layoff.”

The demands of everyday life often delay planning for the future. We all think we have time, so we idly consider possible steps, but action lives down the road, off in the distance on our maps. Better to make it happen now.

Counting on graduate school as your doorway to certainty

Graduate school offers wonderful opportunities for dramatic career change, and it’s a viable and rewarding path for many. But before taking the plunge, it’s important to be sure that it’s right for you.

A bridge from one industry to another, graduate school can equip you as a sector-switchers with the skills, knowledge, and experiences that make you successful and effective in social-impact careers. You also develop your resume and make vital connections via this route.

For other people, however, graduate school isn’t a realistic option and may be a path that looks enticing, but doesn’t guarantee a solid job offer at the other end. It’s important to assess grad school’s fit, costs, and deliverables before you head in that direction.

Focusing too heavily on your resume at the expense of developing new relationships

Instead of revamping his resume as part of his career change process, Caleb set up a series of informational interviews with people who were serving in jobs he coveted.

“It was a scary process for me because I didn’t know what to expect, and some people were short with me or brushed me off,” he said. “Plus, I’m an introvert, so it sounded like a process that wouldn’t work for me. But most of the people I met were really nice. They genuinely wanted to help me.”

Don’t underestimate the importance of old-fashioned personal connection. Most of your breakthroughs will come from direct contact with people in the fields you want to enter. You may receive a recommendation to attend a conference, drop in on a Meetup, explore a graduate program or a certificate, or meet with other professionals that your contacts connect you with.

In addition to your efforts to meet people face-to-face and expand your network with purpose, it’s important to polish your resume and tailor it to fit every submission.

Shifting is possible.

LinkedIn conducted a research study in 2016 by analyzing the career paths of 3,000,000 college graduates and concluded that Millennials typically have four jobs by the time they’re 32. Those switches tend to be across industries, and the nonprofit realm is one area where those changes often occur.

If you dream about making a change, start now with small steps that give you data about whether your direction fits your expectations. Research target organizations using Idealist’s listings (there are more than 120,000 organizations there to explore) to start your journey.

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Where do you want to be when you start the next chapter of your career? Whether it’s a new sector, new country, or a new role, claim it by putting your goal in the comments below.

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A "triple i" (introvert, intuitive, idealist), Maggie Graham helps support individuals seeking their optimal career choices. She’s savvy when it comes to self-promotion, particularly with resumes, bios, cover letters, website copy, and other “look at me!” tools.
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