Leaving the Only Job You’ve Ever Had

woman packing work items

Are you interested in making a career change but you’re feeling a bit paralyzed because you’ve never done that before? Like never ever?

If you’ve been in the same job (or with the same organization) for most of your working life, it can be downright scary to consider a job search. And sure, things have changed in the last 10, 20, or 30 years, but that doesn’t mean you can’t adapt and thrive!

Here are some tips for embracing a first-time job change and how to celebrate your new chapter.

Embracing change, for the first time

You’ve invested a lot of yourself into this one organization because you thought that, perhaps you’ll retire from the desk you’re sitting at right now. But things change and for whatever reason, you’re ready to move on.

The road ahead is unknown, and overcoming social stigmas of what is age- or life-stage appropriate may be challenging, so keep your eyes on the prize and embrace the chance to change it up! An opportunity to reinvent yourself is worth a few ruffled feathers.

Figure out where you want to go

Reinvention isn’t just for the young. To stay relevant you may have to change it up. Where to start? Here are a few hints to help you take those first steps on your new path:

  1. Do you want to stay in your current field, or are you looking for a new issue area, or even a new sector?
  2. Determine what you get out of work, in addition to a paycheck. For example, do you like working with volunteers or is your passion helping young people? Did you want to learn to be a radio journalist, or a volunteer firefighter? Figure out what lights you up.
  3. Any beloved hobbies you’d like to dust off? Or perhaps you enjoy music and theater and would like to try rubbing elbows with the avant-garde at an arts nonprofit. See if you can work your interests or skills into a new career path.
  4. To learn more about a field, try volunteering at an organization that does something you love, and conduct a few informational interviews.
  5. Think about and plan your next steps carefully. And remember, it’s never a good idea to quit your current job without a sure plan in place.

Update your on-paper identity

You’ll have to relearn how to promote yourself—including creating or updating your resume and elevator pitch. It will no doubt be a challenge to take all of your accomplishments and squeeze them into one or two pages, or a one-minute sound bite, but here are some helpful hints to guide you through it:

  • You look good on paper. To move forward in the current job market you’ll need a resume. This may be the first time you’ve made one, and that’s okay! Here’s how to get that process started.
  • Cover letters matter. Cover letters are one-page opportunities to connect with the hiring committee. It’s your chance to explain your passion for the position, why you’d be a great fit for the job, and perhaps delve into why you’re interested in making this change. Here are five hints to get your cover letter noticed.
  • Take a refresher on how awesome you are. Examine your resume, and make a brag list. Step back and notice what stands out in your body of work. Chat with your colleagues and your boss to see what they think is great about you, too!
  • Keep up-to-date. Subscribe to Idealist Careers or Idealist.org job alerts to get regular updates on the market and trends. And, give these social impact podcasts a listen to inspire your reinvention!

Refresh your skills

As you start the application process, look at your resume and compare it to job descriptions. If you see some gaps, determine where you need to build on existing knowledge or learn something new. If you’ve been in the same role for more than five or six years, it’s likely that your skills will need a bit of updating.

  • Technology: To refresh or initiate your relationship with technology, you have options:
    • Local libraries or senior centers often offer technology training to get you up-to-date on what’s out there. Bonus: libraries have free computers so you’ll be able to practice your new skills.
    • Start small by becoming familiar with frequently used platforms such as Google Drive, or sign up for an email account and practice sending emails to friends if you haven’t used one much.
    • Virtual volunteering is a great way to upgrade your online skills while helping others.
    • Try out digital conferencing programs like Google Hangouts, Zoom, Skype, or GoToMeeting with your friends and family.
  • Learn brand new skills. Try taking a course on Coursera or Skillshare.
  • Other experiences: In 2017, we published a 6-part series called “Get the Experience to Land the Job” where we discuss the multiple access roads to a variety of positions and fields. Check out these posts for more on how to land a career as a:

How to resign without burning bridges

So, now that you’re out there and getting interviews, it feels like things are really about to take off for you! But once you land your new role, the thought of having to share the news with your current employer can bring up feelings of guilt and even dread. Transitioning out of a job, especially one you’ve had for a long time, will be challenging. Use these steps to set yourself, and your successor, up for success:

  1. Tell your boss in person with a face-to-face meeting and give at least two weeks notice. At this meeting you can discuss your transition, their preferences, and come prepared to share your ideas on how to tie up all your ongoing small projects, and create a timeline of work for the department and your successor.
  2. Create a scope of work for this transition—who will you have to train? If you’ve been at this organization for a while, your institutional knowledge likely runs pretty deep. You’re going to have to figure out a way to download that, so the “next you” can hit the ground running. Here’s a great job transition template to help.

A fresh start

Embracing (and even proactively looking for) change is a great way to stay relevant. There are many opportunities to reposition your professional trajectory no matter where you are in your career.

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Best of luck and let us know how it’s going and if you have any advice along the way!

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With a background in the performing arts and journalism, Caroline understands the chaotic course of career change. She’s been a reporter, teacher, and co-manager of a yoga resort. Her passions include women’s rights and encouraging girls to study science.
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