4 Things To Consider When Contemplating A Major Career Change

Bringing some certainty to an incredibly uncertain job market.

Are you contemplating a big career change? Tell us how you're prepping in the comments below.

Kelly Lynch spent 15 years of her career in equity trading and then private wealth management. When the economy tanked in 2008, Lynch was one of the few in the banking industry who still had a job. That didn’t stop her from worrying. "I started to lose interest [in finance] years ago and had always dreamed of working in sports," she tells Fast Company. While she grappled with leaving when so many others were unemployed, Lynch admits, "I worried I was letting a more fulfilling career pass me by."

For a while she tried to break into the business while still holding down her day job. "Working full time left little energy toward making a real change," she explains. So early last year she gave her boss 3 months' notice, then left to focus on getting a job in sports; today, she is assistant athletics business manager at University of California, Berkeley.

Lynch is one of thousands of U.S. workers who’s contemplated a career shift, even in the wake of a wobbly economy. A study conducted during the depths of the recession found that 43 percent of workers said they’d take less pay for more meaningful work according to The Kelly Global Workforce Index. The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds people taking the plunge in droves. The median number of years a person is with an employer is just over four.

This trend towards shorter job tenures goes hand-in-hand with volatile times that demand regular adaptation to risk to succeed at reinvention. While some members of Generation Flux make it seem easy to be fearless (hello danah boyd), the more cautious-minded find change a scary prospect. Especially with bills to pay, mouths to feed (your own counts!) and finite funds.

So Fast Company talked to the folks who navigated the turbulent waters (or helped others do it) and emerged on the shores of fulfillment. Here is their best advice.

Risk and Reward: Shift to a Startup
Joanne Wilson, the angel investor known to many as simply Gotham Gal, has mentored hundreds of entrepreneurs over the years. Her best advice before making the leap: "Park your tush at General Assembly (or an incubator/co-working space close to you) and start meeting other entrepreneurs." Wilson maintains that those smitten by the idea of starting a business can get a better read of the landscape and the marketability of their idea by attending pitch events and making connections with other entrepreneurs.

Those conversations could lead to collaborative efforts with founders of other startups, which Wilson says is key to understanding whether you are really cut out for helming an early stage venture. Building a company is "a drudge," she reminds entrepreneurial hopefuls. "If something sparks then you can jump ship and eat ramen until you’re profitable."

Nothing But Net(working): Shifting to a Dream Job
Lynch found both professional and collegiate sports to be a very small, competitive industry filled with folks who had advanced sports management degrees, strong alumni networks and years of experience. So Lynch sat herself down and made lists of her transferrable skills and noted what she could add by taking classes. Her financial services background could potentially land her in an operational role but she took accounting at a local community college just to refresh her resume.

Meanwhile, she networked through "a handful of friends who knew somebody somewhere." Informational interviews and meetings followed and eventually landed her the Berkeley position. "I couldn't have done this without taking a different perspective on the power of networking, and doing networking the right way," she says. "Don't be afraid to ask your work contacts or friends to put you touch with someone who's in a field that interests you."  

Social Responsibility: Shift to the Nonprofit Sector
Not long ago, Nancy Lublin of DoSomething.org wrote a manifesto for people using the recession as an excuse to break into the business of changing the world. "News flash: We're not a bunch of dummies in Birkenstocks," wrote Lublin, who proceeded to give readers a dressing down about every misconception from corporate experience ("When was the last time you built a brand with a budget of zero?") to perks ("Not-for-profit people work crazy hours too—without the promise of overtime pay or the possibility of a car service to take us home at 10 p.m. when we finally turn the lights off. FYI: We turn those lights off by ourselves.")

Alice Korngold, who’s been consulting, training, and placing executives on nonprofit boards for decades offers a few words of wisdom. "Consider skills-based volunteering, and nonprofit board service," as well as reading relevant books that connect corporate and nonprofit organizations.

Sharpen Your Pencil: Shift to Graduate School
Andria Krewson left the Charlotte Observer in 2009 after a 24-year tenure. At the time, Krewson observed journalism going through a "sea change" so she signed up for
a certificate through the University of North Carolina's journalism school. After trying her hand at freelancing and landing a gig as a political correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review, Krewson still felt she wanted to earn her graduate degree—online.

"As rigorous as an on-campus program but designed for working professionals, [UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication] launched in August 2011 and I leaped at a program that offered the ability to keep working while getting a master's," she says.

While the media industry continued to shrink, Krewson kept building freelance work in line with her studies. "I had two good clients and increasing confidence because of classwork and supportive fellow students reinventing for the digital world," she says.

Krewson cautions, "Lots of online programs exist now, and not all programs match the rigor of ‘real’ school." As for making the investment, Krewson adds, "In the worst case scenario, I'll aim to put off grad-school loans until I retire," which she admits may be a long time coming. "Knowing that also made the investment in more education important," she adds.

Are you contemplating a big career change? Tell us how you're prepping in the comments below.

[Image: Flickr user Lisa Bokt]

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  • Ghampton

    I changed careers after 16 years and also took a modest pay cut to do it.  However, I was fortunate in that I was hired by a person willing to give me a chance.  I understand this is not always the case.  Now, six years into my new career, I've completed my graduate studies in my new chosen field and happier than I've ever been.  No regrets.  

  • Andrea Ballard

    This is a great post. I love the options of four different shifts to find the right fit.

  • Hello

    I am a biotech engineer and was working in a business research roles for four years. i was tired of analyzing other business at the back end and not doing myself but I had not clue what to do . Luckily I ha good savings and house bought from that too. I took my GMAT, and just left my job abruptly. Then I started travelling and also networking with fellow old clients and friends to give me freelance work. During these times I also started organizing start up events and also networking. I realized some of my internet an now I am part of a founding team of a high potential healthcare start up in tele-medicne space.. I had MBA admissions which I have deferred for an year. Learning : when nothing works follow the gut and prove yourself right!

  • Michael Huggett

    I'm in the throws of a 180 degree change; spent the last 20 years in many roles within I.T most recently as the VP of Product Development.  Turned 41 and maybe it's a cliche but found the daily routine/grind uninspiring, humdrum, tedious.  So I've started phase 2 of my life, right or wrong, I've walked away from Corporate Canada and have started working on series of novels as well as the foundation for a mobile game.  Granted, it's terrifying when  you destabilizing your salary, but it's equally exhilarating getting back control over your day, investing more time in creative thinking and being free to work as the mind dictates (a.k.a good by 9 to 5, hello flex!).  

    It is a strain to my wife and son, who knows if I will succeed, it's always gut retching when the  "financial" carpet is pulled from under you, and it's amplified 10 fold when resulting from your own choice (vs. layoff, firing etc).

    But I have to try.  The drive to "give it a shot" is intense and maybe somewhat pushed by the "I'm half dead..." thought of being 40.  Maybe where I end up from this experience isn't where I expected, but like anything, you make a change and you do micro adjustments as you go along.  In the end, to look back on your life and be surprised by it's meanderings is superior (to my way of thinking) then looking back with regret for what I didn't try.  Maybe the only negative here is the potential to negatively affect my family if I fail to become financial independent again.  I suppose if that occurs, then it's back to corporate, if I'm not to old that is.  :)

  • MIM

    Well said Michael, I couldnt have agreed with you more. You only live once. Take the plunge with no regrets and always keep a positive attitude, no matter what it looks like to others.

  • Vickie Austin

    Great inspiration for those who are willing to be in action! I love what Ms. Lynch said: “I couldn't have done this without taking a different perspective on the power of networking, and doing networking the right way."

    In my experience as a career coach, most people don't know how to network "the right way." They vastly underestimate the power of the network they already have... so they flounder around, making cold calls or going on the Internet, with little or no results. Sounds like she tapped into the power of her network in a very respectful way. I call it "Your Golden Rolodex," although I often get teased about referring to a Rolodex, that old-school method of keeping your contacts all in one place.

    I also appreciate this article's emphasis on research and hard work. For those who think being an entrepreneur beats the corporate world because "you get to be your own boss," think again. Being in business for yourself is no cakewalk. Instead of one boss, you have [insert number of clients here.] You get to be CEO, CFO, COO, HR, PR and IT director and, oh yes, you get to take out your own garbage. Entrepreneurship is exhilarating, deeply rewarding when it works and often lucrative, but not for everyone.

    One strategy not mentioned for bridging to another profession is moon-lighting. For five years I coached people in transition while maintaining my day jobs in marketing for a healthcare publication and, later, as VP of marketing for a hospital. The jobs allowed me to maintain financial stability while I socked away all the money I made as a coach, my own form of venture capital. So when I was ready to quit the day job, I had a nest egg and a lot of momentum going in my already-existing business. 

    I applaud anyone who has the guts and temerity to make a major career shift at any stage of their lives. One last piece of advice: create a 3- to 5-year written marketing plan as a road map to get from where you are to where you want to be. The plan can change but it's an important tool to help guide you as well as to measure opportunity cost.

    Vickie Austin
    CHOICES Worldwide

  • BR

    I'm putting in my 5-month notice soon (yes, that early) and insisting on training my replacement, even if my company doesn't understand the meaning of the word selflessness when it comes to putting the team first.

  • Earle

     if your company is like 99% of them these days, they will dump you as soon as they think they have found a replacement.  Insist all you want, you have no leverage to demand to train your successor.  Hopefully you work for one of those 1% companies.  If so, you really should consider staying.

  • Cedricj

    Another key to a career shift is "Do something for them (your dream job) before you ask them to do something for you." Work pro bono, volunteer, offer advice or whatever else leaves the impression that you are in it for the contribution you can make.

    Inspiring leaders to inspire others

  • SDJ

    I agree, CEDRICJ. Instances where I've worked for 'free' have been one of the biggest payoffs of my career. It allows people to give you a chance to prove yourself and show what you can do in a  'no-lose situation' for them. I may have not gotten paid money, but what I earned in opportunity, connections, understanding and on-the-ground experience (not to mention future paid work) was priceless.

    Another tactic I've used is the "push hard, save hard, then leap" where I buckle down on *any* non-necessary expenses and focus on earnings for half a year and then commit 100% to my next moving, taking a leap of faith~ sometimes jumping off the cliff forces you to find a way to fly.

  • KCP

    This is absolutely on target. I just left a business development job in the not-for-profit membership association (health sector) after 11.5 years there. As anyone in the nonprofit world can tell you, there's a big difference between a membership association and a cause-based charity. 

    I dream about working right at the intersection of business and philanthropy, contributing to the greater social good of a vital cause by helping businesses to leverage their philanthropic investment in that cause. 

    I am going back to school to complete my business degree and plan to start volunteering *now* with one or two charities that I'm most passionate about -- even though it will be a few years before I will be ready for full-time employment with one of them. 

  • Bunmiaki81

    KCP, I commend your move. I'm just exiting the non profit field. I've been in it for 8 years as a fundraiser for mainly social service agencies.

    Are you a member of net impact? There are chapters around the world for students and professionals. I suggest you check them out if you haven't already. They have an annual conference every year that brings together the folks who want to bridge business and nfp.

  • Farid

    the above stories are of women who took the plunge... scene here in india is different...
    but all the best to all who plan to take the step ...

  • Dony

    Farid, Could you shed some light on these differences you've mentioned? Maybe there are solutions - from there or from right here!

  • Carlos Villalobos

    I'm doing everything under the sun to prepare. I want to become a product designer/product developer and plan to make the change thru graduate school unless a better opportunity presents itself. I have an engineering degree, which has subdued my creative side since college, so I'm resucitating my creative side thru local area crafts classes and learning new skills on my own. Im learning welding and jewelry as a creative outlet that mutually strengthens my mechanical skills as an engineer. Im also reading as much Fast Company, General Assembly, TED, etc to foster that entrepeneurial spirit. I'd also like to learn some programming to dabble in the tech startup movement to see whats there. Im just putting myself out there to see whats there & strengthen my all-around skills. Any advice is more than welcome!!

  • Martin

    There is a great saying that goes, "Luck is the crossroads where preparation and opportunity meet", it sure sounds like you are getting prepared and that's the best thing to do.

    I posted a reply to Michael's comment above so I won't repeat the story, but again, if you want to try out something we built for free, and tell us what you think, I'll be happy to send to a bunch of free credits. I think you'll find the advice useful.

    Good luck.

  • Rob Gifford

    Carlos, good to hear your story.  I actually made the shift form Social Service/Psychology to Interactive Design a few years ago.  Its an exciting and creative field where literally anything is possible  Consider breaking in with Interactive or Service design (ie: User Experience), it much easier to get into than Industrial Design.  My long term goal is to combine Psychology & Social Science research with Design. 

  • Joseph C Pino

    Working full time at a financial institution, I just completed earning my MBA. I am now ready to focus on my passion of innovation, problem solving, creativity, and collaboration. I have reached out and to dozens of management consultants, a career coach, attended networking events, and just sent my first networking newsletter. My goal is to switch from industry into management consulting while exploring entrepreneurial opportunities!