Making a career transition and switching paths is never easy. While a new opportunity may seem promising or necessary, leaving behind our established roles and routines can feel disorienting and unsettling. However, career changes are increasingly common in today's dynamic job market.
Today we will explore some of the key reasons why transitioning to a new career can be difficult as well as provides advice and examples to help smooth the process.
Letting Go of Our Comfort Zones
One of the biggest hurdles in changing careers is breaking out of our comfort zones. Spending years, if not decades, working in the same field means we become familiar and skilled in that role and industry. Our work becomes part of our identities and self-image. Making a transition requires acknowledging that we must leave behind tasks and responsibilities we've mastered to take on new challenges in unfamiliar territory. This can trigger feelings of insecurity and lack of confidence in our abilities.
For example, Tom had worked as an accountant for a large firm for 15 years. Though he was feeling burnt out, the idea of starting over fresh in a new career was unnerving. He worried he would look clueless to others without his accounting expertise. It took mentoring to help Tom recognize that many skills like communication, problem-solving and attention to detail transfer between roles. With training and experience, he could develop new competencies in his chosen field of project management.
Gaps in Our Resumes
A career change often means a gap in our resume narrative. Employers may question what we were doing during the time not spent in a single occupational path. Gaps can make us appear less stable or committed despite our reasons being multifaceted. They may also raise concerns employers cannot gauge our direct experience in the new role.
As an illustration, Lisa decided to change careers from teaching to operations management after the birth of her second child. The four years she spent as a stay-at-home mom created an uncomfortable hiatus on her resume. In interviews, Lisa emphasized she maintained relevant technical skills through evening certification courses. She also volunteered one day a week in a director role at her child's preschool to demonstrate her leadership abilities. These examples helped hiring managers see her commitment to developing new strengths outside her prior full-time position.
Resetting Professional Networks
Our networks of colleagues, clients and industry contacts are invaluable for gaining insider knowledge and potential job referrals. However, these are tied to the world of our previous career. Transitioning means having to reset and rebuild networks specific to the new field. It takes time to develop the same level of trust, rapport and professional relevance that came naturally through years in a prior role.
For instance, Mark transitioned from marketing to project management in technology. He found reaching out cold to potential contacts in his new realm frustrating and unproductive. Mark joined a local chapter of the Project Management Institute to quickly expand his network. Through participating in interest groups and volunteer work, he was able to introduce himself to hiring managers and references within a supportive community. This helped Mark land an entry-level role where he could demonstrate his skills.
Restarting at an Entry-Level
Even with substantial experience, those changing careers often have to accept entry-level or junior positions. Employers want to see dedication and competence demonstrated in the new role or industry before considering candidates for senior levels. Starting over at the bottom requires an adjustment, as it can mean taking a pay cut or giving up management responsibilities earned previously. It also demands having ample savings or support to get established again financially.
Susan had a long career in human resources but wanted a job with less politics and stress. She transitioned to project coordination in the healthcare field, willing to restart. Though depressing taking directions as an assistant, Susan volunteered for extra training and responsibilities. Within a year, she proved capable of more independent work while continuing to build her specialized knowledge. Thanks to her proactive approach, Susan received a promotion with a salary higher than her old human resources role within 18 months.
While career transitions pose understandable hurdles, as the examples illustrate, they can also open new doors if we have resilience, flexibility and a willingness to gain experience from the start. In today's economy of frequent job shifts, the ability to learn new competencies and adapt readily is key. Reach out for guidance through mentors, partners in new industries, professional associations and training programs. With patience and perseverance, it is possible to go through the challenges of restarting and ultimately find success, growth and satisfaction in a different career path.
Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.