Like many of you, in the past few days I have taken the opportunity to look back on the last year and reflect.
In 2008, I made a big transition.
After working as an Account Manager at Paladin for a little over a year, I took the plunge and started graduate school, completely changing my career path - I am now a first-year doctoral student in Clinical Psychology. At Paladin, we see many candidates who are in the process of a career change, and regardless of whether you are making a minor shift (say, from working in an agency to pursuing a career client-side) or a more drastic career overhaul, there are some common principles that apply. After finishing my first semester successfully, I wanted to share some of the insights that helped me along the way, in the hopes that they might also help others to smooth this scary transition. Here’s some of what I learned:
Demonstrate Your Interest and Commitment
One of the biggest hurdles we career-changers face is that we don’t always have much direct experience in our field of interest. It can feel at times that we can never catch up to those who have been doing our desired work longer than we have, and it can be difficult to get a foot in the door. Experience may be important, but so is passion, interest, and commitment. As you prepare to make a career transition, it helps to reflect thoughtfully on your own motivations: what has led you to the decision you’ve made? The first step to making a successful transition is being able to clearly articulate your motivation and passion to others (especially those with the ability to help you move toward your goal). If you have done volunteer work or had unique experiences that contributed to your interest in your new career, highlight these things consistently in your communications with others (admissions counselors, recruiters, hiring managers, etc.). Volunteering or getting involved with professional organizations in your desired field is a great way to gain some valuable experience, begin networking, and most importantly, demonstrate your commitment to the change you are making.
Know What Your Transferable Skills Are (and Aren’t)
Once you understand your motivation for making a career change and can clearly articulate it to others, the next challenge is to make the case for how you are qualified to do the kind of work you are seeking. A critical evaluation of your skills, strengths, and weaknesses is called for here. This might require a little thinking outside the box, as you analyze what you do and what you are good at, and try to creatively imagine those things in a different context. Be sure you do solid research on the field or industry you wish to enter, so you know the skills they need and can best match your abilities to those needs.
Understanding your transferable skills is important, but it is arguably more important to know what they are not. One of the biggest mistakes made by individuals trying to change careers is to overstate or ignore the limitations of their experience and skills. At the time I was applying to clinical psychology graduate programs, I had no work experience whatsoever in a clinical or health care setting, compared to many applicants who had interned at hospitals, volunteered for crisis lines, or worked as techs in psychometrics labs. However, I had evaluated my own experience, and realized that the many interviews I had conducted in my career as a recruiter demonstrated an important transferable skill: the ability to talk to people one-on-one, listen to their concerns, and synthesize information to help them find a solution (i.e. a great job opportunity or the perfect candidate).
When I interviewed for graduate school, I talked about the ways in which my experience could be seen as applicable, but I never said anything that implied that interviewing in employment is just like clinical interviewing or therapy. To do so would only have demonstrated that I lacked a clear understanding of the role I was trying to transition into, and would have backfired against me. This is equally true in a job interview. Articulating your transferable skills should be your opportunity to demonstrate to a hiring manager that even though you may lack direct experience in your new field, you have a firm understanding of what it entails and what you can bring to the table. Overstating the case for transferability, however, will have the opposite effect. It’s a fine line to walk, but it can be done successfully if you take the time to do your research about the types of positions and companies you are trying to transition into.
Work Your Network and Utilize Your Support System
The most successful transitions are a well-supported team effort. Once you have come to a decision about where you would like your career to go, and are able to confidently articulate your motivation, your commitment, and your transferable skills, it is time to start reaching out! While recruitment firms like Paladin can be a great resource during your transition, perhaps the best way to get your foot in the door is by talking to the people who already know you well: trusted colleagues, friends, and family. If you are confident and passionate about where you’d like to go next, your enthusiasm will transfer to those around you, and they will be more inclined to reach out in turn to their own networks, helping you find the opportunities that will put you on your path. In applying to grad school, I reached out to friends who had studied psychology and were familiar with programs in the area, which significantly helped me make decisions about where to apply and where to attend. Paladin also played a role in my transition - I was (and am) lucky to have strong relationships with my managers, who offered me the opportunity to keep working with Paladin on a part-time basis while I attend school. I get the best of both worlds - to extend and deepen my relationship with a company I love working for, while being supported in pursuing my next career.
Finally, I want to mention something that might seem obvious, but isn’t always acknowledged: Transitions are stressful! Even when you feel very confident that you are headed in the right direction, making a big change is scary. Many people are hesitant to admit that they feel fear of change. However, being willing to do so, and being able to rely on a support system of people who love you, can make the transition a whole lot easier. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it!
To all of you out there contemplating big changes in 2009, I wish you the best of luck, and Happy New Year!