Why Changing Careers Doesn’t Have to Be Painful

Are you happy with your chosen profession? Only about half of all U.S. adults are satisfied with their jobs, according to several recent surveys, so there’s a good chance you’d like to try another career.

There’s an equally good chance that you don’t know how to change career direction without major pain and disruption. But many professionals have learned how to switch to new fields without a major loss of income or lifestyle.

In 1996, Boston entrepreneur Ellen Kolton realized that running an agency for professional speakers wasn’t her life-long dream. A former journalist, Ms. Kolton was doing better financially as a business owner than as a writer, but she wasn’t satisfied with her career. So she decided to return to school and earn a master’s degree in public health, with the goal of launching a new career as a patient advocate in the health-care field. Her mother had died of cancer the previous year, an experience that demonstrated to her the need for professionals who could help patients and health-care staffs in hospitals communicate better about treatment issues.

Ms. Kolton sold her business and continued to accept free-lance writing projects, but, as a mother of two young children, needed five years to complete her degree at night at Boston University’s School of Public Health. In 2000, she finished her master’s degree and started work as a patient advocate at Massachusetts General Hospital.

For Ms. Kolton, earning a new degree was critical to gaining the credibility she needed to break into health care. “I was a working mother and that’s why it took me five years,” she says, “but I got the education I needed to enter a new field.”

Of course, not everyone has to earn a new degree to make a career change. Experts say that unless the field you want to enter is radically different from your current profession, you probably have the skills you need to make a switch without returning to school.

If you’re stuck while trying to make a change, it may be that you need help identifying and highlighting your core abilities, says Julie Jansen, a career coach and motivational speaker in Stamford, Conn. When executives tell Ms. Jansen they want to go back to school so they can switch careers, in most cases, she says, “I talk them out of it. I know how flexible employers are. By using the right tools, it’s so easy to create the career you want.”

So what are the right tools for making a career change? Clearly, many professionals would be better off switching to new fields. A survey in October 2000 by the Conference Board indicates that less than 51% of Americans are happy with their jobs, down from 59% five years earlier. Baby boomers are the least content professionally; their job satisfaction declined the most in the past five years, to less than 47% of boomers from 57%.

Another study of U.S. adults, conducted in 1997, shows that half made major career changes in the previous two years. The U.S. Labor Department says the average 34-year-old has held nine full- or part-time jobs since entering the workforce. Most people are expected to make at least three major career changes before retirement.

Many people know how to change jobs, but accomplishing a major career change is a more complex undertaking. “You really need to repackage and remarket yourself,” says Leslie Prager, a senior partner with the Prager-Bernstein Group, a New York career-counseling firm.

She and other experts say the career-change process hasn’t changed much in recent years, despite new job-search technology and information available via the Internet. You may be able to learn about your aptitudes, various employers and new opportunities more quickly through the Web, but the career-change process still takes a lot of self-exploration, research and old-fashioned legwork.

Fortunately, you can pull off the transition without having to quit your current job. There are several essential steps recommended by career counselors to get you started on your career change.

Know What You Want

“Begin with the end in mind,” says Stephen R. Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (Fireside, 1990). For career changers, this is essential. You need to have a clear picture of what you want to do before you can convince an employer that you can do it. You also need to understand why you don’t like what you’re doing now so you don’t repeat your choices.

Sometimes, making your career more satisfying is as simple as switching to a different size firm or taking a less stressful job. Identifying those factors can keep you from turning your professional life upside down unnecessarily. “Sometimes you just have to tweak your current situation, get rid of hours or responsibilities or get new responsibilities,” says Ms. Jansen.

Executives who start down the wrong career path because of pressure from family or other forces and now feel dissatisfied may not know what type of work they’d find more satisfying. For such individuals, self-assessment is key. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Who am I?’ ” says Arlene Hirsch, a career counselor in Chicago and author of “Love Your Work and Success Will Follow” (John Wiley & Sons, 1996). “You’re looking for a way to determine what skills you like to use, your areas of interest, your personality style, your values, and what’s important to you.”

Having a guide on this journey, either a career counselor or a good self-help book, may be necessary. Consider working only with career counselors who charge by the hour and don’t require hefty up-front fees before they’ll meet with you. Skilled career professionals are trained to administer assessment instruments, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Strong Interest Inventory or others that identify personality types or key interests.

Such tools, sometimes in abbreviated form, are available on the Internet. However, while online quizzes can be intriguing, counselors warn you to be careful when reviewing the results. “A lot of people like to start online and take the inventories, but the problem is they don’t know what to do with the information they get,” says Ms. Prager.

Research Career Fields

Knowing your interests and most enjoyable skills allows you to begin matching them with professions and industries. Ms. Jansen asks career changers to develop two “tracks” leading to a possible future career. One might be a variation on what you’re currently doing, while another might be a completely different profession than you’re in now. “Often, track A and track B don’t even look alike,” says Ms. Jansen.

Next, begin researching your chosen field by reading about it and joining professional groups. Network with people in the same career and ask them what the day-to-day work is really like “because you may not want to jump out there and be a dentist,” says Kathie Kuffner, a senior consultant with First Transitions, an Oak Brook, Ill., outplacement firm that specializes in health care.

Once you settle on a career target, Ms. Kuffner recommends developing a strategy for getting there. Most major career changes aren’t made overnight. If you want to open a bookstore, you might want to first work at Barnes & Noble to learn if you like the business and what it requires to be successful. “If you can identify your long-range target, you can identify a critical pathway for getting there,” says Ms. Kuffner. “The outside ring of your target may be what you want to explore now, with the other rings for later steps.”


By Perri Capell

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