How to Change Careers According to 50 People Who’ve Done It
Changing careers can be overwhelming, confusing, and downright terrifying—but it can also be the best decision you make in your life. A lot of the advice out there is generic, cheesy, and contrived, and lacks any practical application. We spoke to over 50 professionals who have been there, done that, and asked them what advice they’d give to someone considering a similar move. Here are 25 of the pieces of advice on how to change careers, according to people who have successfully pulled it off.
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1. Be flexible
Your instinct when going through a big change might be to try to control as much as you can, in the face of a great deal of uncertainty. But there’s strength to be found in flexibility.
Delia Pereira has changed careers four times throughout her 30s and 40s. She’s been an actress, co-owner of an arts company, English teacher, production manager, editor, and social media manager in her time, and she’s now the educator and subject matter expert behind the Upskillist online acting course. “Go for it and be flexible,” she advises. “It might not look exactly the way you envisioned it but you will find a way to make it work.”
2. Save up and have an emergency fund
The financial risk of a big career change is one of the scariest things about it, and not without good reason. “Save, save, save, and save again”, advises Tony Martins, former online marketer turned entrepreneur, “Save more than you think you need. And then save more than that.” Martins started his company, Profitable Venture at the age of 31. “I was dissatisfied with my career”, he explains, so he quit his online marketing job to launch the successful online publication. But it wasn’t smooth sailing from the beginning. “It was months and months of hard work almost around the clock with almost no income”, he says. “It was scary and incredibly exhausting… The only thing that saved me during those months was that I had fairly large savings set aside for exactly this reason.”
Cody Garrett began his career as a pianist and music director, before becoming a financial planner at Measure Twice Money. He echoes Martins’ sentiments about securing your financial status. “Mitigate your risks by building an adequate emergency fund and ensuring necessary insurance (health, life, disability) is in place to protect you and your family when making this career transition”, Garret says.
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3. Start as a side hustle
A lot of advice out there seems to tell you to just go for it; take a leap of faith. But those who have changed careers in reality don’t always agree. “I was an Aeronautical Engineer and worked as such for 7 years”, says Ludovic Chung-Sao, founder of ZenSoundproof.com. “Now, I’m an Affiliate Marketer”. His advice? “First turn this into a side hustle, rather than directly leaving your current job.”
Rahul Gulati, founder of Devign Tech Services went from technical writing to web development around the age of 30, and he agrees. “I left my high paying job and started learning web development,” he says. “If you have a well paying job, do this as a side hustle.”
Starting out as a side hustle has another distinct advantage, besides being more financially secure. It gives you a chance to really see if your new career choice is the right one for you. The last thing you want is to make a massive change, only to discover that you don’t enjoy the new career or it isn’t what you thought it would be.
4. Take a course
When you change careers, there’s going to be a steep learning curve. You can take online courses to equip you with some of the skills you need, and get a feel for the new career. Having some certifications or qualifications has the added bonus of giving your resume a little boost, and possibly increasing your earning potential, so you won’t have to start right at the bottom. Linda Bluemel did just this. She worked in events, and is now pursuing a career as a travel blogger at Hiking the Alps. “In order to start that new career path as a blogger”, she says, “I did actually sign up with Upskillist in order to prepare for it. I completed the Social Media Marketing course and am halfway through Marketing and SEO and Web Development.”
5. Take baby steps
Contrary to the stories we often hear, you don’t need to flip your desk over, walk out on your job, and never look back. Michael Alexis, now CEO of TeamBuilding.com, has made a number of changes, “first from chef to lawyer, and then in my early 30s I left my law practice to become a full-time marketer,” he reflects. “If you are looking to make a similar change, I would recommend taking baby steps. You don’t necessarily need to ditch your existing career to start a new one”. Alexis suggests finding a way to get a little bit of experience for the new job. “For example, you could freelance or suggest a “bring a friend to work day” if you know someone in your target industry. If I had understood more about the work you do as a lawyer before going to law school then I likely wouldn’t have gone — which would have saved me 3+ years of study and work.”
David Poole, former sales and marketing guy turned spiritual business coach, offers the same advice: “If you are [taking] a big step in changing careers, try and break the move down into smaller parts rather than taking a big jump”, he says. “Even if it means you are doing something small, it can save you time and relieve pressure. For example, understanding the pressures of your future colleagues is a great thing to get started with”.
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6. You can always go back
A mistake a lot of people make is thinking that the career change has to be permanent, and feeling trapped and like a failure when things don’t work out. The biggest lesson a career change can teach you is that it’s entirely possible to make a big change, and that nothing is permanent.
“If you think there is a reasonable chance at success, go for it”, says Ryan Waller. “I changed careers at 41. I had a solid corporate career of 20 years and left it. At the time, my wife was a stay at home mom of 10 years with our 3 daughters. And I went from salary to 100% commission”. Together with his wife, Beth, they started their company, Beth and Ryan Waller, Realtor, and for them, it works. But, he says “the worst that could happen is that you're employable again in your old career after a year”.
7. Choose your partner wisely
If you’ve decided to start your own business, the right business partner can help you take your business to great heights, work with you to conceptualise and make decisions, and even act as your biggest support through the whole process. But if you’re a bad fit, it can really take its toll.
“Choose your partner in the new endeavor wisely”, warns Miranda Yan, founder of software development company VinPit. Yan left her career in a marketing agency to co-found VinPit when she was 31, and for her, the right partner made all the difference. “Set clear-cut boundaries in matters of responsibilities and liabilities”, she advises, “and make sure they are as professional as you.”
8. Be prepared to take a pay cut
If this career change is really what you want, you may need to settle for getting paid less for a while. That could mean looking through your budget and deciding where you can cut costs, or saving up for a while before you take the plunge.
Laurence Jones started out his career as an astronomer, researching and teaching at universities and NASA. “I had the enviable job of travelling to telescopes in far-flung locations like Hawaii, the Canary Islands & Australia”, he muses. “However, I was always on three- or five-year job contracts. In the end I decided to put down some roots, we started a family, and I turned my photography hobby into a business”. His family photography business offers him a more flexible lifestyle, and a lot of freedom. “The advice I'd give is that although a big change can seem scary, it's rarely that bad. In fact, it will probably be liberating and give you a new sense of freedom and control. Just be prepared to earn less to start with.”
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9. Plan and research thoroughly
If there’s one piece of advice you take from this article, make it this one: planning and research are absolutely crucial. If you know exactly what’s entailed in the new industry, including what’s hardest about the work, you’re in a much better position to make your decision. A solid, realistic plan will also help you spot the potential problems you may encounter, come up with a way to manage to change financially, and learn about the new skills you’re going to need.
Meaghan Thomas made a big change at 36. “I was a digital marketing executive before I switched it up and jumped all-in into my life partner's online organic spice business, Pinch Spice Market as its president and co-owner”. Her advice, she says, is to “take well-researched, strategic risks and leave yourself a safety net.”
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Michelle Platt has also been through a number of changes: “From 25-28, I worked as an attorney. From 28-33, I worked as a middle school teacher”. Platt’s most recent change came at 41, when she started a blog with the hopes of getting some freelance writing gigs. “Instead, I monetized this blog and 5 years later, I'm a full-time blogger at My Purse Strings,” she says. “The biggest piece of advice for anyone looking to make a career change is to research as much as you can about what's entailed before you take the leap. Also, especially in the beginning when there is such a big learning curve, you need to throw yourself into it completely and put the hours into learning.”
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10. Break the move into small parts
This might surprise you, but of the 50 professionals we interviewed who changed careers, not one of them advised throwing caution to the wind and taking the leap. While the sentiment was that you shouldn’t overthink it, you also shouldn’t take unnecessary risks. A career change can be immensely stressful, even at the best of times, and it is in your interest to be cautious and move slowly. “If you are to take a big step in changing your career, try and break the move down into smaller parts rather than taking a big jump”, advises David Poole, founder of Going Beyond the Illusion. “Even if it means you are doing something small, it can save you time and relieve pressure.”
Lynn Power made a big change at 51, from ad exec to co-founder and CEO of her hair care brand, MASAMI. But she started slowly: “There are a lot of things you can start doing while you are still working—building a network, ensuring your idea is marketable, identifying your values.” Take some time to think about how you could make the change as a series of small steps, rather than a giant leap of faith. Start by taking an online course: Upskillist’s courses are flexible, and you can set aside as little as an hour a week to upskill yourself. Alternatively, you might consider starting the new trade as a hobby in your spare time, freelancing on the weekends, or attending industry events in your city
11. Use your existing skills
You might think a career change means starting from nothing, but there’s actually a lot that you’ll take with you. Just before her 36th birthday, Phyllis Sarkaria moved from decades of work as a regulatory lobbyist into human resources. She now runs her own leadership coaching and management consulting business, The Sarkaria Group. “Going from a job where you are a recognized expert to a role that requires new skills, knowledge, and connections is never easy”, she cautions. “Understand how your current skills and past experiences can benefit the new career path you seek. When you pitch yourself to a prospective employer, focus on how you will uniquely address the challenges they face.” Remember, you have different skills to most of the applicants, and there are a huge number of advantages to that: don’t think of this as a weakness.
Cody Garrett of Measure Twice Money agrees: “focus on your strengths”, he says. “You will also be surprised how many of your soft skills will translate to your new career.”
12. Believe in yourself
Yes, we know we promised practical, non-cheesy advice—but this one’s too important to ignore. If you aren’t entirely, 100% convinced of your choice, you’re going to have a really tough time convincing your potential new employers, co-founders, investors, and even your family and friends that it’s the right decision. You need to be sure that even when things get tough, you don’t lose that belief.
“Fear is what limits most from achieving their goals”, says Eli Bliliuos of NYC Hypnosis Center. “I was unhappy and unfulfilled working in marketing. I decided to become certified as a hypnotist”, he explains. “If you believe in what you are doing, you have won half the battle already.”
Tony Mariotti, founder of RubyHome and former sales and digital marketing guy, agrees: “The important thing is to make sure you choose to follow a new career path that is something you 100% believe in and are passionate about because there won’t always be successful results and stability along the way.”
13. Never stop learning
One of the most rewarding and exhilarating things about a career change is how much there is to learn. Learning helps you feel stimulated and challenged, and can open you up to huge personal and professional growth. “At the age of 51, I decided to start my own business, Upsize Marketing Strategies,” says Christine Wong Rambo. “My advice is to never stop learning and be open to change and growth.”
Cody Garrett, music director and pianist turned financial planner, says that the learning was the hard part. “I was required to go back to school and become a licensed professional, spending over 300 hours learning and studying for my new career,” he says, “ It felt like I was drinking out of a fire hose, and I also took a short-term pay cut in hopes for a long-term, fulfilling career. It was hard, but worth it!”
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14. Trust yourself
“Be brave and trust in yourself”, says marketing manager turned serial entrepreneur, Tiffany Lei. “You will find out there is nothing to lose, but infinite possibilities waiting for you”. Lei left her job as a marketing manager at 31, and became the owner of Gardenguidepost.com.
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15. It isn’t too late
Many people are concerned that once they hit a certain age, it’s too late to try something new. There’s no doubt that it’s scary, and of course, the more responsibilities you have the riskier it gets. It’s much easier to tighten up the budget before you have kids, mortgages, pets, and other grown-up expenses to consider. But it’s never too late.
“The hardest part was letting go of my identity as a doctor and becoming a novice after having been an expert for so long,” reflects Karen Barnard, who made the leap from medical doctor to leadership coach at the age of 54. “I now have control over my own schedule and I can work from anywhere in the world. I love it, “ she says.
Warwick Goldswain went from full-time illustrator to teacher at the age of 30: he now teaches the online painting course at Upskillist. “Be open to new opportunities that are outside of your area of study or comfort zone,” he says, “It’s never too late to try something new or upskill yourself.”
Amanda Baron, sales manager turned life purpose and business coach, also made the change in her 30s, and her advice is to “go for it! If you're worried that it's too late for you, it feels that way, but that's not true - time will pass anyway. Don't look back in 3 or 5 years and wonder why you didn't make the change you wanted so you could live the life that you wanted.”
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16. Ask for help
A career change can trigger all kinds of insecurities. When you shift from a senior position where you have a lot of expertise, it can feel very vulnerable not to know what you’re doing. Compounding that is the sense that you need to be totally confident and prove yourself in the new field. Don’t let your pride get in the way of your learning curve. Your new colleagues and other industry professionals you connect with have the experience, knowledge, and skills that you need to grow: don’t be afraid to ask them for help. Asking questions makes you look interested and eager to learn, not incompetent.
17. Know why you’re making the change
“Have a compelling reason for making the change,” says Karen Barnard, physician turned career coach. “When the transition gets tough (and it will), your WHY will be the rocket fuel that keeps you moving.”
But that’s not the only reason to know why you’re making the change: it also helps new potential clients or employers understand why they should take a chance on you, over someone with less experience.
“It is important to have a story to explain your transition and show confidence in your decision not to be defensive about it,” Paige Arnof-Fenn, Founder & CEO of Mavens & Moguls believes. “I realized the skills and activities I liked best in my finance career were the ones that would make me a better marketer. Once I shared that perspective the recruiters understood my interest and offered me jobs”
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18. Establish a community of support
“My best advice would be to make sure you surround yourself with a community that supports your decision to change your career path,” syas Karen Seymour, who made the change from project manager to founder of KJS - Digital Marketing at the age of 38. “If you don't have it already, find it online, network with others doing what you want to do, and study as much as you can,” Seymour continues.
Suzie Qualle, co-founder of Grounded Revival, agrees. “I was an HR Manager positioned for a director level position,” Qualle explains. “10 years ago I saw a gap in the market, but didn't act on it due to lack of experience, confidence, and the fear of failure. That gap still exists today so I went for it”. Support in the early days was crucial, she says. “If you can, get buy-in from your partner and engage with your family, because they will be your biggest supporters. My husband is now my business partner. My sister and cousins are my models and the rest of my family cheer me on through my socials. If I didn't get that initial support, I don't know if my own confidence would have gotten me through the first year.”
19. Don’t expect it to change who you are
Most people who are considering a career change are doing so because they’re unhappy in their professional lives. A change can be transformative and change your life for the better, but it isn’t the silver bullet some imagine it to be.
The grass isn’t completely greener on the other side,” cautions Jaime Nickerson, who took the leap just before her 36th birthday, leaving behind a career as a pedorthist to become a ‘solopreneur’. “You're still taking you with you into the new career. Keep working on your mindset and take it as the learning opportunity that it is,” she says.
20. Do it now
“Do it sooner rather than later!” suggests Melissa Zehner, managing editor at Foundr. “I spent my twenties working in entry-level administration jobs that paid poorly and didn't offer advancement opportunities [...] I now manage an entire content marketing and SEO team for a prestigious media company,” she says. “Switching isn't as scary as it seems and you may find that you're even more successful in your new career”.
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21. Pursue your passion
Skills and experience can get you far, but employers and recruiters are also looking for passion. “You are currently already better than someone else who is also looking at the same job but has no passion for the career choice”, says Jacques Morkel, who made the shift from graphic designer to video editor in his 20s. “There will always be someone out there doing better than you with fewer skills, knowledge and/or equipment, just because they are passionate about what they do”.
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22. Be willing to make mistakes
Stacie Irving worked in luxury events before switching to the life insurance industry. “Be willing to make mistakes and give yourself the freedom to mess up,” she says. “It takes time to learn a new industry. You are probably going from a world that you know inside and out to one that you will be starting with less knowledge.”
23. Learn as much as you can before you start
If you’re reading this, you’re likely quite eager to make a change, and it can be disappointing to be advised to take it slow. But this is your life, and as excited as you are for a fresh start, it’s in your best interest to be well-prepared. Take online courses, speak to people in the industry, and throw yourself into learning. “Start with small changes and learn as much as you can about your intended field before you make any major decisions,” says Gennifer Rose. “Right after my 30th birthday my husband and I decided to make some big life changes. We moved to a new city and I embarked on a path towards my new career.” Rose left her career in fashion merchandising to become lifestyle blogger at GenniferRose.com. “It could possibly be a long journey before you're able to make the leap to a new full-time career and you want to be as prepared as possible,” she concludes.
24. Network with others in the industry
“Get connected with people in the industry you want to be in,” advises Christine Pittman, founder of COOKtheSTORY. She left academia to pursue her food blog, which now serves over 2 million readers a month, when she was 34. “When I first started my blog, I did a lot of conferences, networking and I even started a Google Hangouts with another blogger that helped us connect with so many other people in our industry. Put yourself out there and find a system of like-minded people to support you.”
Anne Shoemaker, who made the change from real estate at the age of 40, now runs a business that provides products and services to inspire, guide, and support career women. “Network with professionals who are already in the field you want to be in,” she suggests, “They have insights that can save you time and money and will be a valuable support group to you as you make your transition.”
25. You don’t have to start from the bottom
For some people, starting all over simply isn’t possible. Financial commitments, family responsibilities, and personal circumstances can make a fresh start too risky. But does that mean you can’t change careers? Not at all. “You don't have to start at the bottom,” says Lauren Gilmore, who started out studying music and working in the industry, but is now the owner of PR&Prose. “If you're interested in another field, make it your hobby and see if it's truly something you'd like to do full time. If it is, though, be prepared to eat, sleep, and breathe this new gig until you're where you want to be”.
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