If you’re thinking about making a big career change, you’re not alone. More and more people are making at least one big shift during their professional life, and they’re doing it successfully. Chances are, you already know that you need to tailor your resume, learn how to tell your career story, and explain your transition in a compelling way. So you’re good to go, right?
Not necessarily. Although there are plenty of resources out there to help you make the shift, there are still some not-so-obvious, yet common mistakes that can trap you if you aren’t aware of them. Beyond the challenge of telling your story, individuals making this move often fumble in unexpected ways that can stall progress and leave them feeling like the whole transition was a terrible idea.
Here’s what not to do.
1. Going it Alone
It’s scary to change careers, partly because fear of failure is real. This fear can make it nerve-wracking to tell your friends, family, and network about your plans. You figure you’ll announce it when you succeed. Part of this instinct is a result of how social media shapes our perceptions. Seeing the best of everyone’s lives online can make it hard to admit when something in your own life isn’t going how you anticipated. It’s easier to tell a story of success rather than ask for help in the process.
But if you want to break into a new industry, the people you already know are where you need to start. They’re very often your best possible assets. Evidence suggests that even those long-lost Facebook acquaintances that you aren’t close with might just be your ticket to a new path. Social media is not just for vacation selfies and political rants; it’s a powerful tool that you can use to get a head start on your search. Tell your friends—IRL and digital—about the change you want to make, and you may be surprised with a connection you never thought about. If you have connections from college, mentors from a past job, a distant cousin, reach out. Don’t wait until you get frustrated by the process—connect early to avoid feeling helpless or lost.
2. Avoiding Big Questions
Major life decisions deserve introspection, but if you can believe it, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about this seemingly straightforward exercise. I’ve seen too many career changers think about what they want to leave behind, rather than what they want to move toward—and why. If you’re in a job that you hate, and you want to get out as fast as possible, you might not be asking yourself the necessary questions about your career move. Are you trying to use a different skill set? Make a bigger impact in your community? Feel more challenged?
Think hard about why you want to shift from marketing to finance, or from sales to product management. Understand why you want to get your MBA. If you want to be successful in a new career, you need to know why you want to be there. It’s OK if you can’t think 10 years into the future, but try to think about the next three to five. How will this career transition help you grow, better your life, or set you up for your future goals? Until you can answer these kinds of questions, any satisfaction you get from escaping your current job will likely be temporary.
3. Getting Impatient
The job search takes time, and if you’ve done your introspective work and finally made the decision to switch careers, you may begin to feel frustrated by all that you still have to do. You want that new track ASAP, but the reality of a career change is that it’s rarely a speedy process. Unlike moving to a new role in the industry you have experience in, the transitional move is often complicated. In fact, you may have to consider a side gig to get your foot in the door. An internship is another possibility. If you’re not ready and aware of the commitment involved, you may feel like giving up before you even really get started.
One of the best ways to avoid burnout is to start with a realistic step-by-step plan for your career change. Working with a friend, on your own, or with career coach, give yourself a minimum of six months (be prepared for it to take twice as long though) to research, polish, and tweak your documents and narrative, network, get industry practice, and apply to jobs. If you find something sooner, great! But do yourself a favor and take the pressure off of making the transition with speed.
4. Applying to the Wrong Jobs
So you’ve informed your network (and continually worked to build and strengthen it), sought and gained introspection, and planned out the next several months. There’s still one more common yet not quite obvious mistake I’ve seen time and time again: choosing the wrong roles. Either you become so narrowly focused on the one title/job/role you want and only apply to the (very few) jobs that fit your preconceived notion without exploring new opportunities, or you start applying for everything in the new field with little attention paid to whether or not it’s even a right fit for you. Both usually result in a lot of anxiety.
As with most things, striking a balance is key here. No job is a perfect reflection of its description, and you may pass up a really interesting opportunity if you’re only focusing on a few keywords. Career changing is a journey, and you should be ready to take on some unexpected challenges in whatever new role you find. Don’t automatically pass up that marketing role at the boutique firm just because it also involves some customer service or budget management.
You may find that you have a knack for wearing multiple hats and like the variety. But if you find a marketing role at a sporting goods company when you’re an indoorsy bookworm, you might want to think twice before just hitting send on the application. So before you hit “pass” or “apply” on any job, take the time to really read the description, learn about the company, and see if you can picture yourself there. Then you'll be able to make an informed decision.
Whether you’re changing your track after only a few years, or after 25, keep in mind that you have the skills and the savvy to be successful in your new field. Avoiding career-changing mistakes will save you from burnout and help you get to where you want to be.
Photo of person looking pensive courtesy of Hill Street Studios/Getty Images.