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You know you need to make a change. A big one.

But that’s the thing: Whether it’s getting a major promotion, starting your own business, or changing careers, your goal seems so huge and overwhelming that you’ve probably contemplated some crazy moves to help you get there. It’s easy to feel like you need to take a major risk, spend all your savings, or leave everything you know and have worked for behind in order to move forward.

Sure, major risk can lead to major reward, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, sometimes taking smaller steps is the much smarter way forward. If you’re currently feeling like you need to make one of these four major career steps, consider one of our suggestions for a less scary alternative.


1. If You're Thinking About a Career Change

Change Just One Thing Instead

Even if you’re pretty sure you don’t want to be in the same gig five years from now as you’re in today, career changes are much easier said than done. Not only are you lacking some of the skills and experience that others in your dream field likely have, you probably don’t want to throw everything you’ve already done out the window.

Make it easier on yourself by thinking of just one aspect of your career you can change to move you closer to your dream role—without having to shake everything up at once. For example, you could look for a position similar to the one you already have but in an industry you’re more excited about. Or, you could explore opportunities at your current company to move into a different role—or even just add some new projects to your docket—that will allow you to do some of the work you envision moving toward.

Making smaller pivots like this instead of shifting professions entirely in one fell swoop not only removes some of the risk associated with career changes, it gives you a chance to test out your intended path and gain some of the skills that will ultimately help you land the gig you’re aiming for. Plus, who knows—you might just find a hybrid position that allows you to combine what you’ve done and what you want to do into a dream job you never even knew existed.


2. If You're Thinking About Going to Grad School

Look at Certification Programs Instead

Grad school is a common path for people looking to gain the skills and credibility to get higher titles, more responsibilities, and the increase in pay that typically comes with it. But with tuition continually rising—the average cost of an MBA is now more than $44,000—it’s not a cheap way to dabble in your future.

Instead, consider whether a certification program could be just the career boost you need. Not only do these programs often cost a fraction of a graduate degree, many of the exam preparation courses are self-directed or online, allowing you to easily continue working while you grow your skills. For example, if you’re a finance professional thinking about an MBA, the Certified Corporate Financial Planning & Analysis Professional certification offered by the Association for Financial Professionals is a great alternative, comprehensively covering the various knowledge, skills and abilities you need to hold an FP&A role at a company and making you more desirable for higher-level roles. “[The program] literally touched on everything from project management to ethics to finance to accounting,” says Jake Bailey III, who landed a job as controller and director of finance for Tana Exploration less than a year after passing the Certified Corporate FP&A Professional exam.

There are certification programs in all sorts of fields, from information technology to project management, marketing to human resources, just to name a few—all of which can give you just the career boost you’ve been looking for. Explore to find certifications in your industry, or talk to people in roles you’re gunning for to see whether they’ve received any certifications they recommend. If you’re looking to move up in your current company, it could also be worth talking to your boss or someone in HR about what educational opportunities could help you get there—and whether the company may even be able to help you foot the bill.


3. If You're Thinking About Starting Your Own Business

Start a Side Project Instead

There’s an impulse when you think of a great new idea to drop everything, quit your job, launch the company, and relish in the rewards. But starting a business comes with a lot of risks—not to mention big lifestyle changes—so you’ll want to vet that you’re suited for the entrepreneurial path and that there’s a market for your business before you bet the farm on it.

Try testing the waters by starting something on the side. If it’s an e-commerce business, launch a simple version of it on an existing marketplace like Amazon or Etsy, and see if there’s a response. If it’s consulting, try taking on a few small clients that you can work with at night.

Not only will doing this help you make sure people will actually buy your product or service, working on your business on your “off hours” will confirm whether you’re passionate about it; if you’re energized and having fun despite all the hard work, that’s a good sign. If you feel drained and resentful that you never get a break, that clues you in that starting up a business may not be for you after all.

That said, dedicating time to a side gig while working a full-time job is not for the faint of heart. Try some of these non-intimidating tips for getting your side project rolling.


4. If You’re Thinking About Just Up and Quitting

Invest in Yourself Outside of Work Instead

If you hate your job, it can be tempting to just walk out the door before you find the next big thing. But there are plenty of good and practical reasons not to quit, even if you’re unhappy.

So if you can’t leave right now, start by seeing if there are any changes you can make to improve your 9-to-5, but then focus on spending plenty of your non-work hours pursuing things you really love. Enroll in a class to gain a skill you’ve always wished you had, join a networking group for a side passion you haven’t pursued, volunteer for a cause you really care about, or start a personal project you’ve had in the back of your mind. Even if it’s not clear how these pursuits will boost your career, they’ll help you get through the tough spot you’re in now—and may even lead to surprising new opportunities for a better job.

And, as part of that, try to carve out some time to search for a role where you’ll be happier. Whether it’s connecting with a set number of contacts per day, applying for a certain number of roles per week, or attending a set number of networking events per month, have some clear goals in place to ensure your job search keeps momentum. Hopefully soon you’ll be able to put the bad situation behind you—without putting your paycheck on the line by walking out on your full-time gig.