Thinking about making a career change, but aren’t sure what you want to do or where to start? I’ve heard not having a specific next step is supposed to be empowering because there are so many exciting paths to pursue, but I actually tend to find it fairly stressful.
As someone who is still figuring out what I want to be when I grow up, I completely understand why coming up with your next move can feel paralyzing. People often say you should listen to your gut, but what if your gut isn’t coming through loud and clear? I’ve put together a list of things you can do that will help you jump-start the process.
1. Pay Attention to the Nitty Gritty
A lot of what makes a job a good fit lies in the details of the day-to-day work—if you loathe the daily tasks, you’re probably going to hate the job, too. That’s what happened with a fashion-loving friend of mine, who landed what she thought was a dream gig working in advertising at a beauty magazine. Because the position involved making cold calls to potential advertisers for hours on end, she realized that her passion for the industry wasn’t enough to make the position palatable.
As you begin to think about the type of career transition you want to make, start out by documenting what you already know to be true about your professional self. Pay close attention to your workday for the next two weeks, and take notes about when you’re feeling particularly unmotivated or unenthused about your job. Write down the tasks that bring you down as well as those that get you excited. It may seem like a tedious exercise, but if you stick with it, patterns will start to emerge. And it’s in teasing out these patterns that’ll help you build a picture of the role that’s right for you.
2. Apply Your Passions to Your Professional Life
It’s great when your interests and passions line up perfectly with your career, but how many of us can claim this as a reality? Well, I have a little trick: If you think about what interests you in abstract terms, you may have an easier time connecting the dots. For example, I love learning about astronomy because it deals with big and complex problems, ideas can be backed up with data, and the field is always changing as we learn new things about the universe. If I frame what I like about astronomy in professional terms, it makes sense that I like work that enables me to tackle big, messy problems, analyze data, and execute new plans in an environment that is always changing.
Once you have your list of ideas, think: What are your favorite types of substantive conversations? What are your favorite podcasts and blogs about? Are there any events or activities you participate in that are about a particular subject? Jot down three to five bullet points under each one, making note of why they excite you. Then take a look at the list you created and try to pull out commonalities across ideas. For example, perhaps you have “current events” as a common theme because you read the A section of the newspaper every morning, and you love talking politics. That could mean that working for a super fast-paced company where you’re regularly processing new information may be a good fit.
3. Schedule 15 Coffee Chats
In addition to being introspective, it’s also important to get out there and start learning about the careers you’re interested in. I’d recommend scheduling at least 15 informational interviews over the course of a couple of months. This may sound like a lot, but initially quantity is more important than quality as you want to get a sense of a wide variety of roles in different industries based on the results of your introspection. The more people you speak with, the more you’ll be exposed to fields you might wish to pursue. With that said, you don’t want the person on the receiving end to feel that way—so always make sure to come prepared and send a thank you.
And speaking of prepared, bring a standard set of open-ended questions. For example: “What surprised you most about your current role?” “Would you recommend your job or company to a friend interested in [insert interest or passion here]? Why or why not?”
Do your homework and research ahead of time so you can ask industry-specific questions as well. Afterwards, take some brief notes on the conversation so you have something to refer to later on in the career-changing speculation process. Reviewing your notes should give you insights into common themes behind the roles that appeal to you. You may find that everyone you talked to with a job that sounds interesting has an MFA in Design, which would then open up a new line of questioning and research as you embark on your career change.
4. Knock Your Current Job Out of the Park
It can be easy to overlook your current work while you’re thinking about the next thing, but one of the most important components of any job search is continuing to excel in your present role. Nothing helps set you up for serendipitous openings quite like having friends at your company in your corner, and the best way to do that is to show them how amazing you are. If you’re not sure where you stand, meet with your boss and ask for feedback. What areas need improvement? Where should you be focusing your attention?
Your hard work at the office will definitely pay off in the long run for a number of reasons. First, companies want to keep their high performers around. That means that demonstrating your value could put you in a good negotiating position with your manager should you ever want to move to another department or have a role created for you. Additionally, performing well can mean references from co-workers or a willingness to connect you with someone you'd like to meet.
You’ll notice that one thing is not included in this list: a rubric telling you how to figure out what the perfect next step is for your career. That’s because there is no perfect next step. Careers evolve over time, so instead of stressing about getting your trajectory exactly right, focus on setting yourself up to make an informed decision about what to pursue. Building a career is a process, and understanding that is a part of succeeding.