Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

4 Smart Ways to Spin a Career Change in Your Favor During an Interview

There’s a pervasive and convincing lie circulating through colleges and workplaces everywhere: You get an education in a certain field (formal or otherwise) and then work in that field until you retire or collapse on your desk one day. I wish this myth would die.

Unfortunately, this belief causes a lot of distress for people who desire a career change. They believe they’ve invested their resources in a certain area, and shifting to a new field means starting from scratch. Yes, this process often does mean backtracking at least a bit. But it’s not like you revert to being a newborn. Making a change simply means applying your knowledge and experience to a new area and filling in the gaps as needed.

Thankfully, landing an interview means you succeeded in selling your experience on paper, so you’re well on your way in the career-changing transition process. Now, your job is to help an employer see the value that your experience will bring to the team. Read on to see how you can do exactly that.

1. Know Your Value and Use Examples to Show It

If you’re going to convince a new employer you’re the best candidate for a job, you have to believe it yourself first. When you value yourself, you start to describe your work history and experience in another language. Start by writing out everything you do, in detail. Include all of your tasks and your accomplishments. This will help you to see your experience in a fluid way that can apply to many settings. You weren’t a “customer service representative for Caris’ Cupcake Emporium;” you were someone who “assisted customers with orders, promoted new products and services, and addressed customer complaints professionally.” Learn to spin your past positions in this way, and you’ll find it much easier to explain how your work history lends itself to the transition you’re seeking.

Examples paint a picture of your experience and abilities for an employer, versus answering questions with a hypothetical, “Well in that situation, I think I would...” With a career change in particular, examples help an employer understand how your experience fits into a new role.

So when asked about working with customers, for example, incorporate an anecdote about your interactions with people from your current or previous jobs, even if those people weren’t customers, per se. Then, explain how you would put that experience to work in your new role. The skills you used to manage conflict with a co-worker or to explain a difficult concept to management are the same ones you would use with customers, after all. If asked about problem-solving, talk about a time you actually worked through a conundrum or came up with an innovative solution. Even if the industry was entirely different, the ability to think critically and problem-solve speaks volumes of your competence level. When you provide examples, an employer knows you’ve actually done the things you’re claiming, and that ought to give you a leg up in the interview process.

2. Don’t Show Up Empty-Handed

Go out of your way to show an employer—literally—that you’re capable of taking on this new role by bringing evidence with you. This might include sample work, training certificates, or a mock grant proposal, marketing plan, or something else that makes your abilities concrete. Are you shifting into a writing-heavy field like communications or journalism? Bring writing samples. It’s OK if you haven’t written a news story; a well-written annual report still demonstrates your mastery of language and ability to weave complex details into a coherent whole.

Are you transitioning from a non-tech field into a job that requires programming? Bring training certificates for those online courses you took. If you didn’t submit a link to an online portfolio before the interview, bring a tablet so you can show your potential employer samples of your work.

If you don’t have the exact “evidence” that an employer is looking for, create it. I certainly don’t mean that you should fabricate experience, but you can develop samples that demonstrate your abilities. Applying to teach, but have no formal teaching experience? Create a syllabus and lesson plans based on what you plan to do in the role. Eyeing a graphic design job though you boast little real-life experience? Put together some sample products for the company you are applying to. Going after a position that requires lots of public speaking and outreach? Upload some short videos of you delivering a brief but powerful message. Think creatively about how you can show an employer your value based on your past accomplishments.

3. Get Comfortable With Imperfection

It’s OK to admit you don’t know everything and that you don’t meet every qualification. Very few job candidates meet every single criteria of any given job. But don’t just say, “Gee, I don’t know,” or “Well, I’ve never done that,” when asked tough questions. It’s okay to acknowledge the gap, but remind your potential employer of some other experience that will help you minimize the gap. And be confident when you answer these hardballs. If you sound afraid of tackling a new role, why would a new boss feel good about hiring you?

Maybe you work as an engineer, but you want to move into a managerial role and you don’t have budget experience, for example. Guess what? Engineering requires some of the same skills as managing departmental numbers. So you can say, “While I do lack budget experience, I’m excited about getting up to speed with that work immediately. Of course, my current role requires exacting attention to detail and the same mathematical proficiency that I will need to manage a budget. So although there will be an initial adjustment, I imagine it’s something I can pick up quickly based on my current skills.”

4. Prepare for “The Question”

Finally, don’t wait until you’re in front of your interviewer to consider how to explain the reason for your career change, because, make no mistake, you will be asked this weighted question. Plan ahead, and practice your response so you aren’t trying to articulate it aloud for the first time in an important interview.

People make this decision for a wide variety of reasons. Whatever your motivation, leave any associated baggage at home. Again, it’s OK to briefly acknowledge that circumstances are less than perfect. Maybe you were laid off or you arrived at the realization that the field you’ve been working in isn’t one you want to stay in for the rest of your life. Avoid blabbing about how lame the industry is, how horrible your boss is, how bleak the future looks. Keep it simple, positive, and future-oriented. “I feel like I have done a lot of great work over the past three years in [name of industry]. But, I’ve reached a point in my life where I feel like it’s time to move on. I’m ready for a different kind of challenge.” From there, you can segue into how you plan to make your current skills and experiences work in your new career.

Never lose sight of the fact that you are a multifaceted person capable of accomplishing many things and wearing different hats. Your skills and your experience are unarguably applicable to more than a single job. The more clearly you can articulate your value and connect the dots between your past experience and new opportunities, the more possibilities will be available to you.

And, if you need connecting those dots, reach out to a career coach who specializes in job search strategy.

Photo of woman interviewing courtesy of Shutterstock.