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Advice / Job Search / Finding a Job

5 Awesome Alternatives if a Complete Career Change Is Out of the Question

Making any kind of career change is tough.

But in some situations, it’s pretty near impossible—no matter how many inspirational quotes you memorize about following your passion. Maybe your dream job involves working on movie sets in Hollywood, but you’re firmly planted in Philadelphia for your partner’s job. Maybe transitioning to your dream career would mean taking a 50% pay cut, and you’ve got little ones to look after. Maybe you’d need to go to grad school, which you definitely don’t have the funds (or time) for.

I’ve been there, too: In my case, I was the sole breadwinner, supporting both myself and my husband, who was in grad school. Leaving my cushy job and corporate benefits package to embark upon a shaky career in freelance writing just didn’t seem like a wise idea.

But just because you can’t do a total career about face doesn’t mean you have to toil away in misery without getting closer to your dream. Absolutely not. In fact, here are five options that aren’t quite major career changes, but that just might make you a whole lot happier.

1. Keep Your Job, Change Your Industry

A few years back, a friend of mine was working at a law firm in the corporate intellectual property department. To make a long, sad story short, she hated it. After some soul searching (and lots of networking and informational interviews), she realized that her real dream was to run business development for a major entertainment studio. But with no real experience and big-time student loans from law school, she understandably felt stuck.

A smart strategy when you want to change careers is to start by pivoting either your role (what you do) or your industry (the field you work in), rather than trying to do both at the same time. That’s exactly what she did—landing a legal job at a small (but growing) entertainment company. While it wasn’t exactly her dream gig, it was a huge step closer. And turns out, once she was excited about the subject matter, the legal work she thought she loathed wasn’t so bad. She truly loves going to work these days.

Could you consider a similar move? If you hate your job in pharmaceutical sales, for example, could you put your selling skills to work in a completely different field? Yes, it certainly takes effort to network your way into a new industry and convince hiring managers why you’re making the change—but it’s a whole lot easier than it would be if you were changing roles, too.

2. Do Something Different That Requires Knowledge of Your Job

My unhappy lawyer friend is not alone; in fact, there’s an entire industry built on helping former attorneys find new career paths based on their legal expertise. The strategies are typically putting their skills to work in new areas (for example, teaching, policy work, textbook writing, or real estate), or placing them in roles in which they need to know, work among, and communicate with a legal audience (think recruiting for other attorneys or legal sales).

You’re probably not a lawyer, but see if you can apply these strategies to your own career path. Let’s say you work in HR and benefits. Could you recruit others for HR and benefits positions? Develop training HR programs for new managers or small businesses? Or even run business development for a cool new startup in the employer branding or benefits space? Get creative, and I bet there’s a new way you could put your knowledge to use that looks completely different from your current gig. No drastic career overhauls needed.

3. Make a Move Within Your Company

OK, so maybe you know that what you do is simply not for you. You’re in client services, but you despise being on the phone every day—and your efforts to brainstorm any related career options have come up null.

If you work for a relatively large company, look around. Are there other roles that seem much more appealing? If so, start talking to these people. Learn the ins and outs of their jobs, understand the skills required to do their work, and ask for advice on breaking into their world. Maybe even see if you could lend a hand on upcoming projects.

It won’t work everywhere, but if you can show that you’re interested in a different type of work and start building the transferrable skills you need to do it, your employer (which already knows just how great you are) may be willing to help you make a shift within the company. If you go this route, follow Muse writer Richard Moy’s advice on making the transition.

4. Get a Side Gig

If you can afford the time, doing some side work outside of your 9-to-5 can be a wonderful way to get some exposure to your dream career without giving up your steady paycheck. This can mean anything from volunteering at a local nonprofit (check out VolunteerMatch for opportunities), helping friends with the kind of work you’d like to do, starting a blog about your interest, or getting a part-time job.

Maybe you’ll realize that doing a bit of work like this is enough for you (a friend who dreamed of a food career and started blogging in her spare time quickly realized that it was a better hobby than career path). Or, maybe you’ll quickly understand that this is indeed the direction you want to take your career—in which case, you’ve well on your way to building skills, experience, and connections in your new field.

I know several people, including a customer service supervisor and an investor relations manager, who became full-time writers after a couple of years of freelancing on the side. When they started, neither one of them believed they could truly change careers—and both of them are now working in full-time content writing roles.

5. Revisit Whether You Can Change Every So Often

OK, so this isn’t necessarily an alternative to changing careers, but I do think you owe it to yourself to check in once in a while and make sure your “I really can’t change careers” excuse is still valid. When that little voice says “I can’t…” I challenge you to ask it back, “But could I?” Maybe the answer’s still no, it really doesn’t make sense to make a change. But just maybe, it’s a maybe. And you could start considering the options above, taking baby steps toward your goal, or talking to a career coach to make your dream a reality.

Yes, each of these options requires you to do some work—some networking, some skill-building, and maybe some professional help to position your transferrable skills. But doesn’t the alternative of heading to your lackluster job every day for the rest of your career sound a whole lot worse? I thought so.

Whether you make a big change or a small one, I’m rooting for you.

Photo of happy career changer courtesy of Shutterstock.