As a person who changed careers six times before age 35, I am proof that drastic pivots are possible. From an initial trajectory in art business, then a transition to IT and banking due to the Great Recession of 2008, to a final switch to writing and communications, each change got me closer to professional fulfillment.
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If you’ve decided you’re also interested in moving to a new role, field, and/or industry, a career change is absolutely possible. This is particularly relevant now that the pandemic has brought about changes in mindset, priorities, and workflow, with lasting impacts on how people navigate their careers—and what they want from their work lives.
Fortunately, a career change doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have to “start over” by taking a job with entry-level pay.
What exactly do we mean by “high-paying”?
Switching careers not only allows you to evolve professionally, but it can also be lucrative. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average pay for all occupations in 2020 was $56,310. Here we’ll include only “high-paying” positions with an average salary above that. (Note that salary numbers below come from PayScale, which updates its database nightly, and reflect the latest data as of March 2022.)
What makes these jobs good for career changers?
These 15 positions are promising for career changers because each job fits at least one of the following criteria:
- It’s in demand: The need for this type of job is higher than average and/or it’s in a growing sector.
- It doesn’t require a new degree: Depending on your background, you may not have to get another degree to obtain some of these positions—either a particular degree isn’t required or you could transfer your existing education and experience to the new role.
- It makes use of transferable skills: This might include skills you already have or ones you can obtain with practice or training instead of extensive continuing education.
- It’s not limited to people with only one specific background: Folks hiring look at candidates with a variety of professional and educational experiences.
- You can land it without going back to square one: You won’t have to take on an internship, part-time role, or entry-level position to break into the field.
1. Data Scientist
Average salary: $97,159
Salary range: $68,000–136,000
Data scientist is a broad term for roles that can include data engineering, data research, data visualization, and more. But in essence, data scientists manage and analyze large amounts of data to answer business questions and communicate their insights to coworkers and managers. A bachelor’s degree in data science, computer engineering, math, statistics, or similar is useful, but because you need to have analytical and interpersonal skills, you can also switch to the job from a business or communications background. Taking courses or enrolling in a bootcamp can help you build up the necessary knowledge base. When applying for a job, knowing how your unique background can add value to the company (especially if the organization isn’t exactly sure what it wants or needs) can also give you an edge.
2. Software Engineer
Average salary: $88,509
Salary range: $64,000–130,000
A software engineer designs and evaluates computer applications or programs to solve business problems. This involves a lot of coding—whether developing new code, fixing bugs, or solving wide-scale issues. Software engineering jobs exist in a number of industries from tech and IT to retail, defense, and healthcare. The BLS projects employment for software engineers will grow 22% between 2020 and 2030—that’s much faster than the average growth for all occupations and translates to more than 400,000 new jobs. Obviously, having an undergraduate degree in computer science and/or experience coding is one way to get this kind of job. However, coding bootcamps are a very helpful way to build necessary experience that’ll help you land a job without a traditional degree.
3. Financial Planner
Average salary: $65,122
Salary range: $42,000–102,000
Lots of people need help managing their money. Financial planners help clients meet their short-, medium-, and long-term financial goals through advice on investments, savings, and estate planning. Many financial planners have a college degree in business or finance, but not all. In the 2020 Survey of Trends in the Financial Planning Industry, 12% of respondents said they started in some other finance or banking position and moved into financial planning, and 6% of respondents said that the move was a major switch. But, yes, you may need to take necessary coursework in investments, taxes, and/or risk management to switch to a planner role. In addition to working at a financial firm, you could become an entrepreneur and build a client base on your own, since many financial planners are self-employed.
4. Social Media Director
Average salary: $76,919
Salary range: $45,000–133,000
Social media directors handle anything and everything around an organization’s social media accounts and profiles. Depending on whether they have people working with them, this could mean overseeing social media strategy, voice, and engagement goals, but it could also mean making and scheduling posts, getting assets like photos and infographics, monitoring metrics, and handling audience interactions. Social media is an integral part of an organization’s marketing efforts, so a social media director may work closely with the rest of the marketing team as well as colleagues across the organization. Lots of undergraduate degrees would potentially be relevant for this role (including but not limited to communications, marketing, English, journalism, business, and public relations). And if you’re supervising other people you’ll most likely need some prior experience in management. To switch to this job, you need to understand social media marketing and demonstrate that you can manage fast-paced communications, generating content quickly and consistently. So PR, marketing, business, and communications are all fields that would prepare you well.
5. Director of Development
Average salary: $74,190
Salary range: $46,000–116,000
A director of development usually works for a nonprofit and aims to bring in funds through a variety of sources (including donations from individuals—solicited through fundraising campaigns, events, and more—as well as government funding, foundation and other grants, and so on). They cultivate relationships with donors and practice good stewardship—keeping donors engaged and continuing to support the organization—and may also oversee grant applications and reports. It’s important to note this isn’t an entry-level job; you need at least a bachelor’s degree in business, communications, nonprofit management, or similar. You’ll also need several years of experience in business or nonprofit work; you can parlay work with clients, sales experience, and/or any kind of fundraising into this position, but it’s important to demonstrate that you at least understand how nonprofits function differently than for-profit businesses.
6. Market Research Manager
Average salary: $82,379
Salary range: $58,000–117,000
A market research manager could be conducting or overseeing research on consumer trends, competitors’ products, and more, keeping their own organization’s goals and past performance in mind. After gathering data, a market research manager makes sense of the numbers and communicates their relevance to stakeholders like the rest of the marketing team and leaders across the company. This job requires a mix of mathematical skills and interpersonal skills, since a market research manager should have full mastery of the data and the ability to explain what it means to a person without a technical background. Usually a college degree in marketing, communications, business, accounting, finance, or social sciences—or some work experience in those fields—would be necessary to change to this career path. If you’re managing other people you might need an MBA (or at least previous management experience).
7. Marketing Manager
Average salary: $67,688
Salary range: $45,000–101,000
A marketing manager helps an organization reach customers and drive engagement, either as an individual contributor or as a manager. They can work at an agency helping other businesses market themselves, or internally within an organization. A marketing manager might create and/or execute on a marketing strategy, generate new leads, oversee budgets, take the lead on campaign launches, or write and edit marketing copy. They could work as a specialist—e.g., a market research manager (as above), brand manager, email marketing manager, e-commerce manager, and more—or as a generalist. Most industries have marketing positions. You can come to the job from a variety of professional backgrounds, including PR, sales, advertising, promotions, and development, and a related college degree is helpful. You can also transition internally from a more technical role to a marketing role in the same company, provided you can prove you know the product and audience and that you can communicate value effectively. At a financial institution, for example, I started as a client service representative but took on extra work in the marketing department, making connections and building my skill set until I could make a formal career switch.
8. HR Manager
Average salary: $69,540
Salary range: $49,000–96,000
Human resource (HR) managers handle the people within an organization. This can mean recruiting, interviewing, and hiring people; managing employee-employer issues; conducting performance reviews; overseeing compliance with tax and labor laws; communicating company policies; implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; and helping to execute staffing and administrative goals. HR managers can have vastly different jobs depending on the size and scope of the organization, but just about every industry needs HR professionals in some capacity. There are bachelor degrees in HR, but you might also come to the field having studied business, psychology, communications, or similar. You can leverage experience in education to transition into a training HR role, for example, or a background in finance or business to help you move into a benefits and compensation HR role. Sometimes HR professionals do need master’s degrees in HR or business administration, if they’ll be managing others. But if you can show several years relevant management experience—and if you already understand the business—that can also bridge the gap.
9. Product Manager
Average salary: $100,171
Salary range: $69,000–137,000
At a high level, a product manager determines what products an organization should make, establishes how those products get made (often working with design, engineering, and/or other business units), and/or assesses how clients respond to those products. Managing a product or feature through its “lifecycle” can mean defining strategy, conducting customer research, and working closely with manufacturing, engineering, marketing, and/or executive teams. Usually you need a college degree, but you can come to the job with different backgrounds. It’s helpful to have experience, education, or a combination of the two in computer science, sales, business, management, design, or even entrepreneurship. But ultimately you can do this job if you show that in your current work you can conduct research, communicate to stakeholders, and understand a product’s unique value. Two former product managers at The Muse, for instance, made the switch from other teams; one had previously worked as an account manager and the other as a profiles writer and content manager.
10. Project Manager
Average salary: $75,884
Salary range: $50,000–115,000
A project manager, in simplest terms, manages a project and its goals and action items from beginning to end (including planning, execution, and handoff). Within this broad definition, there are many industries that utilize project managers in potentially different ways. You might manage a team installing a software solution for a client, for example, or oversee the launch of a new marketing campaign from ideation through publication. This job requires organization, time management, leadership (of both people and things), and—depending on the industry—some technical expertise. Generally speaking, you need a college degree, although it can vary. Graduates with business, psychology, and engineering or other industry degrees can all parlay some of their skills into project management roles. It also helps to have at least a couple years of work experience, although project managers can be hired directly out of college.
11. User Experience Designer
Average salary: $77,309
Salary range: $55,000–111,000
What’s the optimal experience of a user as they interact with a product? Answering that question is, in a nutshell, the job of a user experience (UX) designer. Their purview can include anything on the user’s “journey” and covers a product’s design, usability, function, application, and even branding. For example, a UX designer could design a simple landing page to encourage visitors to provide their email or fill out a form; they can also take on complex projects like prototyping a mobile app—making a mockup of the screens the user will see as they use the app and designing a signup flow to get them to make a profile or register for a membership. For this type of position, you’ll need to know web design, UX strategy, and market research. Having a college degree in one of these areas is helpful—but you can also come to the role with a background in marketing, sales, communication, business, psychology, and/or sociology. You will need the technical acumen before you apply, but you may be able to do online training, including through Google, instead of pursuing an advanced degree.
12. Brand Strategist
Average salary: $65,141
Salary range: $45,000–107,000
A brand strategist usually works on a marketing team—honing the messaging and strategy for an organization’s goods or services—or for an agency helping multiple clients do the same. This could mean conducting and drawing insights from market research, identifying the value-add of a product, crafting the language and visuals used to sell the product and its value, and more. The job requires you to think clearly and deeply about a brand, then come up with creative ways to get its message across in a way that will resonate with the target audience. Since it’s a specialist role, a college degree in marketing, communications, English, economics, design, or related field is helpful. Brand specialists sometimes can be more competitive with a graduate degree, but on-the-ground experience is helpful for bridging the gap if you don’t have one.
13. Sales Engineer
Average salary: $74,345
Salary range: $51,000–113,000
A sales engineer sells products that are complex, either from a technological or scientific standpoint, and effectively communicates and often demonstrates the product’s value to prospective clients. This could mean giving technical presentations about the product/service, explaining how it can be tailored to clients’ needs, working with engineers to assess clients’ system requirements, and ensuring a successful handoff to other team members once a sale’s been made. You likely need a bachelor’s degree in engineering or related field, and/or some background in a technical field. Sales experience is usually a must, but that past work doesn’t have to be specific to the product you’d be selling now since you’ll often receive on-the-job training about the particular product. Knowing how to work with a team, especially if the product will need to be installed after a client purchases it, is also an important skill. Fortunately, a lot of jobs require teamwork, and you can transfer those skills to this role.
14. Real Estate Manager
Average salary: $81,924
Salary range: $48,000–123,000
A real estate manager oversees the operational aspects of a real estate business, such as managing properties, coordinating sales and purchases, supervising contractors, preparing and managing financial documents, and perhaps managing other office workers. You usually need a college degree; one in property management, finance, business, accounting, or similar might help you stand out from other applicants. You can change to this career from a multitude of jobs, so long as you have project management, accounting, finance, and/or legal experience. As the title suggests, you also need good management and organizational skills, so showing a successful track record in other contexts would make obtaining the job easier. You may need a real estate or property management license (depending on your state), but regardless you may be working with agents and need to have an understanding of the business.
15. Technical Writer
Average salary: $61,715
Salary range: $43,000–89,000
A technical writer communicates complex information. This might mean translating complicated concepts for a lay audience in a white paper or journal article, making diagrams or information manuals to explain a product’s functions, writing assembly guides or FAQs, or readying supporting documents for a client. There are many industries that use technical writers, including engineering, finance, technology, the sciences, and healthcare. You will need a college degree, usually, and experience with a technical subject. But even without prior experience, I’ve been able to perform technical writing with the ability to learn a complex topic quickly and then explain it effectively through writing. In working with subject matter experts in fields like healthcare and neuroscience, for example, I’ve been able to interview subjects, read academic papers, and learn enough about the topic to communicate research in articles, newsletters, and presentations. There are also online resources you can turn to if you’re interested in pursuing technical writing. Google, for example, offers free training for those in engineering fields who want to improve their technical documentation.
How to Make a Career Change
Not sure where to begin? Not to worry. We have plenty more advice to help you as you work toward a career change, including articles on:
- Understanding the eight steps to a successful career change, including shifting your brand, making an action plan, and tracking your effort
- Writing a great career change cover letter
- Learning how to spin your resume for different industries
- Figuring out how to speak effectively about a career change in an interview
- Changing careers at or after age 40 or 50, if either of those apply to you
With solid research, an honest analysis of your skills and experience, and a strong game plan, you’ll be headed in the right direction toward career fulfillment—even if that direction is a little different from what you’ve been doing up until now.
Stacey Lastoe also contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.