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Advice / Career Paths / Career Change

How to Find the Nerve to Switch Careers

We're thrilled to feature the first installment of our new column by Kate White, the former Editor-in-Chief of Cosmopolitan, which offers advice for anyone changing careers or just wondering, "What now?" 

Since you’re reading this piece—and the title couldn’t be clearer—I’m going to guess that you’re less than thrilled with your current career. Perhaps you like your job okay, but you’ve begun to toy with the idea of doing something else, something that you sense would be a much better fit.

Or maybe you out and out hate your career choice. You went into teaching in part because your parents pushed it, but you’d kill to have your own business designing websites.

Either way, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to feel stuck. Though it’s not true that the average person will have five careers in his or her lifetime (that much-quoted stat was apparently some wild guess), these days it’s not uncommon to switch fields at least once. I did it, and I love my new life.

But making a switch takes work. And nerve. You may not like what you’re doing, but it probably feels safe—and it pays the bills. So let me suggest a few ways to find your career-change mojo.

First, try this other career on for size. Instead of just letting the idea bounce around your brain, get as much experience and training in the new area as possible. Take courses, volunteer, do it “pro bono” for friends or family—all while you still have your other job. I met a successful caterer recently who told me she first tested the waters by doing easy dinner parties at friends’ homes for only the cost of the food.

I tested the waters, too. Though I loved my job running Cosmopolitan magazine, I began to dream about one day leaving and writing full-time, partly to gain more personal freedom. So I wrote a murder mystery on weekends, sold it, and got a contract to write more, which I did for a number of years. Yes, it could be a bitch to write fiction and handle a demanding full-time position, but I made the time for it by jettisoning other things—including Saturday shopping sprees and tennis.

Trying a job on for size gives you confidence and reduces the risk you’ll have regrets later. Sitting in my home office in Manhattan couldn’t be more different than Cosmoland. But because I worked in that office for many Saturdays and Sundays, I knew what to expect—and that I wouldn’t miss lunches with Kim Kardashian and parades of shirtless male models!

Plus, the more experience you get beforehand, the easier it will be to make a switch at something other than entry level.

You’ll also feel less anxious if you do the math. By that, I mean figuring out how you’re going to swing it financially. Research, ask questions, and strategize. I turned to an expert to review my finances and then got all my ducks in a row. A massage therapist I sometimes go to (yes, with all that personal freedom I now have!) told me her first career had been as a nurse, but she became intrigued with massage and studied it on weekends. When she researched her options, she discovered that the hospital she worked for was willing to employ her on a per diem basis. That way, she could work as needed and had plenty of cash while she built up her massage clientele.

One more tip: Set your sonar to find the right people to brainstorm with, people who are in your dream career and can not only inspire you, but can also share valuable info. A fab resource is LinkedIn, using the advance search feature. Ask your connections to make email intros to people who intrigue you. Not everyone will have time to offer you an exploratory interview, so ask instead for 10 minutes on the phone and have three of your best questions ready.

When I was first considering writing mysteries, I called Linda Fairstein, the former prosecutor turned crime novelist and invited her to lunch. Hearing her describe her new work was totally tantalizing. “I’m in,” I remember thinking. And she also graciously opened plenty of doors for me.

Photo of woman dreaming courtesy of Shutterstock.