How to Go Down a Career Path That's Outside Your Speciality (That You Spent Years Studying)
If you find yourself wondering why you majored in psychology, philosophy, or biology, when the truth is, none of those are fields you care to pursue, you’re in good company. The nagging feeling that you’re not suited for what you just spent four or more years studying doesn’t often go away—it just continues to grow with time. You can’t ignore it.
Early on in my career, I faced this exact dilemma when I graduated with a degree and background in computer science, yet no desire to enter the field. After literally spending years studying one thing, I was dismayed to realize that I didn’t want to go in that direction. Instead of ditching my background and skills and pretending that I wasn’t knowledgeable in computer science, I found a way to navigate the job search based on what I knew about myself and what I wanted to do with my life.
Here are a few things I learned along the way. I hope they’ll help you on your career path, no matter what you majored in and what you’d like to do instead.
1. Figure Out What Matters Most
When I realized I didn’t want to go into programming, I knew I had to focus on why I felt that way. I liked the work itself well enough. I love solving complex problems, and there’s something really satisfying about sitting down, just you and your computer. But in the programming classes and jobs I’d taken, I never felt very comfortable. The most notable example of this was the warning I received from a hiring manager in an interview. He told me that I’d be working in a quiet lab and probably wouldn’t have a lot of fun when I come into the office, but the job was mine if I wanted it. As hard as it was to resist a ringing endorsement like that, I passed.
While I definitely know programmers who are team players and development environments that are dynamic and exciting, there’s still a pattern of individualism and relative quiet that doesn’t mesh with my work style. Ultimately, social, collaborative settings are where I do my best work and feel most energized.
Have you ever really thought about what kind of environment invigorates you most? It’s critical to identify why you’re unhappy with your current career path to figure out next steps. Whether it’s due to culture fit, day-to-day tasks, or work-life balance, understanding what you need to be happy at work will make it much easier to figure out which positions and workplaces are best for you.
2. Go Lateral
When you don’t have much (or any) background in your desired field, it can be tough to get companies to take a chance on you. Often, you run into a paradox where you need relevant experience to get a job, but you need a job to get relevant experience. Your saving grace is if a company already knows what a bright, hard-working, and talented employee you are since it’ll be a lot easier to get convince it of your value.
Near the end of my college career, I took an internship in tech support at a company I really enjoyed. Although the department wasn’t ideal, I loved the people, culture, and product. After the internship ended, I sent personal thank you notes to all of the executives I had met and reached out the recruiter to let her know I was interested in working there full-time, albeit in a different position.
Since I wasn’t sure about which field I wanted to go into yet, I just let her know that I would be interested in any position outside of the engineering department. My familiarity with the company and recommendations from co-workers helped convince her to take a risk—so when a position opened up in marketing, she brought me in.
When you want a significantly different experience at work, you might think you need to seek out a new company. But many times, companies are happy to let you explore a new role if it means they get to retain a valued employee. Talk to your manager (and HR department) about your interest in pursuing something else within the organization, and explain why you think you’d be great at it. If you can effectively make your case, there’s a good chance you’ll be considered for a position outside the team you interned with.
3. Embrace Your Past
Diversity in the workplace is critical—and not just when it comes to race, gender, and age. Having people with different backgrounds, skills, and experience guarantees that a team will be able to approach problems from different angles and come up with unique solutions. So when you’re looking for a position in a new field, make sure to use your work history as a selling point.
In the years that I’ve been in marketing, I’ve found a computer science background has not only been helpful, but it’s also given me additional credibility, and the opportunity to work on projects I might not have been considered for otherwise. My education has also helped me understand the needs of technical teams on a deeper level.
Whatever you’re bringing to the table, make sure to bring up some examples of how your skills are an asset for the position you’re after. When you’re competing against dozens of other applicants, it’s a surefire way to stand out and gain an edge of the other candidates.
Changing your career is a big decision, and it’s okay to feel nervous or intimidated. After all, it’s a big change. But at a certain point, you need to stay true to how you want to spend your day, which problems you want to solve, and what you want to learn. And if you’re not finding that in your current position, it’s time to make a change. If you can identify what you want, leverage established relationships, and sell others on your past experience, you’ll be that much closer to discovering where you’re truly meant to be and what you’re truly meant to be doing.
While it was daunting to essentially start over after four years spent studying one very specialized field, I’ve never regretted my decision. College isn’t about learning the laser-focused skills you need for your future career—it’s about developing and enhancing your critical thinking and problem-solving ability, which is applicable to any number of jobs. And when I look back at the doors my background in computer science has opened, I’m able to confidently say that if given the choice, I’d do the same thing over again.
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Photo of woman working at home courtesy of Tetra Images/Getty Images.
Nisha Ahluwalia is the Chief Marketing Officer at Highfive. She has startup, tech, and software-as-a-service experience across several marketing areas, including demand generation, product marketing, PR, content marketing, and branding. She's experienced in building marketing organizations and launching and growing products. Her previous roles include positions at companies such as Cisco WebEx, RingCentral, and PagerDuty.More from this Author