Changing Careers After Graduate School? 3 Important Ways to Prepare

In all my years working with graduate school candidates in the recruiting and career counseling fields, one of my favorite challenges has been helping them switch careers.  Lucky for me, this shift towards a new career path is a phenomenon that’s on the rise.  While I wouldn’t recommend changing careers on a repeated basis, I do believe that one or two thoughtful, well-planned transitions can actually be good for your career.

The caveat is that changing careers is typically a very challenging thing to do.  I often see candidates fresh out of graduate school or MBA programs who expect doors to open for them in their new chosen field – and it can be extremely discouraging when that isn’t the case.  That’s why I always recommend that, in addition to putting a solid strategy in place, candidates let go of certain expectations and keep the career path endgame in mind.  Here are a few examples of how they can do just that:

1.  Be open-minded
Chances are, when you decided to change careers, you identified one or two specific jobs that were interesting to you.  But if you don’t have functional experience in those areas, your job search is going to be pretty tough – even with a graduate degree.

The most critical of all job search strategies is to look for the job that represents the intersection between your passion and capability.  Start with an industry that you’re passionate about, then narrow it down to functions that fit your skills and experience.

Here in the Bay Area, I see a lot of people trying to move into the technology industry because they’re passionate about the products (think Apple or Pandora).  But without any engineering experience, it’s incredibly difficult to get hired into these companies on the product side.   These candidates stand a much better chance of getting a foot in the door by seeking out roles where they can demonstrate knowledge and expertise (for example, marketing or management for MBA grads).  Once they’re in, they can build up experience and work toward their ideal job.

2.  Embrace the winding path
Too often when people switch careers, they get fixated on what they think is the “right” career path that will eventually lead to their ideal job.  For example, if you want to be a managing director at a financial services firm, you might think that an associate program is the natural first step.  And if that doesn’t work out, you feel discouraged and defeated – and potentially even give up.

But the truth is, most senior managers don’t take a straight path to the top.  Just take a look at the LinkedIn profiles of managers in your chosen field – you’ll likely see that they made some career changes along the way themselves.  What’s important is the skills they acquired along the way.  Find common themes, such as sales and people management, and make it your goal to acquire those skills, too.

3.  Look for the connected job
In the compressed job market of the last few years, I’ve seen too many candidates go to graduate school with the express purpose of changing careers, only to find upon graduation that there aren’t any jobs available in that field.  Then they get anxious and fall back on “plan B,” where they take the first offer they get – often in the field they just came from.

But I don’t believe in “plan B.”  Instead, I tell candidates to look for “connected jobs.”  No jobs available in investment banking right now?  Spend a couple of years in corporate banking or valuation and build up your skills.  When the investment banking industry heats up again, you’ll be more qualified and better prepared to make the move.

Changing careers can be a scary prospect, but it can also be one of the best decisions you ever make.  As with any job search, the key is to make a plan, stick with it, be persistent and try not to get discouraged if things don’t transpire the way you expected.  Along any career path, there’s more than one way to get from Career A to Career B.

Are you thinking about changing careers or heading down a new career path? Check out the SoFi career resource center for job search and professional growth tips.

Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of a post we originally published in October 2013. We welcome new comments and questions below.

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