How to Make a Career Change Without Taking a Major Pay Cut
By Jane Bianchi
Have you been fantasizing about leaving your job behind and going into an entirely new profession—but also worrying about what a big change would mean for your finances?
You’re not alone. “A lot of times people stick with a job out of fear. I’ll ask, ‘What are you afraid of?’ The person might say, ‘I’m afraid I won’t make as much money,’” says Nancy Von Horn, Senior Career Coach at SoFi. “But once you do some digging, you’ll likely find that it’s possible to make that money back.”
It’s true. Changing careers doesn’t have to mean accepting a lower salary. It just means that you have to do some soul-searching and some homework ahead of time. Ready to dive in? Follow this game plan.
Discover what you really want
Before getting desperate and leaving your job (and paycheck) for just anything, it’s helpful to think through exactly what you’re looking for in your career move.
First, examine what’s making you unhappy about your current job. What do you tend to vent about to your friends? In what ways is the job not what you envisioned it would be? What skills are you not using but wish you could?
“Sometimes with lawyers, for instance, they’re in need of work relationships. They’ll say, ‘In law school, we talked to each other and argued. Now I’m sitting behind a desk by myself shuffling papers,'” says Von Horn. Once you target what needs to change, you’ll have a stronger sense of what other careers might better suit you.
From there, SoFi Senior Career Coach Val Olson recommends dipping into your psyche for a few minutes. Ask yourself big-picture questions like: What are you here for? What matters to you? After all, you spend a good chunk of your life working and, ideally, you’d like that work to feel meaningful.
A couple of tools that may help you answer these major questions: personality quizzes (Olson’s favorite free one online is
Olson suggests thinking about your personality, too. “If you’re not a highly competitive person but you’re in an adversarial role, that can be a problem. For example, if you’re a litigator, but you care more about harmony, you might feel happier as a mediator—moving into a different area of law practice,” she says.
No matter what, when you’re brainstorming about other possible careers, don’t box yourself in by saying to yourself, “I’m an accounting person, so I need to look at accounting jobs.” Dream bigger. “Ask yourself: What problems need to be solved at this job? Are those problems I’m interested in solving? And do I have the skill set to solve them?” says Von Horn.
Consider the options (and the numbers)
Once you have an idea of positions you might like to explore, it’s time to do some research on what they really entail—and pay.
Don’t hesitate to reach out to your Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections, or friends of friends who work in fields that interest you. Ask people if you you can pick their brains or sit down for an informational interview to learn more about what they do. There’s no harm in asking, and you never know who may end up helping you. Those who have made changes similar to the one you want to make can be particularly useful and are often willing to share their own experiences to help others.
Also, think about whether your industry has a professional organization. It’s worth reaching out to that group for advice, advises Olson, or possibly attending a conference or event. This can help you broaden your network and ask more people more questions about career changes.
Now, let’s talk money. With most positions, there’s a salary range that depends on things like your level of experience and your geography (a job in New York is likely to pay more than a job in Kansas City). You can usually get a decent sense of the range by checking out sites like Payscale.com, Glassdoor.com, and Salary.com.
This is where you need to be realistic. If you’re an attorney and you’re thinking about becoming a teacher, you’ll likely find that you’re not going to make the same in your new career path—if ever. So, if keeping your current salary is important to you, there are some jobs that you might need to cross off your list. But that doesn’t mean you need to throw up your hands and forget your change altogether. It just means you need to…
Let’s consider the lawyer-turned-teacher scenario. While those roles feel wildly different in both duties and salary, there are actually plenty of roles that might incorporate both skill sets—think working as corporate counsel for an education company or teaching law—and pay somewhere in between. Talking to a career coach or, again, your network, can help you think about more financially sound options that would still be fulfilling.
Similarly, many professionals have found success thinking through different roles within their current company. Consider talking to HR to see if there are opportunities in other departments that appeal to you. “I once worked with someone in IT who learned about a leadership development program that was going on in the human resources department. She volunteered to help with that project to show what she was capable of doing and she ended up making a lateral move without taking a pay cut,” says Von Horn.
Another path to consider is becoming an entrepreneur. It’s a riskier option, but working for yourself can provide a lot of perks, like having more control over what kind of work you do, how you do it, and how much you charge.
Von Horn worked with a client who wasn’t satisfied being a lawyer, so he decided to run a career-coaching franchise and ended up being quite successful. By going the entrepreneurial route, “you may take a pay cut initially, but there’s a lot of potential to earn more,” says Von Horn. A good first step? Look into volunteering opportunities or freelance assignments that you could try on the side, like during evenings or weekends.
Consider the long game
Both coaches often remind people to think not just about the money you’ll make in the next few years—but also your income in the next few decades. For example, let’s say your desired career path requires getting a master’s degree. If you go to school for a couple of years, the debt may set you back financially, but only temporarily. If that credential allows you to apply for a higher-paying job later, perhaps the trade-off is worth it.
Along the same lines, if your first job in a new field is a slight step back, it may be the type of position that leads you to a dream job (and dream paycheck) down the line.
With that said, don’t sell yourself (and your salary) short. People often look at their nontraditional backgrounds as a liability, but as Von Horn recommends, “Instead of looking at this next pivot as what do I not have to offer—like ‘I don’t have an MBA’—get creative in telling your story so it explains your background as an asset,” says Von Horn. “So many of our skills and experiences are transferable, but we haven’t thought about them like that.”
Von Horn once helped a Hollywood director transition into being a manager in a healthcare setting. It may sound like a total 180, but she was able to help him see the similarities in both careers: leading a large team of people, working with a limited budget, ruthlessly prioritizing, meeting deadlines, knowing how to fire people when necessary, and dealing with criticism. It all comes down to understanding your value and highlighting how your particular skills can help that company.
If you need help navigating your own career change, we can help. Want some help taking your job search to the next level? If you’re a SoFi member,
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