Dear Businesslady: How Do I Switch Careers?

Photo credit: Andrew Malone, CC BY 2.0.

Dear Businesslady,

I’ve been working in medical research for about three years, and it’s been fine but I would really like to do something different. I’m getting laid off soon because of restructuring so it seems like a good time to try to make a switch to something else—but I’m not sure how to go about doing it.

I think I have skills that could easily translate to other fields but I don’t know how to emphasize that, and honestly am not even sure what kinds of jobs exist in other fields. I’m interested in nonprofit community/public health type areas but also would very much like to avoid being stuck behind a desk all day. Do you have advice on where to start?

—Potentially Pivoting Professional

Dear Pivoter,

This is such a great question that I’m shocked no one has asked it yet. I’ve tackled starting a job hunt at the entry level and finagling a promotion, but your situation is kind of in the middle: you’ve got some experience under your belt, but it’s irrelevant to the positions you’re looking for.

Is it really irrelevant, though? That’s the thing about job-searching: it’s always about making the case that your personal skillset aligns with an employer’s wishlist for a given role. Even in the most lateral moves (where you’re switching orgs or departments but retaining the same title and tasks), there are still going to be little nuanced things that you can’t possibly know from the outside. Your application materials have to represent your best guess at what an organization might want, no matter where you’re coming from—and that’s why what follows should be useful to anyone who’s looking for a new position, even if they’re not changing industries.

It’s true that you’ve got more of an uphill battle if you’re jumping from one career track to another, but the same principle still applies. You’ve got to convince hiring managers that you’re right for the job, and that means finding ways to frame your background as an asset, no matter how unconventional it might be.

It also means being realistic about which positions you pursue, especially for your initial foray into a new field. In some cases, you might need to consider entry-level roles again, although the fact that you’re a seasoned professional should accelerate your movement up the ladder.

There are two key elements to consider here: what you know how to do, and what kinds of roles make use of those skills. You’ll get some valuable info about the second category from job ads—which I’ll get to in a bit—but all job searches start with an inventory of your accumulated competencies, also known as…

Updating your resume

I say “your resume” like it’s a single, monolithic document, but in fact, it’s more like a set of components that you recombine to emphasize your qualifications for whatever position you’re targeting. Once you’re a few jobs into your career, all those bullet points will reflect the jargon and buzzwords associated with your field (like, uh, “inventory” and “competencies”). So you’ll have to do some translation in order to appeal to a new audience.

When you describe the work that you’ve already been doing, think generally and creatively. For example, while I’m not an expert in medical research, I imagine it involves at least a few of the following: designing experiments, collecting and organizing data, interacting with subjects, interpreting findings, and reporting results.

Your standard-issue nonprofit probably doesn’t have much use for a designer of research studies—but an experiment is basically just a multipart collaborative project, and “project manager” is definitely a thing. And while a community health provider might not use the word “subjects” to refer to people in the communities they serve, there are surely places in need of staffers who can interact sensitively with their constituents.

The other entries on that list are even easier to repurpose. Being an adept data wrangler is useful anywhere spreadsheets can be found, and the ability to synthesize information into reports or public-facing presentations is similarly versatile.

Following this same model, use your magic wand of generic rephrasing to revamp your existing resume. You’ll probably want to go over it again before submitting it anywhere, just to make sure it’s using the terminology associated with particular positions, but you can’t know that until you see what employers are looking for. That means it’s time for…

A trawl through the job boards

Whether you’ve eyeing a specific field or you’re just hoping to escape your current industry for whatever greener pasture you can find, you’ve got to whittle down All the Openings Everywhere to a manageable list of places where you can apply.

Wading through postings can be exhausting, especially on the big sites (like CareerBuilder, Monster, and Indeed). Type in a keyword and you’ll get a massive number of results, and/or a bunch of listings that are only tangentially related to what you’re actually looking for, especially if you’re job-searching in a major city.

To a certain extent, that’s something you just have to deal with—pour yourself a self-care beverage before scrolling and clicking as long as you can stand it, keeping in mind that you want to move pretty quickly at this stage. Figure out a system for tracking the positions that interest you (Zotero, bookmarks, a spreadsheet, copy-pasting into a draft email message, anything that works) and soon enough, you’ll get a broad sense of what’s out there.

If that sounds too overwhelming, perusing niche job boards can help cut down on some of this choice blindness. As a fellow nonprofit enthusiast, I can recommend Idealist, and I know there are others out there with other specializations. (Commenters, any recommendations?) You can also put together a list of organizations whose work you appreciate, then check their respective websites to see if they’re hiring.

Eventually, you should have a list that has some relationship to the sorts of jobs you’re looking for. Then you can narrow it down even further, giving individual listings more scrutiny. On some level you’re Goldilocks-ing, vetoing jobs based on whatever factors matter to you: hours, responsibilities, salary, commute, specific org/company, and so on. But pay attention to the details, even in ads you rule out, and see what trends start to emerge. You’ll start to get a feel for what responsibilities go with which titles, and that will help you weed out the less desirable positions. You’ll also notice the language used to describe various skills, and that’s info you should incorporate into your resume.

With your fact-finding mission now complete, you’ll have an assortment of jobs that you’d actually like to have. You’ll also have a resume that speaks the lingua franca of those positions—or maybe a few different resumes, if you’re casting a wide net. (Any resume you send in should be spot-checked for tweaks that will make it more compelling, but it can also be useful to have multiple versions for particular industries or job categories so you don’t end up making those same edits over and over again.)

Okay, so. Field-and-role-specific resume(s): check. List of positions you plan to apply for: check. You’re basically done! There’s just one more thing you have to do which is…

Write a cover letter

I know, I know—you don’t want to and ugh why am I making you I’m so mean. Do it begrudgingly if you must, buoyed by the knowledge that you’ll get to put on your sunglasses and look all cool once you’re finished. (I promise that makes sense if you click the link, which will take you to one of the greatest clips in cinema history.)

I realize that cover letters aren’t always required, and I’ll even (with a weary sigh) concede that it’s not always necessary to provide one. If you’re a XYZ Expert at Company A who’s applying for a gig as XYZ Expert at Company B—and the ad doesn’t ask for a cover letter—then there’s probably no harm in submitting an unaccompanied resume. Yet even then, I’d probably try to convince you to throw a cover letter in the ring along with your proverbial hat.

Cover letters enhance any job application by allowing you to narrate your expertise with a level of detail a resume just can’t offer. They give hiring managers a glimpse of your personality and help connect the dots between your previous roles—and that is especially crucial when you’re trying to recontextualize your background from one field to another.

In addition to explaining how your previous roles have prepared you for the position at hand (on a practical level, using the translation technique I outlined above), you also want to tell a story about your professional trajectory. It’s not like you can hide the fact that you’re switching careers, so put some positive spin on it—turning it from a bug into a feature. “In addition to being a qualified candidate for this job, I also have all this bonus experience!” Your work history has supplied you with skills that other candidates won’t have, and highlighting those is your best shot at convincing someone to hire you.

Submit, wait/hope, repeat

Every time I try to tackle job-searching, my tendency toward compulsive comprehensiveness flares up and I have to restrain myself from trying to address every single detail. (This is also why that chapter is approximately 33 percent longer than all the others in my book, and in case you weren’t already convinced that I’m ridiculous, know that I just confirmed that mathematically after reviewing the table of contents.) So while there’s definitely more I could say (and have said), I will stop here and trust that I’ve given you enough info to successfully launch the next step of your career. Here’s hoping you land somewhere great!

Got a question? Email me!

Businesslady is in her early 30s and a successful professional despite her allegedly useless degree in the humanities. She currently does writing and editing for a nonprofit, and devotes the rest of her life to playing video games, patronizing bars, and spending way too much time on the internet. She is the author of the “fun-yet-smart” career guide Is This Working?, full of all new material that you should totally read.

Recent Dear Businesslady columns can be found here, and the deep archives are here.

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