Top 5 Tips for Switching Your Career

Learn how to get out of your employment rut.

September 9, 2008, 6:15 PM

Jan. 21, 2010 — -- You've mentored a handful of colleagues, challenged yourself with new projects around the office, even taken up an after-hours hobby like knitting or jujitsu. But no matter how many ways you try to rekindle the passion you once had for that soul-quashing job of yours, one undeniable truth remains: You still would rather memorize the entire federal tax code than head in to work on Monday mornings.

To make matters worse, you can't see your way past this daily drudgery long enough to choose a career you'd like to pursue instead. And even if you could, you're not sure how the heck you'd find the time to get from here to there.

For suggestions on how to break out of your employment rut, I turned to workplace expert Alexandra Levit, whose latest book on career change is "New Job, New You: A Guide to Reinventing Yourself in a Bright New Career." For those who aren't sure where to begin, she offers these five tips, some of which you can do during your lunch hour.

1. Take Stock of Your Talents

For those unsure which of their interests and talents they could get paid to do, or where their interests even lie, Levit suggested rooting around an occupation database like O*NET or spending a few minutes taking an online career assessment test like Careerlink Inventory or CoachCompass, both of which are free.

One caveat about career assessment tests: "Make sure you keep your expectations in check," Levit said. "It's unlikely that one test will result in career fulfillment, so take several and see if you can detect patterns in the findings."

If databases and assessment tests aren't your bag, Levit recommended some good old-fashioned daydreaming. Pretend you're retired and writing your memoirs about the most meaningful work you did in your life, Levit said, citing as an example her 90-year-old grandfather, who's most proud of the work he did with the American Red Cross and U.S. Army.

"Imagine you're in his place," she said. "What would you want to be writing about?"Of course, sometimes we're too baffled by our current employment situation to take stock of our own interests and passions. Or we're too modest or too hard on ourselves to accurately assess our own strengths. Asking an objective friend or colleague to weigh in on the roles or jobs they think we'd enjoy and excel at can help yield some fresh ideas, Levit suggested.

2. Get a Financial Grip

Cash flow concerns are one of the biggest reasons people let themselves languish in a career they can no longer stand. Yet, far too many people write off making a career change without even doing the math.

Sites like Glassdoor and Salary can give you ballpark starting salaries for the fields you're interested in. But don't stop there.

"Talk to people in your prospective industry to determine how long it will take you to get up and running in your new career and how much you will need to spend on additional schooling, training and other professional development activities," Levit advised.

And don't be afraid to ask industry insiders how much a newbie like you might earn their first few years in the field.

Likewise, don't let credit card debt or your latte habit be the thing that stands between you and a shiny new career. Track your personal expenses, trim the fat, pay down debts and do your best to dump a few extra bucks a week into your career change fund, Levit said.

If you're not sure whether you can afford a career leap -- or whether you should tap your rainy day or retirement funds -- Levit suggested meeting with a financial advisor.

"Some career moves may be completely impractical for you, and if so, better to not waste too much time on them," she said.

3. Meet and Greet

You've no doubt heard it said that networking is a far more effective means of drumming up employment leads than scouring the online job listings. You've probably also heard it said that you need to start mingling with folks in your chosen field -- at professional workshops, happy hours and the like -- long before you start job hunting. Consider yourself told once more.

When seeking specific advice about how to make inroads in your chosen industry, look to those two to five years older than you, Levit said. They're the ones likely to be most knowledgeable about the latest hiring requirements and workplace trends for junior professionals in the field.

Work on your charm, too. Don't just blather on about yourself or demand someone give you a job or introduce you to their top contacts. Be likeable, helpful. Take the time to build relationships with people.

"Since realistically your experience might not be a perfect fit for them, your personality has to make up for it," Levit said.

4. Take a Test Drive

Once you've indentified the skills you must acquire to make your career leap, take a college course or two to see if the field sustains your interest. (Do this before enrolling in any full-blown academic program.) Don't be afraid to try an online university. For many professions, the stigma of online education has dissipated, Levit said.

Professional and alumni associations also can help you boost your skill set, Levit said. Many offer free or nominally priced classes.

Internships, no longer just the domain of recent college grads, offer another way to test the waters in a new field.

"High-profile companies like Sara Lee are welcoming interns with solid career records and transferable skills," Levit said.

(For mid-career internship opportunities, Levit recommended The Center for Interim Programs.)

"Once you're there, get your hands dirty," Levit said. "Do all the things you'd never be allowed to do in a more traditional [entry-level] position -- like put on events and implement new organizational processes. It's all resume fodder."

Besides giving you a firsthand glimpse into your dream industry, an internship can impress future employers.

"It demonstrates a true commitment, and not just a passing interest, in a particular field," Levit said.

5. Set Deadlines

It's easy enough to tell yourself that this is the year you'll look into what it takes to become a nurse, landscape architect or video game producer. What's hard is taking those initial steps.

To ensure you dive into this to-do list before summer rolls around, give yourself some concrete deadlines, be it contacting five people for informational interviews by Feb. 15 or researching veterinary school costs, requirements and application process by Feb. 28.

The idea, Levit said, is to break your career transformation into specific, digestible pieces you can do during your morning coffee break or for 30 minutes after dinner. You want to keep the momentum going from month to month.

"Otherwise," she said, "it's just too easy to fail."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist and former cubicle dweller. She is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube". For more information, see