How to Change Careers Like a Pro

Is changing careers a thrilling adventure or a terrifying plunge into the unknown? How you answer this question depends on how prepared you are.

You found the perfect career. It has everything you want with respect to meaningful work, a schedule that fits your lifestyle, and the potential financial rewards meet your expectations. There’s just one tiny little insignificant problem: you’re still in your present career.

Ideally, you would just jump straight to the good part. You know, the part where you are established in the new career, have confidence, and are earning at the level you expect to after you really hit your stride. In a 1980s movie a quick 2-minute montage with a catchy song dubbed over would get you there. In Better Off Dead, John Cusack’s Lane Myer, with the help of exchange student Monique, manages to fix his broken-down Camaro and develop the skiing chops to beat the high school ski team captain (surprisingly not played by ‘80s super-villain Billy Zabka) in just a few minutes of montage. If only changing careers were that easy!

Changing careers successfully means filling in that montage—the daydream transition of your career arc—with the structure and details that will get you to the dramatic transformation you have in mind. A lot of the details have to do with the financial implications of the transition. And since these are, frankly, the least fun, it’s best to get them out of the way first so you can get back to focusing on your vision for the future.

Here are six steps you can take to fill in the gaps in your own plan and transition with greater confidence:

  1. Build a sufficient safety net/reload emergency saving

You may already know that it is a good idea to have 3-6 months’ of living expenses saved up for emergencies, such as losing your job or having to unexpectedly take unpaid time off work. If you’re planning a career transition, you’ll likely need to add to your own personal safety net. Career changes typically mean starting over again to some degree, whether that means going back to school or taking a pay cut to get some experience in your new field. In some cases, you’ll need to plan for an extended period in which you’ll earn less than you do currently, while in others you may earn nothing for a period while completing education or licensing requirements.

  1. Identify all the costs

You’ve probably gathered a lot of information about what it will take to get going in your chosen career. Now it’s time to fill in the details on costs. Each transition looks a little different, but here are some common costs to consider and document:

  • Education: prerequisite classes, entrance exams, degree programs, review classes, licensing or designation exam costs, etc.
  • Designations or professional licenses: costs for review classes, qualifying exams, and the actual cost (one-time and/or annual) for any required designations or licenses
  • Networking: cost of meals or drinks for networking meetings, fees to join organizations or groups in your field, travel to meet with potential employers
  • Wardrobe: in some cases you’ll need an entirely new wardrobe or specialized gear for your work that wouldn’t be covered by an employer
  • Living expenses: what you’ll need to get by during the transition period, taking into account the length of time you may earn nothing or an amount that is insufficient to cover necessary costs
  1. Don’t jump too soon

You can lessen the financial impact of a career transition by building your base of transferable knowledge before you ever make a move. Let’s say you work in financial services but really want to transfer to application development. You could quit, go to a two-week coding camp and try to jump into the field cold, which might mean months without an income as you try to learn skills, build a network, and interview for jobs. Or you could seek opportunities to learn while you earn within the financial services industry by volunteering to work on project teams for new applications or other IT projects or by seeking out realistic horizontal moves in your company that will help you build experience without a radical career departure (for example, IT project management).

  1. Take advantage of employer-sponsored learning opportunities

Many, but not all, large employers offer some level of education benefit or tuition reimbursement. While there are often strings attached (the education program may have to be considered relevant to your employer’s business or you may need to stay with the firm for a certain period of time to avoid having to pay back the money you were reimbursed) these programs can help you build your knowledge while still earning your current salary.

  1. Make a realistic projection of your earnings transition

Sites like offer data that can help you understand the range of pay for the kinds of roles you’re seeking, with bands that show you how you might expect pay to change with greater experience. Nothing is certain when it comes to pay, but having an idea of what your career arc might look like financially will help you understand how you need to adjust your lifestyle or how much you might need to save to cover a gap in earnings and for how long.

  1. Talk with anyone impacted by your plans

Is there anyone in your life who will be impacted by your career change? If so, it’s going to be critical that you talk with them openly and honestly about the financial implications of what you’re planning. Expecting to move back in with your parents to keep the bills down while you go back to school? It might be a good idea to talk with them first before you apply for that degree program as they may have been planning to rent your old room out on Air BnB. Is your spouse or significant other fully aware of what the change will mean and are they on board? Do you need to modify your assumptions about how you’ll approach this career change to make the financial impacts palatable for others in your life? Now’s the time to find out.

Keep your dreams in front of you, but keep grinding away at the details that will help you get to your destination. With some planning, you can have your Lane Myer moment of triumph at the end of the hard work.

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