10 questions you need to ask yourself before changing careers

Unhappy at work? You need to figure out what's wrong before you can do anything about it.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 04 Nov 2016

On paper, most people in full-time jobs spend anywhere from a sixth to a third of their time at work, or around 1,500 to 2,900 hours a year.

That might not sound like a bad trade off for all the material advantages employment brings, but when you compare work to free time - excluding things like sleeping, commuting and doing housework – the cost starts to appear a whole lot steeper, around a third to a half of our available time.

The solution you’ll no doubt have heard is to make sure you love what you do. The problem is that only around 15% of people actually feel fully engaged at work. Clearly, it’s neither easy nor straightforward to ‘follow your passion’.

More and more of us are deciding that the reason we aren’t fulfilled at work relates to our choice of career. And why not? We often end up in a line of work because we drifted into it or because we made an ill-informed decision in our early 20s - hardly when our judgment is at its best (to those who would call this ageist, I have one retort: Jägerbombs).

MT recently explored what it’s like to go through a ‘career pivot’, but what are the questions you need to ask yourself before you go through with it? We caught up with Joseph Liu, career change consultant and host of the Career Relaunch podcast to find out.

1. Do you look forward to Monday mornings? The first step for a prospective career changer is to take stock of your current situation. This question is the acid test for whether you’re fully engaged with your job. ‘If you do look forward to Mondays, it’s probably a good sign,’ says Liu. If not...

2. Are you becoming the person you want to be? ‘The organisations we work for mould us in ways we may not fully appreciate. Spending 40-60 hours a week in any job affects who you are,’ says Liu. Traffic wardens take note.

3. Are you happy with the way you spend your time? This applies both in work (what your job actually involves) and outside of it (your work-life balance). ‘Do the parameters of your job allow you to spend time doing what you want to do?’

4. Is the problem with your career or just your job? Now you know there’s a problem, but you won’t be able to solve it unless you know what’s causing it. If it’s your job, company or indeed boss that’s the problem (‘Most people leave their managers, not their job,’ says Liu) then trying an entirely new career could be overkill.

If you’re in the wrong career, on the other hand, then no amount of moving about within your function or sector is going to help.

5. Can you get unbiased advice? Not everyone has tremendous experience in different sectors, firms and functions. Find someone to talk to, so you can put what experience you have in perspective.

‘Is this normal? That’s one of the things I hear the most. No one around here’s happy – is that just par for the course? I recommend talking to people outside of your immediate network, because they can offer a fresh and unbiased perspective on what’s normal,’ says Liu.

6. Is this the right time to change careers? Making a change isn’t without its risks, and they’re different at different stages in your career.

‘Think of your career in chapters, and try to clarify what this chapter is about. If it’s to build your CV and professional credibility early on by associating yourself to a large organisation that you don’t feel passionate about, you could do that for a couple of years – knowing why you’re doing it,’ says Liu.

‘Then there may be a chapter down the road where you want to focus more on feeding your passions or spending more time with your family.’

What you want your chapters to be is clearly very personal, but being strategic in understanding how your next one fits into your overall career can’t hurt.

7. Are you chasing perfection? Changing careers is a big move and naturally you want to get it right, rather than come crawling back in six months, tail between your legs, asking for your old job back. If you hold out for the perfect move, however, you’re unlikely to move at all.

‘Start somewhere. Don’t let perfection get in the way of improvement. Moving in broadly the right direction is better than staying in precisely the wrong place,’ says Liu.

8. Are you sufficiently focused? ‘When trying to make a career change, the people who are open to anything tend to get lost in the shuffle,’ Liu says. ‘Instead of using a floodlight to explore all the different opportunities, create a series of focused lasers.’

Pick two or three areas to explore and start investigating. If nothing else it will make you more memorable in any conversations you might have with hiring managers.

9. Are you able to experiment? A leap into the unknown is a lot less scary when it’s not actually into the unknown. It makes sense to find out as much as you can about the alternate career you have in mind.

‘Dip your toe in the water first. Network with people in the industry you’re interested in exploring. Find out if it’s still interesting to you after those conversations,’ says Liu.

Alternatively, pursue some side projects without quitting your day job. Starting a small business or getting involved in a friend’s social enterprise could give you the taste you need.

10. Have you got your story straight? A danger for someone who’s changing lanes is that employers may worry you’ll do it again. It’s important therefore to be very clear on why your current career hasn’t worked out and why the pivot is just a one-off.

‘Own your unique story,’ advises Liu. ‘Invest time communicating how you’re going to pitch it. There’s probably 30 different ways you could describe your past, so sit down and map out the right one, that’s clear and relevant to the person who’ll potentially be hiring you.’

Image credit: Jörg Schubert/Flickr

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