How to Switch Careers the Smart Way

Posted in self help by Steph Auteri on January 17, 2008
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Back when I first graduated from college, I was feeling pretty aimless. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I had student loans and the credit-card-debt-of-the-truly-stylish to pay off.

(For further reference, I suggest you purchase an mp3 of the Avenue Q song, “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?”)

After a couple months of sending resumes into the void, I got a job as editor for an environmental engineering firm through a lady in my callanetics class. While it paid well, I was miserable and, when I lost my job six months later, it was actually a relief. Finally! I had a chance to find the right job for me! One that wasn’t taken on out of pure desperation!

After seven months, however, of handing out caramel swirl iced latte samples at Dunkin’ Donuts, spending more than I was making doing nightlife reviews for Shecky’s, and burning through my unemployment checks at a rapid pace, I realized I had to try a different tactic. Hence the post-college internship.

My internship at the Feminist Press — a nonprofit book publisher housed in the CUNY Grad Center — was a revelation. I was in love with books already, fired up about the content, and even enjoying my menial temp duties. I felt that this was my dream career path, and I began to work out a hazy plan, in which I would eventually become an acquisitions editor.

A past FemPress intern eventually got me my editorial assistant job with an academic book publisher. I was pretty happy for the first six months, but began to feel I wasn’t comfortable moving upward, as I didn’t have a firm knowledge base in the subject area I was working on. When a marketing position opened up within my department, I jumped for it, as I had a passing interest in book publicity, based mainly on my love of lit events.

At first, I was exhilarated by how challenging this new position was for me, and I garnered several promotions/raises over a short period of time but, after awhile, I realized that this, also, was not the job for me. I had lost touch with my initial creative writing ambitions. In addition, I no longer wanted to handle communications with authors. Marketing was just not my thing. I longed to lead the full-time freelance life but, with a new mortgage to deal with, it just seemed impossible.

When I began to be depressed about my job, however, I knew I needed a plan. It took me about another six months, but I eventually found myself a freelance proofreading gig with part-time hours that would allow me to leave my full-time job, and afford me the extra time to work on my writing/pitching and even squeeze in a magazine internship! I began interning at Material Media three days a week, where I just loved the web magazine environment, and the intensity of staffers working on a project they believed in. I began writing pieces for the site, and also made valuable contacts for the future. When my internship ended this past Friday, I immediately started pitching story ideas to various publications, and have already gotten my first assignment.

The reason for this detailed story, which has grown ridiculously long? I wanted to illustrate for you the benefits of taking risks for eventual career happiness, and also of test-driving a career before committing yourself to a full-time job.

In much the same vein, Brian Kurth created Vocation Vacations, an organization that provides clients with the opportunity to test-drive a variety of careers via intense, short-term mentorships. (Yes, I thought this was an awesome idea as well.) The company launched in 2004 but, just recently, Kurth also published Test-Drive Your Dream Job.

Throughout the book, Kurth and co-writer Robin Simons provide a step-by-step guide to finding mentors on the way to one’s eventual dream job.

Some words of wisdom:

  • Pretend you’re a kid again. Do you remember your younger days, when you’d flip through magazines, cut out the images that appealed to you, and then paste them into a binder so as to remind yourself of the life you eventually wanted? Was that just me? Kurth suggests a somewhat similar exercise, by advising readers to create collages using images that appeal to them. In this way, one may be able to pinpoint what, exactly, it is one wants in a career.
  • Nurture your anger. Anger can actually spur one toward action. I know that I’ve been more liable to make a change when I’ve felt angry about something. It helps overcome the fear of leaving someplace familiar, or starting over again. So harness any negative feelings you may have and use them for the greater good.
  • “Are we going to die? If not, let’s do it!” This is a quote from the book, made by a woman replying to her husband’s money concerns. I think it’s a great way to keep perspective when considering all the possible negative outcomes of a risk.
  • If something is truly worth it, no obstacle is insurmountable.

    • “One day [Sandy] was talking with a friend who was lamenting her own career dissatisfaction and the many reasons she couldn’t change direction, and Sandy heard herself say, ‘Your problem is you just don’t want to give anything up to get there. It’s the “yeah, but” syndrome: “yeah, but I’ll have to work different hours; yeah, but I have credit card bills.” Well, you pay off your bills. And your job isn’t the end-all job.; if you really want to do something else you can give it up. It’s just easier to say you don’t know what you want to do than to take responsibility for what you have to do to get there.”

Kurth also gets into how to find and approach possible career mentors; how to decide whether or not a career is worth pursuing; what questions to ask your mentor about your dream career; and how to move forward with a career once you’ve made the decision that it’s the right one for you.

He also tackles the tough issues, such as what to do when your dream career isn’t everything you thought it would be, leaving you feeling directionless and shattered. Or how to talk things out with a family member who’s not feeling quite so psyched about all the risk associated with the career move you’re considering (“We have spouses and/or family members whose needs matter enormously, and we can’t just decide to run away and join our own personal circus”).

Are you feeling a bit…stagnant…in your present career? What types of dream careers do you have floating around inside your head? If you’ve already made a big change, how did you go about it? Were you scared? What did you learn about yourself in the end?

Was it all worth it?


One Response to 'How to Switch Careers the Smart Way'

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  1. “Pretend you’re a kid again.”

    Great advice!

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