How to Make a Major Career Switch Without Going Back to School


Recurring layoffs at your workplace, unwelcome developments in your chosen profession, or other life events may prompt career-oriented soul searching. A natural response is to return to school for retraining in order to launch a second career.

But you don't have to go back to school in order to make a major career change. I have worked with people who have altered the course of their careers without the benefit of an extra degree or even specialized training. They were able to trade their experiences, knowledge, and expertise in one field for an equal or better position in another area. Here are some techniques that worked for them. (See also: 25 Career Changes You Can Make Today)

Never Tell a Potential Employer That You Are Changing Careers

When you realize that your education, experience, and expertise is in a dying field or one that no longer holds your interest, your instincts may direct you to tell a potential employer that you want to change careers.

What you may be trying to convey is you realize opportunities in your current field are limited or non-existent in a variety of ways. What the employer hears is that you have little to offer except for a willingness to try something new at someone else’s expense.

This same employer, however, may welcome your aspirations if they are presented in a different way. Instead of focusing on what you expect to gain, you should highlight what you have to offer.

Learn about potential employers and their opportunities through research and informational interviews. Using this inside knowledge, describe how your professional approach is an excellent cultural fit for the company and how your capabilities match specific accountabilities of job openings.

Use the Skills You Already Have

To land a job in an unrelated field, use the skills you have now. But don’t recite them verbatim from your current job description. Instead, think deeply about what you really do and how you accomplish objectives.

For example, if you are in charge of month-end and year-end statements, don’t just talk about processing debits and credits, handling account reconciliations, and publishing financial reports. Instead, explain how you develop and nurture relationships with departmental managers on whom you rely to get information on a timely basis. Talk about the visual timelines you created to promote schedule compliance. Share how you trained your direct reports to serve as financial guides to peers in field operations.

A hiring manager may not need an accountant. But she may need someone who can manage relationships, design work processes that relate financial data to operations, or develop people to interact effectively with those in other professional disciplines.

Reframe Your Resume

Resumes are often designed and written to appeal to a hiring manager in a candidate’s current field or industry. They are filled with industry lingo and corporate buzzwords, reference accomplishments that don’t make sense to outsiders, and contain attempts to highlight generalized capabilities, such as communication and leadership skills.

To transition to a new career, you’ll need to think about your past differently. When writing the resume, discuss accountabilities and accomplishments in a way that doesn’t assume specialized knowledge on the part of the reader. Explain the context for those unfamiliar with the inner workings of your field or industry. Present accomplishments, but also provide insight into your thought processes and actions that generated results.

Hiring managers want to know what you’ve done in the past, but they also need to know how your work will benefit them in the future. The right kind of reframing reveals both. (For guidance in portraying your past in honest yet illuminating ways, see these examples of showcasing transferable skills and experiences.)

Leverage Industry Knowledge

Your knowledge may be valuable to companies that seem to operate in completely different fields than your own. Such businesses may serve an industry in a way that is not apparent to the casual observer or have plans to reach a new market segment.

For example, a consumer products manufacturer may want to embed its products in the construction industry supply chain. Its current slate of employees, though, are experts in retail merchandising. They know little about capturing sales from companies engaged in construction. Your knowledge of a seemingly unrelated industry may be a boon to this potential employer.

Don't dismiss your industry know-how as irrelevant to outsiders. Learn about an organization's plans first. Then, identify and articulate how your expertise could be instrumental in helping the business reach its goals.

Apply at Fast-Growing Companies

Fast-growing companies often have difficulty attracting and keeping a full roster of capable employees. While some of these organizations may need people with narrowly defined, highly technical skills, many are simply looking for smart, motivated people.

These employers are often more apt to hire someone who is comfortable with ever-evolving responsibilities, frequently changing organizational structures, and increasingly competitive environments, despite lack of experience in a particular field. If you enjoy change and challenges, then search for opportunities with growing organizations.

Enter a Management Training Program

Getting educated by a new employer in a management training program is similar to going back to school. However, in this scenario, you’ll get paid while learning, plus have a job when the program ends.

Even mid-careerists may find that a training program can launch them successfully into a new career. Sure, trainee pay may be lower than you’d like. But program graduates with significant real world experience are attractive to hiring managers within the company.

In the right environment, you may be able to land a position that offers fast upward mobility. The combination of your newly acquired knowledge and longstanding workplace wisdom should enable you to deliver strong performance that will get you noticed and moved quickly to the next level.

Leverage Your Contacts

Your professional network and industry contacts may help connect you to a new career.

Now, I am not suggesting that you beg friends to recommend you for a job that’s out of your league, reach out to acquaintances to generate sales for a business startup, or ask colleagues to end long-term relationships to begin doing business with the new firm you’ve joined. But I am saying that specific relationships may allow you to bring value to a company in a different field than your current one.

For example, if your clients have the need for certain goods or services outside of your field, then a potential employer that distributes these solutions may bring you on board to connect with them. Similarly, contacts in a hard-to-reach demographic, such as high-income professionals or busy institutional administrators, can give you an edge if a prospective employer wants to market to them or those like them.

Find Companies That Hire People With Backgrounds Similar to Yours

Managers often use a gut feel when making hiring decisions. Consciously or not, they notice a link between successful hires and employment candidates with particular backgrounds (such as experience with a certain company, a degree from a specific college or university). As a result, they favor candidates who have qualifications seemingly unrelated to the job description or industry at hand.

Keep up with the career paths of your former classmates and colleagues. Detect hiring patterns, note the companies that seem to have an interest in people with backgrounds similar to yours, and determine what the hiring organizations found attractive about your connections. Apply for positions with these companies or similar ones.

Learn as Much as You Can

Just because you don’t have to go back to school to change careers doesn’t mean that you don’t have to learn anything new. Your professional experience, industry knowledge, and educational credentials may land you a job in a new field, but you can’t count on your past alone to propel you to a successful future. Applying expertise in a new professional discipline or industry requires effort and creativity. To learn on the job and thrive in your new position, take these steps:

  • Arrange meetings with colleagues to learn about the company and its functional groups.
  • Develop resources for domain knowledge, market insights, and tips for navigating the organization (and offer yourself as a resource to others).
  • Enroll in classes offered and/or paid for by your employer.
  • Take opportunities to visit clients and field operations.
  • Go to professional events, both locally and nationally, to get up to speed on industry norms and trends.

Many people are surprised at how the skills they have honed in one setting are applicable to new environments. They often enjoy great success because the change has afforded them newfound perspective.

Have you changed careers without going back to school? Tell us how you landed a new job and made this transition.

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Guest's picture

These are great tips on how to make a career switch without cracking open those schoolbooks. Especially good is the tip about reframing your resume. Now is the time to show off different skills to employers and focus on your transferable skills. If you record a video resume, for instance, you’ll want to focus on your passion for the job and industry instead of previous experience. Focus on what you can do and what you want to achieve, not what you’ve done in the past. Employers will be excited to hire someone passionate about the job.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for reading! I've found that reframing your experience not only helps the employer grasp your value but can give you (the job hunter) a better sense and broader understanding of your capabilities.