Skills - Development

Switching Careers

Change is always difficult, but switching careers can be necessary for both personal and professional growth.

Nov 02 2020

  • Changing careers means changing identities, because most professionals define themselves by their job.

  • Career switching requires action and diligence over time; if there's no action, you haven't truly decided.

  • There are four types of career changes, each has its challenges and different levels of complexity.

A few years ago a friend of mine, who's an incredible graphic designer, moved to London. She was struggling to find a job as a designer, and accepted a barista job at Caffe Nero, she needed something to pay the bills.

During the time she worked at the caffe, on each opportunity we initiated a conversation with random people, they would ask "what's your name?" and a few minutes after "what do you do?". The latter question would trigger a sudden change of mod on her. Being a barista was not her identity and facing that question generated frustration. The dissatisfaction of being unfairly categorised by the job title or by the company.

According to Herminia Ibarra, changing careers means changing identities, because most professionals define themselves by their job.


Career switching requires action; if there's no action, you haven't truly decided. There are formulas that used to work, that don't apply if you're looking to pivot your career, like thinking your degree is a magic bullet to get a job or relying on traditional job search advice.

Essentially there are four types of career changes, each has its challenges and different level of complexity.

1.- Change Company (same role, same industry) - Least challenging

Although sometimes it can be difficult to find a new job, it's not really a career change, and it's easier than the other three options. Before changing jobs it's important to analyse what are the drivers of the change. Sometimes we assume that in a new company we'll be happier, but we end up moving our frustrations to a new place.

2.- Change Industry (same role, new industry) - Moderately challenging

For example transitioning from Oil & Gas to technology. The job is the same, but you have to deal with different types of professionals, culture, jargon, procedures, etc. It's important to prove at the interview that your knowledge is applicable and be ready to explain how you expect to adapt to the characteristics of the new industry. There are companies that value the cross-industry expertise, but usually companies prefer somebody who is familiar with the industry and has built a network of professionals within it.

3.- Change Role (new role, same industry) - Very challenging

Convincing your current employer to help you on this transition is the best way to make this type of change work. They have already invested in your training and development and they know you fit in the company's culture, they might be willing to put in extra effort to train you rather than conduct an expensive external candidate search. If your employer doesn't help you with this transition, there's the risk that you will look for a new job or even worse that you will stay at the company disengaged. Finding a new role at a different company will be much more difficult because the candidates you'll be competing with will be more qualified than you.

To make this type of switch work, it's useful to find someone to advocate for you. Also, before beginning the job search, you may need to gain direct experience through volunteering, pursuing applied training, or working in a self-created internship.

Try to build a transition plan as soon as you know you want to change to a new role. The more experience you gain at your position, the harder it will be to escape from it.

4.- Change Role & Industry (new role, new industry) - Extremely challenging

It requires persistence, courage, and sacrifice, but it's doable. One option is to make one change at a time. That means either developing the abilities you need for a new position while remaining in the same industry, or finding a new job with the same role in a different industry.

The other option is to make both changes all at once. A first action is to carefully analyse your network and see if there is a connection who can help you in this transition. Knowing somebody with experience in the role or industry can help you in the process.

Switching careers has obstacles such as an inability or unwillingness for recruiters to understand how transferable skills can provide great value. Make sure you do the work for them, build a skill map of the role, and show them the connections between the skills you bring and the role requirements.

It isn't always the case, but you should be prepared to take a step back in compensation. Not all industries pay the same and you might need to start at a lower position in the new role.

Have in mind that a career switch rarely happens overnight. Being agile means evaluating the process, seeking feedback, making changes when needed, and above all staying positive in the face of adversity. You will be rejected. You will be disappointed. You may feel like giving up. You will need to learn when to change the approach and when to stick with it. Not to hold onto a useless tactic for too long or changing before it even has a chance to start showing benefits.

It's important to put 100% into your plan and eliminate any chances of a plan B, like accepting headhunters calls for interviews in your current role.

Sizeable goals like a career switch don't just happen. They are attained through a culmination of small consistent action that we take towards them every day. Substantial goals such as a career switch require diligence and consistent action over time, and change is rarely linear. Missteps, setbacks and hurdles can lead to unforeseen detours. This is where most switchers fall back into comfort rather than persevering in pursuit and service of their primary goal, which is the new job.

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