Taking the Leap and Transitioning Careers
The average person changes careers 3 - 7 times over their working years.
There are lot of different reasons why someone might want to change careers - including higher salary, better work-life balance, or a more fulfilling role. Every individual is unique, and every reason is valid. I myself have switched careers six times in the last 11 years.
As a career consultant for the American Chemical Society and a STEM career coach, I have noticed that career transitions are a hot topic!
If you are considering a career change, I can assure you that it is a very rewarding and enriching experience. And while it can seem intimidating at first, it doesn't have to be a daunting process. Here are the insights that I've gained from my 11 years of transitioning careers from:
to intellectual property law,
to forensic science,
to laboratory operations management,
to professional development in higher ed,
1) Develop connections in your desired field. If you are already have connections, you're ahead of the game - proceed to point 2!
Otherwise, begin by identifying individuals within your organization. If there are none, evaluate journals and identify who is currently publishing and where these research groups are located. If your desired field is not research/bench related, begin by searching through professional social media outlets such as LinkedIn or Twitter where you can search keywords related to the field. LinkedIn may also have groups that you can join.
Once you've identified individuals in the field, warm up the connection by liking or commenting on their posts if they are active on social media. After you've done this a couple of times, send an introductory message or email. Here's an example of language I've used:
"Dear Dr. So-And-So,
Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is _______, and I'm a graduate student at _______ University working with (advisor) on (project). While I really enjoy (project/field), I am fascinated by (desired field) and very impressed with your work on (project). (Then name something specific from a paper, article or post that you find intriguing!) I'm really interested in learning more about (desired field), and would be so grateful if I could ask you a few questions via email/messaging, video call, or in-person (if possible). I certainly understand that your schedule is an exceptionally busy one, and any information that you can share with me would be most appreciated.
Your name here
2) Leverage the connections. Once you've established a connection, ask the following questions:
1) What are the top 3 skills that one needs to be successful in this role/field?
2) What are the top 3 challenges of this role/field?
3) Which professional organizations do you recommend?
4) Are there any courses, certificates, or credentialing programs that you recommend?
5) Would you be willing to connect me with one or two more individuals in this field?
We will dive a little deeper into how to optimize the information gleaned from each of these questions in the following points.
Everyone you will ever meet knows something that you don't. - Bill Nye
3) Identify top 3 skills and top 3 challenges. If you already possess these skills, continue to hone them, and take on projects at work that support this process whenever you can. Consider volunteering for committees and associations that enable you to demonstrate these skills. Be sure to highlight this on your resume!
Work to develop skills that are not currently in your toolbox. Take courses, attend workshops, and seek out coaching or mentoring. Whenever possible, obtain a certificate of completion, badge, or other credential that verifies this new skill. (More details in point 5.)
Consider how your skillset and experience can be applied to address the top 3 challenges. During an interview, it will be impressive to illustrate that you are aware of these challenges. Take it a step further by being prepared to discuss how you'd tackle them.
4) Join professional organizations. Join professional organizations recommended by your connections in the field, or that you identify as impactful through you research. If the organization has a local section, attend meetings to help you network locally. Don't be shy about attending virtual meetings as well, and cold email leaders within the organization. Most of these leaders are volunteers who are passionate about the field, and will be more than willing to illustrate to you how the organization can best serve your career development needs. Ask them the questions outlined above in point 1, as well which groups/committees/events would be most helpful to you.
5) Obtain credentials. When I made the transition from bench work to laboratory operations management/quality assurance, I knew very little about accreditation, beyond what was required for bench work. I lacked a global perspective and I just barely qualified for the interview based on years of experience with the lab. I'd been with the lab only three years - which was the minimum requirement - and I was competing with much more experienced scientists, some with decades on the job. To make myself more competitive, I independently enrolled in courses through the laboratory's accrediting body. I paid a few hundred dollars out of pocket for these asynchronous courses, which I completed during the evenings after getting my son to bed. I shared the certificates of completion with the interview panel, and the extra work paid off. I effectively demonstrated my knowledge during the interview and I got the job! I was then able to hit the ground running during training and onboarding because I already had an established knowledge base.
6) Take things one step at a time. Transitioning careers is an enormous undertaking, so be kind to yourself through the process. If you are working full time or completing your academic degree, understand that you will not be able to devote several hours a week to this pursuit. Identify reasonable targets, such as making two new connections this month. Schedule activities 2 - 3 weeks out, so they aren't conflicting with your current schedule. For example, if you plan to join a professional organization, block off one hour to do so in three weeks. You'll feel calmer knowing that it's going to get done, during a time when you can focus and not feel rushed. You'll have a full hour to evaluate the organization, craft an introductory email, and maybe even identify a committee or group of interest.
And of course, pay careful attention to your self-maintenance routine. Self-maintenance, full-time work, and a personal life are hard enough to balance - let alone with the added task of making a career change. Be extra mindful about your diet, movement, rest, and leisure time. You can't pour from an empty cup, and you won't be able to show up as your best self at work, at home, or at a job interview without establishing that healthy baseline first.
Give the world the best of you, not what's left of you!
If you'd like more support on anxiety, managing expectations, or any other challenges, please don't hesitate to email me directly here to schedule a free consultation.
Dr. Lori Ana Valentín is an analytical chemist who holds doctorate and master’s degrees in chemistry from Binghamton University as well as a bachelor of science in biochemistry from SUNY Fredonia. She applies her perspective as a scientist to create unique personal and professional development solutions.