To Switch Careers, Hit the Books
By Michelle Rafter on January 10, 2012
BlogHer Original Post
[Editor's note -- Starting this week, the Reinvent Yourself series will feature a weekly Q&A with a Kaplan University professor or instructor on some aspect of changing careers. – Michelle V. Rafter]
Switching careers almost always involves learning something new, whether it's computer skills or a completely different industry. In some cases, the best way to pick up new skills is going back to school, according to Thomas "Tom" Boyd, dean of Kaplan University's School of Business and Management. Boyd learned that firsthand: He left a project-manager position at Motorola, Inc., to get a PhD. Since then, he's taught classes on consumer behavior, marketing strategy and other business subjects, and won numerous teaching, research and service awards. In this post, Boyd explains what steps to take first, options for returning to school and what support you'll need along the way.
BlogHer: It's the beginning of the year, when people set goals to change their lives. If you've made a goal to change careers, what's the first step?
Tom Boyd: This may sound funny, but the first step should be to decide on the new career you want. Often people decide they need a change and start taking action before deciding on a new path. Spend time to decide what you want to do before heading off into the sunset.
Or, if you have already decided on a new career, the next step is a gap analysis. Think about the skills, qualities, strengths and knowledge you will need in the new career and honestly assess which ones you have or don’t have. This is something you could do with a friend or a mentor. Finish with a list of things that you need to acquire, such as a degree, courses or certifications, professional experiences or knowledge, or personal qualities or experiences.
BlogHer: Career changers are told to go where the work is, but how do you find out what the hot jobs or industries are?
Boyd: The popular press often runs stories on this topic, but the hot jobs can change pretty quickly if they are in volatile industries. When I want to know what the hot jobs are, I do a Google search on "hot jobs" and several recent articles pop up. When you look at what's hot, be sure to consider your time horizon. If you're going back to school, today's in-demand jobs may not be quite so hot when you graduate three or four years from now. Don't pursue a job or career just because it's hot. If it doesn't make you happy or at least feel valuable and challenged, it's probably not going to work out.
In the field of business, the hot careers continue to be in accounting, human resources and project management, a trend that is several years old. I personally believe that as the economy recovers there also will be more jobs in sales. If you like working with people, sales is a good way to break into a new industry.
BlogHer: What steps should you take to prepare for a career change?
Boyd: The steps you take will vary depending on where you are coming from and where you are going. It's safe to say that you need to make sure you have two things.
The first is a functional knowledge of the field you are going into. Getting that often means getting some education, whether that's simply reading some books or going back to school.
Second, you need to have the qualities that will help you stand out from the crowd when you go to apply for a job in your new field -- or, if you don't have them, a plan for getting them. This is where reinvention comes in. Assume that 200 people with the exact same credentials will apply for any job you want. Those credentials are necessary, but they're not sufficient enough qualification to get the job. You also have to show the qualities and experiences that make you stand out, which will get you an interview. Such experiences include:
- holding an additional degree
- taking on leadership roles
- showing you know how to make things happen or get things done
- performing volunteer work
- completing difficult tasks
Not all your evidence or experience has to be on the job. You also can accomplish these things as a student, community member or volunteer. Opportunities for reinventing yourself are as varied as people are.
BlogHer: How does going back to school fit into a career change?
Boyd: Going back to school helps you meet the minimum requirements you need to get in the door in a new career. But perhaps the greatest benefit of going back to school is that it's often the springboard to reinvention. In school you can expand your support community, create networks, take on challenges in and out of the classroom, and identify the need for and create change. You can also undertake other forms of personal growth that make you stand out to a hiring manager.
BlogHer: If it's been a while since you were in school, what should you know?
Boyd: One of the biggest changes is the number of options available. Traditional college classrooms, where students are mostly on their own, are less dominant than they once were. If you're going back to school, you'll find institutions with great support systems and a culture of helping people get back into the college routine. You don't have to be in class with a bunch of 18 to 20 year olds, although that can be fun. Look at your options and find a place that will provide rigorous programs that will support your success.
To succeed in going back to school, you'll also have to overcome some obstacles. If you have kids, do you know who's going to watch them when you study? If you don't have a computer, how are you going to access academic resources? If you are using student loans to finance your education, can you make ends meet if something unforeseen happens, like needing car repairs? Know your support system. Make sure the people you need to rely on are on board before you jump in.
BlogHer: Any parting thoughts for career changers?
Boyd: Changing careers is scary, hard, intimidating -- and can be the greatest decision you ever make. The key is knowing the role your reinvention will play in achieving your life's goals, and then creating a plan. Along the way, don't be afraid to ask for help and support from your family and friends.
Kaplan University provides a practical, student-centered education that prepares individuals for careers in some of the fastest-growing industries. The University, which has its main campus in Davenport, Iowa, and its headquarters in Chicago, is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission (www.ncahlc.org). It serves more than 53,000 online and campus-based students. The University has 11 campuses in Iowa, Nebraska, Maryland and Maine, and Kaplan University Learning Centers in Maryland, Wisconsin, Indiana, Missouri and Florida.