When I started my first career, I didn’t even know that my current one existed.
I had always wanted to be a teacher. I set my bedroom up like a classroom. My mom would take me to the teacher supply store to buy teacher planners and I used my dad’s fax machine to make copies of handouts. I went into my undergrad knowing that I’d be a teacher and came out fully certified when I graduated in 2010.
I taught for several years in several different districts. It was hard. I didn’t love it. In what ended up being my last year of teaching, I found myself in a situation that was untenable. I just spent eight years becoming a teacher and getting my Master’s in literacy, and I knew that I needed to get out, even if just for a little while, to clear my head.
But I had no idea what people did all day. How did people who worked in offices not run out of work? I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I decided to apply to a few Edtech roles because at least I knew I could be valuable in that space.
From there, I made it my mission to learn as much as I could. I started in a customer experience role, but often found myself asking to join product teams in their brainstorm sessions and research calls. There’s a separate story to the seven years that I spent at that company – but I eventually created a role for myself that was replicated across product pods, and eventually became their founding UX Researcher.
After leaving for a role at a major consulting firm and getting laid off earlier this year, I started career coaching and doing freelance work for other companies and startups. Here are a few things I’ve learned and often share with my clients. Changing careers can feel insurmountable, but it’s not impossible – even in the current job market.
Assess your strengths: I knew I was lacking in the technical skills of tech, but I knew that I had a deep expertise in education, so that’s where I focused my attention. Think of your own skills and strengths. Make a list. What do people often go to you for? Consider other jobs you’ve had or hobbies that you enjoy as well.
Think about what you actually enjoy doing: There’s a difference between being good at something and enjoying something. Incredibly competent people can fall into the trap of knowing that they’re good at something so they make it their career. However, they often find themselves a few years into that career and realizing that they don’t actually enjoy doing that sort of work.
Acknowledge your thoughts around the sunk cost fallacy: We often think that we’ve spent too much time, money, or energy working toward a particular goal or role to pivot. I think it’s what holds people back the most. And I get it, believe me. What I encourage you to do is think about what that taught you and how you can leverage that knowledge into the next role. I didn’t know what UX research was when I was a teacher, but I realized that my background in teaching made me adept at asking questions, making people feel comfortable during research calls, and synthesizing complex information.
Get a foot in the door: I focused my job search on entry-level roles at EdTech companies. Mind you – I do not think experienced educators are entry-level employees at all, but that’s an article for another day. I took on a role in Customer Experience. I didn’t love it, and it wasn’t my end goal, but it was an entry point into seeing what a product team does and learning as much as I could about getting something new to market. I know that the current job market is significantly different and more challenging than it was nearly a decade ago – I still think this is good advice, even though it can be very difficult.
Be open to starting at a lower level than you may be right now: You may need to take a step or two down if you’re making a huge career pivot, but consider what you’re gaining – if you’re finding yourself in a position where you’re making less or you’re more junior than you were before, reframe it as you’re getting paid to learn something new, you won’t be in that role forever, and it’s improving your resume with each passing day.
I love when people tell me that they’re interested in trying a new career. It’s never, ever too late to change direction. If there’s something you’ve been daydreaming about or even considering, I encourage you to take some low-risk steps like journaling about what that role could look like for you or reaching out to some folks online to learn more about their work in those spaces.
If you want to invest a bit more time, consider:
- Assessing your strengths and areas of expertise
- Using that list to highlight what you actually enjoy doing (not just what you’re good at!)
- Figuring out ways to leverage your transferable skills
- Leveraging your network or hiring a professional to help you figure out your next steps