Making a Career Change? It’s Not Just About the Degree!

by | July 13, 2010

This week I am moderating the career-themed discussion thread in the colloquium courseroom for Public Service Leadership learners who are attending the upcoming Orlando colloquium. Lots of learners in my Track 1, Track 2, and Track 3 courserooms are looking to make a career change after they complete their doctoral degrees.

A Track 1 learner posed the following question earlier this week:

How does a person get experience in their chosen field, if they do not have the relevant experience to get the first employment opportunity?

I ask this because education is obviously not the only criteria measured by employers. Please reply with your comments or answers…all are welcome!

In asking his question, this learner hit upon the nut of the challenge of making a successful career change: how to get experience in a new field when all positions require previous experience? It can feel like a chicken-or-egg sort of riddle, and is a vexing problem for a lot of would-be career changers. Frequently, learners enroll in a degree program thinking the degree alone will open doors in their new career field. Unfortunately, this isn’t usually the case; employers look at degrees, but also place a lot of value on skills and knowledge acquired through past work experience. When learners wanting to make a career change come to this realization, they sometimes respond with frustration, despair, or anger. The PhD degree itself is such a huge undertaking – how can it not be enough to open doors in a new career field?

Other learners responded to this learner in the colloquium courseroom by suggesting internships and volunteering as smart strategies for gaining relevant work experience in a new career field. They were right on the mark – finding creative ways to address gaps between the skills you have and the skills you need in a new field is often a critical part of the career change process.

In my response to the learner, I corroborated these suggestions, but pushed him to also consider how to leverage the experience he does have to break into his new field. This is the same advice I give to anyone who comes to me asking about making a career change. It is valid advice even for students pursuing doctoral degrees. A doctoral degree will afford in-depth, specialized knowledge about a subject area, but even so, employers will still want to know about the skills and experiences that accompany your academic knowledge. Your responsibility as a job seeker is to understand how your skills, experience, and education combine to qualify you well for a particular job or career field.

This starts with valuing the experience you do have. This can be challenging if you are frustrated or unhappy in your current career. If this is your situation, you’ll need to do some work on reframing your past experience to see the value in it, rather than focusing on the reasons for your dissatisfaction. Employers will ask you to discuss your skills, and will only take you seriously as a candidate if you can provide them with a clear, compelling description of what you have to offer them. Further, they don’t tend to respond well to candidates who appear to have a negative attitude about past employers. Focusing on the skills you acquired in past roles will help you shift your focus onto the positive legacy of any work situation – no matter how unpleasant – which will only benefit you going forward.

Once you’ve begun to view your past work history in a more positive light, you’ll need to start thinking and talking about your old experience to show how it will transfer into your new field. How can you apply your skills and experience in the field where you want to work? For example, if you’ve worked as a police officer, and now want to move into a role where you are researching and implementing strategies for helping ex-felons reintegrate into society, what aspects of your past experience can help you do this well? How might your knowledge and insight about why people commit crimes and about how different people react differently to being incarcerated be useful for thinking about how to help ex-felons effectively reintegrate into society? How can you talk about your work as a police officer to show you have these skills? In so doing, you’ll show prospective employers that you’ve got experience and perspective that will transfer well into the new role you seek.

A critical part of making a career change is assessing the skills and experience you have (as well as your education), then developing a strong case for why and how that experience can be applied in a new career field or work role. This is certainly a manageable proposition, but rarely does it happen overnight – executing a career change takes time, perseverance, and creative thinking about the transferability of your skills and experience.

For more career-related information and advice, please visit Capella’s Career Center.

2 Responses to "Making a Career Change? It’s Not Just About the Degree!"

  1. Mazie Johnson says:

    This is a good advice response to Capella learners who are in the midst of a career change or thinking of making a change in career. I am one of the potential career changers who in previous employments are experienced in Health Information Management positions and I am certified in the Registered Health Information Tech and I want to gain skill and knowledge of the Security of managing Information Technology since in the field of HIT I have to maintain securing personal, medical and confidential data in the Health care environment. So I researched and pursued the career change of Health Care to Information Security industry. I feel that both can complement and integrate with the future era of Electronic public services for healthcare. I am planning to do volunteer and internship work to gain experience in the IT Security field and then achieve ISC2 certs and learn as much about the Technical aspect of this career journey to be successful at what I chose to endure. Thanks Mazie Johnson Current Capella learner

  2. Jen Williams says:

    Hi Mazie,
    I am glad you found this helpful! Your ideas for getting more experience in your field are great — keep up the good work!