I spent most of the last decade coasting through jobs I didn’t like very much. Though I learned a lot, I never had a job that felt like a great fit, and I had no sense of a career path.
After getting a master’s in public affairs, I started a job in transportation research, partly because research is what I thought I was supposed to do with my degree. Like all the jobs I’d held before, my interest in being a transportation researcher waned after a while.
There were times when I thought I’d never enjoy working. But that didn’t really bother me. I was comfortable with the idea that my real life started at quitting time. I left work at work, played sports, spent time with friends, traveled, volunteered for political campaigns — this was the stuff that really brought me joy. I spent years comfortably apathetic about my professional life.
Finally, after four years pursuing a career (transportation research) I didn’t want, indifference gave way to frustration, and I realized I couldn’t stand being unhappy and bored for eight hours a day anymore. I had been a high achiever my whole life, and I knew that within me was someone who loved working hard toward goals she cared about. I had finally decided I was stuck and needed a change.
While I had no idea where to start at the time, looking back I clearly see the steps I took that led me to a new career I love. What follows is an outline of those steps and some hard numbers so you can see exactly what I did. If you feel like you’re stuck and contemplating a career change, I hope this gives you some ideas for where to begin.
1. I asked my friends for help.
One thing I’ve always done in times of struggle is talk to friends, so that’s what I did first. When I told one of my most energetic and supportive friends (hint: it’s Alyssa) I was seriously thinking about a career change, she asked me to read “Designing Your Life” with her. The book is about learning what you like to do and trying out jobs (or skills you’d have to use at a job) before committing. Completing the exercises with Alyssa helped me feel like I was finally doing SOMETHING to move forward. I also started to see that most of the things I enjoyed doing related broadly to communication.
After that, I emailed 40 trusted friends to ask them for career advice. I explained what my current job was and what I thought I might be interested in. The advice and contacts they shared helped me get the networking ball rolling.
2. I talked to a bunch of strangers.
I reached out to the contacts my friends suggested. I still didn’t know what kind of job I wanted, so I mostly asked people to tell me about their jobs, what they liked and didn’t like about them and if they had any advice for someone in my position.
3. I started a side project.
Having a job I wasn’t deeply invested in meant I had the time and energy to explore other things. I had always loved the idea of helping women develop professionally, and a phone call with Jen sparked the idea for this blog, The Juggle. Alyssa and Amy quickly got on board, and we started strategizing about the blog and writing articles regularly.
At the time it just felt like a fun thing to do, but I realized later that I was actually developing the skills I would need for my future job. When I interviewed for jobs, I was able to point to my work on The Juggle as an example of my marketing and creative skills.
4. I took some classes.
My first class at General Assembly — an education organization that teaches practical technology skills — was a free resume workshop. I found out they offered relatively inexpensive workshops on other subjects (digital marketing! User experience design!) that interested me. They were aimed at beginners, so I learned the basics of those fields, including the skills they require and what you do all day.
After six months of attending about two workshops and networking events per month, light bulbs started going off in my brain. I was becoming more interested in tech, and I felt like I was designing my own “intro to tech” course. I also learned that there was something called “content” (basically anything that communicates something) that encompassed the kinds of things I wanted to create (e.g., articles, photos, blog posts, videos, etc.) but hadn’t had a word for.
5. I read and listened to a bunch of stuff.
In addition to attending classes, I read books and listened to podcasts. For example, I loved “Content Strategy for the Web” because it emphasized defining your content based on your goals, instead of just doing things the way they’ve always been done.
And many of the podcasts I listened to were about different roles in the tech field. They taught me which skills I needed and how to describe the skills I already had in order to break in.
The books and podcasts I tuned into helped me learn the terminology used in tech, which was crucial. It allowed me to speak the language of hiring managers and show them I knew how to apply my existing skills to the tech field.
6. I applied to jobs.
Early in this process, I applied to two jobs at organizations where I didn’t know or connect with anyone before applying. I didn’t get either job.
This is unsurprising for at least two reasons: 1) Over half of applications are rejected by applicant tracking systems before a human ever sees them (likely because the resume and cover letter don’t match the job description closely enough), and 2) 70 percent of all jobs are found through networking.
I realized I needed a different approach. So…
7. I focused my networking.
By now, I had a lot more confidence in my skills and interests, and in my ability to explain them. I started reaching out to people in organizations I thought I might want to work for. If I didn’t know someone (or someone who knew someone) at the company, I cold-messaged people on LinkedIn.
I learned about two places in Austin (where I live) that I was interested in: a tech and innovation department within city government, and a medium-sized tech company.
For the city job, I met three people who worked there through friends or by attending the department’s public events. I had informational interview coffees with two of them that went really well.
At the tech company, I already had multiple contacts. The first time I visited to meet with a friend of a friend, I knew I wanted to work there. I had never been to a tech office before and was blown away by the perks. With a full cafeteria, a juice bar and ping pong tables, it felt like a playground, not an office.
Once the person I was meeting with started telling me how much she loved the company and her job (“My friends tell me to shut up about it already, but I seriously love my job so much.”), I was hooked. I worked my way through lunches and coffees with everyone I could connect with there (six people in total), and when the perfect job opened up, I was able to get an internal employee referral from one of them.
I applied to both the city and tech company jobs and was offered both.
8. I started a new job!
I ended up choosing the tech company job for financial and career growth reasons. In March of 2018, I started my job as a content marketing manager and couldn’t be happier I made the change. I’m finally in a job where things make sense and interest me, and where I’m inspired to think beyond the task in front of me.
Going from the public to the private sector, I got a substantial pay increase. Though that felt like a big win, it wasn’t why I changed jobs — I would have taken a job I liked even if it didn’t come with a raise.
There’s no right or wrong way to lead your life, and having a “meh” job and relying on your “after 5:00 life” for fulfillment is totally fine. For me, I needed to bring my brains and enthusiasm to work more often in order to feel happier.
I am very lucky — I have multiple degrees, a professional network and over a decade of work experience. This put me at a huge advantage that many others don’t have. But privilege aside, the career move I made was significant (transportation researcher to tech marketing) and a much bigger leap than I thought I could take.
If you’re thinking about making a change, I hope my story encourages you to believe that your skills are more transferable and your career is more flexible than you think. You’ve got this.