One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a career changer is to set your intention on a specific profession without properly researching it first. You too might have met people who went to graduate school (and sometimes borrowed a lot of money to do so) only to discover after graduation what their chosen profession was really like, or professionals who burnt out so badly at their job that they ended up leaving their career, only to rush into another one that is equally unfulfilling. This is why I cannot stress enough the importance of researching a possible new career before taking the leap. While nothing is 100 percent guaranteed, you can definitely hedge your bets by taking the following steps to research potential professions.
1. Take an Inexpensive Course
In the past, people tended to be trained a lot more on the job, and college degrees were relatively affordable. Nowadays, however, companies expect individuals to bear the cost of their own training, and the price tag on college education has soared. This means that often, even the most entry-level jobs require job seekers — and especially career changers — to invest significant time and money in learning new skills. But before you make that type of commitment in the hopes of changing careers, why not trying things out as inexpensively as possible?
Let’s say, for example, that you are thinking of project management as a possible new career. You can look for an introductory course on Coursera, Udemy or Lynda.com, and if you really enjoy it, only then look into longer and more expensive programs.
Remember, you are not taking the inexpensive course to get a degree or become an expert. You want just enough information to choose whether to pursue it further.
2. Read Profession & Industry-Specific Blogs and Books
You can tell a lot by reading industry-specific blogs and books. Do you find them interesting? Do you enjoy learning more and more about the most important trends and topics within the profession? This step will also help you come up with more interesting questions to ask during your informational interviews: no need to ask for what you can easily read up on. Use the time you get with a fellow human being to dig into the least understood aspects of a possible career.
3. Join Facebook Groups and/or Attend Talks by Professional Organizations
You can meet lots of people in your field of interest by joining Facebook groups or going to live events that have a specific professional focus. What do these professionals talk about? What are their concerns? How friendly are they? How welcoming are they of newbies? Pay attention to whether you relate to their way of communicating, how you feel when interacting and whether the conversations and content tend to be mostly solution or problem-focused. It’s up to you to make these spaces work for you.
A few tips: when joining a Facebook group, introduce yourself and then observe things for a while. Do not ask random and very general questions such as, “Should I freelance?” Nobody in the group knows you well enough to give you that kind of advice. Instead, keep your eyes open for interesting people you can approach for an informational interview.
When at a live event, take some time to say hello to fellow attendees. Often, we think the speakers are the only interesting people present, when in reality, the most amazing connections can happen just by turning to the person sitting next to you. Notice again how you like the general “vibe:” does it feel open, welcoming? Do you like the topics and conversations? These can all be clues as to whether you would enjoy being part of the community. Remember, a career is not just the skills you use at work, but also the way you relate to your colleagues, and they to you.
4. Look People Up on Linkedin
It’s also important to get a sense of what experience people usually have before they get a foot in the door, or any other indication of how your present skills and job experience/education fare compared to others in the industry. Does everyone you see working in your chosen profession have a graduate degree? Are there a lot of career changers?
Some industries and professions are more open than others. For example, the tech industry tends to be more results-oriented than other fields, partly because of necessity, as technology is evolving so fast that new professions are created before traditional colleges can establish programs to teach the new skills. Additionally, there are usually no legal requirements to join its ranks. Some professions, on the other hand, are more tightly regulated and require specific degrees and licenses. So make sure to find out what is mandated by law vs. what is at the discretion of employers before investing in a new career.
5. Talk to People in the Field
No one can tell you more than the people working in the field. The reality of working in a specific profession is often not what the media portrays, or as you imagine it to be. For example, many people go into the arts because they like creativity and aesthetics, without realizing that many artists are self-employed. As a working artist, you will have to learn how to negotiate fees, find clients, market your work and do business. In other words, a lot of what professional artists do is marketing and business development, so you better be open to learning these skills!
Whatever profession you are thinking of entering, it is imperative you talk to 10 people who are in that same profession. Why 10? Because that’s enough people to notice some consistent trends in their answers (e.g. lack of work-life balance). One word of caution: informational interviews need to be set up and conducted right in order to give you the inside information you need. So make sure to avoid these common mistakes and set yourself up for success.
6. Research Salary Ranges
Sometimes, we focus so much on negotiating skills that we forget that profession and industry are the two most important factors in the amount of money we can get paid. Sure, there are actors who make millions of dollars per year — but we all know the vast majority of actors are underpaid. On the other hand, even junior-level positions for some professions can be very well compensated. For example, UX Designers and Software Engineers can start their careers at salaries much higher than average.
Estimating your earning potential is very important, especially if you have specific financial goals in mind, or you are considering taking out loans to go back to school. If you borrow way too much compared to what you can realistically expect to make after graduation, you risk setting yourself up for failure in the long run. Glassdoor is one of the top resources online to research salary ranges, and I highly recommend you spend plenty of time researching their database. Tip: always research profession and location — salaries can vary a lot from city to city!
7. Look at Online Reviews
Another reason to spend time on Glassdoor is to browse their anonymous employee reviews: they can tell you a lot about a company and the culture they are building. Pick a few different companies in your area and see if you can find reviews from people who have the profession you are thinking of entering. See if you notice specific recurring complaints or positive comments. Look for insights into the way people interact with each other, work-life balance, etc. While a lot depends on specific teams and organizations, you might notice recurring issues across different companies, indicating more systemic issues within the profession or industry. You can then dig a little deeper during your informational interviews.
8. Research the State and City You Want to Work in
And last, but not least, each city has its own ecosystem of opportunities. Whether you are open to moving or set to stay, make sure to look up data on each city you are considering living in: their most vibrant industries, biggest employers, median income and cost of living. Check also whether state, local governments or organizations offer programs to enter the workforce, learn new skills or support entrepreneurship. Vermont, for example, is offering grants to remote workers who relocate there, and Newburgh Heights, Ohio, helps you pay back your student loans.
If you take time to work through each of the steps above, you will have a much better idea of what any specific profession is really like: the skills you get to use, industry-specific trends, the way people relate to each other, openness to career changers and more. Work through this process, and what you want to do will appear clearer and clearer until the right next step appears. Happy journeying!
Aurora Meneghello is a Los Angeles-based career coach and the founder of Repurpose Your Purpose. She works with groups and individuals who want to change careers.