The Highlands Company Blog

Thinking about changing careers? Read our Ultimate Guide to Career Change to find out more

So, you want to change your career? This is straightforward, right? You just think about what else you want to do and go for it. . . .

In theory, that is what happens, but in reality, changing careers can be more problematic. Over the years I have worked with individuals to help them change and pivot to new career directions, and it is not always as straightforward as it seems. You are reading this article, so you may feel stuck or have problems moving forward in a new direction. Having worked with hundreds of different clients who want to switch careers, and having changed careers myself a few times, I know different issues tend to come up through the process. For example, you may not enjoy what you do and are looking for a change in your career, but you don’t know what you want to do for work instead. You might think, “I need a career change,” but do not have any career-change ideas. Or, you may have too many career ideas and not know how to make the life-changing career decision between one idea and another. For many, it is difficult to know how to change career paths. This can be especially true if you have little or no experience in the path you’ve chosen to take.

In this article, you will discover how to change careers. We will focus on the following:

1. What is a career change?
2. Why do you want to make a career change?
3. How do you change careers?
4. Where can you get help?

1. What is a career change?

A career change is a process of moving to work that is different from your previous experience. It can be by choice or involuntary. You may want to change careers because you feel dissatisfied with what you do. Or you simply want to do something else, where there are potentially more opportunities for your future career.

Different types of career change

Career changes can be big or small. Here are the main types of career changes:

  • Promotion: you move vertically to a role, usually with more responsibility. The role can be similar or quite different. For example, moving from a specialist engineering role to a generalist manager’s role can involve different job content and responsibilities. With a promotion, you can move internally or to another organization.
  • External move to a similar role: you move horizontally to a different organization but a similar role. These moves are often made to change environments or salaries. This is not so much a career change as a job change.
  • Internal move to a different role: you move from one type of position to another, such as from a job in logistics to one in buying, within your organization. Different organizations vary in their attitudes as to whether this is possible. It also depends on the qualifications and expertise involved in the different roles. For example, you are not likely to go from being an occupational therapist to a doctor, as there are different qualifications required for each career type.
  • External move to a different role: you move from a different role and different organization. This is arguably the trickiest move and often involves retraining and reskilling, depending on the types of roles involved.
  • Reengineering your role: you change what your role is and how you do it. This is also referred to as crafting your role. This could mean you decrease your work hours from full-time to part-time, which can have a positive impact on work-life integration. Or you may take a sabbatical or take a course to enrich your learning and expertise. Or you may do the job in a different way, such as using technology more or playing more to your strengths. Reengineering your role can be a great way to enrich job satisfaction.
  • Changing types of employment: you move from being self-employed to employed or vice versa, or you become a contractor rather than an employee (or the other way around).
  • Portfolio career: you do more than one role at a time. Having a main job and a side project (also known as a side hustle) can be a good way of testing out a career change. For example, you design websites after hours with a view to convert this work into a business once you have sufficient clients. For some, having two different part-time jobs can add interest and can be a career change to consider. You may find that one is the job about which you feel passionate, while the other pays the bills!
  • Change of mindset: not strictly a career change, but thinking differently can help with job satisfaction. In many situations, trying to be happier at work just doesn’t cut the mustard, and a full career change is required. It is, however, a good starting point. If you really cannot find happiness at work, perhaps it is time to switch careers.

2. Why do you want to make a career change?

The first thing to consider when making a career change is, why do you want to? This defines the problem. If you know what the problem is, it is easier to come up with a targeted approach to finding a solution.

What is really going on? Take some time to ask yourself the following: What is not working for you? What are your issues at work? What is missing? How long have you felt like this—is this a phase or sticky patch, or is it really time for a career change?

I am not putting you off changing careers. It is perfectly possible to change careers at any age. I believe everyone should be happy at work. If you are unhappy, it can have adverse effects not only on your work but also on the rest of your life. But it is good to understand what is going on so you can take the appropriate action. Sometimes, a small change, such as moving to another job in the same environment, can make big improvements to how you feel about your job.

Here are the main reasons it is time for a career change:

  • Your job is making you ill: Do you feel exhausted all the time and find it hard to get going, even on the weekend or days off? Do you feel emotional or weepy for no apparent reason and find it hard to control this? Or do you find it hard to get to sleep at night, or stay awake during the day? If you feel like this and it is due to the stress of your job, it may well be time for you to think about a career change.

    If your job is making you ill, it can be for a variety of reasons. External reasons include having a toxic boss or working in an environment that is too stressful for you. Internal reasons include doing work that does not suit your natural abilities, skills, values, or personality. It helps enormously to be interested in what you do. Your mindset can affect how happy you are in general and therefore how happy you are at work. If you are resilient and optimistic, you are more likely to be happy. If you are always negative, you are more likely to be unhappy, wherever you are.
  • You dread going to work: Do you go to sleep every night dreading the next day of work? Have a “Miserable Monday” every Monday? Stay awake late on Sundays, so the weekend is longer? Everyone has ups and downs at work, but if you truly, deeply dread those eight hours at the office, it is time to make plans to change what you do for work. We work an average of 90,000 hours in our lifetimes. That is a lot of hours. Work out how many years, weeks, and hours you have left before you retire. . . . does this give you the motivation to empower you to switch careers to something that makes you happy and satisfied at work?
  • Your work feels meaningless: If you are counting the hours until the end of the day and are bored and feeling you are wasting your life with pointless and meaningless work that you do not enjoy, it is time to find something else. One of the keys to workplace happiness and work engagement is having a sense of meaning and purpose in what you do. If you cannot find this in your work, you might want to think about what would give you that sense of purpose elsewhere.
  • Your work does not match your values: If what you do clashes with your values or if you work in a culture that does not fit with who you are, that is a reason to leave the job. Values are so important, and it is vital to feel your values match with those of the organization. Think about what matters to you at work. For example, if you have values such as autonomy or work-life balance and you are in a job where you must be available 24/7, this is not going to be a job that works for you.
  • Your negativity outweighs your positivity: Think about your conversations with friends and family members. Are you constantly complaining about your boss, your coworkers, your workplace, or the job itself? Your job should bring positive energy into your life. Apart from everything else, it is exhausting for others, too, if you constantly complain. If you find yourself constantly complaining about work, that is a sign that you either need to think differently about your work or leave the job.
  • Your workplace is constantly negative: Emotions are contagious. Having a negative boss or colleagues can be catching! A negative organizational culture can mean that complaining and victim mentalities are rife throughout the company. It is not conducive to a healthy work life and it is a reason to leave the job. It is a good idea to question whether your environment is common to your industry or just the organization. If just the organization, then maybe it is time to try somewhere else, rather than a new career.
  • You are being unfairly paid or treated: If you feel overqualified for your job or underpaid for what you do, that can affect career satisfaction. Sometimes we have a sense of unfairness around pay that is not necessarily founded, so do your research and determine the going rates. When an organization is not doing well, people may be paid below the going rate. But if the company is doing well and your pay does not match up with your level of expertise—with no changes on the horizon—that is a reason to leave the job. Does low pay have to do with the career path you have chosen or the organization for which you work? Is it a change of career or new organization you are seeking?
  • Your confidence is eroded by work: If you have a manager who does not bring out the best in you or give you feedback, or if you are in an oppressive environment where you cannot express yourself or speak up, you may feel your confidence is being eroded. Your confidence can also be affected by the work itself if there is no room for growth or you feel you are not using your skill set. You may feel you are being “deskilled.” This is a reason to leave the job and find work where you can grow and flourish.
  • Your environment does not suit who you are: Sometimes certain environments just do not suit who you are. For example, I have had clients who work offshore in the oil and gas sector. If you do not like to work offshore, away from home for long stretches of time, and are a petroleum engineer, it might be time to look for an alternative career. If you are working in a fast-paced environment such as an emergency room and prefer to work at a slower pace, this may not be the right fit for you, and you may want to consider changing careers.
  • Your career outlook is bleak: The impact of factors such as industrialization, globalization, society, culture, and information technology has played a huge factor in our professional lives and the sort of careers and jobs that are available to us. Over the years, we have seen job types come and go. Think about the demise of jobs in shipbuilding or coal mining. Whereas, who would have thought you could have a career as a blogger or an influencer? Not to mention the myriad of different job types in information technology and artificial intelligence. COVID-19 has played its part in changing careers, and we are seeing many jobs being substituted with artificial intelligence. If the future of your career is not bright, it might be an idea to start considering other career options.
  • You just fancy a change!: Perhaps you have fallen out of love with what you do or it no longer interests you. You want to explore other career options and change direction to work that appeals to you and that you feel you would love.As we have seen, the reasons for a career change can revolve around being in the “wrong” job or role—meaning one where you are not suited to the role in terms of your natural abilities, motivated skills, interests, values, or personality.

Everyone is unique, so everyone needs different things from his or her career. You may feel you are in the wrong job for various reasons. For example, you are bored and not interested in what you do. Or you may feel that you are not matched because the job does not suit your values and feels meaningless and lacking in purpose. Or you may feel something is missing because you are not using your abilities or motivated skills.

Research varies as to how many people feel they are in the wrong job. In the UK, it seems to vary between 30% and 50% of workers. In the US it is higher, with research pointing to over 50% of people feeling they are in the wrong job. It will be interesting to see how the pandemic affects these statistics. For some, their jobs have improved (e.g., less traveling, fewer meetings, the content of the job has changed, busyness); for others, for the same reasons, jobs have changed in a less positive way.

3. How do you change careers?

When you think about a career change, the best place to start is with you!

We have talked about your starting point: What is going on, and why do you want to change careers? 

The next step is to do a personal audit around the main areas that affect career happiness. Everyone is unique, so it is essential to find out what is important to you. The main areas that affect career happiness are your:

  • expectations, including family influences;
  • previous experiences;
  • natural abilities;
  • skills;
  • interests;
  • personal style;
  • values; and
  • mindset. 

The Highlands Company has created a model that demonstrates these important areas of career management:

At its core, knowing yourself is knowing your innate, hard-wired abilities. For over fifteen years, I have been using the Highlands Ability Battery with clients in career-change work to identify their innate strengths. The battery helps you to:

  • understand your strengths and innate abilities and what comes easily and naturally to you;
  • build confidence around your strengths (it is powerful to see your abilities in black and white, with normalized scores that are tested objectively);
  • provide direction as to the sort of activities that would be more suited for you;
  • understand how you best communicate, solve problems, and make decisions; 
  • generate career ideas for career change around your abilities; and
  • generate ideas as to how you can be happier in your current role and life.

The battery takes three hours to complete, resulting in comprehensive reports and in-depth feedback

The battery can be taken alone or with other exercises and coaching to find out more about your career motivators.

Once you have a good idea of who you are and what you need from a career, you can start to evaluate the career ideas you already had and those that come out of this process. At this stage, you need to think realistically—what is possible, given your circumstances; what is available; and what you can make a living doing? You go from looking inside to evaluate what you need to looking outside at options in the marketplace. 

Now you will have an idea of the sort of work you want to do, how and where you want to do it, and potentially who you want to do it with. You then research the options to find out more and evaluate those options against your needs. 

You now have direction. The next step is to think about what you need to do to follow that direction: what skills do you have that match the job requirements, and what are those you need to attain? This may involve rewriting your CV, getting some relevant experience, networking with the relevant people, retraining, or studying. Your action plan will be developed from your research. 

4. Where can you get help?

If you are stuck with your career change, why not engage a career coach? When looking for a career coach, ensure he or she is suitably qualified and experienced. If you want to take the Highlands Ability Battery, consultants have received in-depth training and are able to administer and give feedback. It is useful to take the battery by itself or as part of a career-change program.

Diana Dawson is the founder of Working Career. She is an Executive and Career Coach and an Accredited Master Coach with the Association for Coaching. She is based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Diana provides career programs for Career Change and Career Development, which include the Highlands Ability Battery.

For nearly 20 years, Diana has had the privilege of helping people be happy, successful, and fulfilled at work.