While the numbers vary, most people don’t stay in the same career for their entire working life.
Some take a job because they need it, and they build a career from there. Others knew someone at a company and went for it. And more of us jump to various industries and careers seeking something better.
Maybe you’re in a career because you went to school for it, though the numbers show that’s unlikely.
Related: A guide to becoming a UX designer at age 40
One piece from the Harvard Business Review describes college graduates transitioning into the workforce as follows:
- Sprinters (35 percent of the young adults surveyed) jump right into their career after college or are on a path to a successful launch after completing additional education
- Wanderers (32 percent of the young adults surveyed) take their time—about half of their twenties—to get their start in a career
- Stragglers (33 percent of the young adults surveyed) press pause and spend most of their twenties trying to get their start
I was 37 years old when I decided to transition into UX. It was my fourth career change. In my career (and career transitions), I’ve learned a lot, so if you’re a Wanderer or Straggler (I’m a major Straggler)—this is for you. If you’re a Sprinter… I’m jealous. Good for you, but this definitely isn’t for you.
I give these recommendations knowing that I’m still trying to figure it all out myself. It’s all trial and error—in careers and life. To help you figure out whether you should change careers, here’s my best advice.
Identify if your career is the problem
Sometimes it isn’t your job. It may be something you have to figure out for yourself personally. Finding what you want to do with a considerable amount of your time on this earth is important. That direction needs to be figured out before a sustainable career. And that journey, not ironically, will pull you in and out of careers.
What’s the right role for you? Is it UX, dev, UI…?
Pragmatic approach: Background and experience
If you’ve been a graphic designer, maybe your ideal transition is to UI developer. If you’ve been a market researcher, maybe you can transition to a UX researcher. Some are easier “sells” than others.
Or maybe you’re a chef, a scientist, a teacher—something totally unrelated to what you want to do. I ran school operations—something that doesn’t exactly scream “designer”—before I got into design. For that reason, I sometimes struggle with imposter syndrome.
So look closely at your experience and see what you’ve enjoyed or can use to make a more seamless transition. For example, chefs could note that they have experience remaining calm under pressure, juggling lots of different tasks at once, and managing a team of people.
Taking a strength finder test can also be helpful.
Passion approach: This is what I love
I’m a pragmatist at heart with a passion streak, but I love (and envy) people who follow their passions with bold abandon.
You may really enjoy puzzles and organization and would love to be an information architect, but you may never have done anything relating to this work. Doesn’t matter—pursue it. As a pragmatist I will say that you may need to do more entry level, apprentice work to get there, but you’ll be doing what you want to do.
How will you make the transition?
Will it be a bootcamp, online course, or self-learning?
I did a General Assembly bootcamp, but there are tons of resources to help prepare you for a job in design. You have to understand how you learn—if you can do self learning, need a classroom, or need an organized curriculum. Understand your learning style, budget, and choose from there.
Money and timelines
You have to be sure that you have the funds saved to be able to make the transition. Plan on potentially being either unpaid or severely underpaid for 6-9 months before transitioning into the work.
Will you work contact, freelance, or full time?
To be honest, you may not have a choice here. You may need to take a freelance gig, even if you want a full-time job. But here’s the breakdown of what they look like:
- Contractor/freelance: The key difference is freelance can be week to week and contract is generally a set amount of hours per week for a certain amount of time (could be two months, or two years). Both don’t generally give you benefits (health insurance, 401k, etc.). Some may not pay you right away either. These roles also don’t generally support professional development. However, they give you flexibility, allow you to check out the employer before taking a job there, and most importantly they allow you to gain experience in the transition stage.
- Full-time job: Full-time jobs are great because they give you all the benefits, will hopefully support professional development and invest in your future. Generally they will pay you less (because you have benefits). You will also may be more involved with non-design related stuff that are required for all employees like certain meetings, mid-year reviews, and taking compliance courses. Generally, you won’t have the flexibility of a freelancer and may need to go into an office every day.
What’s important to you? What do you value most?
Money is important to everyone. Don’t be embarrassed if this is your focus. I’ve struggled to pay my bills, and I’ve also been privileged to travel to amazing places across this world. Don’t apologize for money being important to you. Own it and pursue it.
Before transitioning into UX, my work consisted of 70-80 hour work weeks. This was not the life I wanted. If you’re cool with being on call or working through the night for something, go for it.
Related: Designing the perfect work-life balance
If you want flexibility, like the ability to work freelance gigs and take time off when you need it, go for it. If you just want a 9-5 gig so you have time to play Madden, do it. Know where you stand.
We’re in a time where socially conscious work is becoming more important to people. Is this important to you? What does that look like? Is it working for a big company’s philanthropic arm, government, a non-profit. This could be building a product focused on combating sexual assault or an organization that lives by its values in their work. Think through if that’s important.
All of these things can be important to you, but how do they rank? What matters most? These don’t have to be mutually exclusive. However, you should be ready to choose your priority.
Related: The legal and social responsibilities of being a designer
How do you want to work? (work environment, office, organization)
There are organizations that require a team to be together to collaborate, others that are fully remote, and others that are mixed. Do you want free food, a cool location, a diverse team? All of the above?
Sure. But what do you value most?
Who do you want your boss to be?
My best roles have been when I’ve worked for the best bosses. What’s important to you in a boss? A mentor, a visionary, a collaborator? Mentors will guide you but may be more hands off. A visionary will put out amazing ideas but may be less accessible. A collaborator will be in there working alongside you.
“When considering roles, consider who your boss will be.”
There’s a mix of these qualities as well and tons of other bosses in between (and some suck). When considering roles, consider who your boss will be.
It won’t happen right away
Most of us won’t transition into design and get our first job at Google. Use each job as a stepping stone to clarify your wants and needs and keep things moving.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to take some time off and traveled through South America. When I met people they asked: “¿A qué te dedicas?” Literally translated: “To what do you dedicate yourself?”
Think about that: your job as your dedication. So many of us work in a role that doesn’t match what we truly want. Yet we spend so much time doing it.
Career changing is trying to find that true match and ensure that you’re dedicating your time to the right thing.
What do you want to dedicate yourself to?
Robert is a Design Facilitator and Researcher who has worked with startups, the public sector, digital agencies, and large corporations. He is currently building a design practice remotely in the healthcare space. Originally from New York City and now lives on the west side of Los Angeles.