Updated: Mar 6, 2021
If you're lucky, you already know what you want to do next - maybe it's been marinating for a while, or maybe it came to you in a sudden moment of clarity, like when you finally remember the name of that actor in that show you've been watching. If that's the case then click away, this post isn't for you.
If you're like me, however, then you are somewhere on a scale from 'General ballpark' to 'Absolutely no idea, leave me alone'. Truthfully, I didn't know my current job title even existed until about four months before I accepted it. Taking the jump is even harder when you don't know what you're aiming for - so how can you narrow down the vast range of opportunities out there to a more specific landing zone?
Start with your strengths
In a previous post, I shared something my coach had told me - your strengths are the things that, when you do them again and again, they make you stronger. This might sound obvious, but when you step back and consider what yours are, it might indicate where you should be going next. This article offers a good starting point for identifying your strengths.
It's worth adding too that in this context, your strengths shouldn't be restricted to the things
you'd list in an interview. If you work as an investment banker, for instance, then you might never have been called on professionally to demonstrate your artistic prowess or your passion for public speaking or your ability to make others laugh - but when talking career changes, these things are suddenly hugely relevant.
Strengths should not, however, be confused with skills - skills can be learned, but may not give you that feeling of pride and growth when you do them. I have some skill as a baker, for instance, and can whip up a pretty decent cake if required - but I get quickly bored by it and am far happier with the type of cooking that doesn't require the oven to be preheated.
If you're really struggling to identify your strengths, the next point might help.
When are or were you happiest at work?
When I asked myself this question, a couple of examples came to mind almost immediately: a longer period, in the three years leading up to the first exams of a new GCSE specification, when my role as Key Stage 4 lead meant I was totally focused on building a fresh curriculum; and a single day, during an internship in a recruitment marketing firm, when I was seconded into the IT department and challenged to write the code for a dropdown menu within a dropdown menu. I'd never coded before, but after a brief explanation from one of the developers, I spent the next three hours buried in this unfamiliar world until the function I was creating worked. In retrospect it was a huge win for the developer - occupy the intern for half a day on a task that would've taken him maybe half an hour - but even he looked impressed with my patience in finding and fixing mistakes until it worked.
The two might seem completely unrelated - one lasted several years and involved a team of staff and hundreds of students, while the other lasted only a few hours - but on reflection, it became clear that I loved being given a challenge and left to figure it out. Day to day, this wasn't a strength I was getting to exercise as a teacher - often, I felt like the majority of my time was spent trying to clear the stream of work that needed doing immediately like marking another set of books, rather than strategising over the big picture. Recognising this, and other strengths that emerged during the reflection process, helped me identify some of the criteria for whatever my new job might be.
Picture your ideal day at work
I started to open this paragraph with a joke about 'No, sitting on a beach all day is not an option' until I realised that actually, in this age of remote working, it really is. So think big: based on your strengths, and based on your happiest periods from the past, what does your ideal working day look like?
I explored a few dud career ideas before realising that this question needed to be taken more seriously. I liked the idea of working in tech, or working in an industry linked to the things I love: fashion, sport and travel. I was also drawn to roles around sustainability or the environment - I knew from the start that I wanted my next career to offer at least some scope to have a positive impact on the world in some way. But without any idea of an actual job that I could do as an English graduate who'd spent the last nine years teaching English, I felt completely lost about where to go next.
Coding is often touted as the most in-demand skill of the modern job market, and since I knew I'd enjoyed it before, I signed up to CodeAcademy and decided I was going to become a developer. This seemed perfect - I'd have a skill everyone wanted, I could work in an industry I cared about, and I could teach myself in the evenings around work. Had I asked myself what my ideal day at work would look like, I could have saved myself the cost of a CodeAcademy professional subscription.
I eventually realised I didn't want to be at a computer screen all day - I wanted to be talking to people, moving between departments, spending days with Flipchart paper coming up with new ideas, pitching or presenting, and occasionally locking myself away to build or design something. This was an important realisation to have, but didn't help me respond to the question on everyone's lips: what are you going to do next? It was a chance conversation with a friend that provided the answer I needed, as I described the way I wanted to do something creative, personable, involving a bit of tech but not a lot, and that let me solve problems all day. "That sounds like a UX Designer," he told me. I'd never heard of one before, but an afternoon of Googling later and I had a career goal to aim for.
Once you've considered some of the questions above, it's time to talk to people - anyone and everyone - about what they do, what their friends do, what their jobs are like. Keep going until you find someone who describes something like your ideal day, which seems to make use of your strengths. Then, it's time to look at how to get there.
Research routes in to your chosen career
There are very few jobs that are completely out of reach to all but a select few - but the level of sacrifice you might have to make could push some out of your sights. Broadly speaking, the main barriers are likely to be one or a combination of the following:
You need a specific qualification, which you do not currently have. This is an easy fix - find out where you can get it, what it costs, and how much time it requires. And if you're sure it's what you want to do, then get enrolled. The Open University has a huge volume of free courses available across a range of subjects so if you're reluctant to commit, sign up to one of those first and get a taste for what it's like.
You need a portfolio of work before anyone will even consider you. This is a bit trickier, but not an insurmountable barrier. All the UX Designer roles I initially looked at on LinkedIn required a portfolio, so I started to build mine by signing up to a 10-week course that included completing a real project with a real client. It can feel like a never-ending loop - you can't get work without a portfolio, and you can't get a portfolio without work - but my tutors on the course advised that if we needed projects, to start our own. If you want to be a web designer, build a website. Often interviewers are as interested in the process as the outcome, so make sure that whatever you decide to create, you have an identified problem to fix or gap to fill and you're prepared to talk about it. Small businesses or start ups will likely jump at the chance to work with someone needing portfolio projects, especially if you're willing to work for free or at cost price, so this could be another route.
You need industry experience before anyone will even consider you. This is the toughest barrier to overcome - you can't fake several years of experience at home. That said, there are still work-arounds. Check the job description for the type of role you want - are there any elements of it you can demonstrate in your current role? If not, can you create any? For instance, if you want to move into journalism then put yourself forward to write pieces for your organisation's website. Remember also that a huge volume of vacancies don't even make it to job websites - so tell everyone you know that you're looking, and ask them to send any opportunities your way. My current job came about through a friend putting me in touch with the founder of an Ed-Tech start up who needed English teachers to work with him on the English side of the product. I was then able to start applying what I'd learned on my UX course, and eventually a few days of remote (thanks Coronavirus) work experience turned into a job.
Decide on your must-haves, your would-likes, and your definitely-nots.
Ultimately, this is the only question you need to be able to answer - because what has all this been for if you end up in another job you don't enjoy? If your only must-have is the ability to work from a beach in Bali for six months of the year, then you can maintain total flexibility around the industry, the role, perhaps even the salary, as long as that must-have is protected. As safe as it feels to narrow your next step down to a specific role or title - and believe me when I say that's what I was originally aiming to do - what feels like a specific goal could actually end up limiting you. You may not get it right first time, but if you know the feeling you're aiming for when you wake up every Monday morning, and you know broadly how you want to spend your days, then your only goal is to refine and refine until you hit it.
And when you do, let me know so I can share you story on here!