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Ask The Career Coach: Shifting Career Fields

July 10, 2013

Denise.RiebmanToday’s blog post comes from our “Ask the Career Coach” Column by Denise Riebman (AmeriCorps ’94), Director of Career Development and Alumni Services for the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at George Washington University. Each month Denise takes questions from our LinkedIn Group and responds in our “Ask the Career Coach” column.  If you have a question for the AmeriCorps Alums “Ask the Career Coach” column, you can submit it here.

Question:  Do you have any advice for changing career fields?

I have managed an urban adult computer literacy program, led environmental education in the Montana woods, coordinated a state government youth development initiative, filed briefs for a law firm, organized corporate days of community service, taught English in Nepal, trained on food security issues and launched a graduate school career center – I think this gives me just a bit of credibility on how to effectively shift fields and sectors.  And while you may wonder if I suffer from PSHAW (Professional Short-term Hopeless Attention Wanderlust), I’m going to share what I’ve learned on how to build a fulfilling career that adapts as your interests evolve.

Reality Check

Reality CheckEarly in my career, when I couldn’t get urban adolescent boys to stop throwing frogs against trees, I decided to shift from teaching about the environment’s potential to teaching youth about their own potential.  I realized that unless they respected themselves, getting them to respect nature was going to be nearly impossible.  After this “ah-ha moment,” I started volunteering with youth development organizations to better understand the field, gain hands-on experience and see where my strengths would be best applied.  Volunteering, informational interviewing and job shadowing can open your eyes to reality rather than having an idealized view and can also help you assess if your abilities are the best fit for the field.  For example, I almost went back to get a second master’s degree in education until I spent the day with a high school social studies teacher where I learned that, while I love teachING youth, I would not be a good teachER – slight difference in language, but big difference in my career choice.

Job Market Check

Whether it’s federal sequestration, corporate cut backs, foundation giving shifts or local government budget shortfalls, you need to research what is happening both nationally and geographically.  Read the latest state budget where you live, review the list of your community foundation grants, follow federal career news at, learn about the national job outlook at – make sure that jobs are there!

Leverage Your Current Position

Whether you are still an AmeriCorps member or in another position, you should expand your current role to build transferable skills and knowledge to help you shift to a new field.  When I was at Boston Cares, I knew I wanted to transition into leadership development and training, so I worked with my Executive Director to write a successful grant to create a Civic Leadership Institute.  Not only did I get to develop the very skills I was looking to enhance for the next step in my career, but I also developed a new program that greatly benefited our organization.   Gauge how receptive you think your employer will be before deciding how transparent to be about steps you are taking to support your future ambitions.

Expand Beyond Your Current Position

In the book, “The Start-Up of You,” the authors talk about creating an “Interesting People” fund to pay for networking to cultivate new and existing relationships.  I’m going to expand the term and call it an “Interesting Life” fund to pay for potential opportunities to pivot your career like professional development, trainings, conferences, certifications, association fees and travel for networking events.

If your financial means are limited, even putting away $3-5 a week can add up to allow you to take advantage of opportunities you would ordinarily pass up.  When I was starting out in my career, I attended low-cost trainings offered by local nonprofits and often volunteered at them to attend for free.  As I advanced in my career, I have used this funding for more substantive trainings like life coaching and positive psychology.  Not only did I gain invaluable skills, but these trainings were added to my resume to shift its focus from where I currently was to where I wanted to go.

Other easy ways to build experience and credibility in a new field/sector is to do pro bono volunteer projects or freelance work like consulting for a nonprofit board, assisting with a charity event, managing an environmental project or advising a company on a philanthropic initiative.   As I transitioned into training and coaching, I offered my services for no or very low cost to build a reputation in the field.  A recent Money Magazine article, “Lean Out” talks about doing what Roy Cohen, a NYC career coach calls opportunistic career management which enables you to continue to make yourself valuable in your current job while leaning out into what’s next.

Expand Beyond Your Current Network

If you’ve been working in one field/sector, then most likely your network leans heavily in that area.  In addition to all of the previously mentioned ideas that will both enhance your skills and also expand your network, I’d also suggest attending conferences/speaker events, joining associations and signing up for meet-up groups to connect with like-minded professionals.  Join LinkedIn Groups in your desired field to learn about the leading organizations and individuals and to familiarize yourself with up-to-date research, upcoming conferences and current conversations.


Last month’s Career Coach Column covered using steppingstones when moving to a new city and the same concept is true when looking to move into a new field.  Explore positions at organizations which are working on a broad range of issues so that you could land a position based on your current experience and transition into other projects and roles within the same place.  I worked with a student who accepted a position within the Department of Education that was not in her preferred area.  However, once she was settled into her role, she offered to assist with additional projects beyond her initial scope of work that extended into her ideal area of interest.  She built her experience and reputation for this area until she eventually transitioned into a new role within the agency.

Sector Agnostic

If you’re looking to transition into a different sector, the great news is that the fluidity between sectors nowadays allows professionals to continually shift throughout their career versus 20 years ago when things were much more compartmentalized.  The term “sector agnostic” is one that I often hear from HR professionals as a way to explain that they don’t care what sector the applicant has been working in as long as they can demonstrate an understanding of their particular company, organization or government agency and have the necessary transferable skills for the position.  Which leads us into the final tip….

Messaging Your LinkedIn Profile, Resume and Cover Letter

It is critical that your professional collateral highlights transferable skills and illustrates how you are value added to this new field.  Use your LinkedIn summary to clearly articulate your interest and any experience (volunteer, trainings, certifications, academic courses/papers, travel) you have in the transition field.  Check out other profiles in the fields/positions you would like to shift into for tips on how to fine tune your message.

Maximize the power of your resume by writing a professional profile that makes the case of your transition to a different field/sector, including having a core competencies section that highlights transferable skills.   Structure your resume in a hybrid chronological/functional format to give you an opportunity to shift the focus on where you want to go rather than where you are now (Refer to  our Translating AmeriCorps Onto Your Resume webinar for more information on this resume style).  Be mindful of language choice to use the right terminology that is being currently spoken in that field/sector.

When I successfully applied for a national training position at an organization focused on hunger issues, in the first paragraph of my cover letter, I leveraged my extensive training background while explaining that while I hadn’t worked in the food security field, I had academic coursework, volunteer experience and a passion for this issue.  And I was prepared for the very pointed interview questions to gauge if I was really interested in this field or just looking to land any job.


Time is limitedFinally, as you explore your transition, I want to talk about Henry David Thoreau and Steve Jobs.  Few people know that Henry David Thoreau, a man best known for living in the woods writing about nature and philosophical life, spent a year in New York City when he was frustrated by his lack of writing success.   He was miserable living in the city as he was trying to be something he was not.  It is easy to get lured to another field based on unrealistic expectations or frustration of lack of opportunities in your current line of work.   Stay true to your authentic nature of your gifts and what you truly want to be doing with your life.  And if you decide that you do want to make a change, then don’t let fear or uncertainty hold you back. Steve Jobs said it best, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom Reed permalink
    July 30, 2013 4:40 pm

    Spectacular advice! Thank you so much!

  2. Denise Riebman permalink
    September 5, 2013 10:04 pm

    Thanks Tom! I so appreciate the kind words!

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