One of my first adult mentors in college worked as an adjunct for a single college journalism class while also serving as advisor to the campus weekly newspaper. Her day job was in public relations, a field she no longer wanted to pursue, but one that paid the bills.
For many people, that would be that. An unpleasant day job offset by a secondary gig they enjoyed would be their lot in life. My part-time professor friend, however, did not see it that way. She could not just quit her job and go after full-time teaching work, but she could make a plan that would eventually get her where she wanted to go.
It took a few years, but she did eventually get hired full-time in the journalism department, around the time I had fully entered the work force myself. She wasn't intentionally teaching me a lesson, but her experience did teach me that my current career need not be my future one.
That's a lesson that has led to me running a giant toy store, serving as executive director for a group of rock band summer camps, and moving from straight journalism into the financial world. In many cases my career moves were more about belief that I could make the leap than actual preparation, but for those looking to make a career change it's smarter to take a measured, step-by-step approach.
1. Figure out what you want to do
Knowing that you want a new career and picking what to do next are two very different things. In some cases people will have a dream they want to pursue, and in others making a career change may be as much about money as happiness. No matter what your reasons are, you need to know where you are going to set your course to get there.
2. Make sure you like it
While it's impossible to test every aspect of a potential new profession, you should do your best to to get a taste of it. For example, if you hear an ad offering cross country truck drivers relatively big salaries, it's important to figure out if you enjoy, or at least tolerate, long periods in the driver's seat.
3. Figure out what you need
Some jobs require no specific certifications or degrees, but others (like the aforementioned trucking job) do. Before you can apply for a nursing position or a job as a tugboat captain, you will need to acquire the relevant degrees, certifications, and/or licenses.
4. Make some friends
While you are preparing to enter a new field, it's important to meet some people who are already in it. They can help with the second item on this list, and can steer you toward jobs once you have everything you need to be able to work in the profession.
5. Take a reality check
If your dream job is becoming the next Tom Cruise, you have to accept that getting where you want to go is not fully in your control. That does not mean you can't pursue acting or the film industry, but you need to find a realistic way to make a living. I'd like to be a movie star, but just being a camera operator while auditioning for parts is a reasonable plan -- whereas just working on the first part would not be.
6. Make a financial plan
Changing careers can mean taking a lower salary or even being out of work for a period of time. It's also possible that in some cases you will go right into a new profession with a raise, or that you will incur expenses going to school. No matter which situation applies to you, it's important to have a financial plan so you can pay your bills and remain afloat during the transition.
7. Go do it
The biggest thing keeping most people from making a major change is that they talk about what they want, but never actually follow these steps to make it happen. It's possible you may fail in your quest to change careers. You will definitely fail though if you merely talk about what you want and never try to get it.