Tips for Surviving a Career Transition

About a year ago I began a career shift from nonprofit administration to user experience design.

At the time, I was designing and building websites as part of my job at a legal assistance nonprofit. For about 18 months, I read about user experience design and applied my learnings to my work. I was loving it. When a friend asked me why I wasn’t pursuing a career in design, I was surprised to realize that was exactly what I wanted to do.

A change in career is daunting. I had spent years getting my bearings in non-profit administration after school, doing the tedious hard work that is typically handed down to interns. After years of work and impostor syndrome, I had finally reached a place in my career where I was confident in my abilities and had learned to trust my gut. And then I decided to try something new.

Here’s how I survived the transition.

I let my curiosity lead me.

I read books about UX design. I took a course at General Assembly. I interviewed friends who worked in design, and friends of friends, and finally just asked people I met at networking events to meet me for coffee. Anytime I started to feel overwhelmed by the transition, I learned something new and felt renewed excitement and joy about my decision to change careers.

I recognized my past experience — personal and professional — as valuable.

It felt like I was starting from the beginning again when I left my job at the legal assistance nonprofit. However, I learned that my past experiences were lending a good deal of skill and knowledge to my new endeavor. I took note of what I had learned in the past and started to see that I was not starting fresh, but rather building upon everything I had learned thus far.

I built community around my transition.

I am an introvert and love to be home alone with a creative project. Yet, I forced myself to go to 2–4 networking events per week for months. I saw every person I met as a friend that would make the next event feel a little less daunting. I acquired a good number of mentors and friends in the field and they helped me to remember that I wasn’t trying to achieve the impossible.

I did my best to see the experience as an experiment in learning.

I’ve struggled with perfectionism since I was a little kid, which made school and learning feel more stressful than fun. Recognizing this, I decided to allow this transition to be — above all — an opportunity to make mistakes and act with humility. By reforming the experience as a learning experiment, I felt more freedom to take risks and tell the truth about feeling scared and unsure, which resulted in more sincere connections.

Don’t get me wrong: a career change is at times stressful, discouraging, and scary. I was constantly plagued with the nagging thought that it might not work out, and I would have to figure out a Plan B. At the same time though, it is so gratifying to decide, “I am going to believe in myself and make this happen,” and having friends and community along the way made all the difference.

I’d love to hear what you’ve learned about getting through a career transition. How did you make the experience enjoyable despite the looming unknowns? Let me know in a comment below or email me with your thoughts.

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