BBC Capital

Career Coach

How to make a dramatic career change

About the author

Elizabeth is a freelance writer in California and a former Career Q&A columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

(ThinkStock)

(ThinkStock)

For London-based Michelle Brideau, 10 years in the travel industry felt like an eternity. What started as low pay and high stress — but great perks — had evolved into low pay, high stress, no perks and lots of competition from the internet.

Brideau was ready for a change. She considered running a mobile coffee cart for commuters in her neighbourhood but the idea of London winters spent outside quickly nixed those plans. She decided on a career in technology. 

The problem: no experience.

At some point in almost everyone’s career comes the desire to change fields and try something completely different. But one of the most common stumbling blocks to making a dramatic career change is a lack of experience in the new field. Gaining that experience often means taking what can feel like a giant step backwards in your career, whether it’s by re-entering the student world or signing on for an internship. Choices like these can be financially draining in the short term, but the long-term hope is that they will pay off before too long.

Back to basics

Brideau needed to learn to code if she was going to launch a career in technology. But she’d been under the impression it would take years of schoolwork to learn what she needed to in order to make the switch, she said in an email. Then she heard about the Makers Academy, a highly selective coding program in London that teaches web development. The intensive 10-week program, (it now costs £7200 and is three months long) meant Brideau was studying code whenever she “wasn’t eating or sleeping.”

With the coding experience under her belt, Brideau spent two months looking for the right job or internship. “I made sure to get out into the developer community as much as possible: meet ups, events, conferences, job fairs and such,” she said. “I also went to interviews, was invited to do code exercises as part of the job application process and I continued to study at home.”  

Eventually, through the connections she made, Brideau landed a six-month paid code-writing internship at London-based Enternships, which places students and recent graduates in positions with starts ups and small businesses. Once her internship is over, she hopes to find a position as a junior coder.

“The hardest part was taking the leap to doing something so completely different than I have ever done previously,” said Brideau. She likened it to the move she had made from Canada to the UK. “You keep moving forward with a lot of unanswered questions not knowing how it will all turn out until one day you find yourself at home in your new surroundings.”

Internships represent one of the best ways to gain experience and get a foot in the door in today’s project-based economy, said Larry Stybel, a principal at Stybel Peabody & Associates Inc, a leadership coaching and senior outplacement firm in Waltham, Massachusetts.

It’s important to define your “compensation” before starting an internship, according to Stybel. It can be more than monetary. “It could be a title for your resume or a commitment for a good reference,” he said. If you don’t ask for what you want, at some point you are going to “feel like you’re being taken advantage of.”

Get experience in less time-intensive ways

Obviously, not everyone can afford to pay thousands of dollars or euros for a three-month class — or take the time off for coursework or a full-time internship. But you can still get valuable experience. Many jobs have become more project-oriented in recent years, said Stybel. So, for example, helping out or learning the ropes by working on the company’s website, therefore, can be done during off hours or on the weekends and from home. 

Work shadowing and volunteer positions are other ways to build up experience without leaving your current position, according to Sab Byrne, online editor of Careershifters.org, a London-based career-change advice website. If someone in your organisation is working at a role that interests you, ask if you can shadow them for a few hours or offer to help out on a short-term project. You can also reach out to people in your networks or your university alumni association for recommendations of people who might be willing to have you shadow them.

“People are generally amenable to this if they think you will help them, rather than get in the way,” said Byrne in an email. “This 'informal' work shadowing is a great way to build up contacts, test drive a career option to see if it is right for you and start to build up some experience.”

Another low-cost, low-time way to gain skills and experience: tutorial websites, both free and subscription-based, can help you become an “expert” in specific skills in a short time. Consider a tutorial on how to create a blog or website to showcase your work and expertise.

“You could even create mini-projects for yourself that you treat as work to build up your portfolio, so you have something to show employers,” said Byrne.

Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.