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How to Change Careers After 50 and Seize Success

Advice from 'Switchers' author and 'Career Talk' radio host Dawn Graham


If you want to change careers in your 50s or 60, it’ll be useful to know what Dawn Graham suggests. The author of the new book Switchers, Graham is director of career management for the Executive MBA Program at The Wharton School and host of Sirius XM Radio’s weekly call-in show, Career Talk. She’s also a career coach, a psychologist and a former corporate recruiter.

I recently interviewed Graham for her advice on how to change careers and, as she says, “seize success.” Highlights:

Next Avenue: What’s your top piece of advice to people in their 50s or 60s who are thinking about changing careers if they want to seize success?

Dawn Graham

Dawn Graham: You have to be very clear on your path. A lot of people know they don’t want to do what they used to do, but they’re less clear about where they want to go. When you don’t have a plan, you come across to contacts and interviewers as ‘this is a whim,’ or as not having as structured a plan as they would like to see.

What’s a traditional job-seeking strategy to avoid when changing careers?

The traditional process is you see job posts online and you put together a resumé and apply with the expectation that you’ll get called for an interview and eventually land a job. The challenge for a job switcher is that employers’ [computerized Applicant Tracking System] platforms are biased toward traditional candidates and are looking for the right keywords and experience in a given field.

So how do you get around this?

Networking. It really helps job switchers get past the bias in the hiring process. Employers tend to hire the same types of people and overlook switchers who are motivated to make a career change. But networking helps introduce you to hiring managers.

How can a prospective job switcher network well?

As an introvert myself, I’m not a natural networker. But every point in the day you have an opportunity to meet new people or deepen a relationship. Whether you reach out on LinkedIn to people you met at a conference or sit with people from a different department at lunch, you can make this a regular part of your day-to-day.

People start networking with people they know; that’s the most comfortable strategy. But we forget that those people have ‘second-level contacts’ who may not know you. And chances are, those are the people who will lead you to your best opportunities. So step one is to get the people you know to understand what you want to do and share that with their second-level contacts.

You say there are three types of career switches. Can you talk about each?

The first is an industry switch. It’s moderately challenging. It’s the kind of switch where you don’t have to change your functional skills, but you have no experience in the industry you want to work in.

The second is a functional switch, and it’s very challenging. You don’t have the functional skills, but you do have industry experience. To do this, you will probably stay within the same industry. Maybe you can stay at the same company if you have a strong track record there. If not, it’s a little more difficult as a search, because you have to convince a new company to take a chance on you.

The third type is a double switcher where you’re trying to make a switch both in function and in industry. It’s extremely challenging. You’re asking an employer to take a big risk on you.

Any advice for making a double switch in your 50s or 60s?

The benefit of being in your 50s or 60s is you have a robust network that you may not have cultivated from past jobs or from your alma mater or from volunteer organizations where you’ve worked. Warm up your dormant ties with people who you had a great relationship with once. They know you’re a great person and hiring managers want great people.

You suggest people do what you call a ‘stepping stone switch.’ What’s that?

It means you don’t do a big switch all at once. Maybe you gain some functional skills to do a switch within your company or industry. And after two years, you try to switch industries. The benefit of doing this is if you’re in a company and are a stellar performer, it can be easier to make a functional switch there. They may be more willing to train you.

Also, you can offer to create an experiment at your company.  A lot of managers are willing to be flexible if it’s a reversible decision. You can say: ‘I’d like to help the marketing team for three months and we can see how it goes.’

You say that getting a degree or certification isn’t a ‘magic bullet’ for switching careers. Why?

A lot of people try to get a degree or certification and they think this will reinvent them. But hirers know that what happens in a classroom is often different than what happens in a job. Experience always trumps school. That’s not to say that higher education can’t be a great way to network, and if it has an internship or a project in the workplace with real-world experience, that can be a great thing. Unfortunately, a lot of advanced degrees are just papers and tests.

What are the best ways to use social media to switch careers?

Take one or two tools — like LinkedIn and maybe Facebook or Twitter — and build your personal brand with them. Follow thought leaders and create your own content. You might want to get into groups on those social media platforms. You want to be immersed in communities where you’re going, so you can demonstrate that you are really looking to make a switch.

How long will it take to make a career switch?

It depends on how much you’re willing to sacrifice or trade off to get where you want to be. If you’re not willing to sacrifice much or make trade-offs, it may take you a really long time. But if you’re willing to trade off geography or pay, that will help you get where you want to be.

How should someone use a career coach to make a career switch?

I think if you’re going to make a major switch, it’s a good idea to get a coach involved at the beginning. A coach can help you understand hiring strategies and biases against career switchers in the hiring system.

How can you find one?

Sites like TheMuse.com. Also the National Career Development Association has coaches who’ve been doing this work a long time. Get a free consultation to see if the career coach and you are a good match.

Richard Eisenberg
By Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch.@richeis315

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