Career Switchers: An interview with Wharton’s Dawn Graham

In the August 14, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader complains about the difficulties in changing careers — and about the costs. So we’re going to discuss career switchers in this special audio edition! Hope you enjoy it!

Question

career switchersI’ve been around the block a few times, that is, I’ve changed jobs. It was never easy, except for one job I got from a personal referral without even a job interview. But nothing prepared me for changing professions. I’ve all but concluded it’s impossible. Even if I could do it, now I question whether it’s worth it because of the haircut I’d have to take in pay.

I’m a successful IT executive. I always wanted to work in investment banking. Everyone told me I’d better get an MBA, so I did. Even the school — a big name — promoted its program as a “career changer.” After a huge tuition bill and three years working diligently at getting into the investment world, I realize career change is a game no one wants to play with you because they’re never going to see what you can do, only what you’ve done. Employers can’t get past the labels. I tried everything from job boards to headhunters to networking meetings to expensive career and life coaches. Can you tell me something I don’t know? Should I give up?

Nick’s Reply

I wouldn’t give up, and I hope you learn something you don’t know in this special audio edition of Ask The Headhunter.

I’m going to let my good buddy Dr. Dawn Graham, Director of Career Management for the MBA program for executives at The Wharton School, answer this one. A former headhunter, Dawn is also a clinical psychologist and she hosts a weekly radio show — “Career Talk” — where I’ve been a guest many times.

This is where the fun starts! In a recent program we turned the tables and I interviewed her about career switching — and we’re going to borrow some excerpts from that interview so we can do an audio edition of Ask The Headhunter this week. (Cool, eh?)

Career switchers

“If you’re like most Americans, you will spend around five years of your life engaged in some type of job search activity. You’ll hold about eleven different positions in the course of your career, and each job search might take you six months or longer. The new normal is not only to switch jobs but to change professions — which isn’t easy to accomplish.”

That’s from Graham’s new book, Switchers, which is a how-to guide for people like you who are pursuing career change. Graham notes that the average time a person spends in a job these days is 4.2 years, so job change of one type or another is quite common.

However, she offers the same caution you’ve heard from me here on Ask The Headhunter: Job change is not as easy as LinkedIn, ZipRecruiter and Indeed suggest it is.

switchers“In our one-click world of instant access, job seekers might expect the same ease in the job search process. Technology has become a seductress, luring candidates into endless hours of internet searches and countless online applications. These methods are barely effective for even the most qualified job applicants, and career changers who rely on them don’t stand a chance. Career Switchers tend to give up not because they lack the skills to excel in their desired profession, but because they don’t have the proper search strategies and knowledge.”

Audio Ask The Headhunter

Knowing I was going to tackle your question here, I waited until Dawn and I  discussed the topic on “Career Talk” so I could share some of the audio here with you. (This originally aired on Sirius XM Channel 132, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School.)

A radio talk show goes quickly, so it’s not possible to get into a topic in great depth — but I thought we could have a little fun with an audio edition of Ask The Headhunter and help the reader who asked this week’s question. I hope you enjoy this little experiment — and that you chime in with your own advice!

Excerpt 1

Let’s start by discussing the two main kinds of career “switch” a person might attempt: the industry switch and the functional switch. Or both! The important insight is that the traditional hiring process has not shifted to make switching easier.

      Switching careers in today's employment market

Excerpt 2

Does the hiring manager think you’re too risky a hire?

      Are some switches more difficult than others?

Excerpt 3

Headhunters and hiring managers are usually averse to risk, so they go for the easy candidates; the ones who are a clear fit with lots of relevant experience. But you may have visions of a radically new career — and none of this seems fair.

      Managers hire the safe candidate

Excerpt 4

Understanding the hiring manager’s mindset will help you deal with the natural biases of hiring managers — and with the inevitable role of emotions in hiring. What are some fundamental laws of psychology that you need to know?

      Emotions & Bias: The psychology of hiring

Excerpt 5

What you think the employer wants, and what they really want, may be two totally different things. Can a candidate figure out what a manager really wants?

      What the hiring manager wants

Excerpt 6

No one wants to take a salary haircut when they change jobs. How realistic is that when changing careers?

      The cost of switching

Excerpt 7

Do you really need more education to get the job you want? More important, does the employer think the education you’re buying is going to make you a more desirable hire?

      The myth of education in career change

Do these excerpts give you some ideas about how to change your approach to switching careers? I hope they at least encourage you to not lose heart and to not stop trying — but to modify your approach a bit.

Career Switching

On the “Career Talk” program we just touched on a few important ideas about switching careers. In her book, Dawn Graham gets into loads of detail, methods and techniques for making career switches. It’s the kind of advice she delivers every day to Executive MBA students at Wharton to help them with their career goals. You’ll have to look long and far to find a column where I’ve endorsed a book — this is one of those rare times. Switchers: How smart professionals change careers and seize success (AMACOM, 2018) is a great tutorial from an accomplished expert I respect.

My goal here, with you, is to riff on what we just heard on the audio excerpts, and to launch some discussion on how to make career change happen. Do you find the issues Graham raises helpful? Is there really a distinction between job change and career change, and is one more challenging than the other?

Have you ever tried to switch careers, either at the industry or functional level — or both? Did it work? Do you recognize any of the issues Dawn and I discussed? Do you have any suggestions on how to expand these ideas to help others change careers? If you were a guest on that edition of “Career Talk,” what questions would you have asked Dawn? (Did you enjoy the audio? Want more in the future?)

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