Switching careers sounds sexy, but don’t forget to read the fine print

A leap of faith.
A leap of faith.
Image: AP/Visar Kryeziu
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No one talks about day five after you’ve decided to switch careers.

Day one was fabulous. I posted on social media that I would be leaving my career in tech to become a journalist and received more “likes” than I knew what to do with. I channeled the well-wishes from my high school classmates and the very distant cousins on Facebook and rode the high for four days strong.

On day five, I sat on my couch and googled how to sign up for health insurance. On day 17, I still hadn’t heard back from any of the publications I’d reached out to. On day 90, I thought about how it would look to take an internship as a 27-year-old.

It feels as though there’s never been a more popular (or celebrated) time to switch careers. Though there isn’t consensus on what constitutes a career switch, the average American worker will hold a dozen jobs between ages 18-50, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The coding boot camp industry, a good proxy for one type of career switch, has grown by a factor of 10 in the past five years. Social media would have you believe that every week another banker has decided to become a farmer, a bike shop owner, or a baker.

But it’s not just social media that has encouraged a generation of workers to quit their jobs to follow their passions. The gig economy has given many career switchers a financial safety net, while online education has democratized the ability to learn new skills—and automation has forced career switching, or at least contemplation of it, for workers who might not have otherwise.

A new career can seem like the cure to your Sunday scaries, but before you leap, it’s important to acknowledge the realities often left out of the Instagram comments. Switching careers can be rewarding, but it takes hundreds of unsexy steps before you create anything worth sharing.

No magic numbers appear in your bank account

When Mike Lewis, the founder of When To Jump, an organization that supports people through career transitions, advises people on their “jump,” he tells them to budget how much they expect a career switch to cost, and then to add 50%.

“People don’t budget enough for the inevitable hurdles that come up when they decide to chase their dreams,” Lewis says. “It’s going to take longer than you think to get off the ground and more patience than you can measure.”

Losing a steady salary can also impact the quality of your work.

“It takes time and space to build things that matter in the world,” says Adam Smiley Poswolsky, author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough and a public speaker on millennial and workplace issues. “If you are constrained by finances, it’s hard to produce at your highest level.”

The water cooler is your sink

Despite your newfound time for coffee dates and networking events, career transitions can be lonely. In a transition, no one else is getting paid to onboard you, offer you feedback, or pat you on the back for your successes.

And once you arrive in a new field, organizational psychologist Liane Davey believes the dynamic flips. Whereas the trust of your colleagues might have afforded you some autonomy in your last role, a new industry will require you to rely on other people.

“You lose the benefit of expertise,” she says. “If you don’t like learning from others, career transitions can be painful.”

It’s the little things

Another big loss in a career transition, according to Davey, is the benefit of habit.”Habit is what makes our daily life manageable,” she says. “Little things that you may have taken for granted are going to take a lot more effort.”

One of Davey’s clients was a big-time accountant who was making the transition to working at a Wall Street bank. Though his compensation was more than adequate and his expertise transferable, he couldn’t get over the 11×14 paper the bank used for its financial reports. He was used to the standard 8.5×11 sheets that he would slide into his briefcase after a long day, but the new sheets didn’t fit.

Whether it’s figuring out the office coffee machine or the industry slang for your new gig, re-learning the tools of the trade can be a full-time job in and of itself.

Not everything changes

Though a career change often seems like a one-way ticket to a happier life, sometimes we overstate the difference between industries.

“Every job has grunt work, office politics, show-offs, and slackers,” says Davey. “If you switched careers to avoid those things, you’re likely out of luck.”

As someone who recently completed a change myself, the best advice I got was to add value before asking for favors. I arrived in my first newsroom with an arsenal of ideas about how to change the media industry, but realized I first had to learn how the industry worked.

Switching careers requires confidence, but also humility.

“A career transition is like going from eighth grade to freshman year of high school,” says Powlowsky. “You have to expect you’re going to get slammed.”