Career Change? Four Mistakes To Avoid When You Tell Your Story To Employers And Recruiters
If you’re attempting a career change — from one industry to another, from one functional role to another, from a sabbatical or family leave to getting back to work – you will be telling employers, recruiters, and others in your network your STORY.
You are often asked for a general story: Tell me about yourself. Walk me through your career. Or you may be asked specifically about your career change: How did you come to this new sector? Why are you returning to work? Either way, as a career changer, you need to convincingly and compellingly get the listener excited about you in your new career. Notice how I said you in your new career, not thinking about your new career or testing out your prospects or anything but you 100% all-in with your new career. Career change mistake #1, then, is talking too much about hopes and dreams and not enough about actions and results. Dreams over actions is one key mistake career changers make when they tell their story. Here are three more mistakes to avoid when you tell your career change story to employers and recruiters:
Giving the “real” reasons for your career change
I coached a career changer who transitioned from analytics to communications and from financial services to healthcare. She loves her new career but actually fell into it accidentally – after having her first child, she wanted to leave banking, so she started freelancing, and her first project happened to be healthcare communications, but she loved it and kept going. So being the honest person that she was, her story always included how she fell into her new role, how the change was prompted by her newborn, and how she NEVER expected to be in this new career…The story, while factually correct, just underscores her outsider status (and her working mom status which isn’t a selling point with most employers).
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. – Soren Kierkegaard
I love this quote for career changers. We live life forwards – picking up opportunities as they arise, adjusting to circumstances such as parenthood. These forward-moving actions put us in the career we have now. But when you construct your story, you want to take the backwards view and pull out the threads and patterns that make your transition story understandable, even inevitable. In the above example, the career changer could absolutely have acknowledged that the first healthcare communications project was opportunistic, but her choice to remain was deliberate, not accidental. And while personal reasons are always part of the choices we make, why reveal them? That’s TMI – too much information. Get to know your new career story looking backwards, and tell it that way.
Emphasizing your newbie status with the words Change, Transition, or New
Another good reason for making your move into new career sound deliberate and planned out is to give you credibility and make you seem less like a newbie. The employer, recruiter, or even a networking lead who wants to refer you needs to be assured you have arrived and can 100% do the job. They don’t want to hear about your change journey, just the destination. They are not hiring you (or referring you) so that you can learn on someone else’s dime and time. If you’re used to telling your story apologetically, “I just started…” or “I have only one project…” or “I’m new…” build your story around results, not time. “Currently I’m working on X.” Talk about projects, activities like memberships, expertise-builders like conferences. Tell your story in the thick of the new career you’re in to draw the listener into seeing you in that new career and out of your old one.
Sure, you may be asked about your former career, especially if you’ve had significant time and accomplishments in that area. Don’t get drawn into talking about your old career on its own. Always draw a parallel to how it’s relevant to your new career. Do not assume that your listener will know how it relates. If you get absorbed into your former career, you will sound like you miss it. If you are much more accomplished in your old career than new one, you will just underscore how raw you are in your new area. Never spend the majority of time talking about your past; always drive the conversation back to the present and your future contributions to this new employer.
Getting defensive about your career change story
Yes, you will have to proactively design your story, practice telling it to stay on message for your new career and prepare yourself for reluctance, even suspicion from recruiters and employers. Don’t get defensive, don’t assume you’re hiding it well. When I have clients who are frustrated or anxious with their job search (and career change is a tougher job search), the clients often think people don’t notice the frustration or anxiety. But these negative emotions are very noticeable.
You must prepare for pointed questions about why you left your former career – repeated questions, disbelief at your initial answers, and additional probing. Expect this and practice staying on your message in a neutral, confident voice. The recruiter or employer you’re talking to at that moment may have made a very different choice – maybe they’re an aspiring career changer. They may secretly be rooting for you, and the doubts they express could be their own personal projections.
You need to have a career change story that satisfies all types of listeners – the ones who probe for the “real” reason, the ones who test your credibility, and the ones who put you on the defensive. Practice a positive story, and stick to it!
Some of these posts are nice, but it's a shame that none of these posters/bloggers come here and engage in dialog. Kinda defeats the purpose of the forum.
Anyways, good post - I'll add to her points:
1. On Caroline's first piece of advice: Fully agree on the backwards view, career story wise. Totally a lot of my career was opportunistic but firm on my decision to take a job offer - I an easily look back and see the Line running through my story - and I turn that into the story of my "growth trajectory" - the words in the quotes there are what I use to initate my elevator career history pitch. Its funny the story-line is a bit differentiated from the a bit of the reality of the situation but certainly consistent and factual. (if that makes sense). I don't need to murky the waters with Too Much Information, (i.e. minor details of a family need warrenting a job change etc. etc.) .
2. The second point on not emphasizing Newbie Status: The Gap here in Caroline's post and did not mention more directly is how is to avoid the "dreamer" label one can get by talking about aspiratations, dreams and not what one does. Caroline does gives a soft piece of advice, but where I'll add and where I'll firm it up: It is important that one talks to the learnings in past and current roles, that they will bring to the new role and company!!
This irrespective if one is a newbie or a transitioner be it job function, or new company and role is what is where the value-added discussion starts in an interview. That I'm firm on. And that discussion of carried over learning to a future role is critical! Why?
It shows you have directly considered the role in front of you - you can outline what you think the needs of the role are, why you're interested, why you would love the role and intersect that with the value you bring. So instead of looking like a newbie or dreamer they way this conversation goes nearly starts with confidence and conviction which is a better starting point to be than …"well I just started a project and I'm still learning the in and outs and you role is one I've dream of because...um..i like umm..science and business ...um..yeah….that's why...duh huh.." One looks unintelligent with a start like that.
Be it you're scientist at a bench looking to go in industry or a tenured industry professional in some form of transition, internal..OR ..external. Tell'em what you learned, what you bring, and to what and why.
3. I totally agree with don't get defensive. Just acknowledge the way things are done. If some one wants to go on the offensive, i.e. 9 out of 10 times its you feeling defensive, where Caroline hints to and that can be for any question where you're feeling on the defensive spot. Remember you're sitting in that interview chair because somebody saw something in you. Keep calm and cool.
Anyway, probably no response from the OP, but happy to entertain discussion.
DX, the arm chair organizational behavior specialist. No credentials, just experience, I don't need no stinking certificate. (Badges?..we don't need no sticking Badges)
Great reply to the blog, DX.
As a recruiter, we're not a big help to the big career changer, or the industry changer. Don't rely on headhunters for lots of help here. Think of what they are paid to do . . . they must find a person who is presently doing exactly what they need done. They won't accept referrals from a headhunter who is a "wanna be" to that job. Yes, hiring managers can be persuaded to take a risk, but they need a good case as DX and the OP suggest.
I would also remember that career opportunities are always best made with one transition at a time. Each of these is a possible "choke point" in the move to a new scenario. For example, moving from academia to industry . . . typically, a tough one, but everyone does it, so you know it can be done. but it's best to move from doing E Coli fermentation in a research lab at the U, to doing E Coli fermentation in an industry lab or pilot plant. That's ONE chokepoint (the move to industry, a different culture). Now, how about the move from doing E Coli fermentations to a Business Development or Regulatory position in a company? Great areas for career development, but moving from academia to one of them is TWO chokepoints. Can be done, but ten times harder.
If you have a long-term career goal to move into a different field, doing different type of work, in a different industry, the best approach in my opinion is to find a way, via ONE chokepoint, to move first into the sector in some way and then to move into the ideal role in future career moves. It's like a game of chess. You make the first move from doing E Coli fermentations in academia, to the company in their fermentation lab, and then as you network internally with people in Business Dev or in Regulatory, you make the move over to that department after you've gotten used to the academia/industry switch.
Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
Bio Careers Forum
Really love the "chokepoint" description of career transition challenge that many don't deeply consider. And that links to the concept of "stepping stone".
Within and external to this forum, I"ve seen job seeks get hung up on seeking a position without considering that a "stepping stone" maybe be something that they need to consider: for themselves. Usually the story is, "people are getting those roles, so I should get it to" and the fact most of the time they don't know what knowledge, skills and abilities those people carried to cross the chokepoint. So that leads to the other issue is job seeking and advancement needs to be tailored to the individual.
For one role in particular, one that is noted as one where transition to industry is feasible, I've seen people litterally go nuts, get depressed or crazy leading to the worse-case outcome..lost time because for varied reasons they can't access that path immediately. So bent up that they can't see there is another path, a more easier "chokepoint" to explore that will then aid in getting to the target position in the not too distant future, while gaining some great learnings. Usually the profile of these people is that they've been looking for 6 to 8 months, they have nothing, their plan is continue to look for that same job indefinitely without considering other paths. Lost time. No gain.
The other related issue is concept of grunt work. One can transition to industry doing E-coli fermentation but even in the company, that does not mean one will be qualified for Regulatory Affairs Director in 3 days after starting (LOL). One builds a bridge, so maybe a low hanging fruit is grunt level Regulatory Affairs Technical Writer and go from there etc. etc. A chokepoint to the target job is then addressed.
Anyway, the chokepoint concept is good, often I say is look for knowledge and skill "adjacency" as you described. My first pharma role was linked to an "adjacency" - the knowledge from my research work was directly transferable to how one of their drugs was mechanistically working. So tick a big box. And what's more is that I could clearly explain it to a non-science practitioner or elderly family member, and clearly and have them understand. Tick a big box. As for the rest, had some small other boxes I could tick to.
Thanks DX. I am completely in agreement with you on the concept of grunt work. So many people want to start at the top, not the bottom. Anyone who is successful in any career seems to have understood that in order to learn a trade, you start digging at the bottom of the ladder. There's something about getting the PhD, I believe . . . the job seeker earned the advance degree, which is genuinely a ton of work, stress, and so on, and they should be congratulated. But then it is expected that this automatically places them in the line for top roles, when in reality the employer looks for people with EXPERIENCE in that area, and a fresh PhD does not have that. The PhD is really just a license to hunt, and you still have to go out and catch the bear.
The only way to do that, at least the way with consistent results, is to move as easily as possible into the environment you want to be in (one chokepoint - Academia to Government, Academia to Industry, etc). Then, once in that environment, take on the grunt work (thanks DX) that gives you some basic grounding in whatever niche you want to end up in. And move from the bottom up in to the job you want.
Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
Bio Careers Forum
Well, as we do in Marketing, when it comes to career development - start with the tactics and build to the strategy.
Applies to any function/job path.