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What to Do When You Realize You Chose the Wrong Career

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upset man with "help" sign on forehead

You loved every second of your four undergraduate years. From day one, you knew this was exactly what you were meant to do for the rest of your life. You could see yourself being fulfilled by a job in this field for many years to come without losing the least bit of steam.

There’s just one problem. There are only about 10 jobs in the whole country in your field, and about 100,000,000 people are competing for them.

Actually, there are a few more problems. Those 10 jobs happen to be located in the middle of small-town Alaska, far, far away from friends and family. Also, they pay way below the cost of living, and there’s no guarantee those jobs will still exist a couple years from now.

In other words, even though you’re still motivated and driven to pursue the career you always knew was right for you, it’s just not a viable option anymore. The jobs simply aren’t there.

Think this is hypothetical?

I found myself in this situation when I graduated with a journalism degree just as the economy tanked. During my post-graduation summer internship with a major newspaper, I watched the publication go through two rounds of layoffs in 12 weeks. Meanwhile I saw former superstar classmates—the ones I was certain would become the next Woodward or Bernstein—lose their jobs left and right.

My passion for journalism was still strong, but the instability and uncertainty of the field made me realize I needed a new plan.

Five years later, I’ve found my niche as a Web copywriter. As a journalism student, I had never considered any other job. But due to the doom and gloom surrounding the “death of the industry,” my journalism-focused self had to find new focus.

You can transition to a new career, too, and you don’t have to go back to school to do it. Here’s how you can translate your skills and passion into a different job you may not have even known existed:

Focus on what you love so much about your career of choice

Maybe you’re one of those people whose job suddenly went “poof!” Or, all the jobs in your field seemed to evaporate while you were in school. Either way, the lack of jobs doesn’t change your passion for that job. There’s a reason you decided to pursue that particular degree and career.

Figure out what drove you in this direction. Then, start to brainstorm what other careers might require those same skills and passions.

In my case, I loved the way sentences could be put together to tell stories. I loved that words could make readers feel something or teach them something new. And I loved to geek out over proper comma placement and sentence structure.

I didn’t have to be a journalist to maintain my passion for all those things. As a copywriter, I still get to tell different kinds of stories. And I still get the satisfaction of agonizing over every single word and piece of punctuation to craft the perfect sentence.

Identify what you don’t love so much about your career of choice

You already know what you like about this career. That’s the easy part. But it also helps to identify what’s unattractive about the field. You may find it hard to accept its faults, but being realistic about the not-so-great qualities of your career path will help you understand and accept why it’s time to move on.

Maybe you love the good that nonprofits do, but you don’t love the stress and overwork that come along with the lack of funding. Remember, there are for-profit companies that do work you can feel good about and still help people.

Or, you’re a teacher who loves helping children grow and learn. But as you struggle to stay on top of Common Core Standards with the constant threat of layoffs, administrative meetings and paperwork, your motivation is draining. You could consider becoming a child care provider. As a nanny, for example, you’d still be instrumental to children’s learning and development, but without as many of the stressful, non-children-focused aspects of the job.

Of course, I didn’t love the instability of journalism as I was just getting started in the field. That was a big part of my decision to transition to something else.

But I also realized I wasn’t a die-hard journalist. Breaking the news wasn’t my thing. As a student, my concentration had been in magazine journalism and longer-form storytelling. If I had loved the thrill of breaking a story before anyone else did, I might have stuck with journalism and fought tooth-and-nail to find and maintain a job.

I didn’t leave, breathe and die journalism. I lived, breathed and died part of it: the writing and storytelling. Accepting that there were aspects of this field that were not “me” made it easier to leave it behind.

Creep on what your former classmates are doing

You’ve already decided that you need to transition to something else, and now you have a list of the skills and passions you want to take with you to a new role. The next step is to figure out in which direction, exactly, you want to head.

Remember you’re not the only one in this situation. Your classmates are likely going through the same path of exploration as they struggle to find a way to land on their feet without giving up doing what they love.

Now is the perfect time to reconnect and see what they’re up to (or simply creep on their Facebook and LinkedIn profiles to see where they’re working nowadays).

Some will be still trying (and hopefully succeeding) at the original career. Some will have gone back to grad school to start a completely new one. Some will have fallen back on working for their family’s business or might seem like they’re doing nothing much at all.

But there will always be a handful of people who are doing something creative. Use them as inspiration as you decide how to move forward. They may even offer you some connections to get your foot in the door to follow their path.

I saw a lot of classmates who were freelancing for all sorts of interesting publications. Few of them were able to make a full-time salary out of it, but it was a natural direction to put our journalism skills to good use and make a little bit of money while we figured things out.

So I started writing for online publications for low pay and even for free. I began to build a small portfolio of work that any hiring manager could find by Googling my name. My Web writing experience eventually led me to my first junior copywriting position for a digital public relations firm.

Do what you’ve always wanted to do as you figure it out

Not having a stable job is stressful, and it’s even more stressful if you don’t know what job you should even look for.

Try to use this limbo as an opportunity to focus on something you’ve always wanted to explore but never had time to do.

Look for an internship or start volunteering in a field you’ve always been interested in. When a friend was laid off from his job, he wasn’t quite sure what direction he wanted to head in. While he explored his options, he volunteered at a small local brewery because he loved craft beer and wanted to learn more about the industry.

That’s how he discovered his passion. He now works for a growing microbrewery as a brewer and helps with their marketing. He loves his job—much more than the one he was laid off from.

It can be disheartening when you feel like the world is against you and telling you that you picked the wrong career. But just because everything hasn’t gone according to plan doesn’t mean you have to turn your back to the job you love and go in a completely different direction. By following the above tips, you can just reroute your career GPS to arrive at a new, equally fulfilling destination.

Have you had to change the direction of your career due to forces out of your control? How did you do it?

Betsy Mikel has been reading and writing since she was a TV-deprived bookwormy kid. Visit her website and connect with her on Twitter.

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