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What to Do When You Realize You Chose the Wrong Career

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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.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • Raina Zarb Adami

    This post is weared same on me, guys i am also travelling my wrong career problem. i did’t getting any idea what 2 do for right career. i read whole this article content some thinking are arising.

  • NICK

    very nice post on the web. we assumed are fullfill.

  • Rome Guides

    Excellent article. The idea of the “downgrade” should be more considered: not everyone is able to choose immediatly the right career :)
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    • BetseeM

      Absolutely! I did have to write for free or dirt cheap to be able to make this transition.

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  • Gary Strong

    decent listing, totally understandable

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  • Anonymous

    Perfect article! For 2 years before my graduation I had been so sure of what I wanted to become…until I got just that and realized it’s not entirely what I wanted after all. Now I’m at a limbo trying to figure out what to do next. I like the tip about thinking back to why you wanted to pursue the career in the first place, then trying out a different job that still satisfies this desire. Many thanks!

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    Yes, before I thought I had to be a nurse but then I realized that I love working online. I just told my parents that nursing career is not for me. I knew they were frustrated but I proved to them that even I took another career path, I still have something to be proud of. I have no regrets where I am now and I believe my parents are also happy as well. Great post!

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    • BetseeM

      Good for you!

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  • cole

    Good article! It’s really inspiring. I have a question. What is your reaction to the idea that people who did take Journalism courses also have the same job as those who do? Do you think it’s unfair or that they are incompetent and an insult to the craft, or do you think it’s fine because maybe you do not have to go to college for it?

    • BetseeM

      I don’t think you have to go to college to be a good journalist. My degree helped me learn a lot, and I don’t regret my path at all. But just as much is learned on the job during internships or in the trenches reporting, writing, getting ripped to shreds by your editor, rewriting, and rewriting again.

  • TV

    I started over again after 20 years post-college work experience. It has been a long process moving from software development (which culminated in working in online advertising) to government administration and public affairs. it involved going back to school for a second masters degree and countless hours networking and attending professional association events, conferences. I also spent 2 years volunteering in the field with no pay. So the advice to “Do what you have always wanted to do” really worked out for me. I also made strategic moves developed from using some common analytical tools (SWOT, gap analysis, environment scans, situation analysis, stakeholder analysis, HR analysis). And the most important thing I did was to STICK TO THE PLAN. it would have been so easy to get off course, but whether my chips were up or down, I kept on heading in the direction I was trying to go. I also had to maintain resiliency and also give up some quality of life while I made sacrifices to make a change. 4 years later, I’ve made a lot of progress. I work in the field I want to be in, I’m almost finished with my degree, and I have a lot of contacts for future better job leads.

    • CareerAddict

      Very inspirational! Its easy to read articles like this but there is always that slice of doubt in your mind of whether the advice would sit well in a real life situation. It’s always good to have feedback from somebody who has lived to experience the scary step we are considering taking. Thanks for sharing your story!

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  • Victoria Lee

    This is such a wonderful article. I began transitioning to a new career a year ago, and have been working out how to merge what I loved about my first jobs at community orgs to what I’m doing now. I wish I had come across an article like this during the early days.

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  • M.L.H. Javert

    Music graduate with no desire to teach (and no teaching license anyway), who can’t spend $200 on gas all the time to drive and play or sing for events for a flat fee of no more than $50 (since mediocre, not-famous musicians are underpaid)… Yeah – I can’t tie my original career path to anything productive that has a living wage. I love how music reaches the soul when words are useless, but frankly that doesn’t tie into any other industry outside of conducting and performing. God willing, I’ll find something, because I was a lazy student (and as such, my grades reflected that), so going to grad school to learn a different career is not much of an option.

  • Tamika Shuler

    Well I’m a teacher and in college this is what I thought I wanted to do. After I graduated I went in to the customer service field before switching into education. Now after so many years as a teacher, I am not so much convinced that I’m loving it. It is an everchanging yet rewarding field but in my mid-30s, I’m pushing myself to find my niche.

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    I have been in the military for over 12 years. I won’t go into detail but will say this much, that was an incredibly detailed and well written post and one I needed to read. I don’t think the majority of people who are working their current jobs could look back and think to themselves when they were freshman ‘wow, THIS is the job I always dreamed of having’. Although I have been honored to serve (although my viewpoints of certain high figures I will not discuss) the military was never the route I intended to go. I’m still working on creating my own job doing what I love and that I can help people the most at. Thanks again for this, was a great read.

  • Raghav

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  • Arashi

    This has been… surprisingly spot-on. I, too, studied Journalism and am somewhat disillusioned with the profession. I write about the economy and about politics, and sometimes think that a chimp with both hands tied could do what I do. It’s unbelievably boring and pathetic. In addition, I work for a guy who drives me crazy for many reasons; he’s the kind of person who thinks that flexible hours means I have to be available 24/7, and who believes that it is part of my job description to bring his coffee, fix his computer and find the best prices for his son’s school books. Seriously.

    However, I have a reason for staying in this job, and it’s the flexible hours. I went back to school for a second degree a few years ago and I’m on my last year. I need to complete my degree, and flexible hours are not easy to find. I’d be happy with earning way less, but jobs are really scarce. So, I stay. But it is getting harder every day, because I’m pretty unhappy. I can’t afford to just quit, because let’s face it: this is the real world and I have bills to pay.

    You gave me some good ideas and now I see that I’m not the only one in this boat, so thank you.

  • Lexi

    I wrote this article for young women to read everywhere and I hope for your contributions of advice. Help me share this and help us young women learn from your example!
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