How I Successfully Transitioned to a New Career

When I decided to change careers, I was plagued with reservations, self-doubts and even feelings of disloyalty. While I expected this, I didn’t anticipate just how scary this phase of my life would be. I now count that time as valuable experience and rely on it every time I coach alumni through a job or career transition.

Remember when you were five

A while back, I attended a workshop on career self-assessment. The instructor asked us all to sit quietly for 10 minutes and think back to when we were five years old and wanted to be firemen, transformers, superheroes or ficus plants. I honestly found the exercise uncomfortable, but came to value this first step toward career exploration.

After that workshop, I started making a list of all the things that still made me excited about my job as an attorney, or that I enjoyed doing on those rare occasions I met the billable hour requirements early and could leave the office.

I then put my research skills to work by identifying all kinds of jobs (using job boards) I could do that would utilize my skills and incorporate my specific interests. I wanted an integrative role; it wasn’t enough just to do something that was research-based if it didn’t meet most of my passion-interests.

Working your network

I knew I never wanted to be a partner because I hated networking. Yet, it was the very way I landed my current position. I hated going to receptions with clients and making small talk. As soon as I determined to fully pursue a career change, however, I realized I could be quite good at networking if properly motivated. I reached out to current and former colleagues, law school alumni, undergraduate alumni, former employers and friends who were doing exciting things. I made friends with recruiters, joined LinkedIn and reached out to folks through Facebook. I connected with people I didn’t know, but who were doing something I thought I wanted to do. You would be very surprised how responsive people are when you tell them they are doing great things and you want to be like them when you grow up.

Internship at any age

It’s very important, if you are making what amounts to a real career change from what you are currently doing, that you utilize any opportunity to really understand what the new world is about. This includes understanding how people in this new culture think, speak and behave. For example, I initially thought I wanted to transition into a non-profit career. I took on a pro bono opportunity with a start-up non-profit in order to determine if this new world made sense and if my skills could be easily translated. I quickly realized that I wasn’t yet ready for that world, and it was important that I figured that out before I committed myself to this new path.

Your resume reads like a [lawyer] . . . and that’s a bad thing.

One of the things I had to get used to when I decided to switch careers is that no one is going to hire me just because I’m a lawyer. The average person simply does not know what it is lawyers do, and often have some romanticized version of the characters they see on television.

After I’d done my research and settled on an area of interest (higher education), I began to appreciate that this world had an entire culture and there was a whole new language. Once I had command of the language, I could translate my skill set to prospective employers so they didn’t immediately dismiss me as just a lawyer. After I revised my resume, I used the connections I had made in my new area of interest and had one or two of them review it to make sure it sounded authentic.

Freelance. Freelance. Freelance.

Flexibility is key to a successful career change. If geography or finance is a restriction, remote freelancing is a viable way to explore a new industry. Offer your transferrable skills as incentive to get that first bit of experience on which you can build. It’s often difficult to make inroads in a brand-new field and this is a great way to do so while continuing to earn a living at your present job, without having to relocate. Some freelancing sites include UpWork,, Fiverr and

Your transferrable skills aren’t likely to be evident unless you can easily distance yourself from your resume. Seek the help of a career coach or a trusted friend (preferably one with recruitment credentials) to help you identify these skills for your next best job!

Michelle Shaw ’95, Esq., LEED AP, is a former attorney who currently serves as Associate Director and Pre-Law Advisor for the Williams College Career Center, where she counsels both undergraduates and alumni. A version of this article originally appeared on the Higher Education Recruitment Consortium career blog.