Finding a new job within your chosen field can be daunting, but changing careers entirely presents an even bigger challenge. How do you get your foot in the door if you don’t have experience? Should you go back to school? In her new book, career coach, former recruiter and psychologist Dawn Graham assures readers that the many obstacles along the path to a job change are not insurmountable. Graham, who hosts Career Talk on Wharton Business Radio on Sirius XM and is director of career advancement for the Wharton MBA Program, spoke with Knowledge at Wharton about her book, Switchers: How Smart Professionals Change Careers and Seize Success.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: How prevalent is the career switch these days?
Dawn Graham: It’s getting to be much more of the norm versus staying. You probably have seen the statistics out there about people staying in jobs about 4.2 years. You’re no longer retiring from the company and getting the gold watch.
It’s an interesting shift because job-hopping was really frowned upon. But the bias has swung to the other side. If you’re in a job for eight to 10 years, companies start to wonder if you’re very agile. When you look at the data about satisfaction and work, most people — I think 80% — are not satisfied in their jobs. The No. 1 thing that tends to make people satisfied is their interest in work.
We get on a ladder when we get out of school. We stay on this ladder and move up until we realize we’re 15 years in and this isn’t what we want to do anymore. We have all these skills, and now we want to do something completely different. But how do you do it? Here at Wharton, we have about 225 students in the executive program every year, and more than half want to switch careers.
Knowledge at Wharton: Obviously, not being happy in a particular job is a big part of this. But is it also a personal desire to have something fresh, to go down a different path?
Graham: I think it’s because we can now. You’ve heard about the gig economy and portfolio careers and side hustles. The world is so much more connected now with everybody on social media and the internet, and you start seeing your former colleagues or your friends doing really cool things, and you start to think, “Hey, I could do that, too.” There’s so much more opportunity [today] that we no longer have to settle. We’re much more mobile now. People work from home, so your opportunities are no longer just in your backyard. You can really work from anywhere.
“You’re no longer retiring from the company and getting the gold watch.”
Knowledge at Wharton: For people who aren’t here at the Wharton MBA Program, what do they need to think about if they are considering a career switch?
Graham: I’m glad you brought that up because that question comes up: “Is your book based on Wharton MBAs?” That’s a very specific population. I’ve been in career management for 20 years, and I wrote most of this book before I even came to Wharton. The examples and a lot of the theories and strategies in there are based on my clients prior to this. This is people from all age ranges, all backgrounds, all levels. That’s who this book is for, not for the person who goes back and gets their MBA and switches jobs.
One of the questions in the book is, “Do you even need to go back to school?” One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is in their first step, when they decide they aren’t happy with what they’re doing. They go back and get a graduate degree thinking it will lead to this big change. But what you don’t realize is that you still have that difficult job search on the end of those two years and that degree. Now you’ve invested all this money and time, and you weren’t even sure if this is going to get you where you want to go. Unless the program you’re going to is very applied or has internships or ways for you to get real-life experience, an advanced degree might not open the doors that you think it will.
Knowledge at Wharton: In the book, you talk about clarifying Plan A. When people think ahead, it’s usually about having a Plan B as a backup. Can you explain what you mean by Plan A?
Graham: The first title of the book was Forget Plan B. When I put this out to the market, they had some concerns because that can mean a lot of things. The reason I thought that concept was so central to the book, enough to be the title, was because having a Plan A and going all in is critical to switching careers. There are a number of reasons. First, if you’re not confident that you can make this switch, why should anyone else be confident? Why should a hiring manager or someone in your network take a chance on you if you’re saying, “But I have a Plan B.”
Another reason is that research done here at Wharton shows that once you have a Plan B, you tend to fall back on it. You’re not as motivated. It’s scary to go all in on something that is new to you and different. What I recommend is really mapping out that Plan A and defining all the pieces, so you know that this is what you want to do. That’s why I say don’t make school the first step. School may be a step, but it shouldn’t be the first one. Then really going all in so that your network and hiring managers are confident in you, and you don’t fall back on your Plan B. Do everything in your power to get to your dream because if you don’t go all in, then you’ll never know if you can get there.
Unfortunately, what I find is that so many people don’t make a change, not because they weren’t capable of doing the work in the new job, but because the hiring practices today are not designed for them to get hired. They give up because they keep getting rejected. That’s what this book is really about. The Plan A is the kick off to a step-by-step strategy to create a way to get past the hiring biases that exist. Let’s face it, the hiring practices are getting more automated and catering towards the traditional candidate.
Knowledge at Wharton: What does that mean for the job market? We have more people searching for jobs than we have jobs open.
Graham: As a hiring manager, I did recruiting for a number of years. You want to get as many candidates as you can so you can find the right one. But when you put out a job ad and get 250, which is pretty standard for an online job, now the game becomes about elimination, not selection.
I’m a psychologist as well, and the book covers a lot of the psychology of the job search because what I want readers to understand is what’s happening on the other side of the desk and the psychology of the hiring manager. When you get 250 résumés, you’re now talking about elimination. When you’re in that first pool, it’s all about looking for red flags. Do you have gaps on your résumé? Are you a switcher? Yeah, you’re a switcher. You don’t have the right key words. I’m going to push you out.
“There’s so much more opportunity [today] that we no longer have to settle.”
The whole idea is to get beyond that and get in with the referral. Because I’ll tell you, hiring managers don’t want to spend any more time in the hiring process than you do. They want to get it done, get a good candidate and move on.
Knowledge at Wharton: You talk in the book about creating ambassadors. How is that different than networking?
Graham: I’m an introvert. I’m not a natural networker. But what I’ve learned through the research I’ve done, as well as my experience as a recruiter and a job seeker, is that this is where the opportunities come from whether you’re a traditional candidate or a switcher. It’s not enough to know people; what you have to do is create ambassadors. There are so many jobs available every day, and when you have an ambassador who knows your Plan A and knows the value you add to companies, they can be out there advocating for you as well as bringing opportunities back to you.
Everybody has a network. You don’t have to go out there and create it. Think about the people who are closest to you, people you talk to every day. Can they, in one or two sentences, say what you do on a day-to-day basis in a way that shows your value? Most can’t. Most can say, “Oh, you work at Wharton,” or “Oh, you are a project manager.” But they don’t know what you do. I think we miss a huge opportunity in networking when the people who care about us and love us and want to see us succeed can’t verbalize in one to two sentences what we do so that they can be out there looking for opportunities for us.
Sometimes the people we know have the best contacts. Your dentist has people rotating through the chair all the time. You don’t know who their spouse is. You don’t know who your neighbor’s cousin is. They may work at the companies you want. If you can verbalize very clearly your value, you can create an ambassador who’s out there, and the opportunities will be endless.
Knowledge at Wharton: You’re talking about the idea of personal branding. How much value does that really have?
Graham: I know there are mixed reviews on this, but companies live by brands because brands build trust. This is why people pay more for Tylenol versus generic. The psychology of the job search is that, regardless of how much data a company collects on you, the research shows that humans are incapable of making a decision without emotions. I think this is important and why you need a brand, because we all come to the table with a variety of skills and qualities and things about us that are great accomplishments. But if you don’t create a solid Plan A, know your market and know what’s most important to your market, you’re going to perhaps put forward achievements that they don’t care about.
Let’s say you’re buying a car. You’re a young family with kids, and the salesperson is talking to you about the killer sound system and the need for speed. You want to know about the safety features. All of those things may exist in the same vehicle, but you need to know your customers so that you can market to them. When you start marketing the safety enhancements, that young family is going to buy the car. That’s what brand is really about, and that’s what I teach people to understand and create for themselves.
“It’s not enough to know people; what you have to do is create ambassadors.”
Knowledge at Wharton: There is a chapter in the book titled, “It’s not Fair. (It really isn’t.)” Tell us more.
Graham: Anybody who has been in a job search will tell you, “It’s not fair. I’ve been ghosted. I have to do this one-way video bio and look like a moron trying to coordinate. It’s not fair that the younger person got the job. It’s not fair that the older person got the job. It’s not fair that the person with less tenure got the job.” I put this chapter out there because whether you’re a switcher or traditional job-seeker, you’re going to encounter a lot of things that you perceive as not fair. There are some things you can change and other you can’t. I don’t want people wasting their precious energy and resources on the things they can’t change.
I talk about a few things that you can do, and then things that just are the way they are. Sometimes you’ve just got to play the game. I want people to understand that if you’re fighting for fairness, if you’re looking to fight to change a process, you’re using your resources in the wrong direction.
Knowledge at Wharton: Not enough job seekers think about it from both sides. They are so focused on getting the job that they don’t even consider what the manager is thinking. The insight they could gain from that could make the process easier.
Graham: Yes, and that’s exactly why I switched from being a recruiter to a career coach. I wanted to give my clients the insight about what’s happening on the other side of the desk, things they couldn’t even fathom in the hiring process. I felt this gives people an advantage — when you know what’s happening in terms of tactics and strategies, but also in the mind of the hirer. The bias that comes through. We’re human. We’re biased. It’s just the way it is.
Loss aversion is a concept I talk about in the book. It’s the tendency to weight things that you lose heavier than things that you gain. If you go out and you find $20 on the street, you’re going to be excited for five minutes. But if you lose $20 that you had in your pocket, you’re going to still be complaining to me about that next week. This idea that these losses stay with us means that a hiring manager is, even unconsciously, using these things when they hire. They don’t want to make a mistake because it costs money, it costs resources, it costs perhaps their reputation. A lot of times a hiring manager would rather go with a safer candidate, even if they aren’t as stellar, versus rolling the dice on something that’s an unknown. As a switcher, you need to have a concrete strategy so that you show you’re a fit and not a risk.
Knowledge at Wharton: From the hiring side, how much has changed?
Graham: Hiring managers have a day job, and it’s not hiring. Unfortunately, very few are trained on the interview process and things to look out for. Maybe they hire two or three people a year. They’re not really sure what to do or how to do it, but they think they do. You’re dealing with this bias that they might not even know they have. One of the most common things is that we tend to hire people like us because we think, “We’re good. They must be good.” We don’t even know it’s happening.
“As a switcher, you need to have a concrete strategy so that you show you’re a fit and not a risk.”
But what has changed is getting in front of human eyes. That’s the part that’s changed a lot, which is all of this automation and online application and LinkedIn searches. The challenge switchers have is they’re not even able to get in front of the hiring manager for a solid interview. I teach people how to do that…. Most switchers will say, “I can’t even get an interview because I’m getting weeded out by these applicant-tracking systems,” or “I’m not being found on LinkedIn.”
Knowledge at Wharton: How do you get in front of the hiring manager?
Graham: The first strategy would be not applying online. You’ve heard these stats that about 75% of jobs are not even advertised. That’s true for a number of reasons. The first thing you’re going to do if you have an open job is ask yourself, “Who do I know?” or “Who do my friends know?” You want somebody reliable and somebody you can trust, which goes back to brand. If they don’t have anybody, you might throw it out to the organization on your company website, so it attracts people who are at least interested in your company. If that doesn’t work, it might get out there on one of the big job boards.
Now, think about what types of jobs are getting out there. I’m not going to say they’re all bad, but think about how many steps they’ve gone through to get there. As a hiring manager, if I don’t have to go through all that nonsense, if you refer someone to me, I’m going to interview that person. It’s about getting the referral. This goes back to networking. People cringe when they hear that word, but the book really teaches you to use the contacts you already have to get those referrals. If you can make sure you have ambassadors out there listening, you’re going to get those jobs.
Knowledge at Wharton: You have a chapter titled, “Always Sleep on It.” What does that mean?
Graham: It’s my chapter about negotiating salary. When you’re a switcher, you go into the negotiating process thinking, “I was lucky enough just to get this job.” I want to make sure that switchers go into this realizing that if you were offered this job, they believe in you. Even if you’re thinking, “Wow, this is all new to me,” I can almost guarantee that six months in, you’re going to say, “I don’t know what I was worried about.”
I want to make sure switchers go in and negotiate just like they would for any other role. They know their value and can put it forward. Especially if you’re a switcher who has been rejected, and you finally get this offer in the job you’ve always wanted, you’re going to be so tempted to say yes on the spot. But thank them, be excited and ask when they need an answer. And take a day or two. Even if it’s not base salary, which I think should always be the first thing you negotiate, it could be extra vacation, it could be working a day from home. There’s always something that can be negotiated that can make your life better.