10 Steps to Successfully Changing Careers at 30

Illustration of a man next to a directional sign

Starting a new career in your 30s, after investing so much in the previous path, may seem like a radical idea. A recent Indeed survey of American workers, however, showed that 49% of those surveyed had already made a dramatic career shift. An impressive 65% of those remaining were considering the jump. The average age of respondents was 39, meaning a substantial amount of those in their 30s had already altered their career path.

The numbers are similar around the world. Staying in one job from apprenticeship to retirement is no longer the norm, and typically not even the ideal to the modern worker. They change jobs to seek new challenges, discover new skill sets and reap greater financial rewards.

Completely changing your career is the ultimate challenge. There are risks to any big change, and pitfalls you’ll want to avoid. We’ve put together this guide to help you through the process, so read on for all the expert advice you need to successfully change careers in your 30s.

1. Know the signs that it’s time for a career change

It’s not surprising that many people choose to change careers at 30. Most of us are forced into deciding about our career goals as teenagers, when we don’t have enough life experience to know what we truly want or need. Our childhood dreams of the perfect career often don’t hold up during the years of education needed to achieve it. Even if you stick with it, the daily grind of a job will eventually reveal all the ways a job is wrong for you.

Matthew Burr, a human resources consultant and an instructor for undergraduate and graduate-level business courses, had put over a decade into his first career in corporate HR when he realised it was time to make a change. ‘I realised some of the positions I was in in corporate America – very high level, high-stress positions – [were] having an impact on not only my mental health but also my physical health as well.’ Burr notes that starting a new business isn’t exactly trouble-free but taking a risk on something he was truly passionate about was a ‘different kind of stress’ that didn’t take the same toll.

A negative health impact is one of the most prominent signs that you need to change your career path, but it’s not the only indicator. It’s not uncommon for people to take stock of their life in their third decade. You spend your 20s trying to hustle for the things you thought you wanted in your career, but once you start to finally settle into that career, it may turn out to not be what you thought it was.

Evaluate your attitude as you go through your day-to-day tasks. Do you feel like you’re wasting your time and your talent? Do you feel your skill set and work style just don’t mesh with the job or industry you’ve chosen? Are you disillusioned about the impact you thought this career would have in your community? Do you find yourself dreading certain assignments, meetings or even just coming in to work every morning?

Everyone has bad days, but if they’re starting to feel like all bad days, you must make a change. Burr suggests following those gut feelings that it’s time to get out. Don’t ignore the signs that you’re suffering where you are just to avoid the risks of trying a new career path.

2. Figure out what kind of change you want to make

Disillusionment and the pitfalls of youthful decision-making aren’t the only reasons you may want to shift careers in your 30s. As The New York Times reports, for instance, the average age of first-time mothers in big US cities is between 31 and 32. Many new parents decide to change to a career with less overtime, less travel, better benefits or all of the above.

Other workers in their 30s may discover that rapidly changing technology as well as economic, political and social shifts have rendered their job or even their whole industry stagnant or obsolete. You may also find yourself in a perfectly healthy company that unfortunately has no room for you to advance in. Some workers may decide to shift to a career that aligns with their personal beliefs more, like green technology or non-profit legal services.

The variety in motivations means there are also a variety of solutions to suit your situation. Changing your career doesn’t mean you have to throw out everything you’ve been doing up until now. Note that the US Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t even compile any statistics on career change because no one can agree on the exact parameters. ‘Most people probably would agree that a medical doctor who quits to become a comedian experienced a career change,’ they explain on the official BLS website, ‘but most “career changes” probably are not so dramatic.’

Take time to reflect on what’s working in your current career and what isn’t. A high school economics teacher may realise they still love teaching but would like to do it at the university level. Alternatively, they may prefer to teach high school English, move to administrative levels, or use their economics degree as an advisor to local or state government. Sometimes a career change is just about shifting to a related profession but about a much more satisfying trajectory.

If you hate everything about your current career path, you’ll have to do more soul-searching to find the right career for you. If you’re worried about starting from scratch, remember this is the best age to make the change. Compared to your 20s, you’ll have better answers to questions about your financial needs, ambitions and other motivations. Compared to those who shift careers much later in life, you still have time to complete additional education or training before encountering widespread ageism in hiring. Never underestimate the power of youthful energy; you will likely find it harder to dive into a whole new career the longer you wait.

3. Get your finances in order

After a decade or more in one career, workers in their 30s have typically achieved a more financially stable situation, particularly in a dual-income household. Many Millennials have had to deal with a recession at a crucial time in their career, however, and the combination of student loans, rising housing and childcare costs, and other factors may mean it’s a bit trickier to take financial risks.

Launching a whole new career can negatively affect your finances, particularly if you’ve progressed to a lucrative level in your current industry. Avoid unnecessary stress by building a financial safety net before you make the shift. Calculate the costs of changing careers ahead of time, including education, training, initial salary drops and the temporary loss of employee benefits.

This is even more essential if you’re starting a business for your second career. Burr says he had two years of savings built up, but experts in the field warned him it could take up to four years to turn a profit. Research the trends in your chosen field, as some businesses can earn more quickly than others. Be prepared to change your spending habits, take out a bank loan or work with investors.

4. Do your research

You may not have realised it at the time, but one of the perks of starting a career in your teens or early 20s is the expectation level of your superiors. Whether you began with an apprenticeship, part-time job or entry-level gig, it was understood that you were just starting out and would learn more and improve over time. When you start a new career in your 30s, your many years in the workforce mean you’ll be expected to hit the ground running.

For Cynthia Orduña, an experienced HR professional and career coach who has helped over 500 candidates find their new job role, the first step to a career change is doing your research. ‘Once you’ve decided what industry and role you’d like to pursue, learn everything you can before applying. What’s necessary to be successful in the role? Are there any tools or software they’re asking for experience with? What are the terms and lingo they use in the industry?’

You don’t want to go into a job interview unprepared, looking like you’ve chosen this new career path on a whim. Your lack of job experience in this precise role can be mediated if you’re up to speed on everything else necessary for the job. Most businesses have extensive websites and a presence on social media, making it easy to gather information and immerse yourself in the current culture.

5. Expand your network

Making connections with people in the field you’re hoping to pursue is the best way to learn. Reach out to those already in your network; they may have a friend or colleague you can connect with. Build up new professional connections whenever you can. Speaking with people already doing the job you want is invaluable. They can advise you on how to start, pitfalls to avoid and if this really is the career path you want.

Social media has made it easier to network with people in a specific field but consider in-person and video conference networking events as well. People often click with those in their age group, and being in your 30s gives you the advantage of bridging two very different generations.

If you decide to create your own clothing line or retail store, for example, you’re close enough in age to connect with workers who can offer insight into youth culture and how to appeal to that desirable market. At the same time, your ‘older and wiser’ status makes it easy to talk with older workers who can offer their experience and expertise in establishing and running a successful business.

Once you’ve found some trustworthy advisors, Burr suggests continuing to reach out as you pursue your new career path. ‘I wouldn’t be successful in what I’ve done without the mentors and the former professors who still give me advice, and other consultants who have given me advice, and given me my first work opportunities.’ He believes that conferring with those who have more experience leads to the soundest career and business decisions.

6. Assess your transferable skills

Orduña says the next step in a career change is to evaluate your background and experience for connections to the job you want. Identify any similar work you’ve done and what skills will easily transfer to the new role.

People in vastly different jobs often do a lot of the same kinds of tasks, such as writing reports, putting together budgets, taking inventory, supervising staff, working with customers and data entry. You may be surprised to discover how many aspects of the new role you are already qualified for.

This is another advantage of changing careers in your 30s. When you’ve been in middle management for 25 years, it can be difficult to convince a recruiter you remember the job you had in retail or customer service when you were 20. At 30, however, you’re not that far removed from the internships, summer jobs, part-time gigs and other work that can help legitimately round out your skill set to prospective employers.

That said, it can still be difficult to get a hiring manager to consider you for a job you have no direct experience for. It’s imperative to tailor your CV for a career change to highlight your transferable skills. Don’t forget to use as many relevant keywords as possible to avoid an application rejection from ATS software.

7. Know the value of your different skill set

If you’re shifting to a related career, like the economics professor becoming a government economic adviser, you can likely apply your decade of experience into a mid-level position. The problem is that you’ll be competing against people your age with a decade of experience in that exact position. The good news is that your previous career can inform the new job in ways those other candidates hadn’t even considered.

For careers that require starting at an entry-level position, you’ll be competing against younger candidates with fresh credentials, new ideas and lower salary expectations. The good news is that you have a proven track record of turning youthful ideas into successful policies, programmes or products.

No matter which situation you find yourself in, remember that the goal of jobhunting is to stand out from the crowd. Use your previous career to your advantage in your cover letter, application and skills-based CV.

Orduña suggests focusing first on your transferable skills so that it’s clear you’re qualified for the job. Then ‘sprinkle in’ aspects of your previous experience and what value that adds to their business. ‘It’s a way of saying “I can do the job and can give you a unique perspective that other candidates cannot”,’ she explains. ‘In other words, your transferrable skills are the main character and your different experience is the supporting actor.’

8. Set yourself a deadline

When you first chose a career in school, there were precise deadlines for testing, applications, financial aid and more to keep you on track. While being in your 30s means you still have time to pursue a variety of new careers, it also means you likely have more substantial responsibilities like a new mortgage or a young family to support. You don’t want to lose another decade to an aimless and potentially costly pursuit.

Set yourself a deadline to achieve some level of success in your new career. Your financial situation is an obvious guide. Burr had two years of savings, so he gave himself two years to see if his consulting business would become profitable. It ultimately took three years, but within that time he also took on a teaching job to keep his finances stable.

Setting a deadline doesn’t mean you have to give up if it’s not working out by then. You just have to have a plan in place to shore up your finances, or alter your expectations and try a different angle for your new career. Deadlines help you stay focused on your goals and force you to honestly assess your progress at defined intervals.

9. Be open to different career paths

You may be surprised to find your passion while you’re trying to do something else. Burr stresses that everyone should be ‘open and creative’ when considering how to be happy in their chosen career. When he was on the corporate path, he never imagined he’d later be running his own consulting business, let alone becoming a full-time professor. ‘I never thought that was in my future and it’s turned out to be probably the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, specifically around the career change and being able to impact so many people.’

As Burr has shown, changing careers at 30 means there’s still time to explore more than one path. Setting that deadline on the success of his business caused Burr to take up a teaching gig that led to him discovering another new passion. So, don’t be afraid to experiment, but remember that good financial planning, networking and other proven practices make these leaps of faith a lot less risky.

10. Be resilient

Changing careers can be an exciting and fulfilling experience – but be prepared for an uphill climb. Orduña stresses that it can take time to learn how to pitch yourself to hiring managers and break into your new career. ‘Above all, be resilient,’ she says. ‘Times are tough, and you’re most likely going to receive a lot of rejections or no responses at all. Remember that your opportunity will come, but you’ll have to fight for it.’

This is another area where your age will help you. You’ve evolved past the naïveté and often unrealistic expectations of workers in their 20s. Workers in their 40s and older are typically more set in their ways and may struggle with the adaptability skills needed to change careers. At 30, you’ve got the life experience without being too jaded or weighted down by ingrained habits. That combination will help you remain resilient for the challenges that lie ahead.

We hope this guide will make those challenges easier to overcome. Research, planning, networking and the other tactics covered here should help you make the best decisions to secure your future career success and happiness.

Have you decided to change careers at 30? Join the discussion below and share your story!