There once was a time far, far away, when people spent most, if not all, of their careers in a single organization. That kind of professional journey is now as rare as typewriters in an Apple store.

A steady paycheck is nice, yet it’s not enough for most people. They want intangibles like meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. But the workplace is falling short. A Forbes survey reported that more than 52% of Americans say they are “unhappy at work.” Only 30% say they feel “engaged and inspired” by their work. Some studies report the number of dissatisfied workers as high as 80%.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, many of today’s workers will hold more than ten different positions during their careers. In fact, the new normal is not only to switch job but to switch careers.

This growing trend is chronicled by Dr. Dawn Graham in Switchers: How Smart Professionals Change Careers and Seize SuccessCareer Director for the Wharton School’s MBA Program for Executives, Graham has built a brand as the career coach for some of the world’s top business professionals. She also hosts a weekly shoe, Career Talk, on Sirius XM radio. Many of her callers ask questions about how to switch careers.

Rodger Dean Duncan: You suggest that to be successful at being a Switcher, a person must operate under the four general mental themes of Responsibility, Reality, Risk, and Resilience. Why these four, and in what ways are they mutually reinforcing?

Dawn Graham: Switchers offers a clear roadmap on how to change careers, and I’m pretty forthcoming about the fact that these steps take courage and the right mindset to be effective. That’s why I lay out these essential mental themes at the very start.

In an existence where we’ve come to enjoy one-click service and immediate gratification in many areas of life, I want to be clear that while a career switch is completely achievable, success hinges on what the job seeker brings to the table in terms of the 4 R’s.

Responsibility is about being the absolute driver of the process. Reality is recognizing that the hiring process, like many things, is unfair. If you get sucked into trying to fight it, you’ll get off course and your energy will be spent in something other than in service of your goal. Most changes involve risk, and the amount of risk for a Switcher will depend on how big of a change you’re making. Lastly, you must be resilient. Rejection, mistakes and failures pave the course when pursuing a lofty goal. When you expect these hurdles at the outset, you’re better prepared to deal with them when they show up on the way to your switch.

Duncan: To what extent is a Switcher likely to enjoy more professional success than someone who adopts a low-risk, stay-in-place approach to career management?

Graham: That would depend on the definition of success. However, for those professionals who have a long runway of work ahead of them, “switching” is going to become the new normal.

At the speed of change today, it’s likely automation, technology, globalization and other economic factors will lead to major changes in many functions and industries, so those who are able to adapt will be the most employable.

I recommend that all professionals continue to do three things to remain agile in their careers: 1) expand their skills (expertise has a shelf life), 2) build their brand (ensure your career story aligns with the changing market), and 3) create an evolving network (people who will go to bat for you), even if a planned change is not in the near future. This will create a foundation for mobility, and the statistics show that it’s only a matter of time before you’ll be in your next job search. Staying in place is actually the riskier move today because you lose your agility.

Duncan: What are some of the common job search killers that Switchers should avoid?

One of the biggest job switch killers for a career Switcher is trying to engage traditional job search methods such as applying online. I get it—this is seductive because you feel like you’re being productive by sending off multiple completed applications in minutes. However, Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS), programmed algorithms and a host of new technologies are standing between your résuméand a human. As a Switcher, you likely don’t have the keywords, titles or specific credentials that a robot is looking for when assessing applications. This means you’re left eagerly awaiting an invitation to an interview that will never come.

This brings me to another common job switch killer, which is ignoring your network. Despite decades of consistent data showing how effective networking is in a job search, many still opt to engage less effective methods. Switchers don’t have this option since they will have a tough time getting past the HR technology that is designed to weed them out.

Your network is what will enable you to get past the hiring bias and get considered as a viable candidate. A trusted referral will give you a 1 in 3 shot of landing an interview. When applying online, the odds drop to 1 in 10. The truth is, hiring managers have a day job, and it’s not hiring. So they dislike the search as much as candidates—it’s time-consuming and every day someone isn’t at the empty desk causes a loss. If a trusted contact refers someone to the role, this will be a lot more appealing to the hirer than sifting through 250 resumes of unknown candidates.

Duncan: When considering a job (or profession) change, how can a person best find the intersection of interest, expertise, and market?

Graham: Self-reflection is a lost art since we’re so distracted by our smartphones and other technology. However, this is a major aspect of being successful in a job search. You need to be crystal clear about your Plan A—which essentially is the intersection of your interests, expertise and the market—or others won’t take you seriously.

There are exercises in Switchers to help individuals figure this out, but my mantra is that clarity comes through action. You need to get out of your head and try things on to see if they fit. Talk to people. Join a team. Create a project. Hang out with professionals who do the work you’re targeting. Basically immerse yourself in the world you want to be in. If you’re still unsure, hire a career coach. An objective professional can be an invaluable resource to help you sift through the noise and clearly articulate your Plan A, which will positively impact your job search by helping you avoid wasted time flailing in ambiguity.

Duncan: What counsel can you offer an absentee Switcher—someone who voluntarily left the workforce for several years to raise a family, to follow a spouse’s career, or for some other reason? What strategies can help this person revive—or create a new—career?

Graham: Due to how quickly things change, if you step out of the workforce for several years a great first step is assessing how the market has changed, how your interests have evolved, and where your strengths apply currently.

Nailing down a clear Plan A before you dust off your résuméand begin to network will enable you to look prepared, confident and savvy. Depending on how long you’ve been absent and the strength of your network, this may be a challenging time to make a double-switch (e.g., changing both industry and function). So if that’s your goal, you may consider a stepping stone career where you re-enter a similar industry or function with the goal of switching after you’ve rebuilt your brand value and contacts.

Another option might be a boomerang career, where you return to a former employer. These can be a great place to start since you’ve previously built contacts and credibility there.

Lastly, an underutilized path is temp-to-perm or contract work. Usually there is much less competition and scrutiny when hiring for these roles, so it’s a great way to get your foot in the door to re-launch your career.

Duncan: What role does personal “brand” play in a professional’s career management? And how can the brand be best positioned in a specific job search?

Graham: Brand is critical and we all have a brand, whether we’re consciously building it or not. So it’s worth paying attention to.

Your brand in a career search is essentially your reputation and what value you bring to an employer. And it determines a lot—who shares information with you, who associates with you, what projects you get selected for, how much you get paid, and if someone refers you for the job.

Switchers usually have a brand that’s associated with their previous role, so it’s critical to re-brand and start to identify with where you’re going, not where you’ve been. For example, if you work on the clinical side of pharma but would like to switch to the business side, leading with your biology PhD may hurt you. It’s not what your audience wants to see. Your advanced degree might be a great differentiator when you make it to the final round of interviews, but initially it screams “I’m not what you’re looking for.” Match first, stand out second—that’s the magic formula for a Switcher. So find those aspects in your background that most closely align with your target audience’s needs, then present those first. It doesn’t matter if these are from three jobs ago, or a volunteer role. Experience is experience and you have a short window to get the attention of the hirer. Match first, stand out second.

Duncan: There seems to be a myth that headhunters find jobs for people, when the reality is that search professionals find people for jobs that need to be filled. When searching for a new job, what’s the best way to make yourself known—and attractive—to a headhunter?

Graham: If you’re a Switcher, chances are headhunters won’t be interested in you because they’re looking for someone who has deep experience in a specific function and industry, which is the exact opposite of a Switcher.

Headhunters also fill far fewer roles annually than most people think—about 5% of all jobs available—and these are usually highly specialized or executive level roles. Headhunters are experts at using sites like LinkedIn, Google and other social media to find candidates who will be of interest to their well-paying clients. So if you’re interested in being found, you’ll want to make sure you have a consistent, clear brand value across your social media platforms. And of course you need to be a match for a job opening they are trying to fill at the moment.

Duncan: How can a Switcher make best use of his or her network, and what’s the best way to grow a helpful network over time?

Graham: A robust network is incredibly important for a Switcher, and may not be as hard to build as you might think. It does take time, investment and generosity to build relationships, so it’s not an overnight process. But a healthy network is the cornerstone to any successful career.

The best place to start is with the people you know. Do they understand what you do (or want to do if you’re switching)? And I’m not talking about your title or company name, but do those people in your life who care about your success—your family, neighbors, friends—know specifically what value you add to your customers or company? Probably not, which means you’re missing an opportunity for them to make important introductions, relay interesting information they come across, and keep an eye out for opportunities.

One of the best ways to cultivate your network is to be curious. Often the best opportunities come from our second-level connections (the contacts of our friends, family, colleagues), and it takes only one conversation to open the door to an introduction that just might change everything.


  • Rodger Dean Duncan is the bestselling author of LeaderSHOP: Workplace, Career, and Life Advice From Today's Top Thought Leaders and a regular contributor to Forbes and other publications. His consulting clients have ranged from top companies in multiple industries to cabinet officers in two White House administrations. Earlier in his career he headed global communications for Campbell Soup Company. He earned his Ph.D. in communication at Purdue University.