How to Make a Career Change in Your Twenties

It’s what every millennial dreams of–graduating college (and possibly some graduate or professional school) with mountains of student debt, only to discover their initial professional path led them right into a dead end.

Yeah right.

No one wants to hit their 20s or 30s, after investing the better part of their young adulthood hitting the books, downing a less-than-healthy amount of Ramen noodles, and working two or three side jobs for a degree (or degrees) that fail to launch a worthwhile career.

I’ve been there, and it totally sucks. It feels like a crossroads, where both options lead to a major cliff.

Do I want to stick out a career path that I absolutely hate as it literally saps my soul in hopes that it’ll eventually get better?

Is it foolish to try to change my career path after I’ve already invested a lot of time and money into it?

Can I manage a complete career change at this stage in my life? And how do I know if my career about-face will be any better?

Realizing you’re in the wrong profession or position and feeling stuck in an industry that you no longer see a future in can be really scary, really stressful, and (surprise!) a really, really good place to make a strategic career change.

My Quarter Life Career Change

Most people I meet today are shocked when they find out that marketing wasn’t my first career, saying things like:

  • “But you’re such a natural at it, Hannah!”
  • “I just assumed you’d been doing this forever!”
  • “Wow – I can’t see you doing any type of other work…”

Reality is that ten years ago, my career path couldn’t have been any further from the world of marketing. If you’d told me then, what I’d be doing for a living now, I would have laughed and asked if you were sober. Marketing was that far from my mind (I probably didn’t know what it was). But, the Great Recession happened. The realities of war ripped through my family like a Category Five hurricane. What I had previously thought was the perfect career for me turned into one of my biggest nightmares. I knew I had to make a career change but had no idea how.

In case you’re feeling or experiencing something similar, here are three tips to help you navigate a successful career change.

3 Tips for making a successful career change in your twenties:

career change

Forget sunk costs when considering a career change.

In business school, we drilled this thing called sunk cost theory.

What’s sunk cost?

It’s a foundational principle in this super cool study called behavioral economics (if I make another career change, I’m heading over to behavior econ – it’s amazing). Basically, sunk costs are expenses that have already been incurred and can’t be recovered; thus, they shouldn’t have any influence on logical decisions.

Thoroughly confused?

Here’s my favorite sunk cost theory example:

Say you buy a movie ticket for $9.25 (sunk cost).

Halfway through the movie, you go from falling asleep from sheer boredom to fending off nausea waves courtesy of the all-too-graphic alien guts that keep spilling all over the big screen. You can think of a hundred things you’d rather do than sit through the remaining 55 excruciating minutes of this movie, but you aren’t sure what you should do.

Do you let your sunk cost—an investment that once spent cannot get back—of $9.25 keep you glued to your seat, or do you say “to h*ll with sunk costs!”, walk out of the movie, and go do something more fun and less sickening?

Turns out, successful people (as defined by earnings) say “to h*ll” with sunk costs (aka: they walk out of the movie), and do not let sunk costs influence their future course.

Less successful people watch the movie they hate because they “want to get their money’s worth”. This is sunk cost fallacy – letting irrelevant past expenses drive your decisions – and it’s not a good way to approach your career path.

How do sunk costs manifest in career change decisions?

Just because you spent $120k on an undergraduate degree in Biology, doesn’t mean you’ve got to stay in science even when it doesn’t make you happy – you can make a career change!

According to rational decision theory, what you’ve already spent (sunk cost) should not play into what you’re going to do today and tomorrow; however, chances are, if you’ve considered making a big career change, sunk costs have tried to rear their ugly head and keep you stuck in an unproductive position.

Analyze your skill set before making a career change.

When considering a big career change, it’s important to analyze ALL your skill sets – not just the ones you use in your current position. Most professionals are so much more than their often-limited job description. They all possess a variety of strengths and interests that help make up their unique professional repertoire.

Needing help to think beyond the constraints of your current career? Consider exploring personality tests like Myers Briggs or the Big Five to learn more about how your personality influences your natural strengths and skills.

Next step is to really flush out your past pursuits, identifying skill sets that enjoy employing in the workplace or would like to develop further.

Maybe the 36 hours of graduate-level coursework you took in Medieval Literature won’t directly translate into hard skills you can launch a career change off of, but think out of the box here:

What about those mad research skills you developed, combing through one ancient manuscript after another?

And the writing skills you so expertly honed while crafting an eighty-page thesis on the work of Geoffrey Chaucer?


These skills are applicable. These skills are marketable. These skills can apply to a variety of exciting career opportunities and can help you make a successful career change.

It can also help to inventory your skill set through a different lens, getting outside input regarding what you’re good at. Ask your friends, ask your colleagues, ask your mentors. Don’t be afraid to explore your many skills from a variety of angles.

career change

Get serious about networking when making a career change.

Making a rather drastic career change hit me hard in the network department.

A few of my previous employers, classmates, and professors were particularly disparaging about my professional shift, voicing their so-not-encouraging thoughts about my career change in multiple ways.

One professor I’d really admired refused to write a letter of reference for me, saying that he found my career change to be “wasteful, irresponsible, and just plain stupid”.

That one hurt. It also marked the moment that I realized I was going to have to get really serious about building a new network– one that would support me in my new professional endeavors.

While there’s no one size fits all approach to networking, developing a will-work-for-you networking strategy is key for pulling off a successful career change. You’re going to need connections within your new industry and organization. These relationships can help you navigate your new work world with much less headwind.

Research industry organizations and join a few. Connect with industry leaders on LinkedIn. Attend industry events and exchange business cards. Reach out to inspiring industry innovators and offer to buy them lunch. Over time, you’ll be able to develop a strategic network that can assist with your new professional pursuits.

Does the idea of networking make you cringe (it’s okay, I’m right there with ya!)? Check out Confession: I Hate Networking for some network development strategies that you can do from the comfort of your own home!

Change can be scary, but oh-so-necessary.

Making a big career change can be super scary, but sometimes it’s necessary.

Maybe your current job is making you sick.

Maybe your industry is becoming yet another casualty of automation.

Maybe you’ve learned more about yourself through your career journey to-date, and you’re ready to implement that enhanced self-awareness into your promising future.

That’s totally okay. Most of life is just a trial and error of sorts. We try things, some work out, and others don’t; then we try new things. Our careers are no different (unless you have a crystal ball…then things are totally different).

So, the career path you naively picked at a young age didn’t turn out as expected.

That’s okay. You’re going to be okay. You can make a career change and find work that you enjoy.

Have you ever made a big career change?

Share your career change tips in the comments below!

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