American workers change jobs on average 12 times in a lifetime — but career switches are rarer. Here’s how to navigate a change that could lead to years of professional fulfillment. 

Ask Why

The first and most important step to take before changing careers is to ask yourself why you want to switch. Unhappy at work? Maybe finding a position with a new company and coworkers is all you need to get out of a rut. However, if you genuinely don’t enjoy the work you do every day, then it may be time to move into a different field altogether.

Be Bold

If you make the decision to refocus what you do for a living, don’t listen to the inevitable naysayers. Remember, you’re the one who’ll be punching the clock for years to come, so it’s important to trust yourself. “When we start to listen to our intuition — that inner force that urges us to change and grow — we have to be prepared to meet with other people’s fears, as well as our own ingrained ideas about what’s ‘practical’ or ‘realistic,’ ” says Cortney McDermott, a strategist to business leaders and author of Change Starts Within You: Unlock the Confidence to Lead With Intuition. She suggests listening to podcasts or reading books that support your plans.

Take Stock

Start with a self-assessment to take into account your personality type, work values, skills and interests to determine what kind of career might be a great fit for you going forward. Career coaches are also an invaluable help when starting the process.

Study Up

With new career-track possibilities in mind, it’s time to explore the options more deeply, including salary potential, industry outlook and what type of education or training may be needed. Learn about the risks within the new field — as well as who’s had success in it. 

Hit the Books

While many total career shifts may require a new four-year degree, make sure there aren’t quicker paths up the mountain. “Maybe there’s a certificate you can pick up or other training that will give you an edge,” Becca Shelton, assistant director for career services at the University of Richmond, says, noting, “there are many flexible educational programs available for those working full time who want to expand their knowledge and marketability.”

Go for Face Time

Once you’re ready to begin looking for a position in your new field, exploit networking and job-search sites such as LinkedIn, but don’t forget about the vital importance of in-person contact. “Leverage your alumni network. Schedule informational meetings. Take people out for coffee and ask questions about what they do, trends in the industry, company goals and challenges,” suggests Cynthia Saunders-Cheatham, assistant dean of the career management center at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. 

Create Talking Points

When going on interviews, especially for late-in-life career changers, in the beginning it’s important to be able to demonstrate to prospective bosses how past job skills acquired may now apply to the new gig. “When
preparing for the interview, identify your transferable skills that would be related to your target industry,” Saunders-Cheatham recommends. “And be able to talk about how you used those skills.”

Climb the Ladder

When you finally do score that brand-new job in a new field, it’s important to be flexible and realize you need time to build back up to a position of more power. “While it’s unlikely that you will jump right into a senior-level position, don’t ever dismiss the amount of experience, skill and talent you have developed throughout your career so far,” Shelton says. “Think of your skills as a toolbox — what’s in your toolbox, and how can you help employers solve problems?”