Five Tips for Switching To a Higher Paying Career

Haven’t worked for “the man” yet? No matter how far along you are in your career, you may be able to change course to boost your income.

In 1999, after five years as a college-football coach in Chicago, Jerry Bowden took up a career in public relations, seeking an increase in pay and job security. “I found it difficult to reach the top financially,” he says of coaching. “It’s a small and competitive market. There aren’t a lot of jobs, and, if your team has a bad season, you could be canned.”

Now a vice president at a large public-relations agency, Mr. Bowden earns about $125,000 a year — more than triple his previous annual income, and has more options should he decide to change employers, he says.

If you’re eyeing a switch to a high-paying career, prepare for a challenge, says Lauren Herring, president of, an online career-coaching firm. You’ll need to persuade employers you’re as committed and qualified as applicants with more relevant work experience, she explains.

Here are five ways to position yourself for a corporate job when you’re making the switch at midcareer:

1. Prepare to take a step back.

To achieve your financial goals, you may have to start lower down on the ladder and work your way up, says Ms. Herring. The good news is you’ll likely rise more quickly than your younger counterparts because you have more life experience, she adds.

When Mr. Bowden set out to change careers, he had a bachelor’s and master’s degree in communications and sports psychology, respectively, from Ithaca College. His only experience in public relations was a college internship, so he pursued an entry-level job as an account executive at a small PR firm. In landing the job, Mr. Bowden, who is 34, married and a father of two, says his annual earnings fell to about $25,000 from around $40,000. A year later, he joined a national firm, and although his salary improved, he took another step backward by accepting an assistant account-executive job. But within four years, Mr. Bowden rose to his current rank of vice president, he says.

Mr. Bowden says accepting a low-level job was tough on his wallet and his ego, noting that his co-workers were several years younger. He says his wife provided emotional and financial support that helped him cope. “If it weren’t for her, it would have been a lot more difficult,” he says.

2. Show how your skills are a good fit.

“At first, an employer might not see a job’s relevance to you,” says Alexandra Levit, founder and president of Inspiration @Work, a corporate and university training business in Chicago. You have to prove that your skills are applicable to the business world, she explains.

After graduating high school, Scott McNamara played guitar in rock groups for five years before earning a computer-science degree. When he began interviewing for software-engineering jobs at age 29, he says, he drew a connection for recruiters between his work as a musician and the business world. Since most corporate positions required teamwork, he says, he discussed how he collaborated with band members on writing songs. “Being in a band requires more than just individual efforts to succeed, and the same is true in business,” he says.

Mr. McNamara, now 40, landed an entry-level software-engineering position at a New Jersey consulting company that paid an annual salary in the mid-$30,000s. He says he’s since advanced into a management role at an online retailer, and earns a salary above the average for software engineers, which is $74,235, according to 2006 survey from EE Times, a trade magazine.

3. Focus your resume on your talents.

Ms. Herring recommends starting with a summary of your top skills, then listing them separately in bullet points. Include a description of your key accomplishments in each area, she says.

“Hiring managers typically spend about 30 seconds going over a resume, so you want to communicate in a glance what your major contribution is going to be,” she says.

Add your work and educational credentials at the end — including those unrelated to the jobs you want — to avoid raising any red flags, she says.

4. Look the part.

Dress up for the interview, even if the company’s culture is business casual, says Kathy Downs, division director in Orlando, Fla., for Robert Half International Inc., a staffing firm based in Menlo Park, Calif. Make sure your clothes fit and are in fashion, she says. Otherwise, interviewers “may get the impression that you haven’t planned things out very well or you don’t have a wardrobe that’s appropriate for the position,” she says.

In 2001, graphic artist Katie Payne of Brooklyn, N.Y., joined a large advertising agency from an alternative newspaper with an environment so lax that a colleague regularly wore pajamas to work. “I didn’t want interviewers to think I was this over-the-top noncomformist,” she says. For her interview, she invested in her first high-priced suit — all her others were from discount stores and made of polyester, she says.

“You can dress up nicely and still have your personality show through,” says Ms. Payne, who got the job, boosting her annual salary by nearly $10,000 to the low $40,000s. Now 29, she’s an art director at another agency, earning an annual salary in the low $60,000s.

5. Be ready to discuss your career change.

Recruiters will likely ask what motivated you to switch careers and seek proof that you’re truly committed, says Ms. Herring. “It’s really important to think things through in advance,” she says, because you’ll want to exude confidence.

Answer honestly, but make sure your reason expresses how you can add value to an employer, Ms. Herring advises. If your goal is to earn more money, you might say you’re seeking financial stability, she says. This will suggest you’re looking to settle down in a long-term role.

“Every company wants to believe you’re coming on board to help it achieve its objectives,” adds Ms. Levit. “You have to tell them what they want to hear.”


By Sarah E. Needleman

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