How Do I Make a Career Change? 4 Lessons from Career Mentors

Mentoring Spotlight
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Making a career change can feel overwhelming. Fortunately, UArizona mentors are here to help with four important tips you can use to make the transition easier.

Are you considering a career change? Perhaps the career you started no longer meets your lifestyle goals. Or, maybe the career you’re in isn’t utilizing the skills you have or challenging you to grow professionally. Whatever the reason, it’s a big decision to transition careers — and one that can be tough to navigate. A professional mentor, though, can provide a useful perspective and offer advice to help you as you decide whether a career change is right for you. Here, mentors at the Wildcat Mentor Society share the lessons they’ve learned in their careers to help mentees overcome the challenges of a career change.

1. It’s never too late to make a change.

For some, it takes years — or even decades — to realize that a different career path might be a better fit than the one they’re on. More often than not, people in this situation find themselves thinking: It’s too late — too late to go back to school, too late to start a new career or too late to start a business.

Brad Butler, M.D., associate professor of emergency medicine with the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix and a mentor at the Wildcat Mentor Society, makes sure his mentees don’t let this problem stand in their way. “You're never too old to pursue what is truly one of your dreams, whether it's a career or just another interest,” he says — and he speaks from experience.

Butler went from high school to college to medical school to residency to practicing as a physician. But at nearly 40 years old, he decided to open a business — an urgent care facility. After six years of owning and running a business, he changed directions again. “I thought it'd be fun to run a business, but I realized that owning a business is actually really hard. We eventually sold our urgent care, and I was happy to get out of being a business owner, but it was a great lifetime experience.” Butler also commissioned into the U.S. Navy Reserve as an emergency physician at the age of 40 after several prior attempts. Today, he continues to serve as Captain in the Navy Reserve as the Specialty Leader for Emergency Medicine for Navy Reserve Medicine. Butler’s career path underlines the advice he shares with mentees: It is never too late to follow your dreams.

2. Don’t let fear make decisions for you.

Making a career change means you have to take a risk. Perhaps you’ll be faced with the opportunity to take a position at a company that offers the growth opportunities you’re looking for, but you have to take a pay cut to get your foot in the door. Or you may be hesitant to return to square one, even though you know a career change is the right move for you.

Wendy Sanuik, director of sales for Coca-Cola North America and a mentor at the Wildcat Mentor Society, warns against letting fear drive your important career decisions. “You may want to try a different path, but it's not the safest route — fear is factoring so much into that decision,” she says. “That's where you have to set your fear aside. One path might be the safe route, but the other path is what you really want to do.”

Wildcat mentors share how they help mentees navigate a career change by sharing the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

3. Start small to avoid burnout.

Starting a new career is hard work. You’ll likely have to start at square one — building a new professional network, learning new skills and searching for new opportunities. If you’re not careful, you can quickly fall victim to burnout.

When Zahid Mustafa’s mentees are dealing with burnout in their careers from taking on too much for too long, he helps them to turn their big-picture goals into smaller, manageable actions that add up to big results over time. “We start to break one macro-deliverable into components so that people can see that progress can be made,” says Mustafa, who is vice president of change management at State Street Global Markets and a mentor at the Wildcat Mentor Society. “And it's not about how long it takes. Life is a journey. It's not a sprint — it's a marathon. It's about the smaller micro-actions.”

4. Explore creative options.

You may know what career you want to pursue, but it just feels like the right opportunity doesn’t come your way. As a physician, Butler often mentors aspiring physicians — a field that’s increasingly difficult to enter. “When I applied to medical school in 1989, there were 200 applicants for 88 spots in the College of Medicine,” he says. Now, he reports up to 10,000 applicants are vying for the same 88 spots.

For aspiring medical students, the high level of competition means it may take many approaches to get the education they need. “You need to explore lots of options in terms of both setting yourself up for success on paper, learning how to interview well as well as applying to what you may think of second tier-type programs,” he says. “I tell people to apply widely and that includes osteopathic schools, brand new schools — and consider going overseas for school.”


Looking for a Mentor?

Learn more about the Wildcat Mentor Society and other opportunities to connect with professional mentors on the Bear Down Network, a platform that connects University of Arizona alumni to networking opportunities and resources that support professional growth and success.