Finding a job in your chosen field can be daunting, but changing careers entirely presents an even bigger challenge. How do you get your foot in the door if you don’t have experience? How can you stand out in an increasingly competitive hiring process? Should you go back to school? In her new book Switchers: How Smart Professionals Change Careers and Seize Success, Dawn Graham—career coach, former recruiter, psychologist, and director of career advancement for the Wharton MBA Program—assures readers that the many obstacles along the path to a job change aren’t insurmountable.


Knowledge@Wharton: How prevalent is the career switch these days?

Dawn Graham: It’s getting to be much more of the norm vs. staying. You’ve probably seen the statistics out there about people staying in jobs about 4.2 years. It’s an interesting shift, because job-hopping was really frowned upon, but the bias has swung to the other side. If you’re in a job for eight to 10 years, companies start to wonder if you’re very agile. Here at Wharton, we have about 225 students in the executive program every year, and more than half want to switch careers.


K@W: What do people need to think about if they’re considering a career switch?

Graham: One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is in their first step, when they decide they aren’t happy with what they’re doing. They go back and get a graduate degree, thinking it will lead to this big change. But what you don’t realize is that you still have that difficult job search on the end of those two years and that degree. Now you’ve invested all this money and time, and you weren’t even sure if this is going to get you where you want to go. Unless the program you’re going to is very applied or has internships or ways for you to get real-life experience, an advanced degree might not open the doors that you think it will.


K@W: In the book, you talk about clarifying Plan A. When people think ahead, it’s usually about having a Plan B as a backup. Can you explain what you mean by Plan A?

Graham: The first title of the book was Forget Plan B. Having a Plan A and going all-in is critical to switching careers. First, if you’re not confident that you can make this switch, why should anyone else be? Why should a hiring manager or someone in your network take a chance on you if you’re saying, “But I have a Plan B”? Another reason is that research done here at Wharton shows that once you have a Plan B, you tend to fall back on it. You’re not as motivated. It’s scary to go all-in on something that’s new to you and different. What I recommend is really mapping out that Plan A and defining all the pieces, so you know that this is what you want to do. Then really go all-in so that your network and hiring managers are confident in you.

Unfortunately, what I find is that so many people don’t make a change, not because they weren’t capable of doing the work in the new job, but because the hiring practices today aren’t designed for them to get hired. They give up because they keep getting rejected. That’s what this book is really about. The Plan A is the kickoff to a step-by-step strategy to create a way to get past the hiring biases that exist. Let’s face it: Hiring practices are getting more automated and cater to the traditional candidate.


K@W: Not enough job seekers think about it from both sides. They’re so focused on getting the job that they don’t even consider what the manager is thinking. The insight they could gain from that could make the process easier.

Graham: Yes, and that’s exactly why I switched from being a recruiter to a career coach. I wanted to give my clients the insight about what’s happening on the other side of the desk—things they couldn’t even fathom in the hiring process. I felt it gives people an advantage to know what’s happening in terms of tactics and strategies, but also in the mind of the hirer, the bias that comes through. We’re human. We’re biased. It’s just the way it is.

Loss aversion is a concept I talk about in the book. It’s the tendency to weight things that you lose more heavily than things that you gain. If you go out and find $20 on the street, you’re going to be excited for five minutes. But if you lose $20 that you had in your pocket, you’re going to still be complaining to me about that next week. The fact that losses stay with us means a hiring manager is using those losses when they hire, even if it’s unconsciously. They don’t want to make a mistake, because mistakes cost money, cost resources, cost, perhaps, their reputation. A lot of times, a hiring manager would rather go with a safer candidate even if that candidate isn’t as stellar, vs. rolling the dice on something that’s an unknown. As a switcher, you need to have a concrete strategy so you show you’re a fit and not a risk.

K@W: From the hiring side, how much has changed?

Graham: Hiring managers have a day job, and it’s not hiring. Unfortunately, very few are trained on the interview process and things to look out for. Maybe they hire two or three people a year. They’re not really sure what to do or how to do it, but they think they know. You’re dealing with this bias that they might not even know they have. One of the most common problems is that we tend to hire people like ourselves because we think, “We’re good. They must be good.” We don’t even know it’s happening.

But what has changed is getting in front of human eyes. That’s the part that’s changed a lot, because of all of this automation and online applications and LinkedIn searches. The challenge switchers have is that they’re not even able to get in front of the hiring manager for a solid interview. I teach people how to do that. Most switchers will say, “I can’t even get an interview because I’m getting weeded out by these applicant tracking systems,” or “I’m not being found on LinkedIn.”


K@W: How do you get in front of the hiring manager?

Graham: The first strategy would be not applying online. You’ve heard these stats that about 75 percent of jobs aren’t even advertised. That’s true for a number of reasons. The first thing you’re going to do if you have an open job is ask yourself: “Who do I know? Who do my friends know?” You want somebody reliable and somebody you can trust. If you don’t have anybody, you might throw it out to the organization on your company website, so it attracts people who are at least interested in your company. If that doesn’t work, it might get out there on one of the big job boards.
Now, think about what types of jobs are getting out there. I’m not going to say they’re all bad, but think about how many steps they’ve gone through to get there. As a hiring manager, if I don’t have to go through all that nonsense, if you refer someone to me, I’m going to interview that person. It’s about getting the referral. This goes back to networking. People cringe when they hear that word, but the book really teaches you to use the contacts you already have to get those referrals. If you can make sure you have ambassadors out there listening, you’re going to get those jobs.


K@W: You have a chapter titled, “Always Sleep on It.” What does that mean?

Graham: It’s my chapter about negotiating salary. When you’re a switcher, you go into the negotiating process thinking, “I was lucky enough just to get this job.” I want to make sure that switchers go into this realizing that if you were offered a job, they believe in you. I want to make sure switchers go in and negotiate just like they would for any other role—that they know their value and can put it forward. Especially if you’re a switcher who has been rejected, and you finally get this offer for the job you’ve always wanted, you’re going to be so tempted to say yes on the spot. But thank them, be excited, and ask when they need an answer. And take a day or two. Even if it’s not base salary, which I think should always be the first thing you negotiate, it could be extra vacation; it could be working a day from home. There’s always something that can be negotiated that can make your life better.


Published as “Smart Strategies for Career Change” in the Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Wharton Magazine.