How to shift from one career path to another

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career-changeAnthony from Catholic University asked:

After working in the private sector and deciding it is not for me, I am now targeting career opportunities in government, public service and the non-profit sector. How can I most effectively transition from the private sector to the public/non-profit sector?

Hi Anthony,

Changing career paths takes courage, so kudos to you for recognizing that private sector employment is not for you and refocusing your career in other areas.

Change isn’t easy, but it can be very rewarding.  Here is my advice to you:

Don’t jump from the frying pan into the fire

You have decided that the private sector is not for you. Be sure you can define the specific aspects of working in the private sector that you like the least so that you can avoid them as you consider public/non-profit sector opportunities.  The public/non-profit and private sectors are very different in many ways, however they are also similar in some ways.  Be sure you know what you are looking for and what you are looking to avoid as you change careers, or you may find yourself similarly disenchanted with your new career.  Don’t jump from the frying pan into the fire.

Put yourself in the employer’s shoes

As the job seeker, you have to make yourself understandable and appealing to potential employers.  Employers won’t be able to figure you out if you don’t help them.  In your resume, job search correpondence, networking and interviews, speak the language of the world you wish to enter (public/non-profit) not the language of the world you wish to leave (private sector).  If you market and describe yourself in private sector terms and highlight your private sector accomplishments, public/non-profit sector employers will wonder why you are even applying for their jobs.  If you focus on the skills, experience and characteristics you possess that are relevant to public/non-profit sector employers and do so in their language and jargon, you will show them that you understand their worlds and will be able to fit in and be successful.  Put yourself in the employer’s shoes and ask yourself the question “why do you want this job?”.  Do you have a good answer?

Understand the market for your skills and experience

When it comes to compensation and the demand for specific skills sets and experience, the private sector and the public/non-profit sector are usually very different.  Typically, public/non-profit sector jobs do not pay as well as private sector jobs, so you many not be able to expect the same level of compensation in the public/non-profit sector as you experienced in the private sector.  The better you understand the market for your skills and experience, the more realitic you will be in assessing potential opportunities.  If you are judging compensation for public/non-profit sector opportunities by private sector standards, you will likely be disappointed.

Be patient

Easy to say, but hard to do.  Business processes in federal, state and local government offices, departments and agengies, NGOs, non-profits, and education institutions are  typically a lot slower and more involved than those in the private sector.  It can take a long time to secure employment in these areas, particularly if some of the work you are considering requires any kind of security clearance.  If you want to work in the public/non-profit sector, you will need to be patient with the recruiting/hiring process. If you find the process of seeking employment in the public/non-profit sector frustrating, chances are you will find working in the public/non-profit sector frustrating, as well.

Job Search Resources

We have a number of relevant web resources in our Government and Public Service and our Non-Profit   job search resource links.  In addition to these, I recommend increasing your professional networking and information gathering by connecting with peers, colleauges and former classmates who are currently working in public/non-profit sector jobs.  They will offer valuable advice and may prove to be key connections and referrals for jobs you are pursuing.

Good luck,


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