The idea this week: switching careers can be terrifying — but it can also be the key to finding more satisfying and impactful work.
Trust me — I’ve tested my fit for at least four different career paths before landing where I am now. After a first job in teaching, I explored:
When I graduated from university with a degree in philosophy, I didn’t know what to do next, but I knew I wanted to find a job that helped others and wasn’t harmful. I looked for roles at nonprofits nearby and ended up getting hired at a special education school.
I loved many parts of the job and the students I worked with, but when the opportunity arose to get my master’s in special education, I realised I didn’t envision spending my whole career in the field. I had gotten involved with local vegan advocacy and an effective altruism group, and I was curious if there were even more impactful opportunities I could pursue with my career.
I once thought that most of my impact would come through donating — but a lot of the people I was talking to were discussing the idea that career choice could be even more impactful than charitable giving (especially since teaching wasn’t particularly lucrative in my case).
But what should I actually do?
I started testing my fit for returning to academic philosophy, by auditing graduate seminars on ethics, and also for journalism, by drafting letters to the editor and articles to pitch to news sites. I thought these kinds of roles would be useful for communicating about important ideas and promoting positive values while leaning into my strengths. And I might gain useful career capital that I could potentially apply to working on different problems down the road.
I ended up getting rejected from the PhD programs I applied to — instead getting offered a master’s slot in New York City. It turned out, though, that I had some aptitude for journalism. I started out by writing about topics related to my work in teaching, and once I had been published, it was easier to convince other editors to publish me.
I moved to New York, having saved up enough cash working at the school and living with my parents. Once there, I was able to leverage my freelance writing into an internship, leverage an internship into a part-time job, and leverage a part-time job into full-time work as a journalist.
It took time and patience, and it was a bit weird starting at the beginning stages of a new career after having already spent three years on a job.
But being a journalist was thrilling, and I appreciated getting constant feedback. I became an editor, while still getting to write, and eventually became a senior editor covering US politics — a role very much like I had been aiming for at the start. And yet, while I was doing well in some respects, I also recognised that the impact I could achieve was likely limited by my role. Having a real impact in journalism is quite challenging and fraught with difficulties.
After eight years pursuing a journalism career, I decided to shift paths again. I had gathered a healthy cushion of savings for this kind of situation, like before, so I would have the time to do a thorough job search (and spend a little time doing some independent research).
I had a 1-1 advising call with 80,000 Hours, and I found there might be opportunities for me in writing and researching more exclusively about the world’s most pressing problems. Eventually I took my job here — not where I expected to end up when I had my call! — and now I get to help other people think about how they can use their careers to tackle the world’s most pressing problems.
Shifting your career path is not straightforward; you should only do it carefully, understanding you’ll face setbacks, and make sure you have backup options and enough resources to support yourself through uncertain times.
But if you think you can find more impactful work that also fits with the rest of your life, and you’re motivated to make it work, it could be an incredibly rewarding decision.
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To learn more about how to make decisions in your career, we recommend our planning resources, including: