Welcome to “Dear Dana”, our weekly column to give you career and workplace advice/coaching. Please write in and tell me about a career challenge or frustration you’re facing at the office! – Dana Theus
My situation is that I am embarking on a second career. I’ve been a career paralegal for 20 years and in recent years earned a masters in marketing and an MBA. When I apply for marketing jobs, I often hear “entry level.” I am a professional, there is nothing entry level about me and many, if not most of my skills are transferable in one way or another. If I can manage high-profile cases and be a project manager on others, I believe with my experience and new knowledge, I can do all things marketing. I want to secure a Marketing Management position, not perform administrative tasks. Where do I begin? – Disconnected in D.C.
Welcome to the peculiar and exciting challenges of changing careers! The kinds of challenges you’re encountering tend to the be the reasons people are afraid of trying to make a career switch in the first place, but I am living proof that it can be done (more than once)!
Tip #1: Make Your Case
Any time you apply for a job, whether in a field you’ve long been associated with or in a new field entirely, you need to be explicit in all aspects of your application (i.e., cover note, resume, LinkedIn profile and in-person interactions) about why you’re the perfect fit for the job they’re seeking to fill. When you’re changing careers, this really puts the onus on you to help translate your legacy experience into the requirements of the job for which you’re applying. So in your situation you have to explicitly make the case for how your paralegal experience prepares you well to succeed as a marketing manager or coordinator.
You can do this by outlining the skills you have that transfer. For example, you’re skilled at managing deadlines, which is clearly a strength in a marketing organization. So note in your application materials how this is a strength and call out specific accomplishments that demonstrate this strength. What other skills are transferable? Proofreading? Managing sensitive and confidential information? Managing high profile people? List them explicitly.
Of course, as you point out, you have professional experience that goes beyond skills, and workplace maturity certainly counts as well. However, this kind of experience tends to help you most after you’ve gotten past the first screening. When recruiters and hiring managers review and filter resumes, they’re trying to winnow the pile to the people who meet the job requirements and have the necessary education and skills. Once you’re in the smaller resume pile, things like personality, maturity and cultural fit weigh more heavily in your favor and give you the ability to distinguish yourself. Your first goal is to get past the first screening so your other strengths can help you land the job.
Tip #2: Use the Right Jargon, Correctly
When someone reads your resume and sees that you are new to the field, whether you’re 22 or 54, their antennae go up and they ask themselves, “what will we have to train this person on?” You want to answer this question in your resume and cover letter by speaking to why you’re a good fit with confidence and just the right amount of jargon to help them see you’re not a total newbie. If you don’t do this, then they’re going to assume you are entry level and they have to start teaching you your new field from scratch.
One of the most important things about moving into a new career is to use the vocabulary of your new, chosen field very carefully and to make the point that you do understand what you’re getting into. Each field and specialty has a vocabulary all its own, which is more than just the words you say, but goes to its meaning. If you talk about “digital marketing” that can mean everything from website content development to SEO to Facebook pixel advertising. Speak to the specific vocabulary you feel competent in as precisely as you can to demonstrate what you know about your new field, and be sure you’re using all terminology accurately.
If you’re not totally sure how your own experience does translate, be sure to do your homework in researching the positions and industries you’re applying to. You can learn a lot about the vocabulary of your future job from other job postings and company career sites. You can also network for informational interviews that help you polish your interview style, make contacts and learn more about your chosen field at the same time.
Tip #3: Go For a Bridging Position
When you’re making a career switch, you do yourself a favor by staying in the same function or industry if you can. Each job has both a function (e.g., marketing, accounting, sales, operations etc.) and an industry (e.g., finance, tech, agriculture, manufacturing, legal etc.). So if you want to switch industries, it’s best to stay in the same function (e.g., an accountant switching from manufacturing to tech). And if you want to switch functions, it’s best to stay in the same industry (e.g., an accountant switching to HR/administration, but staying in the construction industry). This strategy ensures that while you’re coming up to speed on one thing (i.e., industry or function), you’re leveraging experience and knowledge in the other. Trying to switch both at the same time is hard on you and your new employer, both.
In your case, you’re in the latter situation, switching from the function of paralegal to marketing, so I’d advise you to stay in the legal field for your next job. Once you have more marketing experience, you can move to other industries if you like. You may even decide to stay in the legal field because you find that your unique experience as a paralegal and a marketing professional positions you very well for great positions.
To help you position yourself with this unique combination of skills, when you’re applying for legal marketing jobs you’ll want to temper your use of marketing jargon (see Tip #2) with enough legal industry language to make it clear that you are comfortable in a legal environment as well as a marketing one.
Tip #4: Be Open About What You Don’t Know
Your confidence will hold you in good stead once you get an interview, however, you have to know that the people interviewing you know you’re switching careers. Even when they invite you in for an interview, they’re still asking themselves what they’ll have to teach you, so you might as well help them answer that question right up front.
Being clear with them about what you don’t know, i.e., what you are excited about learning, tells them two things. First, it tells them the obvious, which is what they’ll have to teach you. But second, and more importantly, it tells them what you do know. If you frame what you don’t know well, this helps you show that you do understand the larger context and are able to articulate your skills and experience in terms of what you’ve already mastered.
Don’t worry that being honest about your lack of experience will hurt your prospects for the right job. You’ll make up for inexperience with your enthusiasm and maturity. People with less experience but a good attitude and a great cultural fit get hired over people with perfect skills and an uncomfortable cultural fit all the time. This is another reason you want to research the jobs well up front and know the kind of cultural fit you’ll thrive in as well as you can.
Be sure to prepare for your interviews very thoroughly, so you’re ready to share the most appropriate and compelling reasons you’re a good fit for the job. If you do this well, your interviewers will see the things you don’t know as opportunities to shape a great new team member instead of a reason not to hire you.
I can tell from your note that you’re changing careers with excitement and determination, which will help you succeed in your new marketing career, so hold onto that confidence as you tailor your personal brand for the job of your dreams!
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