This post is part of a three-part series on changing careers as an executive or high-stakes professional. Follow our blog for more information on when—and how—to change careers.

If you’ve invested a lot of time and energy into your current profession, the thought of changing careers is probably pretty scary. Without being able to see the future, you’re can’t know with certainty whether it would actually be worth changing careers. At the same time, you’re reluctant to stay in your current profession due to anxiety, professional burnout, or other issues. You’re stuck in analysis paralysis, wondering how to get out.

One approach to making a big career decision would be to outline the external factors associated with your current career versus a new one. But that would be like comparing apples and oranges since the new profession might be better in some ways but worse in others. Despite a careful analysis of the pros and cons, you might still have no idea how to make the right career decision.

Another potential approach would be to just “go with your gut” and choose a career that feels right. Unfortunately, that approach is also flawed. Your negative feelings about your current job could push you into a rash decision, and your emotional biases could lead you in the wrong direction.

A more balanced approach that takes external AND personal factors into account can help you determine when to change careers versus when to stay put.

External factors to consider before changing careers

It’s important to carefully survey the professional landscape before making a big career decision. To illuminate some of the practical differences between your current profession and a potential new one, you should ask yourself:

What are my life goals? How could the right career contribute to them?

Envision your ideal life and lifestyle over the next five, ten, and fifteen years. What are your priorities and dreams? Are you expecting any significant life changes soon? For example, you might be planning to have a child or care for an aging parent.

Thinking about factors like these can help you determine how many hours per week you’ll be able to contribute to a career. It can also help you set realistic financial goals if you’re looking to change careers to make more money. For example, if your goal is to send a child to college soon, a stable, high-income profession might best support this goal versus an exciting but less lucrative position at a start-up.

How well does my current career align with my goals?

How large is the gap between your current career path and your personal and professional goals? For example, perhaps you’ve always dreamed of buying a beautiful home in Brentwood or Santa Monica, but your current salary wouldn’t be nearly enough. If so, it might make sense to transition to a more lucrative profession.

On the other hand, perhaps the gap between your goals and your current reality is not that far. For example, you might realize that you would only need a $10K or $20K raise to afford your dream home within the next five years. If you could achieve that by moving upward in your company, or perhaps by moving to another organization, it might be possible to stay in your current line of work.

What are the pros and cons of leaving versus staying?

There are thousands of potential careers, and it’s impossible to compare them simultaneously. To avoid analysis paralysis and prevent yourself from getting overwhelmed, we recommend you pick one new career path that looks promising and research it thoroughly. You might ultimately decide to drop that idea and look at another one, and that’s okay. You have to start somewhere, and it’s much easier to compare two careers than three, four, five, or more.

During your research, you will need to collect information from reputable sources—not just those with a vested interest in recruiting you (e.g., for-profit universities, industry organizations, or organizational recruiters). Talk to people in your network to determine whether they know anyone with experience in the potential career path. Reach out to them and request informational interviews and/or job shadows. If you have time, you could even volunteer in the new industry or take a night class to see what it’s all about.

Based on the information you gather, make a weighted list of pros and cons to help you narrow in on what’s most important to you. You’ll want to consider any factors that could affect your future life goals, including the expected workload/schedule, starting income, advancement potential, location dependency, work environment, etc. It’s tempting to look at just the potential positives of a new career, but you should also be on the lookout for hidden downsides. As they say: the grass is always greener on the other side of the hill.

This probably sounds like an awful lot of research, and it is. But we promise it will be worth it. Changing careers is a big decision, whether you have three years left in your career or 30. It’s no time for educated guesses; you need to make the best possible decision by collecting as many data points as you can and incorporating them into your analysis.

What would it take to make this transition?

Assuming you’re still interested in the new career path, it’s time to look more deeply into the feasibility of making that transition given your goals and resources.

Look at job ads for your potential career. How much prior experience and schooling are required for entry-level positions and senior ones? How much time would it take to complete any needed education and obtain certifications? Could it be done during the evenings/weekends, or would you need to quit your current job first? How much would it cost to do all that? How long would it take to recover that cost, given average starting salaries in the new career?

You should also consider timing, especially if you’re planning to change careers relatively late in life. How much competition will you face for your target position, and how long do people usually spend job-searching before landing a job? Do you anticipate significant life events that would make this transition more difficult? How would you navigate those? You should also consider your current age and target retirement age. Can you change your career at 40 or 50 and still retire when you’d hoped to? If not, is that a deal-breaker?

After you’ve conducted a thorough analysis of potential external factors, it’s time to move to the next stage: an exploration of internal factors, including your values and emotions. By taking the time to look inward, you can gain the additional insights needed to move past analysis paralysis. Exploring who you are and who you want to be can also help you make a career decision that will facilitate personal growth.

Professional Support for Tough Decisions

If you’re thinking about changing careers but are faced with anxiety, ambivalence, and uncertainty, working with a trusted advisor can be helpful. As executive coaches, we are skilled at helping working professionals lead balanced, fulfilling lives. Send us a message to see how we can help or book a free 20 minute consultation call with Dr. Lee or Dr. Barajas.