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Figuring out the dos and don'ts of career switching

THE time to switch careers, says David Dougherty, author of ``From Technical Professional to Corporate Manager'' (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95) is ``early, when you're in a lower-level position.'' Mr. Dougherty, a vice-president of AMF, a New York State firm that makes industrial and leisure products, argues that ``people who are specialists tend to concentrate on their specialty and don't look beyond it. When they come to the top of where they can go as a specialist, it's frequently too late to make a change.''

On the other hand, maybe the time to switch careers, says Charlotte Strauss, who switched from teaching to career counseling for the Re-Entry Women's Employment Center in Fairfax, Va., is ``when you know internally that you're not giving your whole heart to the job.'' When you feel you're not meeting all your obligations or that you simply can't keep on doing what you're doing, it's time to move, she says.

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Whether you're thinking of switching fields as a way to get closer to the top of the hierarchy, as Mr. Dougherty advises, or you simply feel that you've given all you can to your present career and want to try something new, the move -- once made -- can be worthwhile. ``Nothing can compensate for a job you don't enjoy,'' says Mr. Dougherty. ``It hurts everything, work life, family life.''

``I have yet to recoup financially from making this move,'' Ms. Strauss admits, ``but I couldn't be happier. And for me, that's everything.''

Such moves take planning, the experts advise. If your goal is to get off line and onto staff at a corporation -- and even if it's not -- Mr. Dougherty advises that you ``pick up some marketing and financial expertise, to round out your specialty.''

These, plus a willingness to enter the firm's management training program at the entry level, can get you moving in the direction you want to go. ``If you do a good job at what you're doing, just tell them you want broader experience,'' he says. ``And switch companies, if necessary.''

If you're not as sure about what career you'd like to switch into, Ms. Strauss advises making up a profile of your skills, interests, and values. Teachers, for example, have ``several portable skills,'' she says.

``They're excellent time managers -- they always have to watch the clock and get in all their lessons,'' she adds. ``They have excellent human relations skills, know how to interview [parents], can run equipment, are good public speakers, and are good planners.''

Skills like these transfer easily into careers like sales, ``because they're comfortable in front of people,'' she says, or other areas that need ``teachers rather than technicians, like computer firms trying to help people use their product.''

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Your interests might include anything -- a desire to work with your hands, to solve problems, to work with others, or to take risks, she says. Couple these with the things you value most on a job (independence, security, creativity, etc.) and you can begin to outline your ideal career.

``Sometimes, of course, not all three things (skills, interests, and values) mesh, and then you have to decide which are the most important to you,'' she points out.

Digging through the Dictionary of Occupational Titles and Occupational Outlook Handbook at the local library should help you focus on your career choice.

Next, says Ms. Strauss, try to ``network -- ask everyone if they know anyone in your field you can talk to.'' Such ``informational interviewing'' of someone who has the job you want can turn up hidden assets (and problems) in the career.

``People love to talk about themselves,'' she laughs, and most are happy to tell you things like how they got into the field, what they like and dislike about it, and what the national or local outlook is for that position.

``Try to get another contact before you leave,'' Ms. Strauss says. ``Ask, do you know anyone else in this field who I might contact? And be sure to write a thank-you note,'' she adds.

Career switches often call for a retraining period, according to the experts -- training sometimes provided by large corporations, Mr. Dougherty says. He advises that you also find a ``network of people with your same job, in or out of your workplace, so you can learn from their mistakes.''

If you must fund your own training and restart your career on the ground floor, Ms. Strauss says, ``write your r'esum'e so that employers can see the skills you used -- not the job you had in the past.

``Find a way to gain some quick experience in your new field -- volunteer for a job, or take on a temporary assignment -- just so the firm you're trying to join can see that you've gotten your feet wet elsewhere.''

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