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Changing discipline or arena mid-career

By Ari Daniels posted 02-22-2021 11:09 PM


Many of us find the need to shift gears at some point, and change discipline, arena, sector, or perhaps even country, mid-career. I’ll skip most of the reasons, and just share the two personal reasons.

My first job out of school was in construction management, despite my educational focus being water resources and environmental engineering. I made the switch to a more classic engineering role (design, analysis, planning) in water resources. This was after only a year in construction management, so it wasn’t hard to make the switch, and my then-new employer found value in my construction management experience.

My second reason was I didn’t want to be 10+ years into a relatively narrow work field and be unable to really transfer into other areas (at similar pay and position level) due to overspecialization. I am a generalist and enjoy variety in my life and work, and “bioretention maestro” wasn’t a title I wanted 20 years into my career.

So I started looking for other opportunities and found that starting my own company was the thing that offered me all the flexibility (but obviously not security) I really wanted. I’m currently sort of mid-transition, still working for an employer, and starting out on my own. It’s great (and likely rare) to have that flexibility.

The “how” part of changing one’s career path is the real question many people will want some additional insight into, and the purpose for this post. I have a few thoughts and tips to share which, though personal (and not based on any broader research), cover a lot of “nontraditional” experience; I graduated with my B.S. at 35, studied on-and-off for 17 years to get five years of credits, studied mechanical and civil/environmental engineering, worked a lot in my time off, and really built up the “life experience” that is incredibly difficult to quantify on a professional résumé.

  1. Find a way to make whatever experience you have – whether it’s closely or barely related – somehow relevant to the work you want to do. I interviewed for a high-level project management position, jokingly referred to my first job as a paper boy (riding a bicycle, delivering newspapers for those unfamiliar with the term), and the regional manager for this large water/wastewater utility provider took that job seriously and explained how it was client management at its finest. But also be aware that putting “Paper Boy” on a résumé for an engineering position probably isn’t advisable.
  2. I realize this is easier for some people than for others (soooo many reasons), and it was probably easier in ways (for some) before COVID-19. Hopefully we’ll be able to safely and comfortably return to face-to-face socialization soon. But in the meantime, forums like ASCE Collaborate, LinkedIn, and even the professionally oriented branches of social media sites, like the subreddits r/CivilEngineering and r/AskEngineers on Reddit, can be unconventional ways to make new connections.
  • I hired a part-time technician I connected with on Reddit and he was fantastic, and for him, working with me helped him land the exact job he wanted elsewhere.
  • Virtual conferences and webinars, and events organized by local groups that do work in or adjacent to your interest areas can be good ways to increase the quality or substance of your professional network. The best opportunities, and the best chances at getting those opportunities, are likely to come from a personal network even if it’s somewhat superficial.
  1. Ask. Ask again, in a slightly different way. If you see an opportunity that’s almost right, it might be worth your time to contact a responsible person and ask if there’s flexibility in the “almost” part. I know an electrical engineer who wanted to work independently. He would contact companies that were attempting to hire a full-time in-house position, and offer to work for them, but only as an independent contractor. Obviously this didn’t always work, but it did sometimes. Often enough, an employer seeking an employee hasn’t thought about all the options you see. Likely, they have thought about the whole “Can I work from home?” question, but it still might not hurt to ask, unless they’ve explicitly ruled it out. Making a good impression during an interview may cause an employer to be more willing to bend what they thought were “rules” to get you.
  2. Be patient, if at all possible. And don’t take rejection personally. A rejection today may leave the path clear for a better opportunity tomorrow. And there’s a high likelihood that someone passing over you for an opportunity is making their judgment/decision based on a very limited amount of information, and it doesn’t have much to do with your true value. The very, very best résumés I’ve seen can in no way truly capture the unique and human aspects that make an individual. Sure, experiences and accomplishments make suggestions about a person, but how can I truly represent – in a document designed to be short enough to hold the modern working person’s overextended and dwindling attention, or even in a one-hour interview – the depth of experience and ability that my decades of life have provided? How can you?    

Keep at it, and best of luck! If you’d like to connect with me on LinkedIn, please do. I’ve helped place a couple of people in career path positions and always love helping others get where they’re going.

Ari Daniels lives and works from home in Highland County, VA in the Appalachian mountains. His passions in the engineering world are water resources and alternative energy, though he appreciates simple, elegant, low-tech/low-impact in any arena.


03-28-2021 08:55 PM


Nice one Mr.Daniels. Your piece is really talking to me directly and many others that I know. Thanks for sharing your wisdom

03-01-2021 08:54 PM


Thanks so much for taking the time to articulate your thoughts and experiences on changing careers or seeking opportunities in addition to one's existing 9-5 role.  

Each of your points seemed to lead back to "networking/communication/just asking/just showing up and seeing what happens" and I can certainly agree with that.

I can recall a few engineering companies that I interviewed with while in senior year of college looking for future work. For fun, (similar to your paper boy reference) I left my weekend job of "paintball referee" on the bottom of my resume. It did the trick of spurring a lot of non-traditional interview questions (and general shop talk from other employees who happened to be involved in the sport) which I think helped both myself and the interviewer to gain more insight about one another than we would have if we hadn't had this non-work topic to discuss. 

I also try to stay in the habit of keeping in touch with my old college professors, even if it is just an email per year. This has given me two other offers for employment opportunities, both of which I was able to forward to other previous classmates who were looking for specifically those types of work. 

As someone who has just reached 6 years of experience in my current role, I find your thoughts and suggestions about "how to not over-specialize" and "where to go from here" both very relevant and great reminders for ways to move forward. 

Thanks again!