Can You Explain Why You Changed Career Paths?

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This isn’t a question everyone has to answer in a job interview, but if you’re interviewing for a job in a different career field from the one you’re currently in or worked in most recently, you can count on being asked this one. Like many interview questions, it can be tough if you’re unprepared, but with a little thought you can have a great answer ready to go when it’s asked. That’s the key to any tough question–have an answer ready BEFORE you go to the interview.

Why Do They Want to Know This?

As with any question, you want to keep in mind why the interviewer is asking you this one. Interviewers are trying to get information that helps them decide whether you’re a good fit for the job, so your answers should focus on showing them why you’re the right choice. In the case of this question, the interviewer probably wants to know that you won’t decide to change career paths again in a year and leave the company.
Generally, the less time you’ve spent in your old career, the more important this will be to the interviewer. If you’re looking for something new after a few decades of doing the same thing, you don’t look like the kind of person who’s going to jump ship in a hurry. If you chose a career and only stuck with it for six months, you have some work to do to convince an employer that you’ll stay around in your new field. Hiring new employees, training them and getting them ready to start is expensive, and employers don’t want to have to replace you soon after you’ve been hired, so they won’t want to bring you on board if they think you won’t stay long. Your answer should help avoid making them think that way.

Fine, But What Do I Tell Them?

So, with that in mind, what should you say? First, you should be thinking about the truth–why did you decide to change careers? You never want to flat-out lie to an interviewer, but aside from that, lots of reasons you might have for changing careers make for very good answers.

Did you start learning to write software in your free time, discover you loved it, and start applying for programming jobs?

You can honestly tell the interviewer, “I did some programming on my own and found it interesting and engaging, and that made me realize that this was what I really wanted to be doing full-time.” That’s a solid answer that shows the employer you’ll be engaged with the job and want to do it for more than just the paycheck, which is always a big plus.
Your situation might be less specific than that, and that’s fine too. Maybe your old job put you behind a desk staring silently at a computer screen all day and you’d really rather deal with people regularly. If your new career field will do that, it’s great to tell the interviewer that’s what you’re looking for. Companies looking to hire someone to deal with their customers will want to know that you like talking to people and are looking to do more of it.
Or maybe it’s the reverse–you’ve worked in retail and now you’re tired of constantly dealing with angry customers who just want to yell at you to make themselves feel better. If you’re now looking to move into a technical or engineering role, or something else where you’ll be expected to work more with things and systems than with people, it’s fine to tell the interviewer that you’re something of an introvert and your old career kept you away from the kinds of situations where you can be most successful. Just don’t tell them something like, “I hate people and I want to be locked up by myself all day and never speak to anyone.” Every job requires you to deal with people now and then, and no employer is going to want to hire you if you can’t tolerate that.
You might also have seen some downsides of your previous career that made you want to look for greener pastures. That’s fine, and you can tell an interviewer about it, but be careful not to sound like you’re whining or just looking for the worst in what you used to do. Again, this makes it sound like you won’t last long before you’ll be taking the same approach to your new career and looking for another change.

What Shouldn’t I Say?

Of course, there are some reasons to change careers that might not go over as well. If the only reason you’re switching is because you’ve heard you could make more money by working in a different field, that isn’t likely to impress an interviewer. If that’s all it takes to make you change jobs, then why should the employer believe you won’t switch again and ditch the company once you find something else that pays even more?

If that’s your situation, you really need to think of something positive about the new field you’re hoping to get into that your old career didn’t offer–something you honestly care about. You’ll have a hard time being convincing if you talk about something that really doesn’t matter to you, but you can avoid making it all about money if you can talk about something else you really do prefer about your new career path.
And don’t turn your answer into a joke. Humor can be great and it certainly has its place in the working world, but this is a serious question that deserves a serious answer.

A joke here tells the interviewer two things: one, you don’t care enough about the question to really think about it; and two, you didn’t think through the decision to change careers before you made the move. Remember what an interviewer is concerned about here? You don’t want to signal that making a drastic career change is something you did on a whim. That makes it sound like it’s likely to happen again.

The Bottom Line

This should give you some ideas. The real point is that you need to be honest about your reasons for wanting a change, and present them in a way that shows you’re serious about your new career and you’re going to be in it for the long haul. Take the time to craft an answer that does that, and you’ll knock this question out of the park.