Help Clients Change Careers -- Retool Their Career “Story”

By Alexandra White

As we work with clients to help them with their career goals, we often encounter people who want to make transitions to a new career. Switching jobs has become the “new normal”-- most of us will stay at a particular job for less than five years (Bureau of Labor Statistics, Jan 2012).


So how can we best help clients move on to new jobs and even transition into new careers?


One of my clients, “Josie,” spent over 10 years as a research scientist at a university—her first and only job after college graduation. While she enjoyed her career, she had hit a ceiling—both professionally and economically. She was working towards an advanced degree to help her transition to a new career as a technical writer, but had not completed it yet.


An entry-level Technical Writer position at a local firm opened up, and Josie decided to take the leap to apply. I guided her through writing an application letter. In a week she called me, both excited and daunted. “I got an interview—but I’ve never actually had a real job interview before. How am I going to survive this?”


To prepare for the interview, we worked first on her career story—looking for patterns and strengths in her past experience that fit the new position, so she could communicate these clearly to a hiring manager.


Part 1: Prepare the career story

I assigned Josie some homework and walked through the following instructions with her.

  1. Print out these documents--current resume, the job description, and open a blank document (or just use plain paper).

  2. In the blank document or paper, create two columns—the left-hand one is “Job Skills,” the right is “My Stories.”

  3. Review the job description and any other information you may have about the job. What are the key skills and attributes the employer is seeking (e.g., “skilled with social media, strong project management skills,” etc.)?

  4. Once you’ve identified these skills, jot down the three or four most important (these are typically the ones mentioned first) in the “Job Skills” column.

  5. Look at each skill, and think back over your work experience. Use your resume to help jog your memory.

  • Where was a specific situation where you demonstrated this skill or attribute? You are looking for specific situations or anecdotes from your background that match the skill in question.

  • In the right-hand column of your document, jot notes about each story to help you remember. You may notice that a few powerful stories from your background illustrate more than one skill. Seek quality over quantity in your career stories--a few good stories with meat on their bones are more compelling than several weak ones.


Before Josie and I ended our session, I reminded her of a few guidelines for her stories:


  • Keep a structure. Examples can be short, but need a beginning, middle, and end. “I did X, Y happened, with Z result.”.

  • Relevant stories are often more important than recent ones. These examples need not be in chronological order--what’s more important is how well stories fit the skills for the job. An example from a job you held three years ago might be more relevant than something you did last month. As an example, early in her career Josie had published several complex research articles—the process and skills she used in that role were more relevant for the technical writer job than her most recent field research.

  • Be specific. Give the interviewer details and color to help them really see what happened in these anecdotes and how the previous experience relates to the new position.

  • Action is key. In a story, action moves the plot along and makes us want to hear more. What steps did you take in your career story? What were your results? What did you accomplish? Many of Josie’s experiences as a researcher were valuable for her new career, so her goal was to demonstrate specific results and accomplishments.

  • Character counts. What do these examples show about you as a person? Choose examples that help the interviewer see who you are and what you are like to work with.


Part 2 - Rehearse the career story in a mock interview

Josie and I then conducted a mock interview to help her better prepare for the “real thing.” I used the actual job description to prepare a list of open-ended questions, a few of which are listed below:

  • Tell me about your experience [insert sample skill from job description - repeat this question for each skill].

  • Tell me about a time when you encountered an obstacle during a project. How did you resolve it?

  • What do you find most challenging about [insert sample skill]?

  • What do you like the most about [insert sample skill]?

  • What can you bring to our organization? Why do you feel you are the right candidate for this position?

  • Why are you looking to make a transition into a new industry?


As Josie practiced her responses, it triggered additional questions and we continued until she felt prepared. After two phone screening interviews and three in-person interviews at the same organization, Josie made her career change successfully.


In summary, truly and innately knowing one’s “career story” is the best way to help clients prepare for their next step, whether it be a promotion in one field or a jump to a new career altogether.



Bureau of Labor Statistics. (n.d.) Retrieved from





Alexandra WhiteAlexandra White, M.S. Ed, is an Assistant Professor of Management at Luther College, where she teaches courses on management, technology, and business communication. In addition, she is a PMI-certified Project Management Professional. Contact Alexandra at alexandra.v.white@gmail.com or via LinkedIn at



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