Low-risk routes into a bright new career

Working in your spare time is one way to gain experience in another line of work. Photo: Oscar Wong / Getty. 

Is 2017 set to be the year you decide, once and for all, to follow your career dreams? Exciting!

If you are adventurous by nature and like to live life by the seat of your pants, you might want to quit your job and just get stuck in to your new project without any further delay. Other more cautious souls, however, may be more circumspect and prefer a steadier, more cautious route to a new career. And that’s what we’re going to look at here.  

In a recent blog, we outlined some of the issues that attempting a radical change of professional direction raises. You can do all the research in the world, but you won’t know 100% if it’s the career for you until you’ve actually started doing it.There’s always some level of risk when you strike out on a new path. There are, however, various ways to explore a new line of work without immediately giving up the day job. 


Freelancing can be an ideal way to test the waters and ease yourself in to a new career. Many people looking to change career start out by making their first forays into a new vocation by taking on projects in their spare time, during evenings, weekends or holidays.

The astonishing array of digital tools at our disposal these days, from email and social media to cloud sharing and teleconferencing, have opened up many career paths that can now be done entirely remotely and at a time of your choosing. Obviously this doesn’t work for massage therapists, bus drivers or any other ‘hands on’ occupation. But for any job that doesn’t absolutely require you to be present in person and at a fixed time – from computer programming to journalism, consultancy work to setting up your own business – there are few barriers to getting started. 

All the time you’re freelancing, you're building contacts, growing a reputation, putting down a portfolio… and earning some extra cash! If you’re close to making the transition, you may be able to take it a step further and go down to part-time in your current job so you can say yes to bigger freelance projects.

(Note: if there is a justifiable business reason for doing so, an employer may in some specific cases prohibit staff from certain kinds of freelancing – for example, taking on work for a direct competitor – so do check your contract).

Flexible or part-time working

Exploring new avenues takes time, and if personal commitments mean that giving up your weekends and evenings is out of the question, you might make space to investigate a new career through flexible working.

The right to request flexible working is now enjoyed by all 'employees' (see definition here) with 26 weeks’ continuous service, and you certainly have nothing to lose by asking.

Flexible working could mean, for example:

  • freeing up a day a week by spreading your contracted hours over, say, four long days instead of five;
  • working from home or away from the office on one or more days a week. This in itself will save time on the daily commute, and if your intended career will involve working out of your home, this will also tell you whether you’re cut out for working long stretches by yourself on a permanent basis (see our blog on the pros and cons of remote working); and 
  • flexitime.

If your financial situation and the nature and demands of your job allow, you could also negotiate going down to part-time, possibly through job-sharing.

Sabbaticals / Career Breaks

More and more people – and employers – are coming round to the idea of career breaks. If you have money in the bank to cover an unpaid stint of self-development and exploration, several weeks or months away from your current work could give you the time you need to get work experience in a new vocation or do a concentrated spell of training. And at the end of it, if it doesn’t pan out how you expected, you’ve still got a job to go back to. (See our blog about Career Breaks.) 


A carefully selected volunteer role outside of work could arm you with specific skills and experience you need for your new career. The focus of a volunteer will be on serving others or a good cause, rather than your own career interests (however noble), so choose carefully so that expectations on both sides are met.  

You’ll probably be surprised at just how wide a variety of volunteering opportunities there are out there. Be sure to check out the volunteering resources and databases at TimeBank, Do-it and Idealist. (The Charity Commission for England and Wales, the government department responsible for the charity sector, also provides a list of all registered charities on its website.) 

Of course, if there is a particular organisation whose business is of interest to you and you’re prepared to work for them for free, just pick up the phone and give them a call – they may be only too happy to hear from you.


If you want to get your teeth into a specific project – and one in which your and the employer’s aspirations are mutually served –  internships can equip you with excellent on-the-job experience. Just make sure you don’t get become the de facto office dogsbody (as described in our blog on the pros and pitfalls of internships).


Finally, networking can often be fitted in around full-time work and can arm you with vital information and contacts in new arenas of work (remember the old maxim it’s who you know not what you know? Well, it’s kind of both really). Online networks have made it especially easy to spread your network far and wide quickly. If you’re new to networking, see our blog on the unwritten rules of networking so that you make the right impression. 

A basic approach to exploring a new career through networking might look something like this:  

  • Connect with people and organisations who do what you want to do.
  • Gather information from them in the first instance, rather than pester them for work.
  • Be gently persistent with your enquiries without being pushy.
  • Know what you want to know (be focused and respectful of their time).
  • Ask them to suggest and even introduce you to other relevant people. 
  • Don’t forget to say thank you! And offer them something in return if you can.
  • Find ways to reconnect with the contacts you have made from time to time.


See workSMART’s Careers Advice section for lots more information on changing jobs


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