Once you set off in one direction — at school or in your career — it can be tough to change course.
This is especially true if you’re trying to switch from one field in the humanities to another in the sciences. I recently experienced a number of challenges when I decided to swap writing for being a certified clinical nutritionist.
My academic background, which included two master's degrees focusing on uses of Shakespeare in popular media and a B.A. in English, had required me to do very little science. As a result, I had to take several important steps to make a career switch. And I’m here to tell you that if you are considering a similar switch, you may have to do a little extra work, but a career change is by no means impossible.
Part 1: Determining Your Education Requirements
Before you switch careers, you’ll need to know how to get from your current position to your desired one. Here are five steps you can take.
1. Learn about the educational requirements. The first step in dramatically changing careers is determining what type of education or training you’ll need. Depending on the position you’re aiming for, this may include going back to school. Careers in some STEM fields may allow for on-the-job training or relatively short courses, while others may require four-year (or more!) college or university degrees. Some positions may also allow you the option of pursuing either mode of skills acquisition.
2. Figure out what’s required vs. recommended. I knew that I could get a relatively accessible and cost-effective online certificate in nutrition and then find work in the field (since most states do not have any requirements regarding education for nutritionists). That said, I wanted to get a degree in nutrition as well as a professional certification, not just for my own edification but also because I knew it would help me have a chance at a better career and a higher salary.
3. Look at job postings in your chosen field. Look into what a typical job in your area requires, including what type of education, degree, and professional certifications, not to mention internships or other on-the-job experience you’ll need. You can find this information by looking at job listings for your ideal position. These usually specify preferred education and training requirements.
4. Network. You can also find people within the field and talk to them about their backgrounds. Going on informational interviews can help you ascertain what you’d like to do — and not do — and how to position yourself for your ideal job.
5. Get information from professional organizations. Visit the websites of organizations in your target field. These may provide information on how to prepare for a job in the field, and may even suggest alternative positions in the same general area. If this is the case, you should make a list of all the options you have in front of you. This will help you find a job that matches your budget, goals, and overall situation.
Part 2: Taking Your Prerequisites
Once you know about the educational requirements you’ll need to fulfill, you can get started. Here’s what to do next:
6. Apply to programs, or take courses. If you already have a degree of some type, but not in the field you’re interested in, you can probably apply to graduate degree programs or certificate programs. In some cases, you may just need to complete relevant coursework that does not necessarily lead to a degree.
7. Use your time efficiently. If there’s a lag between when you start applying and when you would actually begin classes, consider earning prerequisite credits at the community college level. There are also several online universities and programs that offer some of the introductory-level courses you may need before you apply to your program. You can get started with many of these options even before you narrow down your selection of schools and start to apply.
8. Be strategic about work you’ve already completed. You may have already fulfilled some prerequisites during the course of earning your bachelor’s, even if you concentrated in a humanities-based subject rather than a science-based one. For example, you may have taken introductory-level biology and chemistry because you were interested in the subjects, or because you had to fulfill your school’s distribution requirements. These may be applicable toward your new career. More specialized classes will, however, be necessary for even an entry-level position in a lot of STEM areas, especially my chosen field of nutrition. While I’d taken a few basic science classes, I still had to take biochemistry, organic chemistry, and statistics.
9. But remember that some qualifications expire. Another factor worth considering, especially if it’s been a while since you’ve been in school, is that some programs place expiration dates on credits. For example, if you took biology a decade ago, you may not be able to use it as a prerequisite for that more advanced biochem class starting in the spring.
10. Be patient. Something you’ll just have to accept if you’re thinking of making a change like this is that it’ll take time. If you have to take eight courses, for example, and can only handle two per semester, it could take you two years just to complete your prerequisites — before you can apply to a degree or certificate program. This can be the hardest hurdle to overcome, since for many people it may seem like a gamble.
Part 3: Finding the Right Program
It may go without saying, but the most important consideration in choosing the right program is its curriculum. Here are next steps for tackling this part of the process.
11. Do your research. You should spend a long time reviewing every class to ensure that each one will contribute to your new career. For example, when I reviewed master’s programs in nutrition, many of them were centered around a dietetic internship, which prepares students to become registered dietitians. I was more interested in clinical nutrition rather than becoming an RD, so many of these programs were not matches for me. Conversely, the program I eventually chose offered courses in subjects I keenly wanted to study, such as nutritional biochemistry, gastrointestinal imbalances, and immune imbalances.
12. Consider your circumstances. Of course, your choice shouldn’t be based solely on curriculum. Especially if you’ve already started working full-time, you may not have as much geographical flexibility as an 18-year-old. Moving to accommodate a given program, for example, may not be a feasible option. It’s also important to look for flexible programs that offer classes at night. If you can, ask admissions departments about the profiles of typical students. If you choose a highly competitive program that tends to admit only those with science-based degrees, you may have a harder time being accepted — not to mention thriving. These considerations are just as important as the curriculum and faculty when you’re choosing the perfect program.
Part 4: Making Your Decision
As you determine which school is the right fit for you, here are a few more things to consider.
13. Look at what your prospective schools offer. Some schools offer a way to complete many (if not all) of the prerequisites during the first few semesters. Alternatively, they may have a partner that allows you to take such classes quickly and easily, a curriculum that may help reduce the time and cost associated with making this change.
14. Do a test run. I’ve already suggested enrolling in one or two courses at a local community college. Doing this can help you start working toward your new career goal, and it can also help you assess whether that goal is right for you — or whether a particular type of program (with a focus on, say, clinical nutrition) will be a good fit. For example, I enrolled in basic nutrition and chemistry classes. Both of these were prerequisites for all the programs I researched, and I knew that my performance in these classes would tell me whether I had the ability to succeed in a science degree program, and in the type of science degree program I had in mind, and later in a science-based profession. This can be a great method for distinguishing a passing fancy from a real ambition.
A Final Note
Switching from the humanities to the sciences takes a lot of time and effort. You may have to continue your current career for several years while you get the necessary education. Making this switch can also take extra planning, especially if you are limited by family obligations, funding options, or both. These considerations may make a career change seem daunting. But in the end, if it means choosing to pursue your passion and your dream, the sacrifice may be worth it. Do not waste any more time hesitating — start researching the required training and prerequisites you’ll need to launch your new career.