The journey to that dream job isn’t easy, but ESSENCE is here to help. For four months we’ve followed the efforts of three determined readers—one unemployed, one under-employed and one eager to make a job change—as they try to carve out new career paths. We paired them with talent and career management guru Ginny Clarke, reinvention specialist Pamela Mitchell and career and life coach Marsha Haygood. Each of these women is facing her fears, conquering her challenges and learning how to stand out among other job applicants. The ladies’ tips, tricks and remarkable triumphs can help you make desirable changes, too.


Kristie Wilder, 26 

Macon, Georgia

Not long ago Kristie Wilder had lost all hope of climbing out of her career rut. Though she holds a master’s degree in demography, the study of how populations change, she couldn’t find a position. Swimming in debt, she felt forced to take on two jobs—working as a biller for a document services company and as a part-time sales associate at a boutique. “I was angry,” admits Wilder. That changed after meeting career coach Marsha Haygood, president of Stepwise Associates, LLC.


1. Highlight her expertise.

“A lot of people aren’t familiar with the term ‘demographer,’ so I’m focusing on the skills that I have and packaging them in a way that’s more meaningful to employers,” Wilder says.

2. Widen her net.

Before, Wilder had tunnel vision, pigeonholing herself into one type of job. After documenting her assets, including top-notch research, analytical and quantitative skills, she has landed interviews with finance, insurance and risk management firms.

3. Tackle one task at a time.

“I used to multitask to the point where I didn’t get things done,” says Wilder. Before, she would come home late and try to send out as many applications as her energy would allow. Now she applies for only two jobs a week so she could tailor her résumé to fit each position. She’s also begun to take time off from work. This has relieved her level of stress and allowed her more time for the job search.


Recalibrating her mind-set

“Kristie’s demeanor was her biggest problem,” says Haygood. Wilder began to shift her view to cope with disappointment in a more positive way. When she fails to land a second interview, she doesn’t retreat in defeat but rather calls to ask for feedback. “It’s vital to understanding where you are going wrong and can save you valuable energy and time in the future,” says Wilder. “It’s no longer, There is something wrong with me. Now I look at it more as, I didn’t present myself in a way that matched what the employer was looking for. This has helped me.”


Martha Buckner, 56

New York City

Out of work since being downsized in 2008, Martha Buckner didn’t know how to turn her luck around. The veteran television reporter and producer had applied for nearly 800 jobs but had rarely scored an interview. Buckner, who has spent almost $62,000 in retirement savings since being laid off, believes both ageism and not knowing the right people have played a part in her not getting hired. “That was only true to a point,” says her career coach, Ginny Clarke, president and CEO of Talent Optimization Partners in Chicago. “She has since understood that you also have to demonstrate your knowledge, superior qualifications and suitability for any position.”


1. Focus on the quality of contacts, not the quantity.

Instead of applying to every job or reaching out to everyone in her Rolodex, Buckner now seeks out those who can advise, direct or inform her about positions for which she is highly qualified.

2. Direct the conversation with colleagues.

A naturally warm and open person, Buckner has learned to watch her tendency to be too conversational. She always has two or three “competency-based points” to work into any conversation to demonstrate her superior qualifications.

3. Identify jobs that match her skill set.

After finding positions that interested her, Buckner examined the requirements. “If there were 12 qualifications and I had 10, they were probably not going to hire me because I didn’t have the other two,” she says. “You need to have it all.” If you’re thinking that you’ve seen underqualified people get hired, Clarke explains that the candidate may have been able to demonstrate her competencies and she likely has the support of a sponsor.


Revamping her résumé

The best industry connections won’t help if your résumé isn’t up to snuff. “Martha’s résumé didn’t tell much of a story,” says Clarke, author of Career Mapping: Charting Your Course in the New World of Work (Morgan James Publishing). “It was more like a listing of jobs.” Buckner’s new draft includes an objectives section, referencing the types of positions she seeks and her relevant skills. “Martha assumed people reading the résumé knew the requirements of her previous jobs, so she didn’t list her responsibilities,” says Clarke. “But those key words get you through the first screen.” Buckner also listed hobbies, interests and volunteer experience to add more depth. Another tip: Don’t spend too much time on the cover letter. While it makes for a good first impression, it carries far less weight.


Jennifer Earley, 32

Silver Spring, Maryland

Unfulfilled by her job, Jennifer Earley was intent on leaving despite her six-figure salary. Some people thought she was crazy, but the brand manager for a nutritional supplement company craved a change. “It’s not my passion,” says Earley, who gets moral support from a group of high-achieving college girlfriends who have dubbed themselves the Dream Team. For Earley, the ideal career involved working for a luxury brand like Louis Vuitton. There was just one problem: How would she translate her experience promoting health care products into something a big-ticket brand could leverage?


1. Reflect on her career.

Pamela Mitchell, founder and CEO of The Reinvention Institute in Florida, asked Earley to make three lists: The first identified the 30 qualities she wanted in a job, the second was an inventory of her skills, and the third recalled the times in her career when she was happiest. It brought the M.B.A. grad, who also holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing and Black American studies, to an unexpected conclusion: “As a brand manager, I want to bring luxe products to the African-American consumer market.”

2. Target Top 10 companies.

With that new focus, Earley crafted a list of companies she wants to work for, which includes BET Networks and Liquid Soul Media. Now she is learning everything she can about them and exploring marketing courses to beef up her knowledge.

3. Set up informational interviews.

Earley is now busy setting up informational interviews by reaching out to her contacts in marketing, branding and promotion. “It’s important for me to understand what type of talent a company is looking for,” she says. “Before I get the job, I need to gauge whether I’m a good fit, and I need to tailor my résumé to fill in any gaps.”


Having patience for the process

“Jennifer is a type A personality who is used to taking charge,” says Mitchell, author of The 10 Laws of Career Reinvention: Essential Survival Skills for Any Economy (Dutton). “She always thought that if you push harder, things go faster. But you can only control 50 percent of this process.” In addition, rebranding yourself requires a slow and thoughtful approach. “When you have to convince someone your background is what they need, you need time to pull your story together,” says Mitchell. “It can take a few months to come up with the right pitch.” To build on her research (she signed up for Google Alerts on her target companies and their competitors), Earley relied on feedback from informational meetings. “That’s not a pseudo term for a job interview,” warns Mitchell. “It’s important to go into it thinking you are there just to gather information. Once you stop looking for what this person can give you, it changes the dynamic and people can relax and just talk. It’s a chance to build a relationship.” Those chats with executives have given Earley invaluable insight into the corporate culture and clues as to the gaps she needs to fill in her résumé. But Earley says the biggest lesson has been a personal one: “What’s been so rewarding is that this transformation isn’t exclusive to my professional aspirations; it’s also helping me personally.”