Changing Your Profession Mid-Career

Last Updated May 2, 2007 7:13 PM EDT

It wasn't so long ago that if you stayed with one employer for a long time, the stability you demonstrated was the hallmark of emotional maturity and reliability. Changing careers entirely was almost unthinkable.

Now, however, most people expect to change jobs several times during their working lives, and many others will change professions entirely. Some of those career changes will be dramatic shifts and some will come late in a person's working life. Today, it's not unusual to find people in their 50s or beyond pursuing entirely new careers.

There are many reasons for this shift. We're staying healthier and more productive longer, so we have time to gain experience in several types of work, not just one. The marketplace changes so rapidly that many careers are evolving radically from what they were when people first entered them, and some have disappeared altogether. Major changes in the technological and economic landscape are forcing some people into career transitions. But many others simply can't resist the siren call of new opportunities, the chance to make new discoveries, and to expand the frontiers of their potential. Going into a new career in mid-life can be both daunting and a heck of a lot of fun.

What You Need to KnowWhat are the key questions?

Ask yourself:

  • What do you especially enjoy about your career now?
  • What attracts you to a potentially different career? Can you find ways to experience elements of the desired new career in your current work? (Maybe you don't need to make a drastic change…)
  • Do you expect to have enough working years ahead of you to realize the promise and potential of your new career choice? If you have to make a significant investment in education or training or relocation or other costs in order to pursue the new career, will those sacrifices likely be worth the benefits you'll receive in return?
  • If the time you'd have to invest for education and training would reduce the attractiveness of your potential new career, is there an alternative choice that can give you the same satisfaction without the necessary investment of years of training before you can start?
  • How sure are you that your anticipated career transition will give you the happiness you seek? Are there other issues in your life that you really need to address as well?
Have I left it too late to change career?

This depends on what else you want to do with your life, and what you are willing to sacrifice. It's possible, for instance, to become a lawyer in your late 50s and early 60s, and some people do. To enter a profession at that age would require you to give up or postpone the rewards of a leisurely retirement or the benefits you have earned from the years you have already invested in your current career. You can choose to do whatever you want; just be aware of the choice you are making.

What if I'm unhappy with the change I've made? Is there any way back?

It's possible that you can find a way to return to your previous career—no one can take your experience from you. It's possible that your new training and education may well enhance your insights and value in your former profession. Or perhaps you can take your additional self-awareness and launch yourself into yet a third career. Continue thinking of this process as an ongoing journey.

What to DoFocus On What's Right in Your Current Career

What do you like about your current work? Make a list. Is it the people you work with? The tasks you perform? The pace or setting of your work? The way you feel about yourself when you achieve a goal? Where you do your job? The industry you're in? How your work benefits your customers? The more you know about what you like now, the more likely you'll be to include those enjoyable ingredients in your new line of work.

Identify What You Dislike

There are always parts of our job that we just don't enjoy. Can you simply get rid of them or minimize them to such an extent that the positive elements are more prominent? Perhaps with such a shift, you can renew your sense of satisfaction with where you're working right now. If not, by specifying what you don't like in your current work, you can have a checklist for what you don't want in your new career—a useful thing to have while sorting through your choices.

Hearken Back to Earlier Dreams

You probably had a "dream job" when you were young, along with big, idealistic ideas for your future that you may have had to abandon as real life kicked in. Perhaps now is the time to go back to those early dreams, equipped with your world knowledge and a more adult perspective. Are any opportunities open to you that would enable you to fulfill those dreams?

Update Your Dreams

Use the vast resources available online to research intriguing career possibilities for you today. The Web continues to expand its content every day, so you should be able to discover the necessary information about any type of career you are interested in. There are a million ways to make a living in our country. You can research the thousands of associations and professional groups that support and promote practitioners in careers that interest you. A good place to start is the American Society of Association Executives (link below).

Connect with Others

Talk to the people who are already engaged in the work that interests you. Watch your local paper for meeting announcements. Go to the receptions and meetings of appropriate local organizations. Get a feel for what the people in your potential new field talk about. Arrange some informational interviews with practitioners in the field of your dreams. Tell your would-be advisors that you are thinking of entering their field and would very much appreciate their perspective. Don't be shy. Most people who love their work consider it a pleasure and a welcome duty to promote their field to others. Encourage these professionals to discuss their work on two levels: not only the practical how-tos and to-dos, but also the intangible rewards offered—and sacrifices required—by this career.

Get the Financing You Need to Get the Education You Want

It's possible that you will need to get additional education to prepare for your career transition. That could be an expensive proposition, but there are alternatives to paying for it entirely by yourself. There may be sources of financial support available to you. The Web is a good place to research sources of scholarships, grants, and other forms of financial aid.

Don't Give Up

If you take the decision to leave a job, it's likely that you'll go through moments of doubt and uncertainty, but that's perfectly normal. Consider those feelings as temporary dips in the transition process and keep you enthusiasm high by reminding yourself of all the positive reasons you found for changing career direction. Sure, you are embarking on a journey into the unknown, but if you have prepared well and put yourself on the right path, the rewards will be well worth it.

What to AvoidYou Rely on the Wrong Help or Advice

Executive search firms, for instance, are in the business of filling positions, not helping you discover yourself and your new role. Many career counselors are under-qualified and merely process you through questionable pencil-and-paper aptitude tests. Take your time to get clarity and confidence about this significant step in your life. Read the books recommended below. Consider retaining a good career counselor. Whatever you invest in your preparation for a new career is relatively insignificant when you consider what is at stake.

You Try to Do It Alone

Although only you can make the ultimate decision about how you want your career to develop, it is wise to take advice along the way, whether from families and friends, networking groups, or trusted colleagues. Listen to what loved ones tell you—especially listen for gifts you didn't realize you had. Also face up to the fact that you have some blind spots: sometimes the ones we love know us better than we allow ourselves to know ourselves.

You Go for a "Hot Career"

At best, those "hot career" lists that appear sporadically reflect the best of limited thinking for a limited time. And they tend to be counterproductive. As those lists are published, the market experiences a flood of candidates seeking those career options, and suddenly there is not quite the demand for qualified candidates as originally expected. And just because a job is "hot" in the market, doesn't make it right for you. If you actually manage to land one of those elusive hot jobs, you may discover that, financially lucrative as it might be, you are still left with the familiar discomfort that comes with being in the wrong job. Your hot job could leave you stone cold.

You Lose Heart

Keep in mind that at this time in your life you are in a far better position to seek out satisfying work than when you started your working life. You are more mature, better equipped with deeper self-knowledge, and possess far more marketable skills and experience. You are in a much better position now to know what you do and don't want to do for a living than you've ever been.

Discovering and exploring options for a new career that you might love should never be a one-time exercise. Make it an ongoing part of your life's journey. Working in a career you love can lead you to even more exciting revelations about your potential to contribute to the world and make a difference while making a living.

Where to Learn MoreBooks:

Kay, Andrea. Life's a Bitch and Then You Change Careers: 9 Steps to Get Out of Your Funk and On to Your Future. STC Paperbacks, 2006.

Lore, Nicholas. The Pathfinder: How to Choose or Change Your Career for a Lifetime of Satisfaction and Success. Columbus, OH: Fireside, 1998.

Richards, Dick. Is Your Genius at Work?: 4 Key Questions to Ask Before Your Next Career Move. Davies-Black: 2005.

Schein, Edgar. Career Anchors: Self Assessment. San Francisco: Pfeiffer, 2006.

Sher, Barbara. I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was: How to Discover What You Really Want and How to Get It. New York: Dell, 1994.

Tieger, Paul and Barbara Barron-Tieger. Do What You Are : Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type—Revised and Updated Edition Featuring E-careers for the 21st Century. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

Web Sites:

American Society of Association Executives: www.asaenet.org

Monster Career Center: www.content.monster.com/careerchangers

"Changing Careers? How to Get Around the Three Major Mental Roadblocks to Success," ChangingCourse.com: www.changingcourse.com/articles/changingcareers.htm

"The 10 Worst Mistakes Career Changers Can Make" Monster.com: http://content.monster.com/articles/3471/17514/1/home.aspx

"The 10-Step Plan to Career Change" Quintessential Careers: www.quintcareers.com/career_change.html

Sources of scholarship, grants and financial aid: www.financialaid.about.com/?once=true&rnk=r9&terms=Financial+Careers