Relationships

How to Navigate a Career Change

Julia Child

Do you like your job? We all go through times when we feel restless in our careers. Many people fantasize about going back to school, living off the land or doing something completely different. But how do you actually make the switch? I talked to 10 people who changed careers to see how it’s done…

My dad worked at the same company for 35 years, which now sounds archaic, but many people stick to the same career path even if their minds are wandering. A study in 2008 found that 80% of people over 45 years old consider changing careers, but only 6% actually take the leap.

Still, switching paths is becoming more and more common. “As a generation X-er, I grew up assuming whatever field I started in, I would retire in,” says Cheryl Wischhover, who was a pediatric nurse practitioner for 15 years before she became a beauty editor. “But I realized it’s okay to have two or three careers in your working life — it’s even a positive. More life experience makes you more well-rounded.”

After all, Julia Child was an advertising manager and a spy (!) before she became the cook we know and love. So, over the last few weeks, I spoke to 10 people who went through major career changes. Not just switching jobs, but complete 180s — from an investment banker to a wedding planner, from a magazine editor to a psychologist, from an accessories designer to a nurse, and more. Here’s what I learned:

You Can Love Your Career and Want Something New

Lina Perl did marketing and editing for magazines from the age of 21 to 33, then she decided to become a psychologist. “My editing career was exciting. I loved brainstorming ideas, researching and writing, but I always wondered about the path not taken. I had been a psych major in college and even as a kid I used to tell people ‘I want to be a psychologist who writes books!’ As I grew older, got married, and had my first kid, I thought about that childhood dream more and more. But I was afraid to tell anyone because I thought people would think I was nuts. I had a good job that paid well, I was heading into my mid-30s with a family — why would I go back to school for five years? But when my second daughter was born, I suddenly knew I couldn’t spend the rest of my life wondering what if.”

Cheryl was a pediatric nurse practitioner for 15 years before she became a beauty editor. “I loved working in the pediatric oncology department. It was high-tech, so you had to know a lot of science, but it was also personal. Many families were there for a few years getting treatment, so you really got to know them. But when I had my own kids, I just couldn’t function the same way. The parents going through all this horrible stuff were suddenly my peers. I would see these sweet bald children, and I would start crying and have to run into the office.”

Burnout is Real

Sarah Walzer managed art galleries in Los Angeles, Berlin and New York for 10 years, now she owns a farm-to-table restaurant in rural Pennsylvania. “I loved my job for a long time, but after a decade, I got burned out on the art world and city life. I wanted to be outside. There’s something to be said for needing to get back to the land and environment.”

Siobhan Quinlan worked in production for TV commercials for five years before she decided to go to beauty school to become a hairstylist. “The TV industry was amazing, but it had crazy hours and could be very high stress. People older than me were always talking about their exit plans and how to get out of the lifestyle. It was hard to have a life outside work.”

Difficult Times Can Bring Welcome Change

Amisha Patel was a lawyer for four years and is now a children’s clothing designer and entrepreneur. “While I enjoyed the law, I’d always wanted to create and build things. Litigation felt like just the opposite, and it had begun to wear on me. Then, in 2008, the economy crashed, and my five-year-old nephew was diagnosed with leukemia. This gave me a much greater sense of urgency to pursue my passions and to embrace the uncertainty inherent in that pursuit, so I began to plot my exit.”

Nadia Kaufhold worked in finance for 10 years before she became an interior designer. “After my husband passed away from a long illness, I couldn’t spend another day at my finance job. It was suddenly clear I had to start expressing myself. It was like a compulsion.”

Both Tocha Albert‘s parents were artists, so he went to an art high school and college and ended up becoming a licensed accessories designer. But after 10 years in the industry, he decided to go back to school to become a nurse. “I was unhappy for a long time in my field — sitting at a computer all day designing backpacks and things for brands like Walmart, but I didn’t know what else I could do. Then in 2010, my dad died from cancer. He mentioned he had a nurse that he really liked and that he was a man. My dad was a hard guy to please on most days, but especially toward the end, so this meant a lot. It made me think start thinking that I could be a nurse, too.”

The First Step is the Hardest

Meg Dinga worked in the film industry for seven years, her last three as a talent agent, before switching to graphic design. “The period between realizing you don’t feel fulfilled and starting the career change was very stressful. For a while I was straddling two jobs — working full time as an agent, while also attending classes and producing design work. It was intense, but my overall trepidation and uncertainty made the transition even more stressful.”

Lina: “The year leading to my career switch was not happy. It was very hard for me to admit to myself that I needed to make a change. In fact, I spent a lot of time trying to convince myself not to take a risk. But when I was 33, I took the GRE. I figured if I did badly, I wouldn’t apply to schools. But I did well, so I figured I’d apply and if I didn’t get in, it wasn’t meant to be. But I got into a great Ph.D. program. Once I decided to take those first steps, doors started opening. Getting your doctorate while being a mom to young children is not easy. There are many challenges — financial, marital, not enough hours in the day — but these have been four of the happiest years of my life.”

It May Sound Cliché, But You Can Do What You Love

Tzo Ai Ang worked as an investment banker for seven years, then became a wedding planner. “Before getting married, I never thought about how I wanted my wedding to feel, but I loved every minute of planning it. I found myself reading the wedding blog Style Me Pretty every day, and I realized wedding planning was what I really wanted to do. So, I started researching industry events and networking at anything I could get myself into. I created a website; studied SEO, social media and marketing; and figured out where successful planners got published. My first client was through a friend of a friend, and I worked for basically nothing. I was lucky because the wedding got published on Once Wed. Looking back, I can’t believe I managed that wedding myself with no assistants — now I have two!”

Cheryl: “I had always loved fashion — the business, the personalities, the designers. I started blogging about style while I was nursing and really enjoyed it, so I decided to take some writing classes at NYU. I saw that the fashion website Fashionista was looking for an unpaid intern. I told my husband I was going to apply, and he said, ‘Are you crazy? Do you know what interns do? They get coffee.’ At this point, I was a 37-year-old nurse and mother of two. But I sent them a long and (I thought) funny email saying if I could handle toddlers’ tantrums and a bunch of doctors, I could handle the fashion world. I got the internship and was hired as an editor a year later.”

Siobhan: “Working in production, I always secretly wished I could hang out with the hair people on set instead of sitting at my computer. My whole life, I had been interested in hair, but I never thought of it as a job possibility. Once I moved to NYC and saw stylists with amazing careers, I thought more and more, ‘Why can’t I do that?’ Then during a slow time for production when I was watching lots of Tabatha’s Salon Takeover, I finally thought, I can do this. I gave myself six months to save money and then went to beauty school. I loved learning about hair and still do. I’m now the creative director of my own salon.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

Shannon Rodriguez was a flight attendant for three years, then in advertising for 16, and now she owns three juice bars. “About five years ago, I walked into a Nekter Juice Bar and I knew they were onto something. I wanted to be a part of it. Nekter wasn’t franchising at the time, but for a year and a half I kept sending them emails saying I was interested and eventually I got my first store. There have been lots of tears, lots of hours, lots of hard work, but with passion and perseverance I have gotten through it. I love being my boss on being able to reinvent myself. I just got rid of all my suits, now it’s yoga pants and Free People.

Sarah: “My husband always said the Indian restaurant in our small Pennsylvania town was the perfect restaurant location. It wasn’t for rent, but one day I went in for lunch and asked the owner if they’d ever be interested in renting the space. He and his wife had run the restaurant for 15 years, and it turned out they had been thinking of retiring. I had recently moved from New York to rural Pennsylvania to be with my husband — but I didn’t want to continue my art career there, and he was working as a chef in mediocre restaurants. We thought, this is our shot. We were both very interested in food and were already raising chickens and growing a garden at home, so we decided to open a farm-to-table restaurant. It was huge challenge and risk, but it was our chance to create something together.”

Being Older Can Be To Your Advantage

Lina: “I used to wish I had gone to grad school at 21. For a while, I considered all my years as an editor a long wrong turn in life, but now I see that they were incredibly valuable. I learned a ton, and I hope to come back to writing in my new career, just in a new form. I’m also at a huge advantage because I know how to pitch myself as a psychologist and market myself to get clients.”

Cheryl: “My bosses at Fashionista were 23 and 24, while I was 37. When I started, I was so nervous. Can I actually do this? Am I going to make a complete ass out of myself? I wasn’t trained as a writer; I didn’t go to journalism school; I came from a place where I was a mentor and now my bosses were millennials. But later they told me they saw me being older as a positive. So many interns are 19 and 20, they said — they can be flaky, they don’t know how to act in an office, maybe they don’t have that work ethic down yet. I probably made too many jokes about my age, but I came to realize that it was a plus. I could remember trends and brands that the 21-year-olds didn’t even know existed, and when I wrote about beauty, my science background was really helpful.”

Tzo Ai: “Since I had worked at a bank, the organization of wedding planning came very naturally to me. On a trading floor, you get used to working with very difficult personalities, and that groomed me well for dealing with difficult wedding vendors.”

Check Out the Field First

Tocha: “While I was taking my nursing pre-requisite classes and still working, I decided to volunteer at a hospital. I told the director that I was trying out a career change and didn’t know anything. ‘I haven’t even taking anatomy and physiology,’ I said, ‘I just want to see if this is right for me.’ She said, ‘I know the place for you,’ and put me directly in the intensive care unit. Right away, I was assisting the nurses in some very outrageous situations. I found that I had the stomach for it and I got along well with the patients. I finally felt comfortable to give this nursing thing a real shot.” 

Sarah: “Don’t be afraid to take a risk on something that sounds completely insane. If you have an interest in beekeeping, figure out a way to get an internship and learn more. Be courageous! It’s okay if you make the wrong decision; it’s worth trying things out.”

Learning Something New Feels Good

Cheryl: “Writing and meeting people in the beauty industry has given me new life. When you have two little kids you’re run ragged, and sometimes you lose sense of who you are. I can’t say enough about learning something new later in life. And you should never discount learning from people that are younger than you.”

Nadia: “After my husband died, I contemplated many different avenues. Should I go into political writing, academia, photography, healing modalities? Ultimately, I embarked on a gut renovation of my apartment and decided to go to school for interior design. My three-year-old twins and I moved into a small studio during the renovation. I would study by lamplight while they slept in a bunkbed a few feet away. That period of grieving which mobilized me was crystalline: I was focused, efficient and absorbed information like a sponge.”

You Will Probably Make Less Money at First

Siobhan: “One of the hardest parts was going from a well-paying job to having almost no income in beauty school and as an apprentice. But don’t let money hold you back; if you want it enough, the money will figure itself out.” 

Cheryl: “You’re going to have to start lower on the hierarchy, so it’s important to save money and be financially ready. There was a significant time where I was not making any money; none of this would have been possible without my supportive spouse.” 

Amisha: “Going from the top of the legal industry to the bottom was an adjustment. Foregoing a salary, benefits and free office supplies was also rough.”

But You Won’t Regret It

Tocha: “If you put one foot in front of the other, you’ll eventually get wherever you need to be. And if you get there and it’s not quite right, you can always take a few steps to the left. Am I 100% happy as a nurse all the time? No. But now I have a whole other field ahead of me with options. I’m also very proud to be a pediatric nurse. I leave work every day exhausted, but fulfilled by the work I’ve done. I’ve been able to make a difference in these kids’ lives, even if only for a moment.”

Lina: “The most rewarding part part has been finding a career I love and being able to share that with my kids. Although I’m super busy, I genuinely love working with patients, and I think my kids see that. I’m showing them that work can be wonderful. I’m intellectually challenged, and I’m happy to be making a difference in the world by helping others.”

Sarah: “We just celebrated the Blind Pig Kitchen’s second anniversary. It’s been hard, stressful, fun, extremely rewarding, a big learning experience, a test of our relationship — it’s been everything. But even when we’re super overwhelmed by running a restaurant, it’s our restaurant. I still get excited when I think about the change that I made. You get a little spark: this actually happened.”

Are you thinking about changing careers? What would you most want to do, in your heart of hearts? Let us know — we are rooting for you!!!

P.S. Career tips from smart women, and the best work advice.

  1. Sheila says...

    In 2011, at 30, I switched from accountant to social worker. I loved my job as an accountant, but felt that I wasn’t doing much to make a positive impact in the world. I’m now an adoption social worker, which I think I was always meant to do. Even in college (at a business university) I said that if I had to start over I would do social work. I’m glad though, that I took the path I did because I wouldn’t be the social worker I am today without having been the accountant I was for almost a decade.

  2. Samira says...

    Loved this article! Having just switched from the tech world to the beer industry, I really connected. My heart is unbelievably happy to have made the move I’ve been most anxious to make. Feeling some trepidation about moving in a completely different direction but hell, I’m 26. I’ve got great people skills, an all-to-real love for beer, and the desire to learn. When else am I gonna live a little and pursue something that scares me? Best to get a move on now.

  3. Emme says...

    This is one of my favorite articles that I am constantly re-reading. I am currently a speech-language pathologist hoping to transition to a more creative career and this article gives me motivation to pursue that change… and not feel (too) guilty about the time and money that I spent to go to grad school.

    Thank you! xoxo

  4. Dandy says...

    I need to change careers! I’m nearly 40, been doing freight forwarding/transportation for well over a decade now, I have no idea how the H#ll I got here. If I stay in this line of work, I’m going to end up with severe health problems and / or not be able to retire even with the 401K match that I take advantage of. I see too many people in this industry working 2nd jobs after hours, and by 45 or 50 end up crashing and going out on disability or breaking down due to stress. I’ve looked at our competitors, and it’s the same thing. From time to time I reach out to customers to see if they have any openings but nothing’s come up. I love to write and would be interested in getting into the legal or medical field, but have no $ to go back to school. My salary is not terrible but as a single mom and sole breadwinner it’s difficult, I really can’t afford to take a pay cut. I don’t know what to do, but I know I can’t do this for another 30 years!

  5. Kathleen Wise says...

    I so needed this article! I’m transitioning out of a career in the arts to humanitarian work and am terrified every day that I’m making the wrong decision. It’s so helpful to hear that it will be worth the risk! (Isn’t it always?) Thank you!

  6. Jose Brando says...

    After 15 years in the advertising industry, I think non-stop about launching my own public-speaking and presentation training company. Interpersonal communication has always been my greatest skill and also a passion – I love talking in front of a group of strangers, and after taking dozens of company-mandated training courses I realized I should be the one doing the training. So far I only have a potential company name and an outline of the course, but I’m slowly moving towards a change and it’s exhilarating.

  7. Sarah says...

    Wow. I NEEDED this today. I’ve been contemplating a career change for some time but I have found myself going back and forth with the “What if’s…” Now I’m confident I just need to make the jump.

    :)

  8. Patti says...

    I have been heavily pondering a career shift for some time. It never seems to be the “right” time though. I am the primary breadwinner in my family and it stresses me thinking about the possible dip in income. But I know that staying in my current career isn’t going to be sustainable.
    In my dream world I could work for a good website/magazine and be a recipe tester of some sort. I am madly passionate about cooking – specifically a grain/dairy/sugar free pathway – and would love to eventually create my own blog and blog about this passion. No clue how to get there from where I am today, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out. Does this sound completely crazy?! I just know that working as a construction manager & designer isn’t cutting it anymore. All I think about is my passion – cooking!

  9. Losing my job more than five years ago motivated me to make a career change. I realized that I hated most aspects of working in sales and what I really wanted to do was write. I didn’t have a journalism degree (still don’t), so I started from scratch and learned as I went. I still learn something new every single day, and this ongoing journey to becoming a writer continues to change me and open up my world to new and exciting possibilities.

    My advice to anyone contemplating a career change is to seize the moment and do it. It’s never too late to make a change. If I had not followed my heart, I would’ve had regrets and been mad at myself. Even if I decide not to write any longer, I know that I “went for it” and with that comes a great sense of accomplishment.

  10. Kathryn says...

    As many others have said, this post comes at a perfect time. I am so bored by my job, I’m unhappy and unfulfilled. I used to love my job and it made me feel as though I was really doing something – that I was part of something, but now it’s drudgery. After 13 years, I’m ready for a change. I’m really scared to give up the comfort of a steady job but I don’t think I can do it until retirement. I’m 46 and I keep thinking that there has to be more to life. That happiness could be within reach. And that makes me think the risk is worth it. The fear, the uncertainty and struggle – it could pay off. I think I would regret it if I didn’t try. Someone recently told me that I could do anything I want. I’ve never been told that before in my life. She said I’m smart and skilled and capable and also for the first time in my life, I’m inclined to believe her. And so, I’m getting there – inch by inch. At least allowing myself to dream the dream – to acknowledge that there are options and that possibility could become reality. Imagine that.

  11. Natalie says...

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I literally am in the middle of (very slowly) trying to make a career change…from law to business…which I also realized that I really need to try to do while pregnant with my first child. Great timing huh. I wish I had applied to business school and gotten it out of the way immediately after I realized that working at a big law firm wasn’t for me, but I stayed at the firm too long and have now stayed at an in-house job too long. I feel old to be doing something like this, but then I also think that I’m only 33 and have at least 30 more years of work ahead of me…and being a lawyer for the next 30-35 years makes me want to bury my head under a pillow and cry.

    • Rachel says...

      Would you mind sharing some of your goals/aspirations? I’m a disgruntled attorney, too, and am desperate to make a change. I feel “too old” a lot of the time, too (I’m 35 with two small kids), but I can’t do this for another 25 years. I’d love to be pen pals? My email is treehugginglawyer@gmail.com. (Good luck to you, btw!)

    • Another disgruntled lawyer here! I live in a small town and can’t move and am having the hardest time figuring out what another viable option would be. But I’ve been ready to be an ex-lawyer pretty much since I started law school. I’m 37 and am also absolutely certain I can’t do this for the long haul.

  12. janine says...

    This couldn’t have come at a better time for me! I’ve been working full time and freelance writing on the side for several years – I actually used to write more, and then went on a long hiatus for various reasons. But over the past 2 years, my writing has really taken off. I just quit my full time job on Friday, and took a part-time job, so I could write more. I’m so excited by having 2 full days a week to write!

    • Donna says...

      Congrats!

  13. I had so much anxiety about leaving my old job and changing career tracks, because it seemed so final. Once you leave research, it’s hard to go back, so I had to be sure. It took me nearly three years to build up the courage to finally close that door…and now I couldn’t be happier that I did. I started my own science editing business and it’s been a much better fit for my skill set, interests, and personality. Maybe I should have trusted my instincts and gone for the job change earlier, but I used those three years to thoroughly test my business out as a side-gig. Working two jobs was exhausting, but it allowed me to test the waters for a little while and then gave me the confidence to just go for it.

  14. Aggie says...

    Another “this is so timely” comment! I’ve had a reasonably successful art career for the past decade but I’ve been accepted to law school for next year. I’m excited and terrified.

  15. Lana says...

    I just love this. I was an investment banker for a decade then went back to medical school to follow my heart. I’m almost finished and couldn’t be happier. It has been hard work, and not easy, but I feel grateful for learning all that I am learning and getting to see life in a very special way. I had our first child in my second year at age 33. It is a terrifying thing, making big career moves but I believe it is so important to follow what moves you in your soul. Thank you for this encouraging post!

  16. Conny says...

    It’s been 6 months since I left my job (I was studying for nurse at the same time and also married with one daughter…hahaha) . I worked in an export company and I REALLY HATED the job and at first I felt completly good about my decision but now…my husband has a job and I suddently feel dependent and is rough. It makes me feel unsure about everything…I was happy about studying and now I feel the old lady(the rest of the students are 19, I am the only older student that attends classes.
    Kisses from Spain and LOVE YOUR BLOG

  17. Greg says...

    Thank you for the post. I have been an engineer for 33 years. While there are aspects of the job that I still enjoy, I would like to spend my remaining work years (and beyond) doing something that I love, makes me happy, and makes other people happy. I just don’t know what that “something ” is. It seems that nothing I do really makes me happy. How do I find out what I can do that makes me happy? And would make others happy.

    • Anne says...

      I’m struggling with that myself. Do what I enjoy? Not even sure what that would be. Follow your bliss? Right now I have no “bliss”. I stayed at home with my kids doing small part time jobs as they got older, none of which I would want to go further with. I now have the freedom to do almost anything but haven’t a clue where to start.

    • Joanna (Not that one) says...

      Meeting with a skilled and sympatico career counselor/ life coach person really made a big difference for my husband and several of my friends as they contemplated and then made changes, both big and small. Maybe it would be helpful for you?

  18. N says...

    This is exactly what I needed to read today! I’m one week away from finally quitting a soul-crushing job at an insurance company, and I’m struggling with the desire to jump off of my career track and start my own small business. My husband and I are trying to start a family and facing infertility, so it’s definitely not the ideal time to leave a dependable, salaried job with benefits and health insurance. I’ve always been the responsible one and the breadwinner, but something inside me keeps calling me towards the scary (but exciting) path of entrepreneurship. It’s nice to know that others have made the leap and come out on the other side grateful that they took the risk.

  19. I left my career as a corporate attorney last year to start my own business helping other women learn how to start or grow their own businesses online. I can so relate to Amisha. As a corporate attorney, my job was to take down or disrupt people’s businesses. It was heart-wrenching and stood against everything that defined who I was. Now, it’s my job to help build opportunities, freedom, and pure joy for women – not tear them down.

    http://hyggewellness.com/blog

  20. Janna says...

    I just found your blog. Man oh man does this post hit home right now!! I love what I do, but not so much the responsibility (i have the most tenure so it’s assumed the responsibility is mine) or the people (very smart person knows they are very smart and not afraid to tell you how not smart you are). I have considered doing something else but don’t know what. Plus I have a child (hopefully) starting college in the fall of 2018……so not a good time for ME to go back to school. I am also primary breadwinner. I’m stuck.

  21. S says...

    This post resonates with me as well. I’ve been a nurse for 12 years in multiple specialties and I have to say the last several years have left a really bad taste in my mouth. Last year I was at a crossroads: leave nursing entirely or apply to grad school and see if I could make it work. I will graduate in December (which hasn’t been easy with two young children), and in the meantime had the opportunity to leave my small hospital with little potential for professional growth for a larger company, and while it has more opportunity for advancement and offers great flexibility right now, I’m still not entirely convinced health care is where I want to be. If I had to do it all over again knowing what I know now, I would choose something completely different. I do know that now is not the time for me jump into an entirely new field, but I am hoping that I can transition into something more creatively satisfying in the future.

  22. KB says...

    I made the switch from a career as a paralegal to a real estate agent about 2 yrs ago. I just couldn’t sit behind a desk anymore. I needed to get out! I also wanted the independence of having my own clients and dealing with people in my own way regarding a topic I love. I had initially thought that I would be a paralegal up to retirement- it paid well with full benefits and an easy/predicable 9-5pm schedule. I landed with an amazingly supportive, small brokerage and I feel so thankful that I made the jump at 35. Its refreshing, challenging, and liberating. If you’re on the fence but feel driven to make a change, DO IT!

    • ME says...

      I’ve been thinking about a similar switch to real estate, having moved 13 times in my youth, and now 12 times as an adult, including an overseas stint (mostly corporate job moves as adult)….

      Encouraged to hear you’re content with your decision – I’m still on the ‘fear fence’ a bit – mostly due to college student kids. Another couple years and I think I’m going to make the leap!

  23. Elise says...

    I’ve been working in a technical business role (pension actuarial consulting) for 8 years and longing for a creative outlet. After a failed side business, I realized it’s crucial to prototype your idea/product, test it in real world and build an audience before diving in!

    Anyway, I feel so inspired by some comments here to start a blog-based community for women in science and tech (for a variety of topics including getting in and out of a career in STEM). Who else in interested? Email me at elise.rong at hotmail and we’ll see what we can do!

  24. Danielle says...

    I’ve been contemplating this topic in my own life (career choice at the moment is burning me out). Not sure what my next step will be, I am more of the creative type, but I like reading the post and comments.

    This is such a huge topic yet I never hear anyone talk about it whether they have done it or not (whether it was intentional or what). There could be lots of reasons for a career change, but I’m sure it happens.

  25. Lex says...

    I left my dream job as director of an arts center after 7 years to work for city government. I loved my job so much but as my life changed, we started a family and put roots down in San Francisco I began to realize there were parts of my job I loved that were not exclusive to the arts. When the job opportunity came up I was interested but also afraid of such a big change. A close friend advised me to explore it, even though things were going great. She said I didn’t want to wake up three months later and wonder “what if” … and she was right. Two years later I’m so happy I followed my instincts (and the advice of a good friend).