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Changing careers in midlife

Switching careers is hard enough, but how do you go about it when you are mid-career?

Talk to people who have done it and you will hear stories of rejection, false starts, false promises, anxiety, and even going backwards financially. But of course, there’s a good reason why people do it. A job that looked lattractive for life when you were 22 may no longer be especially fulfilling when you are in your 30s or 40s.

And the reality is, most of us will have worked for several organisations and will have negotiated at least one major career shift in our lives. The question is; what is the best way of doing it?

Pro Bono Australia offers some sensible advice. Be real about your job. Is it the job you don’t like, or is it the environment? What exactly do you want to do? Have you spoken to people in that industry? Have you tried getting experience there like, for example, enrolling in a course or doing an internship? Are your finances in order, keeping in mind that you might be starting from the bottom and your partner might be the primary bread winner? Another important piece of advice is not to make any sudden moves. Think it through.

Career management firm Trevor Roberts, says there are two things you need to do. The first is to get experience. “Taking the example of a doctor wanting to become an engineer, think through where the medical and engineering fields overlap (eg biomedical, design engineer, etc). Then find ways to build experiences such as through a secondment, special project, involvement in the industry association or volunteer work.” The second step is to get education in the new field. There are all sorts of courses that can be done, from MBAs to special degrees.

Writing in Forbes, Laura Sinberg advises people to understand the challenges. This is not about getting a new job, it’s an entirely new career. She also says people should try and use contacts they have accumulated over the years to help make the transition. Another good piece of advice: make intra-company moves or gradual transitions to avoid a big outlay of cash.

Herminia Ibarra, INSEAD’s chaired professor of organizational behaviour, has done extensive research into reinvention and wrote a challenging book worth reading called Working identity. She suggests a three-part process of career change: try out new professional activities and connect with new social networks. Most importantly, she suggests working and re-working the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are.

Think carefully about why you want to make the change, get your life in order by paying off debts, set up an emergency fund, make sure you’re in good physical shape to cope with the stresses and be practical about what you have to do to retrofit your life around your new career.

Leon Gettler

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