How to change careers in 30's and 40's?
November 20, 2012 11:21 AM   Subscribe

Career change in 30's and 40's. Has anyone did it here? How did you do it?

Has anyone changed their career completely different from their current one, in their 30's and 40's? (as in - becoming a fitness expert from finance person etc - a radical change). If yes, how did you do it? How did you decide the new career? Do you have any support groups, books, links, websites that you can share? Lastly, what was the biggest challenge, and where are you now?
posted by raghuram to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, I did it. Twice. I'm 39 now and when I was 33 I went back to school for a Masters in Education (School Guidance Counseling.) At the time I was working as an admin assistant and hated it. I took out loans, worked at my job full-time while going to school at night. It was a tough 3 years but I finished and got a job as a school counselor and discovered I also hated that. I loved the students but the administration problems almost gave me an ulcer.

I got laid off at the end of that year and totally changed directions and got a second Masters in Orientation and Mobility. What's that, you say? I teach people who are blind and visually impaired how to travel using the long cane, other senses, etc. And I LOVE it! It was hard to go right back into another program after being disillusioned by my first misstep, but I don't regret a thing. I knew I didn't want to sit at a desk all day pushing papers. Now I'm out working one-on-one with people on work that is meaningful to me. Can't beat that.
posted by Sal and Richard at 11:37 AM on November 20, 2012 [6 favorites]

Oh do I have a story for you.

Sept 2001. I was 39 years old and working at AT&T as a Data Network Engineer. I was hired on at the tail end of the Dot Com boom. There were quite a few of us in the South Florida office, and we were tripping all over each other for business.

It was drying up as fast as you can say

My customers were South American Airlines and off-shore banks.

You can see where this is going, right? So in late August I sent a letter to our local school board stating that I had a BA in English and an MBA and what else would I need to become a teacher? My expectation was that I would receive some information back and that I'd have to return to college to pick up some classes.

What I didn't expect was my phone to ring off the hook with offers.

So, since things were falling apart rapidly in the world of Data, I spoke with the principal of the worst High School in Broward County. I got the job.

So in October, with no chance to prep, get accustomed, or anything, I went from being a tech person to teaching 3 classes of 36 Freshmen each English.

I was wholly unprepared. Totally, and completely. I had no lesson plans, no classroom management skills and the sub who had my classes was miffed that I came in to replace her and she left for an "emergency" leaving me alone with only a whip and a chair.

I couldn't eat or sleep for a month due to the stress. It was horrible beyond imagination. What you think you know about teenagers, what you think you know about schools in underprivilaged neighborhoods, you don't know jack.

I finally got a handle on it, and I worked at it for 2 years. In that time we had 3 principals, no school-wide discipline and no consequences for kids who misbehaved. I had one class with 3 kids who were in a half-way house for juvenile sex offenders. WTF???

In 2001 I was offered a position at BellSouth and I leapt at it. I had to sell my house and move, but it was worth it.

I hung out at Bellsouth until 2008, when I was laid off under the last package. Took my check and then took a job so I could learn

Now I'm a Ops person, sitting at a desk doing Excel reports, and other fun stuff.

The biggest challenge was the cuts in pay. Huge cuts in pay.

You think it will be worth it, but you get so pissed off that you gave up your easy job, great money and fun perks to have smart-ass kids give you grief. That was the worst.

I know I was a good teacher and that I made a difference for some of those kids, but the rest of the system was so messed up that I doubt that anyone could stay sane and stay in teaching.

Before you jump ship, make sure that you're not only monitarily ready for the change, but also mentally prepared for what you think will happen to be a complete 180 from what will actually happen.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:37 AM on November 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

Sal and Richard:

Admin assistant to school counselor to teaching blind people - that is some awesome variety there. Congratulations :)

I didn't even know there is a course called "Orientation and Mobility". I wonder how many people there are in this world, who have no idea about careers other than more than law, engineering, acting, sports and music? :(

Thank you for sharing.
posted by raghuram at 11:43 AM on November 20, 2012

I did it but then I switched back. Writer/editor to massage therapist back to writer/editor again (and boy did the industry change while I was away!) I went back to school when mine was the second income but I'm not in that relationship anymore. I still do massage trades and barter from time to time for other good stuff but it's not in me to do the money/self-promotion side of things and you need to do that to make a full-time living at it. My dream is to truly have universal health care so that I can do 20-25 hours a week with clients and 20-25 hours a week writing, and still be able to get a mammogram and talk to a therapist now & again. But this is the U.S. so ... I guess I'll just keep this corporate gig with the crappy but affordable health insurance. /rant/
posted by headnsouth at 11:55 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Raghuram - you're welcome! I didn't even know about my current profession at the time I got laid off. I knew I didn't want to be a guidance counselor anymore, and like Ruthless Bunny, it was in an urban school with horrific issues. My experience was very similar to RB's.

I just started looking for something that would match my love of working with people, and I wanted it to be something tangible like "Now I'm going to teach you how to cross this intersection" rather than ongoing and never ending school counseling problems. I took a huge leap and interviewed a few people in the field (it's a small field) and went for it. If you hate what you're doing it's worth a change. But keep in mind that the grass is always greener. I hated my admin job but quickly learned it wasn't so bad after being thrown into the chaos of a huge urban public school system.
posted by Sal and Richard at 12:12 PM on November 20, 2012

I did low level library assistant to successful full-time self-employed editor / proofreader / transcriber. I blogged my journey here: Libro Full time and have done it around my 40th birthday. Note that I did it gradually. See main Libro site and pick the Freelancer Chat category for more tales by other people who have set up their own businesses.

Sorry to tout my own websites there but I've been there and told the story and like helping other people to do so too!
posted by LyzzyBee at 12:19 PM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I did IT support from 1993 to 2008 and had a well paying position in NYC by the end of that at a place that respected me and my work, but I was finding it all dreadfully boring. Starting around 2005 or so I started casting around for a change and started looking into going back into archaeology (which was something I'd studied back in college). I took a few night classes, did some volunteering and then decided to go for it.

I entered a masters program in the UK in 2008. Bad timing. By the time I completed my degree at the end of 2009, the economy was a wreck and that seriously impacted archaeology in the UK. My plan had been to work for an archaeology unit in England after finishing my degree. Much of the work in the UK is funded by construction and the construction business had dried up, taking much of the archaeology work with it. Furthermore, lots of county and city councils laid off a huge portion of their archaeology staff, so I was competing for vanishingly few jobs with people with 10 to 20 years of experience.

I made do through 2010 and much of 2011 temping where I could and being supported by my now ex-partner. Finally, we moved to London from southwest England in late 2011. The construction business was doing better there and I did manage to find an archaeology job at last, which I really enjoyed until I got laid off again 8 months later. By then, I was splitting up with my partner and decided to move back to the US, which I did this September. As I knew well ahead of time that I'd be doing this, I arranged to go back to my old place of work, so I'm currently doing IT again while I apply for a PhD studentship.

So, I would say I'm still in the process of changing careers. I can't say I regret deciding to. I definitely enjoy doing archaeology work a lot more than IT. This was reinforced all the more by my coming back to IT after four years. I don't hate it, but it doesn't really get me jumping out of bed. It was a good thing to go back and really be reminded about why I decided to change, though.

I am in a good deal of debt now, and I don't anticipate being terribly flush with cash ever again, but I don't mind. I took my time deciding to do this and went in with my eyes open to what I was getting into. I'm intimately familiar with the downsides of trying to make a living as an archaeologist at this point, but beats sitting in an office hands down.
posted by ursus_comiter at 12:31 PM on November 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

Thanks to everyone that answered.

I'm into tech - I actually like my field. If there is any field where I don't have to do monotonous work just for a paycheck, but still use my tech skills a bit, that would be awesome :) Coding is good, but just being a code monkey all day isn't.

Money is good, but I suppose in the end, the quality of work and more importantly, the impact/usefulness of one's work trumps money everytime.

Another prob with IT work is this - as one hits 40 (I still have a few years for that), companies don't want to hire you - they can't bullshit you, can't make you work long hours etc (but they can do all of these to younger folks).
posted by raghuram at 12:57 PM on November 20, 2012

I changed from web development to massage therapy (I still do a small amount of web dev on a freelance basis through word-of-mouth, but I spend more time on massage by far).

I went back to school for massage at 34, graduated at 35, but didn't start officially working in the field until 37 (in the time between graduating and starting practicing massage professionally, I finished up a web dev contract, sold my house, moved to the other side of the country, met my boyfriend, applied for Washington State's glacially slow licensing process, and moved again).

I decided on my new career based on:
-wanting to work fewer hours
-not wanting to work traditional office hours
-wanting to do something that had an obvious positive impact that I could directly experience
-wanting to steer my own vessel rather than abiding by stupid decisions made by managers who knew less than the people they managed
-being impressed with alternative health care workers such as massage therapists and herbalists; they were much more helpful with my friend who has end stage liver disease than were mainstream med folks

I was unrealistic about how hard it would be, both practically and intellectually. I thought I would just go to school for 7 months and then somehow magically have a full book of clients. And I would earn $60+ an hour somehow by working out of my home (overhead? what overhead?!). Yeahhhhh... when I tried working out of my home, it was hard to get enough clients through the door, and the ones who did book were more likely to be pervy or flaky than those that I see at the chiropractor's offices where I have since worked. The first chiro I worked for was a bum, so after 6 months I found one who treats her patients and employees respectfully. I've been working there a year and just got a raise of sorts (different pay structure that results in more pay, though less predictable). I've been painstakingly learning medical massage, which my program didn't prepare me for at all. I'm able to make a respectable living doing about 15-17 contact hours a week.

In addition to the challenge of improving my treatment skills, I've realized that communication and people skills are at least as important, if not more so. I have to work at this very deliberately.

I'm mostly glad I changed. I don't think I could survive a full-time+ office job with long commute anymore. I permanently burned out my nervous system from the stress of commuting and too many hours of office work, I think. However I definitely have less money to burn now, and I worry about the wear and tear on my body (good body mechanics only go so far and it's unlikely I can do this until I retire). I still have an endless amount to learn (unlike my naive and unexamined belief that I'd just graduate massage school and be good to go having "learned massage"). Still, I am proud of what I've accomplished.

I didn't rely on any support groups, web sites, etc. in transitioning. I didn't see my age as an issue. Most of the people in my class were much younger than I was, but one woman was somewhat older, and I think we sort of bonded because of that. It didn't feel odd to be learning massage in my 30's. I think my unrealistic optimism also helped. I was in denial about the realities of the industry, which was fine because I could cross that bridge when I came to it.
posted by parrot_person at 12:58 PM on November 20, 2012


*I changed from web development to massage therapy*
In the same boat (web development, I mean)

I totally identify with your points on choosing the new career (except the last one - I have no idea about alternative health care industry - though I have some basic knowledge about pranic healing etc).

Thank you so much for answering.

One question - do you think you will be able to do massages 10-15 years from now? As one gets older, it would get difficult to do them, no? (sorry if it is a dumb question)
posted by raghuram at 1:06 PM on November 20, 2012

raghuram, I am planning to become skilled in some less-stressful modalities. Lymphatic drainage is the one I'm most interested in (5 grams of pressure, hello!). Right now I'm doing deep tissue work a lot, including on the neck (whiplash from car accidents) and intraoral (TMJ), where I can't use an elbow to dig in. I don't think my hands will be able to take it 15 years from now...
posted by parrot_person at 1:12 PM on November 20, 2012

Okay, here we go! I went to art school and have a BFA in photography... but I also took a few classes in... we'll call it human ecology, with a very passionate professor who had TA'd for Noam Chomsky back in the day (how cool is that?). I also grew up in the middle of agribusiness, and had studied documentary photography (like anthropologists and journalists - don't just watch, participate!)... so my first job after graduating was apprenticing on an organic farm in the midwest.

Then I needed a job that paid *something*, so I could make student loan payments this was before IBR). I'd always wanted to travel, and I'm a photographer... so I taught English in Japan for a year... and worked on a few farms after. LOL.

Then I moved in with my Australian boyfriend and temped for a while... I was thinking about working in libraries, and managed to land a records job with the state gov. (temp - all I could do on my visa). After that I waitressed at a cafe, worked at an art gallery, and did reception at a B&B, before taking a short term gig at a start-up financial services company. When my residency came through, they hired me as manager (yup - of a financial service company!).

Eventually that got stressful, so we moved back to the US and work on organic farms for a year, and spent some time taking care of my grandparents. I telecommuted doing research/data entry/proof reading for and applied to grad school for library science.

I now work for a local government near Sydney doing information access and privacy, and will be doing the MLIS by distance starting next year... maybe I can be an art librarian, or an academic librarian for an ag dept? Haha. The key for me was Temping... I got to try out some stuff, and sort of bend things the way I wanted them to go.

My massage therapist (who does a lot of sports stuff and trigger point therapy, and is helping me with some chronic pain issues) used to be a dancer, the kind in musicals. =)
posted by jrobin276 at 1:14 PM on November 20, 2012

That makes sense ("less stressful modalities"). I have no clue what TMJ, lymphatic drainage etc is, will google them when I get home (long weekend, hehe).
Thank you for answering.

woah - THAT is some nice variety there. Reminds me of a young guy, who went around different places, working on one job every week, just to get a taste of what kinds of jobs are available to him (he had a blog, I can't remember the URL right now). I hope you get a job that you like, AND pays well after your MLIS. Thank you for commenting :)
posted by raghuram at 1:24 PM on November 20, 2012

In 2004 I returned to Canada after living for 10 years in Japan with my family. I was a trained, licensed teacher, and I hoped to get a job teaching. It was not to be - declining enrollment, competition for limited teaching spaces.

So decided to switch and use my writing skills to work in a government communications shop. It was a miracle that I got the job - in my 30's, no experience etc - but I got it. Unfortunately, government can be a chaotic place, and I was laid off a few months after I was hired on, right before Christmas.

I needed to pay the rent, so I pounded the pavement again, and in a couple of weeks I found work as a technical writer. I knew nothing about network security or creating use-case diagrams in Visio, but I got the job anyway. I didn't particularly enjoy the working environment, so I started volunteering at a local industry association, writing their newsletter.

They offered me a job managing a program for technology startups. When that finished, they suggested I submit a proposal to government to do a bunch of research work. So I made my living doing that for a few years. I specialized in gathering data from member organizations and then reporting on that data for public-facing documents. A cool mix of research and PR. I also secured about $1M of funding.

Eventually I was recruited by government to work in an agency providing services to technology entrepreneurs, but the agency was unstable, and, after 3 different CEO's, I was laid off again (once more before Christmas). I didn't like the job much anyway, as it didn't really involve any research, writing or promotion. Too political.

However, once again I needed to change directions. Government wasn't hiring, and the private sector regarded me as a lazy, out of touch government worker. I managed to get a couple of consulting contracts, but also went back to writing, this time for the web.

I knocked on doors, networked like crazy, and somebody offered me very part-time work doing online marketing. Two hours a month grew over time to 200 hours a month.

I think what has helped me is a willingness to network, and also a desire to network in the right way, approaching people tactfully and maintaining my network.

I think I underestimated how difficult it would be to move back to Canada with my family in 2004. I'm not sure if it was age - I was 31 - as much as geography. I moved back to an island with a population of 350,000, so it was really difficult to find a job, both because of the job market and because of peoples' attitudes in that particular community.

So choose your community well.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:52 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Layoff -> temp-to-perm.
posted by troywestfield at 2:06 PM on November 20, 2012

Has anyone changed their career completely different from their current one, in their 30's and 40's?

I'm in the process. I'm 29 and I'm starting a two-year Masters program in Nursing in January. I've worked in IT for the last ten years.

If yes, how did you do it?

Spent longer than I thought I would taking prerequisite classes while working a 40-hour job. Managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA, got good recommendations, and got into a better program than I had originally intended. (I was shooting for a BSN.)

How did you decide the new career?

I knew I wanted to do something in medicine, and something that would more directly impact people's lives. I chose nursing because it's a profession that needs new members, and it offers me large opportunities for variety and advancement.

Do you have any support groups, books, links, websites that you can share?

No, I mostly depended on the friends and connections I made through classes.

Lastly, what was the biggest challenge, and where are you now?

The biggest challenge was and continues to be massive self-doubt about whether I'm doing the right thing. I think I would feel that regardless of what new career I chose, though. Doing a brand new thing is scary.
posted by lholladay at 2:07 PM on November 20, 2012

One more IT person :D It is interesting that so many of us IT folks lose interest in IT, even though it is one of the most interesting careers around.

Thank you for commenting.

This working for non-profit seems like an awesome idea (I actually help a non profit, they asked if I am interested in joining them, but that was again for programming)

Thank you for commenting.
posted by raghuram at 2:24 PM on November 20, 2012

This working for non-profit seems like an awesome idea (I actually help a non profit, they asked if I am interested in joining them, but that was again for programming)

The challenge with non-profits is that they never have any money, and funding is often based on program delivery, which means it is non-sustaining.

I was able to inhabit a great niche - the organization I initially volunteered with was going through a near-death experience (government decided not to renew 80% of its project funding, so everybody had to quit) and I was perfectly positioned to write proposals, and then do the work promised in the proposals.

But it doesn't always work that way. Funders typically have well-established relationships with non-profits, and know how they want to spend the money. Non-profits typically have a good idea of where the money is, and how to get it, so they may not need to get the services of an outside consultant.

If you are a mid-career person and you are going to volunteer at a non-profit, make sure it's doing something that emphasizes your skills - don't man a booth or a registration table, because if you are in the job market it sends the wrong idea about who you are and what you can do to potential employers (unless you want to man a booth or registration table for a living).
posted by KokuRyu at 2:48 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not a personal story but my boyfriend's brother did this. He must've been about 35 at the time (he's 42 or 43 now), had degrees in marketing/human resources, and worked for giant oil companies doing marketing and HR. To hear the boyfriend tell it, he made absolute gobs of money but kept getting moved around the country (Florida, Ohio, DC at various times) and was absolutely miserable. He'd always been artistic and at some point decided to go to art school and get a degree in graphic design. On top of that, he moved to Denver because he'd always wanted to live there. Took out epic loans, started going to school full-time, became a much happier person, and found a wife & family in the meantime. Boyfriend says he's a completely different person than he was 10 years ago. As far as I know his major problems have been the low pay in the graphic design field and some snarky/competitive colleagues, but he's never had a problem finding work, even after a couple of layoffs in recent years.
posted by jabes at 4:17 PM on November 20, 2012

Cal Newport of Study Hacks has a lot to say in his blog (and his latest book) about career capital. The idea is that you build up a lot of experience, contacts, and credibility over time and when you switch careers you're giving all of that up. You should thus expect to start at the bottom in a crappier job with worse pay. He also offers thoughts on how to mitigate this process (basically, start leveraging your current career to build up capital for your new career before you switch).

I switched from being a programmer to running a small theatre company, which I find much more rewarding ... except financially. And it was a slow transition, which fortunately I was in a position to do. I'm currently planning to transition again (to writing) and again, I expect the transition (to the point I consider myself successful) to take years. If finances are not an issue, by all means, follow your dreams. If they are, well, tread carefully.
posted by zanni at 8:13 PM on November 20, 2012

BTW, I'm 30... so a little younger than your target, but nonetheless. If I can't find a more traditional librarian job when I finish, information access and privacy fits in well too =)

My mom was a SAHM for 20 years, and got a job sewing costumes for the community college drama department (sewing was a hobby). Eventually she went back and did a Master's and is an Applied Behavior Analyst (she got a BS in the '70s in psychology).

When my grandfather retired from being a jr. high school principal, my grandma enlisted him into the pottery business she'd started. They spent my childhood traveling to craft fairs all over CA selling their pottery, and did quite well!
posted by jrobin276 at 10:24 PM on November 20, 2012

I did a major career change on that scale starting in my mid-40's, taking 8 years part-time to get fully qualified and licensed in my new field. I love it (although the money is poor since I was starting at the bottom, the work is fantastic and I can afford it since I am not the sole breadwinner in the house) My biggest advice - do at least a dozen interviews with people in your target profession before you make any commitments. I know too many people who made the leap for their "dream" job without fully understanding what it is like to do the work on a day to day basis.

What I did was make a list of questions, started cold-calling people in the field, explained that I was considering a career change and would they be willing to talk to me on the phone for 15-20 minutes about their work? Don't expect everyone to call you back, just keep going until you feel like you have a good picture of what people both like and hate about their job and what kind of personality seems to do best. Be sure to send thank you notes!
posted by metahawk at 1:45 AM on November 21, 2012


Can I ask which field you went to (and from which field)?

Also, thank you so much for the questions idea. It sounds simple and logical :)
posted by raghuram at 6:20 AM on November 21, 2012

I was always interested in law, but also loved science. After doing a PhD in science, a postdoc, and couple of years as a junior faculty member, I left academia at 32 to join a law firm as a scientific advisor and then patent agent. I started law school at 34 and finished at 37. I'm now a lawyer at a large law firm.

The biggest challenge (aside from three years of full-time work plus full-time school) has been completely starting over in a new field. It really does take time to become an expert.
posted by underdetermined at 6:40 AM on November 21, 2012


Wow, that is some serious amount of school there - PhD and law !!
posted by raghuram at 6:56 AM on November 21, 2012

I've gone full circle. Undergrad did a BFA in fine art. Worked in various art-related jobs, mainly graphic design/typesetting software. My husband and I then ran a computer consulting company for a decade - I went back to school during that time and did master's degree work in technology management. About 12 years ago I went back to being a full time fine artist - I've never been the main breadwinner in our household but after working in business for a lot of years I have far more of a clue about how to make art work as a business.

I had no particular organized support other than a good friend who is a career coach. That said, I know a lot of artists who have gone in and out of other fields over the years.
posted by leslies at 2:01 PM on November 21, 2012

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