How to navigate a career change in your 30s (or at any age)
I remember the exact moment when I knew that I had to leave my office job and pursue freelancing. I was 30 years old and took a break outside. A FedEx truck was passing by the office, and I thought to myself, “I am so unhappy right now, I could just jump right in front of that truck.”
Okay, I know, I was being a tad (more like a lot) dramatic, but that state of mind was enough for me to realize that I wasn’t on the career path I wanted. A few months later, with a part-time job and a few freelancing gigs lined up behind me, I made the jump (to a new career—not in front of the truck).
Six years later, in my mid-30s after establishing a successful freelance writing career, I find myself at a similar crossroads. While I love writing, I find myself longing for something more secure and meaningfully aligned with my other interests. However, because of my age, I often wonder whether I should go back to school, intern, or bother switching career paths at all.
“There seems to be a stigma against starting a new career in your 30s. For some reason, a lot of people seem to believe that, by your 30s, you’re supposed to have everything figured out,” Ellen Mullarkey, the Vice President of Business Development with the Messina Group, tells HelloGiggles. “But, in reality, a lot of people start a new career well into the third (or even fourth) decade of their life, and it works out very well.”
And according to a recent exclusive study form Airtasker, most millennials don’t want to stick with one job forever. In fact 51% of millennials have made a career change, whether it was to earn more money or find something they really loved, or both.
Are you looking to change careers in your 30s, but having serious questions about how—or—if you should even make the leap? Here’s what you need to know.
Do I have to go back to school?
Not necessarily, Lauretta Ihonor, a career change strategist and founder of career change platform The Ambition Plan, tells HelloGiggles. Ihonor made five career changes herself (medical doctor, fashion stylist, journalist, TV producer, nutritionist, and now entrepreneur)—two of which happened after 30. She says going back to school depends on your chosen field.
“I went back to university for three of my career changes and often found that, once I was in the new industry, no one cared about the degree,” says Ihonor. Of course some professions require you to get a specific qualification, such as a lawyer or a doctor. But sometimes, if you’ve already gained the skills and experience necessary for the new career, then you don’t need anything else.
However, if you do choose to go to school, Ihonor says it can be beneficial. “Going back to school can also open doors in terms of making you eligible for internships [and] work programs, and [can] help you meet influential people in a new industry.”
Do I have to do an internship?
If you’re transitioning to a whole new industry, you may have to start in an entry-level position. But employers probably won’t expect you to do an internship as someone fresh out of college would do, according to Mullarkey. She also shared her experience with hiring someone in their 30s after a complete career change.
“I have a person on my team who spent their entire 20s running their own business in an unrelated industry. When the recession hit, their company went under. She came to us looking for a job, and we instantly knew she’d be a valuable asset to our organization. She had way more experience than a lot of people who’d spent their 20s in a formal office setting like ours.”
Mullarkey adds, “Sometimes, life experience looks a lot better to hiring managers than a resume full of internships.”
Do I have to keep my old job?
“A lot of people save for years to fund their career change. That way, they have a nest egg to live off until they’re able to support themselves from other work,” says Mullarkey.
Also, if you’re accustomed to an expensive lifestyle but you want to transition into a field that may not pay as well, you might want to stick it out and pursue your new career on the side. “Otherwise, you may have to reassess your lifestyle and make some budget cuts,” she says.
Adds Ihonor: “I recommend a slow transition where possible as it minimizes the fear, overwhelm, and financial concerns that can cause women to abandon a career change halfway.”
Where’s a good place to start?
According to Ihonor, it’s imperative to speak to others in the industry you want to go into before you make the switch. “I always advise clients to speak to someone doing their dream job who loves it and someone doing their dream job who hates it. This is the best way to get a realistic impression of the job, and if you will like it or not,” she says.
Ihonor recommends first turning to LinkedIn to make contact with those in your potential new industry. “I have personally had a lot of luck from contacting strangers on LinkedIn and so have my clients. People are surprisingly willing to talk to people who say they are interested in finding out a little about their job and how they got into that industry.”
Ihonor also advises to test drive your new career, which you can do without quitting your current job. Simply volunteer for one-off events, shadow someone for a day, or use your annual leave to do a short stint of work experience. All of these instances can help you figure out whether or not your new potential career is something you love.
Another tip? Go to networking events and take note of the people in that industry. “Are they your type of people? Do they have the type of lifestyle you want? If you like what you see and come alive in this circle, that’s a sign that this could be the career for you,” Ihonor says.
Am I too old to switch careers?
Not at all. “Changing careers is more common than you think! Lots of people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and even 60s do it every day,” says Ihonor. “The biggest obstacle isn’t your age, it’s your belief about what your age means and what you ‘should’ be doing at a given age. If you think 50 is young, you will walk into an interview exuding confidence and making it clear that you are an asset. If you think 50 is old and that no one will take you seriously, you will give off this impression to potential employers and block your own success.”
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