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Career Caught in a Rut? Steps to Change Your Career

written by: N Nayab•edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom•updated: 1/16/2012

Many people find themselves in a rut, and their career going nowhere after a few years. Changing careers is not easy, but they need not be stressful or damaging to one’s status or prospects if the change is the result of a well thought out systematic approach.

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    Midlife Career Changes Many people in the 30s and 40s feel stressed out and remorseful as their careers reach a dead-end. Yet, the thought of starting all over again, competing with fresh-out-of college youngsters to establish a new career is a daunting one. Knee-jerk reactions - like jumping at the first new job that comes by - only worsens the situation.

    If you are among those who find yourself at the end of the road in your career, the first thing you should do is make a conscious, informed, and firm decision regarding the change. If you remain reluctant to leave your comfort zone, or develop fears of an uncertain future and the prospects of having to start all over again, you are not alone. Most people prefer to remain in their unpleasant reality rather than test an uncertain future.

    If, however, you can convince yourself that a change is inevitable, then you should commit yourself to it. Creating a mindset to change is half the work. Next, make a thorough evaluation of what went wrong. Understand the situation, and build on your strengths. You can use this information to your advantage as you plan your next step.

    You may find that you gain inspiration by reading books and biographies. As Alfred Lloyd Tennyson, the celebrated poet quotes in Ulysses “’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” Vincent Van Gogh best exemplifies this spirit. During his lifetime he was an art dealer, schoolmaster, student priest, and missionary. It was not until he was well into his 30s that he discovered his artistic talents.

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    Select the New Career

    Midlife Career Changes Having decided on the change, select the new career path or profession. You might have made the initial wrong move owing to peer pressure, erroneous or impulsive thinking, lack of much thought, or any other reason. All people make mistakes but the wise do not repeat mistakes, and the truly wise learn from the mistakes of others.

    Three good methods to select a new career include:

    • Honest appraisal of strengths and weakness.
    • Aptitude tests to identify areas of interest.
    • Breaking up existing work experience into small components and identifying components where one enjoyed working or excelled.

    Try to stick as close as possible to your already acquired education, competence, and experience. For instance, changing over from marketing to human resource management might not pose too many difficulties as both careers come under the management stream. Changing over from human resource management to biotechnology may however pose major challenges as it becomes an entirely different stream, requiring entirely different skills and experience.

    To overcome the problem of competing with fresh graduates, select a specialization that always remains in a state of flux, and where successful professionals need to update their knowledge on a constant basis, career change or no career change. The best illustration is software development, where the programs in vogue during the 1990s such as FoxPro and Cobol are now obsolete. The need for constant professional improvement creates a level playing field and makes entry easy, as long as you get, or are capable of getting the training required.

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    Make Trade-Offs

    Midlife Career Changes Having decided on the new career, take time to study the opportunities available, and learn how to prepare for it. Search for information online, speak to people in the industry, and approach career consultants for help. Keep an open mind, and do not rush into anything that comes by.

    Making a selection will invariably involve trade-off between idealistic considerations and practical realities, and between ethical principles, and commercial pressures. For instance, something of interest but with no realistic career opportunities make a good option for a hobby, but not for a career.

    The interests and viability apart, factors such as the how the new career would influence your lifestyle, finances, children’s education, all need consideration. For example, a career as a health care profession may look attractive and promising, but the requirement of working in shifts or at odd hours might not be feasible.

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    Plan the Transition

    Having decided on the "what" and the "how" of your career change, plan the execution. A planned and systematic approach takes the pain out of the transition. The key elements of such a planning process follows:

    1. Competencies: Acquire knowledge or competency in the new profession by getting the training you need. Options for working professionals include evening classes or online courses.
    2. Experience: As a midlife executive, you would have some work experience, but the bulk of such experience would remain irrelevant for the new career. Try to acquire some relevant experience by undertaking some free projects, or by taking up a part-time job in the new profession while still retaining your day job.
    3. Prepare Resumes: Having acquired the necessary competencies and exposure, prepare a career change resume. Focus on generic or transferable skills that remain useful irrespective of the profession.

    A lateral entry in the same position might not work when changing careers. Take a long-term view, and risk a decline in position or salary in exchange for long-term peace of mind and possibility of accelerated advancement that comes when doing something you like.

    Keep in mind that no matter how meticulous the planning, obstacles are inevitable along the way. The most powerful tool to overcome such obstacles is the mind, and the biggest obstacle is self-doubt.