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Why and how to change career in your early thirties – and the women who made it work

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Imagine this. You're at a crossroads called "early thirties" facing a series of pivotal decisions in life.

The enthusiasm for the career you chose in your twenties has waned, or you've had enough experience under your belt to stop and think: is this really what I want? 

"We often end up in careers we think we 'should ' have taken and when we get to our thirties, we realise we have other talents and passions," says Karen Meager, a psychotherapist who set up careers consultancy Monkey Puzzle Training.  

"We've also had some experience, so we're in an ideal position to assess what we want and don't want in a career. It's a time when we really begin to know ourselves."

With a new study finding that over a quarter of us Brits are unhappy in our jobs - and the job market growing more versatile and dynamic - the concept of taking on a second career is more pertinent than ever. 

We consult our panel of career experts to find out why and how to execute a career swivel in your early thirties.

We also address key issues for those worried about starting over, and hear from three women who used an early thirties career change to turn their lives around.

(Click here to read more about Stylist.co.uk's line-up of career experts). 


Why should I do it?

change

Diversify your skill set 

"It’s important to keep on your toes professionally," says careers coach Corinne Mills, managing director of Personal Career Management. "A recent report from CBRE estimates that over 50% of current jobs will be replaced by others as increasing technology and artificial intelligence transform our workplaces over the next few years.  Being versatile is going to be a key career survival strategy." 

Stand out from the crowd

"With more and more people attending university, it's no longer much of an advantage," says Meager. "But experience, learning and development is. Having a diverse career shows initiative and the courage to take risks and take on new things, in a way that a straight career trajectory can't. Employers value that."

Find out what makes you tick

"Employers are not only interested in what we do, but also why we do what we do," says Aimee Bateman, AAT career coach and founder of website Career Cake.  "A career change prompts us to look at what drives and motivates us. I was mostly motivated by money in my twenties but now, at 33, it's more about recognition than money. Eight hours a day is a long time to do something that doesn't make you tick anymore."

Lend a fresh perspective

"Candidates from different career backgrounds can often bring fresh perspectives and insights, especially if they are in an area where the company feels it is failing,"says Mills. "Perhaps they have had success in turning around a failing department, or leading innovation projects which are in line with what the company needs." 

Grow your experience

"Jobs are no longer for life and people move around a lot more than they used to," says Alice Weightman, who left her job as a lawyer aged 29, to set up headhunting firm Hanson Search. "You obviously want to avoid looking jumpy, but if employees can understand the reasons why you've changed career, they'll see it as an advantage. If you explain your reasoning clearly, they'll likely welcome your breadth of knowledge and experience and the expanded skill set you bring to the role." 

"There are some careers where a more diverse career background and life experience is definitely an asset," says Mills. "For instance, coaching, counselling, teaching, advocacy and advisory type roles.  A previous career in business will add to your credibility rather than detract from it."

Make the most of the years ahead

"In your thirties, you'll typically have at least 35 years of a career left and you owe it to yourself to be happy," says Jane Sunley, author of career success guide, It's Never OK To Kiss The Interviewer. "We tend to spend a lot of our early years listening to advice and guidance from other people and it can erode our own ambitions. Now is the time to think about what you really want - so that you don't look back and think 'what if?'"


How should I do it?

plan

Drill down what it is you want

"People get so tied up with where they are, that they forget where it is they're going," says Sunley. "I get my clients to list their work values and often the ones that are most important to them - things like trust and respect - are lost at the bottom of it.

"You need to stop and think, 'what is it that really makes me happy; what's important, and how can I get it?' Once you've identified this and separated it from other peoples' opinions or aspirations, or worries about security or money, you've made your first step. You need to think about what you LOVE doing first. Find out what makes you excited and passionate enough to pour all your energy into it." 

Create a strategy around your transferable skills

"Passion and enthusiasm are great as the initial drivers behind your decision but beyond that, you need to think practically," says Weightman. "Consider what exactly it is you have to offer and who would employ you. Not everything translates well between industries.

"You also need to consider how long it will take to transfer careers and what, if any, financial adjustments you'll need to make. Then work hard and make it happen."

Sunley agrees that transferable skills are key to this kind of move.

"Many skill sets are relevant from one field for another; for example, a background in sales may benefit a fundraising charity role. Many people recruit on attitude and train on skill - so you need to be able to persuade an employer that you have that potential and that your background works, even without direct experience. Do your research well and present the evidence."

"Can you integrate your current skills with the ones you want to develop?" asks Meager. "It's not all about jacking it all in to become an artist. For example, I'm a financial services professional by experience but I realised I love the potential of people more than finance so I retrained as a psychologist. A lot of my work is taking leadership psychology back into my old area of expertise, because clients value that I understand the environment and know the real issues and challenges people face there."

Expand your repertoire with relevant training

"Find out what you need to do to be a suitable candidate for the role," says Mills. "This might involve further training, unpaid work experience, re-jigging your CV or you might need to take some stepping stone roles in order to move your career in the right direction for the jobs you want. Remember, you don’t need to take any job just because you are offered it – it’s got to be right for you.  But if you don’t start even trying to make the move, then you are going to be missing out on some great opportunities."

This may mean taking on freelance work, or enrolling on a course as you continue in your current job.

"It may help to retrain in your current role, if you can," says Meager. "It might be hard work at first to fit both in, but it helps to keep the financial security whilst working somewhere familiar - and psychologically, this makes the change smoother."

Do your research and take on a mentor

"Research, research, research," says Bateman. "Build relationships with people who are succeeding in that industry and ask their advice. They will tell you about courses and additional activities you can do to make your mark."

"Talk to as many people as possible," agrees Weightman. "Network all you can and seek out advice from those in your industry of choice to prepare for the move."

Meager suggests approaching someone who's made a similar jump to chat to, if you can track them down. "It's useful to talk to someone who has already made a career change like the one you want to do, they will usually have good practical tips and advice," she says.

Sunley suggests taking on a mentor in your career of choice. "Find someone you admire, and approach them to be your mentor," she says. "It's a great way of finding your way to something that works and people are often very eager to help out and share advice with those looking to get a leg up."

Take your time

"The important thing is to plan your career transition. It’s not going to happen overnight," says Mills. 

It's key not to rush into things if you want your career jump to work. Yes, this is about taking a risk but you need to negate any fallout by having a strategy in place that covers exactly how you will manage your transition - from managing finances to gaining the right expertise and beyond. 


Career change FAQs and concerns

FAQ

I'm scared about starting over

"Bravery is key," says Sunley. "I've advised hundreds of clients who've changed careers over the years - either because of an active choice, or because of redundancy - and they've never regretted it, or gone back. Even if a new job didn't work out, they've moved on and tried something else. I always say, 'What's the worst thing that can happen? No-one's going to die.' You won't know until you try, and there's nothing worse than living with that regret."

"Really explore what it is that scares you and consider whether there's anything you can do to mitigate that," advises Meager. "Keep the fear chemicals in your brain calm and then you can move forward with confidence, but don't ignore them, address your own worries and concerns. There is always a way."

I'm worried about the financial impact

"If people want to completely retrain for a new career then they are likely to see their salary drop, at least at the beginning," says Mills. "If you need to protect your earnings, far better to find some half-way step between your current job and the new role you aspire to, and then inch your way forward from there."

"Really work out what you actually need to live on," says Meager. "For most of us it's less than we think. A client of mine worked out she could just about get by selling chips if she needed to, and that gave her the courage to move forward. If you are going self employed or starting your own business make sure you have enough funds to see you through the initial period of setting up."

How will it affect my family and loved ones?

"It's about taking a calculated risk," says Sunley. "Don't dash into it, and it's probably not a great idea if you're the sole provider for a huge family."

"If you are with a partner, it's rarely a good idea for both of you to do new things at once, " adds Meager. "So if one person has a stable role the other can be free to try new things, then when they have settled the other half can do the same."

"If you are wanting to start a family soon and are thinking of becoming self employed, consider doing the family first. Employed maternity benefits are way more beneficial and it will be more financially stable whilst your children are small - this is also a good time to retrain."

Am I doing it for the right reasons?

"Sometimes people want to change career because they have had a bad experience in their previous job and feel that a new career direction is a way to put distance behind this," says Mills. "However, this may be an over-reaction and they may be perfectly fine doing something similar but in a new organisation where they are treated better."   

What's the biggest mistake I can make? 

"The most common pitfall is where people haven’t done their research properly and are unrealistic about their chances of being hired in their new role," says Mills. "You need to make sure that it’s a viable option before you embark on a career change."

"It's about getting the nuts and bolts in place," says Weightman. "Think about the whole package and the specific impact the change will have on your career, your finances and your loved ones."


'I ditched my job in academia to set up a viral video firm - I didn't want to be a cog in the wheel'

Sarah

Sarah Wood was 32 years old when she decided to leave her lecturing job at Sussex University to co-found video ad tech company Unruly

"I decided to leave my lecturing job because I wanted to have more impact. Research was my passion and teaching was (and still is) my vocation, but being a cog in a wheel is not my thing. And when I made the move in 2005, there was a cultural  revolution going on with the birth of social sites such as Digg, Delicious, Flickr and YouTube - I wanted to be part of the change.

I had a really helpful life coaching session with my next door neighbour, Tamsin Slyce. After an hour, I knew it was the right thing to do! Of course I was scared, but if I let that hold me back I’d never do anything new. I’m naturally quite timorous, so I’m always taking a deep breath before I step outside of my comfort zone.

Ten years into the Unruly journey, running my own business really has helped bring work and family closer together.

For me, it’s never been about creating a work-life balance, because work is one of life’s pleasures. Instead, it’s about involving my children (and those of our team) to make sure they feel as though they’re along for the ride as well. Tech start-ups have the ability to scale globally extremely fast and this brings pressure to be always-on and work across all time zones.

If you're thinking of changing career, I'd say have confidence in yourself and your decisions. Think carefully about what your real objectives before you start and make sure that you love what you do, because you will need to make difficult choices and sacrifices along the way."

Sarah Wood is Co-Founder and COO of Unruly and an ambassador of Your Life


'I gave up my career as a barrister to become a freelance copyeditor - it's been a huge weight off my shoulders'

Anna

Anna Riddell was 32 years old when she chose to call time on her barrister career at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law to become a freelance copyeditor and blogger

"On a sunny evening at a creative meditation workshop in Hackney, I finally admitted to myself what I had always known - a legal career just didn't interest me enough to justify the hard work. I didn't want to look back in another 15 years and regret them too. I was also suffering from chronic daily headaches, which a neurologist attributed to work stress. 

I just couldn't see a future for myself in law. I'd been blogging as a hobby for a while and enjoying it immensely, but wishing I had more time to dedicate to it. Trying to figure out how I could led me to explore going freelance as a copyeditor, having had a lot of experience of legal editing. Luckily once I put the word out, a few clients appeared almost straight away.

The hardest person to tell was my dad, because he has always been very proud of his Oxford-educated lawyer daughter, but when I nervously broached the subject he said he'd never seen me as passionate about law as I am about my blog and he was wondering when I was going to make the move! 

It has been the heaviest weight off my shoulders, not just in terms of the day-to-day responsibility, but also finally being honest about what makes me happy. Around the same time as quitting, I bought an old miner's cottage in rural Yorkshire and moved up from London with my boyfriend and our dogs and cats. These days I'm more likely to be found pottering in the garden with a pair of secateurs in my spare time - a luxury I never had before. My only regret is that I didn't do it sooner. 

My advice would be to begin making gradual small changes towards where you would like to be. Before you know it, you'll be in a position where quitting doesn't seem such a daunting prospect and you're already on the road to your new career." 


'I went from psychology researcher to food writer - I'm around 100 times happier'

Helen

Aged 33, Helen Graves left her job as a psychology researcher at King's College London to become a food writer

"In my previous job, I worked as a researcher on a new therapy designed to help motivate people with type 2 diabetes. But I was tired of stuffy academia and I thought it was time to follow my dream. I had been working on my blog Food Stories on the side for a few years anyway, and was gradually moving towards making it a full-time project; it seemed to make me happy. I just wanted to cook, write and photograph food, so that's the main reason I made the jump. 

I love my freelance lifestyle. I like being my own boss, and managing my own time and workload by immersing myself in a foodie world.

It's harder financially, that's for sure (managing your own taxes is a f**ing nightmare!) but I'm around 100 times happier now.

I think that when it comes to making a dramatic career change like this, the anticipation is worse than the  reality. I sat back and waited for something awful to happen but it didn't. There's a period of psychological adjustment, but you just have to get on with it and mix things up. 

Think hard about it in financial terms, but otherwise, go for it. If you don't, you'll never know. It's always better to know." 

Compiled by: Anna Brech, Photos: ThinkStock

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