It’s Never Too Late for a Change: Career Change and Going Back to School

With each passing generation we live longer and longer, and as the saying goes it’s never too late to get started. People do not stay in one career for their entire lives, and those who do frequently expand their horizons by continually learning about their industry or craft. As a result, there are many people going back to school to earn their GED or add a new degree to their past education.

Others decide to change careers without going back to school. People give up their job in order to pursue their passion. Sometimes, circumstances change: a company closes or lay-offs leave people unemployed. Instead of going back into the same field, some of the people affected might chase a dream, try new fields to discover what makes them happy, or look for jobs that will challenge them in new ways. Many times on cooking shows professional chefs will talk about leaving a day job that they hated to work in the instead—even if they had to start out by washing dishes.

This process can be overwhelming. It is difficult to know where to start, whether the decision will work the way you want it to, or even if it’s the “right” thing to do. In the cooking example, taking a job washing dishes or bussing tables might mean a massive pay cut. You have to consider all these elements and so many more before taking action. But, if you think in terms of the five W’s, it may become a little easier.

The Five W’S of Goal Setting

When making a major life change like this you should start by defining your goals. For such a huge life decision, these goals have many facets. Breaking the decision down into the five classic “W’S” makes it a little easier.

Who: The most important question you need to answer is who you want to become. Do you want to be a stay-at-home parent? Do you want to dedicate your entire life to your career? Do you want a job that covers your bills but allows time to pursue a passion in your free time? Understanding who you want to be can help you begin to figure out what course of action to take.

What: Classes may help you move toward some goals while others require that you hit the ground running. If we return to the cooking example, then someone brand new to the field will need experience in a professional kitchen. They may start as a busser, then join the line as a prep cook, step in as a sous chef, etc. If someone is already working in the food industry but wants to open their own restaurant, they may need to take business classes. Others may want to conquer a specific type of cooking, or study with an idol. Becoming a stay-at-home parent will change the way your whole family works—from budget to priorities to what you and your partner expect of one another. Deciding what you want in tangible terms helps narrow down a course of action.

Where: “Going” to college is much less literal today than it was even five or ten years ago. There are many ways to take class without leaving your home—with online or hybrid courses you can earn your degree without stepping foot in a lecture hall. If you are working towards a specialty such as animation or journalism, moving somewhere well known for those who work in the industry makes networking much easier. Or making a life change might include a change of scenery—especially if your goals include traveling or attending a specific program or school.

When: A logistic element of a career change is time. If you are taking classes, can you commit to full-time, or do you need a less intense schedule? Does anyone else rely on you—do you have other people who need your attention on your skills? Don’t forget that classes will have assignments outside of class as well, and you will need to set aside time to complete them. Some programs require that you complete them in a certain amount of time, which is important to know before you begin. If you aren’t taking classes, then you may set a limit on how long you can spend working towards a goal. In this case you may need to do some research on what is reasonable, or talk to others in the field or with similar goals.

How: Taking classes costs money. Taking a pay cut or working on a passion project requires major budget adjustments. Depending on the classes, school, or programming, you may be able to apply for financial aid. As a writer, I look for grants, fellowships, and residencies with scholarships. Students can get tax breaks or special loan rates from banks if you ask an advisor and do your research.

If you are part of a family, all members will need to get used to some changes—not just in their budgets but in what they can expect of your time. You may have to give some things up entirely. Looking at your schedule and prioritizing what you’re willing to give up versus what you will not sacrifice is a good indicator of how dedicated you are to your life change. Working in an industry like theatre requires, on the professional level, that you give up holidays and weekends as well as most week nights. If you travel, you may be away from friends and family for months at a time. You may not want to make those sacrifices, and decide instead that community theatre or teaching young actors is how you will integrate an interest into your life. Some pursuits will require supplies or work spaces that are different from what you currently have. This can mean anything from better knives and appliances in the kitchen to a home office to an updated computer.

The Q’s and the A’s
Finally after answering these questions for yourself and your family, loop back and reassess. This might be a good time to include your partner or family in the conversation if you haven’t already. If they will also be affected by these changes, you may ask their feelings or opinions on upcoming changes. You should also let them ask questions. Your answers could reaffirm your decisions, or reveal that you need to do a little more thinking. Your family may even be willing to help you, as a test audience for your new developing skills, or showing you networking and research opportunities you might not have known about.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to others who have taken the path you want to take. Talk to students who attend the schools you are considering, sit in on a cooking lesson with your desired mentor. Ask questions, but don’t be afraid to take a leap even you’re unsure how “ready” you are. Risks are scary, and you can always change again if it doesn’t work out, or turns out different from what you wanted or expected.

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