BBC Capital

Make a move: Changing track mid-career

About the author

Andrea Murad is a freelance investing and careers writer based in New York City.

  • The big switch

    Perhaps you’ve been thinking about a change for a while. You were never really cut out to be a paralegal, accountant or stock trader. But that’s where you built a career. If only you could go back and start again, doing something new, something you love, something that gets you out of bed with a spring in your step.

    Switching professions isn’t something you can do overnight, or even in a matter of a few weeks. But, it is certainly possible once you pinpoint what you want to do, what new skills you need and create a plan for your transition.

    But how do you know when to make that change?

    “If your heart and head are aligned, that’s how you know when it’s time to move forward,” said Scott Dobroski, community expert at job and career website, Glassdoor, based in Sausalito, California.

    The inspiration of what to do next is usually right in front of you. It could be a passion for entertaining friends, an interest in exercise and problem solving, or perhaps the phone that’s in your hand.

    Changing careers might not be commonplace in some countries as it is in the United States, Canada and United Kingdom, but it can be done. BBC Capital spoke with five Americans who went through the process. Their stories and lessons might help you build a successful second act.

    Scroll through the images above to learn what it took to make a change and what each person learned along the way. (Photo credits:GN Lowrance/Getty Images and Emily Yasutomi)

  • A pro football player turned chef

    NAME: LaJuan Ramsey. AGE: 29. FIRST CAREER: National Football League player, for four years. SECOND ACT: Chef, for the last four years. TRANSITION TIME: Three months.

    LaJuan Ramsey had been on the radar of football recruiters since he played his first high school game in 2000. A scholarship to play at University of Southern California was followed by a spot as a defensive tackle on the National Football League’s Philadelphia Eagles. But when his football career ended unexpectedly, Ramsey decided to pursue another passion: cooking. Nowadays, he works as a chef.

    As a rookie, Ramsey had made an impact but wanted more time on the field. “In football, every snap, you want to make a play,” he said. That impatience about having a bigger role on a team, he said, may have led to the early end of his career. “I played for five teams, and after I was released from the St. Louis Rams, no one picked me up.”

    He needed a new profession — and quickly. Football doesn’t leave every player set for life financially, especially after just a few years in the game. Many former players go on to second careers. For his part, Ramsey looked to what he loved. He had always entertained teammates and became even more interested in food during the offseason.

    Ramsey reviewed his finances and goals and formulated a realistic plan for making a career change. It helped that his football career had trained him to always have a plan and a goal. First up: he moved to Las Vegas to attend culinary school — living costs were cheaper and he was able to quickly find a job in a restaurant. He used scholarship money left over from college to pay for most of culinary school tuition and used his savings to cover other expenses.

    Ramsey accelerated his transition and expertise by baking breads and learning recipes at night.

    He left the yearlong culinary programme after only a few months, in January 2012 — he would braise a pork roast at the restaurant in the morning only to learn how to braise a pork roast in class later that day. Ramsey was hired as a sous chef just a year into his new career, two years earlier than most new chefs move up. Now, he’s a chef at a university dining hall.

    The transition hasn’t been all rosy. Ramsey earns less than a quarter of his professional football salary. But, he said, he’s okay with that.

    “I was so passionate about working in a real kitchen, the salary was an extra bonus,” he said.

    BBC CAPITAL: What are the most important things you learned in the career-change process?

    RAMSEY: If you go after what’s in your heart, the transition will be exciting and motivating. You’ll have more drive and passion than most people in that career. Don’t feel like you have to accept the norm in your new career either — I completely surpassed other people with many more years of experience than me.

    After you’ve made your decision, just do it so that you don’t wonder what could have been. If you fail, then accept the experience, enjoy the journey and move onto something new — at least you're experiencing life instead of playing it safe. (Photo credit: Emily Yasutomi)

  • From dull business meetings to teaching the blind

    NAME: Naima Hall AGE: 38 FIRST CAREER: Business development, for three years SECOND ACT: Teacher for the blind, for the last two years TRANSITION TIME: Three years

    Naima Hall was sitting in a tiny cubicle at a government agency in New York when she decided just couldn’t take it anymore.

    Hall had changed careers before — she started out working for hotels, then taught English in Japan and later worked for a not-for-profit helping disadvantaged children — and decided it was time to do it again. She was tired of the politics of business development in a government agency where she spent her hours hosting meetings between government officials, managing budgets and planning events. She wanted something more.

    “When I live my life, I live from the perspective of my obituary,” Hall said.

    So she did something most people either can’t afford to do or are afraid to do. In 2008, she quit her job and began to search for something new. She knew she wanted to work one-on-one with people and do something that was challenging. Most of all, she knew didn’t want to make another mistake in her career choice. So she took her time deciding on her next act.

    “I worked construction jobs, bartended, was a nanny, worked on a website — anything to keep a roof over my head — while I tried to find myself,” she said.

    Hall also volunteered in various workplaces, which exposed her to different lines of work. About a year into her journey, she applied for an unpaid position at the Helen Keller Services for the Blind in Brooklyn, New York. The position was to help blind children learn basic skills, like navigating through halls on their own, setting tables or reciting the alphabet.

    “During the interview, I was honest that I didn’t belong in corporate America, but I wanted to try this — I got the job,” she said. “I started meeting blind children and it was the most awesome thing that ever happened to me.”

    In 2009, Hall went back to graduate school to learn Braille and study education for the blind and visually impaired. Eventually she merged an early passion — teaching — with this new one. While attending school full-time on a scholarship, she also worked full-time in childcare to pay living expenses. She graduated in May 2011 and started teaching Braille a few months later.

    These days, Hall works 55-hour weeks, but she has summers off and earns more than she did at her previous jobs, she said.

    “I see blind children make huge milestones like tying their shoes, feeding themselves, solving a math problem or learning Braille,” she said. “My career couldn’t have happened any other way. I took every opportunity and if there wasn’t one, I made one.”

    BBC Capital: What would advice would you give to someone thinking about a major transition?

    Hall: Go ‘on the job’ and observe someone in the field that you aspire to be in for at least a day. Ideally, volunteer so you know what it’s really like. Try to align your values with your job choice — life is short so don’t pick a career out of fear. (Photo credit: Andrea Murad)

  • A paralegal ditches legal briefs for mobile fun

    NAME: Erin Hochstatter. AGE: 38. FIRST CAREER: Intellectual property paralegal, for 15 years. SECOND ACT: Mobile app programmer, for three months. TRANSITION TIME: Six months.

    For many years, Erin Hochstatter enjoyed her paralegal job. She was, at least, always learning.

    But after time, Hochstatter began to feel as though something were missing. She had studied art history at university and had earned a master’s degree in industrial design at night, and her work at the Chicago law firm was no longer fulfilling.

    “Eventually, there were less opportunities for growth [as a paralegal] and I wasn’t where I wanted to be — I wanted continued growth and progression,” said Hochstatter.

    Her inspiration: the smartphone she loved and used every day.

    “The way the iPhone has discrete apps are very precise — it seemed like something I could get my arms around,” she said.

    That led her to a new career in the world of mobile app programming — and more schooling. Hochstatter starting researching boot-camp programmes in Chicago that taught mobile iOS development. One day, she made the impulse decision to quit her job and gave two months notice. During that time, she saved money aggressively before starting the two-month programme at Mobile Makers Academy.

    “I saved enough to cover two months living expenses, the $7,000 tuition and a three-month nest egg while I looked for a job,” said Hochstatter.

    The programme itself was intense and challenging — she was learning her first programming language and a different approach to solving problems than she’d used in her legal career.

    To her surprise, by researching the industry and searching job boards to find the right position, Hochstatter found a job six weeks after completing her coursework. Her new contacts from the programme and attending networking events were also crucial.

    “Many of the opportunities that came my way were due to meeting people, hearing about something and following up,” she said. Having a portfolio of finished apps from the programme, as well as works in progress, helped her demonstrate her capabilities to potential employers.

    Now, Hochstatter works at DevMynd Software, a consulting firm in Chicago, where she develops iPhone and iPad apps — including one that helps users navigate through an art fair and another designed to help find the nearest cupcake shop.

    While she took a 30% pay cut, her days are more enjoyable and Hochstatter believes the long-term prospects in her new career are better.

    “It’s more of what I hoped to be doing,” she said. “The work environment is collaborative and I enjoy solving these problems.”

    BBC Capital: What would you do differently if you could do it again?

    Hochstatter: I would have learned more about the available opportunities to better match my skills and preferences. I was focused on startups, but found team environments to be more compelling. Had I known this earlier, I would have tailored my applications and skills to be more attractive to those positions. (Photo credit: Thom Duncan )

  • Wall Street trading floor to medical office

    NAME: Erica Meloe. AGE: 51. FIRST CAREER: Wall Street research, for 10 years. SECOND ACT: Physical therapist, for the last 12 years. TRANSITION TIME: Two years.

    Erica Meloe had just finished a masters of business administration degree at New York University’s Stern School of Business — a virtual feeder school for investment banks — in 1986 when she realised nothing interested her about Wall Street. Even so, she accepted a job in a training programme at an international bank in the international fixed income (bonds) division. She started as a researcher, proposing strategies and trades, and eventually began trading sovereign bonds, futures and options before moving onto sales.

    But all the while, as she dealt with customers around the world trading in European markets from her New York City office, Meloe was thinking about next steps in her career. She had always liked exercise and took a continuing education class on health fitness on weekends. Her instructor, an exercise physiologist, suggested she consider this field as an option for the future, and Meloe started to study for a master’s degree in exercise physiology at night.

    Meanwhile, changes were afoot at the bank, including layoffs. Meloe began to look for another job. “When I interviewed at other banks, I felt empty,” she said. “I looked at myself down the road and didn’t want to retire as a woman on a trading floor.”

    A physical therapist in her master’s programme noticed Meloe’s passion for anatomy and kinesiology, as well as her knack for solving problems in a diagnostic way, and suggested she apply to physical therapy school. Meloe had often considered leaving New York, and a career in physical therapy would provide opportunities to work anywhere.

    Meloe followed the physical therapist’s advice — she applied and was accepted. She chose a less expensive state school and used her savings to finance her education. She had always known she’d eventually leave Wall Street and in preparation had been saving her bonuses throughout her career.

    At the age of 35, Meloe enrolled full-time in an undergraduate physical therapy programme.

    “I realised when I quit my job, I was in school because I actually wanted to be there,” she said. “I left a lucrative career to do that — I was very invested in succeeding.”

    Meloe said her organisation and problem-solving skills from Wall Street came in handy. “I wasn’t going to fail at this,” she said. “[I was] looking for my future.”

    When Meloe graduated in 1999, she worked as a staff physical therapist at a private practice for about eight years, earning 50% less than her Wall Street salary. Eventually, in 2010, she and a colleague started their own practice.

    “We hit the ground running,” she said.

    BBC Capital: What did you learn through the process of a career change?

    Meloe: I can take a risk. If you can get past that and follow your passion, you’ll do well. I prioritised my desires — how I wanted to feel and where I wanted to be. I realised that what helped me succeed on Wall Street could be used in a new career.

    If you can match your passions and strengths in a new career, that’s magic. Find your passion, apply your strengths, and if you need other skills, find a way to obtain them. (Photo credit: Erica Meloe)

  • From legal briefs to start-up savvy

    NAME: Rob Weiss. AGE: 36. FIRST CAREER: Lawyer for 7.5 years. SECOND ACT: Start-up professional, for the last six months. TRANSITION TIME: One year.

    After working as a strategy consultant in Washington, DC, for three years, Rob Weiss figured that law school was the next logical step in his career. Among other things, he believed legal work would give him job security. He graduated in 2006 and started practicing structured finance law.

    “It’s a lot of work, and you really need to love it,” he said. “It’s a career path that really rewards being passionate about the law.”

    As an associate, Weiss worked 60 to 70 hours each week on cases alone. More hours were spent completing administrative work, attending internal meetings and keeping current with the industry. Despite these long hours, he didn’t feel vested in whether the client won or lost.

    Weiss left the firm to work as an in-house attorney at a finance company, but this also left him unsatisfied.

    In 2012, he quit to take a chance on a three-month consulting job as counsel at a start-up that was building an online platform to help private companies raise financing. He found he liked the work and the entrepreneurial environment. Yet making a switch to business was daunting. He decided he needed access to a network of business professionals, but didn’t want to pursue the massive costs of an MBA. While he plotted his next steps, he worked as a lawyer on a consultant basis, lived on a budget and picked up other work where he could.

    From a Google alert, he learned about Startup Institute, a training programme for those interested in starting new companies or working with them. “I thought that was interesting, so I looked into Startup Institute and spoke with that lawyer, as well as other alumni, and it went from there,” he wrote in an email

    Earlier in 2013, Weiss enrolled in the eight-week course.

    He knew that some, or all, of his $3000 tuition would be reimbursed depending on the projects he worked on during the programme or company he worked for after. Most challenging for Weiss? Defining why he wanted to be there and his value to a start-up.

    “That part was very intense, and not easy at all — it required me to rethink some of my basic assumptions about my prior experiences and my value proposition,” he wrote.

    A few weeks after the programme, Weiss became the director of business development at RentHop, a website which helps renters find or list apartments. His law degree helped him find a new job as he had specialised skills that a start-up would otherwise have to hire outside the firm. Though Weiss could earn two to three times more for working the same hours as a lawyer, he loves the new challenges.

    BBC CAPITAL: What advice would you give other people looking to change careers?

    WEISS: Really listen to yourself. If your gut tells you that your job is not what you want, believe it and don’t be afraid to break from your old career. That’s scary for a lot of people, but you can come out the other side. I’m proof positive about that.

    I know what I want for my career better than anyone else. I learned that by trying a bunch of things that didn’t fit. If a job makes me feel good, excited or happy, then I want that job. When you’re happy at work, you’ll be more successful — this may not be in monetary terms. (Photo credit: Brice Lin)