Traditionally, being in your 20s is seen as a time to be footloose and fancy free, to conclude your education, to explore your career options and to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. But by the time you turn 30, it’s generally expected that you’ll be working on ways to advance on your chosen career path.
However, if you find in your 30s that your career isn’t fulfilling, you don’t have to spend the rest of your life dreading the sound of your alarm clock — there’s still time to shift gears and go in a totally different direction. You just have to be prepared for naysayers — even well-meaning friends and family members — who will question your judgment.
Here are five myths you can expect to hear cited by these naysayers, along with helpful advice for successfully changing careers in your 30s.
‘That’s Totally Impractical/You Should Know What You Want to Do’
This common myth is based on the fear of change, which can lead you to stick with a decision and its resulting course regardless of whether it’s making you unhappy. Just remember that it’s totally acceptable to change your mind. “When you were 5 years old and someone asked you what you wanted to be, do you still want to do that? Chances are, probably not,” says Becca Shelton, assistant director for career services at the University of Richmond. Shelton works with adult learners, alumni and experienced professionals who are seeking career guidance.
“Our ideas change, our vision for ourselves changes over time, and that’s one of the beautiful things about being a human being,” Shelton says. Most people spend at least 40 hours a week at work, which is more than 2,000 hours a year. “That’s a lot over a lifetime, so you should ask yourself if your job allows you to use your strengths and be the best version of yourself,” Shelton says.
One person who knows something about change is Cortney McDermott, a TEDx speaker, strategist to Fortune 500 executives and entrepreneurial leaders and the author of “Change Starts Within You: Unlock the Confidence to Lead with Intuition.” Before she became an entrepreneur, McDermott was an executive at Vanity Fair Corp. and Sustainability Partners, a professor of graduate studies for a Big Ten university and a global associate for beCause Consortium.
“When we start to listen to our intuition — that inner force that urges us to change and grow — we have to be prepared to meet with other people’s fears, as well as our own ingrained ideas about what’s ‘practical’ or ‘realistic,’ ” McDermott says. “If this myth is plaguing you now, see if you can find one or more sources — such as podcasts or books — or people to reinforce your confidence in what’s possible.”
McDermott says she has used this technique to reinvent herself several times. “Remember: realists don’t change the world. Unrealistic people do,” she says.
‘You’re Too Old/It’s Too Late’
Who gets to determine when it’s too late to change course? “When I was working as a corporate executive, I dreamed of becoming a writer,” McDermott says. The few people who she confided in always expressed doubt about such a major change. The consistent message was that she should stick with what she was doing. “Luckily, I didn’t — but what I did do was to start small, dedicating a morning window for this passion every day before work and often again in the evenings.” McDermott says her story offers proof that it’s never too late.
Here’s something else to consider: Shelton notes that people in their 30s probably aren’t far past the halfway mark to retirement. “With the workplace being more fluid, so are skill sets and how they are applied to different jobs and careers,” she says.
‘No One Is Going to Hire You’
Changing jobs in your 30s is one thing, but changing careers is a different concept. How will employers view a job candidate in this age group applying for their first job in this field? Probably the same way they view everyone else — and the hiring manager might be impressed that you have the guts to follow your dreams.
“When preparing for the interview, identify your transferable skills that would be related to your target industry, and be able to talk about how you used those skills,” says Cynthia Saunders-Cheatham, assistant dean of the career management center at Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business.
Saunders-Cheatham recommends networking to find jobs. “Leverage your alumni network. Schedule informational meetings. Take people out for coffee and ask questions about what they do, trends in the industry, company goals and challenges.”
Another key is to embrace LinkedIn. Saunders-Cheatham says it isn’t enough to just set up the basics on the site. “You need to tailor your profile to the role and industry and highlight keywords that are relevant to the industry so that recruiters can find you.”
Her other LinkedIn tips include the following:
- Set alerts.
- Follow relevant companies.
- Join relevant groups, including your alumni and industry groups.
- Learn how to use LinkedIn to find contacts in specific fields and reach out to them for information.
- Use the site’s new mentorship platform.
‘If You Get Hired, You’ll Have to Start at the Bottom’
The naysayers will say you’ll have to take an entry-level position, so you’ll be starting over and spending years trying to get re-established. “While it’s unlikely that you will jump right into a senior level position, don’t ever dismiss the amount of experience, skills and talents you have developed throughout your career so far,” Shelton says. “Think of your skills as a tool box — what’s in your tool box and how can you help employers solve problems?”
‘You’ll Have to Go Back To School, Which Is Expensive and Will Take Too Much Time’
Changing careers can indeed require additional training and education, but it doesn’t have to mean a new four-year degree. “Maybe there is a certificate you can pick up, or other training that will give you an edge, but this is all part of your story,” Shelton says. “It is important to know your story, own your story, and articulate that to others.”
If you know you’ll need to go back to school full time, she recommends that you start making plans. “Know that there are many flexible educational programs available for those working full time who want to expand their knowledge and marketability.” Some programs are offered online, and some are at night or on the weekend, making them more likely to fit your schedule. There also are grants and scholarships available, based on your major, location, age and other factors.
Changing careers in your 30s might not be easy, but it can definitely be accomplished. Now that you know the myths — and the truth — you can make an informed decision.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in March 2016, and substantially updated in August 2018.