Making a Career Change During a Pandemic

Career decisions are challenging at any time, but when the world is experiencing so much upheaval, making a change to your work can seem especially difficult. And yet, you may feel you have no choice. One of the unwelcome side effects of our pandemic has been an increase in layoffs and work furloughs, even in health care settings. Homeschooling, childcare and elder care issues have also upended family schedules, while personal health conditions have forced some medical professionals to reconsider their exposure to the public. Any of these can be reasons to reassess the work you’re doing, even if you would have preferred to make decisions in a less tumultuous time.

If you feel compelled to review your career path right now—or if you’ve just wanted to imagine new horizons—it’s best to follow a logical process. While you can move quickly if needed, that’s different than acting in haste. Here are the steps to follow, as well as some tips to keep in mind.

First-level Steps: Assessing the Situation

1. Identify the problem. Why are you considering a change? Answers could range from burnout to pandemic-based logistics pressures at home to personal health problems exacerbated by your work. As you can imagine from the diversity of just this short list, the best solutions for your situation will vary widely, depending on the nature of the issue.

2. Go deeper. Now that you’ve identified the problem(s), you can be more specific. Is it the rotating shifts that are causing the most difficulty with your family’s pandemic schedule? Are you burned out on patient care but still excited about neurology overall? The more specific you can be, the more you can tailor your process. It may help to talk with others, to make you dig deeper or question mental habits you have formed.

3. Imagine short-term solutions first. It may well be that you need a full-on career change, into something totally non-medical in nature. But it’s just as possible that smaller changes could give you the breathing room you need right now. Even if a particular solution doesn’t seem likely, pause to envision what would make the difference. If you worked only 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. each day, for example, would that create the balance you want for your family obligations? Of course, that’s not a normal shift for a medical professional—but these aren’t normal times. You can’t know that something won’t work until you explore it further. Likewise, if you’ve been laid off with no clear return date, it might seem like a good time to switch fields. Maybe so, but start by imagining a less permanent option, such as a temporary work arrangement elsewhere.

Solutions in this short-term category could include a leave of absence, a change in duties with your current employer, an all-virtual work process, limited consulting contracts with another group, or…? Letting your mind roam freely while you work on this step will help you discover more possibilities.

Second-level Steps: Telescoping Out

1. Envision your post-work life. If you’re at mid-career, it’s time to get serious about what your post-career life would look like. When you close your eyes and imagine that time, how old are you, and what are you doing? In this vision, do you work until you can’t anymore and switch immediately into a home-centered life of gardening and golf? Do you stop “early” in order to enact some other plan for travel or self-employment? How exactly do you make the transition from work to post-work in the picture you imagine?

By filling in this picture more carefully, you can answer the questions related to your current career decision: What will you be retiring from? What level or type of work is needed in order to lay the foundation for the post-work picture? For example, if you’ve been planning to travel and teach, you’ll probably need to stay close to health care during the years preceding your retirement to maintain your network and credibility. But if you’ve been planning to open a coffee shop, the exact work you do before then doesn’t need to be health-related at all—and in fact, it could make sense to start transitioning now into learning more about business operations. If you knew where you wanted this coffee shop to be, your current decisions might be impacted even more: What if you worked now for a health system with locations in that city, making a future relocation easier to coordinate?

2. Identify possible snags to your post-work ideal. The big three—health, finances and family—usually loom large on this list. If your health fails, some of your plans may not be possible. Likewise, a downturn in finances or a pressing issue with family members can change the situation. While no one can know the future, it still makes sense to assess the risks and work toward diminishing them. As an easy example: Everyone knows that less debt is better. But when you run the numbers, does the trajectory of your current debt load actually endanger the possibility of achieving your post-work goals? This fact could (and perhaps should) impact your career choices now. For example, what if you discovered that an intense period of debt repayment over the next two years would buy you the freedom of less lucrative and perhaps more enjoyable career choices later? In a similar vein, you might see elder care in your future, given your family dynamics and the age of your parents. Without planning, this situation could negatively impact your later-life goals—is there anything you can implement now that would alleviate that future impact? By projecting forward to potential challenges, you’ll be better able to judge the risks and rewards of career tweaks or full-out changes you make now.

3. Integrate your family members’ life plans. In addition to considering potential elder care responsibilities, it’s important to incorporate goals being set by your other family members. For example, has your spouse been imagining a relocation in 10 years to be closer to anticipated grandchildren? Of course, that needs to be added to your planning. Has there been conversation about your partner adding a degree or changing careers? When would that happen, and how would it impact your life together down the road? Would the new career involve travel, or delay your partner’s projected retirement? As always, nothing is certain, so basing your own plans on someone else’s potential actions can be tricky. But not considering their plans at all is even trickier, so it makes sense to create as holistic a picture as possible in this stage of your process.

Third-level Steps: Moving Forward

1. Explore your career ideas. If you already have an idea about your next work, it’s time to find out what it would take to make the move. On the other hand, if you don’t have solid ideas yet, or any ideas at all, you’ll need to start with that step instead. Luckily, you don’t need to go it alone, as there is an entire career counseling industry built for just this purpose. Even a single meeting with a career counselor can provide the needed direction for discovering or researching your career ideas.

2. Decide about training. Unless your next work will be licensed, training won’t be strictly necessary. That doesn’t mean, however, that it wouldn’t be helpful. Classes, certificates, apprenticeships, degrees—there are any number of options available as you gain mastery and confidence in a different line of work. While you can always add training to your regimen later, making this decision earlier in your process may let you start preparing for new work while continuing to maintain your current profession, which in turn can lead to a smoother-feeling transition.

3. Make a plan. At some point, you need to make the go/no-go decision. If you do choose to adjust or change your career, then putting the plan on a timeline will help ensure you stay on track. While solid transitions can be made in as little as three to six months, a window of six months or longer is much more common, particularly if you’ll be working at the same time. Or you might decide to make a slow ramp-up over a few years while simultaneously ramping down in your current work.

The key to planning a career move isn’t the length of the timeline so much as the steady pace of forward movement, at whatever speed you’ve chosen. When the steps become too attenuated, it’s easy for other life issues to crowd in and overshadow your career change. For that reason, be sure your plan includes a projected end date, as well as tangible steps that incorporate networking meetings and job search processes. This will help ensure your transition stays on the front burner until you’ve reached your goal.

Tips for a successful mid-career transition

Don’t be daunted by your age. Remember that old “Dear Abby” column, when a reader asked, “Should I go to medical school now that I’m 30? I’ll be almost 40 when I start working!” And Abby’s famous answer: “How old will you be in 10 years if you don’t go to medical school?” In other words, your age is your age, and it’s not something you can change. But you can use your years wisely and with intention. If you hesitate to change careers because you won’t have as much time in the new pursuit, remember that you’ll have even less time in it if you delay starting. People make successful and fulfilling career transitions even in their 60s and 70s. As for age bias from employers—if that’s a realistic prospect given the field you’re considering, then feed your plans, not your fears. That is, rather than being scared away from the work, start planning a strategic entrance to it through networking, training, self-employment, contracting or any number of solutions that don’t require you to compete directly with younger candidates.

Don’t let assumptions drive the process. Do you know that your current team couldn’t abide a change in your schedule, or do you just assume it? Likewise, are you certain that your family budget requires no less than your current income, or have you actually run different financial scenarios to check the outcome of a lesser-paying career? Anytime you find yourself thinking, “That doesn’t seem likely,” shift to “How could I make that work? Who can I ask to help?”

Where possible, leverage your medical career or knowledge. If, for example, you know you want to leave patient care and help manage a business instead—or perhaps write for a living, or maybe work in a public-facing way—consider first those organizations that would benefit from your medical background. Your experience is a definable plus at health-related companies, even if the work is quite different from your current duties—such as technical writing for a bio-med manufacturer, for example, or consulting on policy for a medical lobbying group.

Keep doors open when possible. Maintain your license if it’s feasible, work locums occasionally if you’re comfortable, attend virtual team meetings if you’re invited—unless or until you feel certain that you’re moving away from this chapter of your career, it’s best to protect the investment you’ve already made by keeping up both your skills and your connections.

Don’t rush, but don’t dawdle either. In some ways, this strange pandemic environment provides the perfect backdrop for making career transitions, large and small. With so many parts of our world undergoing change, one more from you is not likely to cause ripples or backlash. Indeed, you may find more opportunities than you could have expected, with organizations re-evaluating how they operate and what they even do.

Bottom line? Follow your process, to be sure you’re making the right decisions for yourself, but don’t wait to get started. If you’re going to stay put, you deserve the confidence of having made that decision whole-heartedly. And if you’re going to make a change, you need to get moving so you don’t regret a slow start later.

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