CURIOSITY PUSHED MY FINGER TO click on the Internet address for UC Davis. Just mild curiosity--college was a long time ago. Memories of Davis had faded to a pleasant blur: the lush campus, riding my bike through winter's drizzle, the roundness of life in a dome at Baggins End, spellbinding lectures in physiology, napping in my 8 a.m. entomology class (and getting caught).
Now, 17 years later, a line of blue print on the UC Davis screen caught my eye: "The Internship and Career Center." What was this? Virtual career counseling? I could use a career tune-up and some fresh thoughts on work and life.
Not that I'm having a midlife crisis. Absolutely not. Yes, I sold my business. And the day it sold was one of the happiest days of my life. But just because I have no idea what to do next, does that make this a midlife crisis? I object to the word "midlife" with its implication that, having reached the mid-of-life, it's all downhill from here. And "crisis." Way too hysterical. But this career change thing is a challenge--a whopper. If UC Davis was offering assistance, I'd accept.
Since I had graduated in 1979, I wondered what, if anything, the Internship and Career Center might offer me after all these years. So I phoned and got an answer: Yes, I am still welcome at South Hall. And the price: free.
Three weeks later, I sat across the table from Marcie Kirk Holland, liberal arts coordinator at the ICC, who would guide me in discovering my next career. Kirk Holland had precisely the deskside manner a career counselor needs. She knew her stuff and instantly felt like an old friend. It was easy to confide in her.
"I'm excited about moving on to something new, but I'm also nervous," I told her. "At 40, I don't have years to explore different fields. Financial reality stares at me every day from the pages of my checkbook--the number at the bottom is shrinking fast.
"I have no idea what I want to do next. I don't want to return to agriculture, in which I received my bachelor's degree, nor do I want another small business. So I'm starting from scratch. I have a few ideas about what interests me, but I don't know that I can make a living at any of these. Returning to school for a master's intrigues me, but how would I pay for it?"
And lurking in the back of my mind is the loathsome process of job-hunting, in which the job "hunter" feels like the "hunted." I can't picture myself in a job interview. My last interview was at least 15 years ago; what are they like now?
In truth, I was more nervous than I wanted to admit, even to myself. Dumping all my previous work experience was like watching my career go "flat-line." No blips on the monitor. Get out the paddles, scream "clear," watch the corpse jump, and hope my career begins to breathe again on its own.
Kirk Holland explained that I'm not the first, or even the one-millionth, to flip-flop careers in midlife. "I work with quite a few alumni," she said. "Their most common question is: 'How do I take what I've been doing all these years and do something new with it?' The average worker makes a full career change--not just a job change--six to eight times during the span of working life."
The workplace and the role of workers in it have evolved, Kirk Holland maintained. And they show no signs of returning to the "good old days" of 40 years with the same company and a gold watch at retirement. So it's smart to embrace the new, more fluid job market. Forget stability; learn to love flexibility. So many people are pink-slipped, downsized or looking for more fulfillment in work that career changing has become as ordinary as air.
Yet the process is uncomfortable for everyone passing through it. "Any time you're looking for a job, it's tough," said Kirk Holland. "You are putting yourself on the line, being vulnerable and facing rejection. If you are switching careers, add another level of uncertainty, because you haven't already done that particular line of work. If you're forced into a transition because you've lost a job, add yet another level of uncertainty."
And career shifting takes time. "This process involves a great deal of homework for you. Be prepared to leave here with more questions than when you arrived," warned Kirk Holland.
On the plus side, Kirk Holland believed that, like everyone who has been in the work force for a while, I had more work-related assets than I realized. "Experience and skills are valuable," she said. "Passionate midlife career changers who are focused on a goal can bring their experience, skills and passion together in a very, very effective way."
With the words "passion" and "skills" singing in my ears, I began to focus on the work ahead. Kirk Holland and I would bulldoze the mountain of "career transition" into manageable molehills. We would begin by assessing my interests, values and skills and focusing them into a coherent career objective; then we'd research careers that fit what I discovered about myself. Some workshops on resume writing and interviewing would brush up my job-hunting skills. And voila, the corpse would come alive.
I found the concept of "career objective" confusing at first, because I made the common mistake of defining my career in terms of a job title. A career objective is much broader. As an example, Kirk Holland described her own objective as flexibility, variety and working with people individually or in small groups.
"But 'career counselor' is not in there," I protested.
"Exactly," she replied. "I could be happy teaching or leading workshops. So I don't want to limit myself to the niche of 'counselor.'"
I came to think of my career objective as a satchel stuffed with my skills (the activities I like and am good at) in a setting that is consistent with my values (what level of control am I comfortable with at work? Do I need to feel my work is contributing to society?) and interests (anything from collecting antiques to smearing cultures in petri dishes). If you fill most of the needs in your satchel, enjoying your work is almost guaranteed.
Interests were easy. I could look back over 40 years to ask: "What are the topics that endlessly fascinate me?" I'm intrigued by human behavior, concerned with environmental issues and think travel is as necessary as blinking.
Value assessment required more thought. "It's important that people look at their values because they are so important to the job fit," noted Kirk Holland. "You might enjoy planning sales strategies, yet not feel 100 percent comfortable if the product is cigarettes."
OK. After years of self-employment I wanted work that was project-oriented, contributed something to society and offered lots of variety.
Skills assessment? I'm fresh out of skills. What could I possibly pull from my past life for future use?
SIGI to the rescue. SIGI is the System of Interactive Guidance and Information, an amazing computer program stuffed with detailed information on hundreds of careers and designed to help me with the self-assessment process. The program breaks work activities into building-block skills that are transferable from old job to new job. A series of comparative questions does the trick.
"What do I enjoy most: gathering information or analyzing information?" SIGI asked. "And which am I best at?" "Do I prefer persuading people or mentoring people?" And, "Am I good at this?"
By the end of the question set I had a list of skills that I am good at and enjoy. Reading the list, I realized I owned these skills. I could confidently claim these skills on any resume throughout my working life.
Now here's the beautiful part: From my satchel of skills, values and interests, SIGI will generate a list of suggested career titles tailored to fit me like Catwoman's suit.
Happily, "undertaker" was not on my list of possible careers. Neither was "rocket scientist" or "milkmaid." (OK, I'm kidding, SIGI doesn't contain frivolous titles like "milkmaid," but "undertaker" will show up if you say you like to work with people. SIGI does not ask you to specify "living" people.)
However, I did see areas I had targeted as tentative interests: marine biology, social anthropology and writing.
To whittle down this list, I needed more information. Many people want to write, but how many actually make a living at it? What education does a marine biologist need? Although I'm always drawn to the anthropology section in a bookstore, I couldn't recall ever seeing a classified ad for "anthropologist." Reality check. How could I leap from my background in agriculture and small business to any of these fields?
SIGI had some answers in its computer brain, but I was seeking in-depth information. I headed for the Career and Graduate Resource Room, and Kirk Holland gave me a tour. There were bookshelves crammed with titles like Cover Letters for Dummies, The Hidden Job Market, Job Opportunities for Writers and International Jobs. The Dictionary of Occupational Titles summarized work activities for a stupefying 40,000 jobs. Graduate school information was wrapped up in The Peterson Guides. Three computers wired into the Internet accessed job banks all over the United States. There were binders full of job listings and binders full of corporate reports, binders full of college catalogs and binders full of binders. Almost any question about careers could be answered in the "Hall of Binders."
After hours of caffeine-enhanced research, I determined that most positions in anthropology or marine biology required a doctorate, which was not an option for me. That left writing, or the possibility that there was another career area SIGI and I had overlooked.
How could I research work as a writer, more specifically as a free-lancer, the aspect that interested me most? Free-lancing is self-employment; my future salary would reflect my business skills as much as my writing skills. But I'd heard that free-lancing was a meat-grinder way to make a living. I wanted to confirm this with writers in the trenches.
"Informational interview," Kirk Holland summed it up.
In an informational interview, you, the job seeker, get to ask the questions. Ask the right questions and get the walk-a-mile-in-my-pantyhose scoop on a job. Common questions include "What do you find most (or least) satisfying about your job?" "What types of activities and people are part of your work?" "What professional and educational background is needed for your position?"
I liked this idea instantly. "OK, but how do I find writers to interview? And will they want to talk to me?"
"People like to talk about their work," said Kirk Holland. "The Buehler Alumni and Visitors Center has a list of Davis grads who are willing to do just that. Go see Kathryn Keyes and ask to use the Career Resource Network."
The office of Alumni Relations/Cal Aggie Alumni Association was another tremendously helpful resource. Kathryn Keyes, director of career and member services with CAAA, had assembled reams of material for job hunters and changers--lists of reference books, Internet sites and job hot lines. Plus CAAA and seven other UC campuses host the UC Alumni Career Conference and Job Fair in Southern California each year--a great place to accomplish some serious networking.
But the Career Resource Network struck me as the most distinctive tool. Here was instant access to 875 Davis alumni in 59 fields, all willing to be interviewed about their work. In the CRN binders (more binders!) I found a free-lancer, a magazine staff writer and an editor. Bingo. I assembled my list of questions and scheduled interviews for "Operation Information."
I interviewed a total of six writers, adding a newspaper reporter, writer of fly-fishing books and science writer at the UC Newswire to the original three from the CRN. All were generous with their time and enthusiastic about their work. But they were also blunt about the financial picture. I would need to type my fingers to the bone for several years, after which I might, just might, eventually earn $35,000 annually. No promises. As I drove away from the last interview I thought, "I've paid dues like this before. I don't want to pay them again. I guess I don't want this badly enough."
Back to square one, and my time at Davis was running out. Even though I had no idea what my next job would be, I squeezed into the ICC workshops on resume writing, interviewing and job search strategies before I left. (See "Tips from the Pros.") I was going to have to get some kind of work to deal with that checkbook problem soon, even if it wasn't a dream job. Kirk Holland had been right about leaving with more questions than answers. But shortcutting the process would mean shortchanging myself. I thought about the years I'd spent at my unfulfilling business and knew I didn't want to walk that path again.
At this point the best career counselor, the most insightful book and all the sites on the Web couldn't take the next step for me. Back home, I paced and dithered. I discovered the importance of cleaning the plate inside the microwave. I talked to friends. Some sympathized. Others made brilliantly insightful comments like "Get a job." I cleaned the outside of the microwave. The darned thing was a mess every time I looked at it.
The break came when I was once again poking around the Internet. I came across a reference to environmental policy, a field at the nexus of environmental science, social systems and real-world economics. Intriguing. I called the alumni association, obtained more names for informational interviews and went through the process again. (No shortcuts!)
As I spoke with people working in the field, I found myself feeling more excited and confident of this direction. A master's degree was required for most jobs in environmental policy, but my bachelor's in agriculture contained enough basic science that I would have little course work to make up. I reviewed my career objective and found this work pushed every hot button on my list. My satchel runneth over.
Interestingly, I couldn't find "Environmental Policy" in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. The closest job description was "Environmental Analyst." Maybe I just missed it in all those 40,000 descriptions, but this was a type of work I had never heard of. Neither had SIGI. Lesson learned: The time, the research and talking to real, live people paid off.
It turned out that Davis offers a master's degree program in environmental policy. My application to graduate school now rests in a stack on someone's desk, and it will be months before I have word on my acceptance. Equally important is the application for financial aid, similarly stacked and waiting. In the meantime, I've had a chance to hone my new job-hunting skills by gaining a temporary position. Exactly how temporary depends on the fate of those applications.
I'll be disappointed if I don't get accepted into grad school, but it won't be the end of the world. Despite the fact that I agonized over which direction to proceed, I feel comfortable that I can find another way to earn a living and enjoy work. I learned a great deal about myself through the self-assessment process and gained skills in negotiating the job market that I now consider as basic as balancing a checkbook. One of those skills is embracing change, even when it's difficult.
The structure of the American workplace may have changed. The days of the 40-year career may be over. But who needs a gold watch anyway? I keep a piece of advice from Marcie Kirk Holland tucked away in my memory. Somehow it puts things into perspective for me: "People change jobs every few years, so when you find a job, you are really just between job searches."