Sometimes, you can see the crisis coming. For me, it was a shift in funding priorities at the National Institutes of Health which meant that, sooner or later—probably sooner—I was going to run out of money to operate my physiology lab, and that the research that had consumed my energy and passion for over 20 years was about to end. I was also feeling increasingly restricted in career scope and that I had so much more to contribute. Rather than re-double my already time-consuming efforts to write more grants, I developed—and implemented—a plan B: I became an academic administrator and executive-in-training. This allowed me to expand my impact in higher education.
I kept up my plan A, too, running the lab on fumes for several years, but two years ago the money did finally run out and my physiology research came to an end. However, by that time I had developed a second career in administration, a third career as a social scientist, and a fourth career as a professional development consultant. I haven’t left academia—so the transition is within my realm of familiarity—and there are transferable leadership and managerial skills of running a lab that can be applied to a larger organization. But, there is much more to learn to do it well, and it requires a giant shift in mindset. The point is that I activated my plan B(s), before my plan A fell apart.
Career transitions can be both hard and scary, but research on this topic reveals several factors that make these transitions easier and more successful (Heppner et al., 1994; Carless and Arnup, 2011):
- Readiness and motivation to make a change: Are there recent events in your life that are giving you a push to make a career transition (a new boss, bullying in the workplace, family obligations)? Even though it will involve risk, let these facts motivate you to take a chance on making a change that could lead to something better.
- Confidence in your ability to make a career change: Are you overwhelmed by the thought of making a career change, or does it excite you? If you are overwhelmed, how can you overcome the lack of confidence so that you can make it happen successfully? That’s where an excellent coach or consultant can come in handy as a guide to helping you develop a plan of action.
- Strong social network: You want supportive people in your network—family, friends, and colleagues who will listen to your ideas, provide you with useful feedback, mentor you, and some may be in a position to act as a sponsor in the form of additional training and introductions to useful people. Social supporters can also help give you the confidence to make the leap.
- Perceived internal control over ability to make a change: Even if it was prompted by external changes, do you have the sense that this transition is in your hands? This sense of control will come from taking the initiative and being proactive rather than reactive. If you see the writing on the wall, don’t wait until it becomes a pink slip on your desk.
- Feeling that your career decisions are independent from the needs of others, that you are making this change for yourself: This is tough if you have a family who cannot or will not provide you with the flexibility you need to make a career transition. Independence from the needs of others will likely require some difficult conversations and negotiations (see the excellent book Difficult Conversations by Stone, Patton, and Heen (2010) for useful tips, evidence-based tools, and practices).
- Openness to new experiences: This characteristic is considered to be a personality trait in which a person’s imagination, creativity, and curiosity overcomes the risk barrier to making change. Perhaps you can find a way to look at the potential change as an exciting opportunity to expand your world, test your skills in a more challenging environment, or learn something new.
Research also assessed the impact of gender and age on confidence in willingness to make a career change. Similar to findings in other types of performance analyses (Wayne and Miller, 2018), women and older employees showed less self-confidence in their ability to make a successful career change (Heppner et al., 1994; Carless and Arnup, 2011).
You don’t have to check off all the boxes of the above characteristic inventory to move forward. I am a middle-aged woman—two factors that would predict low probability of career transition. And yet, I am embracing change like nobody’s business.
My career crisis forced me to reevaluate how I wanted to allocate my time and energy to fit my values and needs (discussed in an earlier blog on Striving for Balance: My Work, My Life). I decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my academic career helping my colleagues be successful with their careers. I had already "made it" in science and had nothing left to prove in that arena. I felt that my decades of experience could be useful to supporting my peers—and this took me outside of the laboratory research environment. I was able to achieve a certain amount of leadership experience at UCLA over the past 12 years by working part-time in middle-management in various administrative units on campus. I was successful in helping my colleagues with their own work, but I am now ready for something more and something different. I wanted specific leadership training in a sector of higher education in which I had never worked.
Over the course of the past nine months, I have been learning leadership in action as a fellow of the American Council on Education (ACE) Fellows Program. An important part of the program is moving to a different college or university to learn and work with executive leadership to strengthen your leadership skills and learn new ways of operating in higher education. I didn’t move very far—just 75 miles east of my home institution. But, the move was a huge shift from an enormous research-intensive university (UCLA) in an enormous city to a much smaller liberal arts university (University of Redlands) in a small city. My goal now is to shift from professor/middle management to full-time executive leadership in order to broaden my impact. This is a change from my original plan A of becoming a professor at a research-intensive university, happily playing in my lab and teaching students (which I did successfully for over 25 years) to my plan B of becoming an executive leader in order to have a broader reach and greater positive impact.
Rather than looking back, I look forward to the next chapter in my "new" career. Change that you control can be good. Carless and Arnup (2011) report that one year after a career change, individuals in their study had greater job satisfaction and job security, and a higher salary than in their previous job!
Editor's note: This blog was originally published June 1, 2019, on Wayne's Women Advancing Together® website.