Career Change, Rewards v. Risks

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2003 Newhouse News Service

An argument about fresh produce pushed Rosemarie Verderame over the edge on June 28, 2000.

The chef at her Manhattan restaurant insisted, for the umpteenth time, on shopping at the cash-only farmer's market even though the summer lull made business tight. Abruptly, Verderame decided to close "Rosemarie" -- the Italian bistro into which she had poured her soul, 14 years and more than $350,000 in startup costs.

Despite her conviction to leave behind the long hours and never-ending expense, the decision was hard. The 50-seat restaurant, she said, "was like my child."

Three years later, the 44-year-old New York native is finishing a master's degree in social work at Fordham University and confident she made the right call. "I miss the food and I miss the customers," Verderame said, but, "I am happier. I feel more peaceful."

Mid-life professionals longing for a new direction often believe their years of specialization are more liabilities than assets in changing careers. But with discipline, a shift of viewpoint and some leg work, say those who have made the transition, the emotional and logistical difficulties can be overcome.

"If you can find a place that you love going to, a place where you wake up in the morning and it excites you, you owe it to yourself to seek it out and take an opportunity to make that your career," said Rory Smith, an associate dean at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago who quit a corporate law job to become an administrator.

Statistics on career changes are scarce because it's hard to define a career, much less track movement, according to the U.S. Labor Department. But experts say more and more people seem to be exploring the option.

If you're among them, career switchers advise, you should first make sure you're getting the itch for the right reason. An overbearing boss or unpleasant co-worker may only be a temporary irritation, and not worth disrupting your entire life plan.

"Don't get sucked into a momentary emotion," said Gary N. Rubin, 56, a vice president at Maryland's Towson University. "Assess whether or not you can make some changes within the environment you're in."

Rubin, who used to be the executive director of a Jewish charity, wrote a book on career change called "Quit Your Job and Grow Some Hair.'

Next, do some serious research. Catalog your strengths and interests, and match them to a new field. Verderame, for instance, found that social work gives her the window into strangers' lives and the possibility of helping them that she had loved about owning a restaurant.

Consider all aspects of the change, including lifestyle, pay and any education you'll need. Be realistic about what you value in life and work.

It may be little things that differ. When Kent Heyman, 48, left a lucrative litigation practice in California to become a telecommunications executive at one-third the pay, he was surprised to realize he had to make his own coffee and learn to send faxes.

But some factors can be deal breakers. If your children are close to entering college or you need to save for your own retraining, you may have to stay put for a while, said Julie McDonald, who counsels career changers as a clinical psychologist affiliated with the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

"If you have a big mortgage or big car, you need to downsize over time so you can position yourself where you aren't strapped," McDonald said. "You have to look at your own life and figure out what are my priorities right now."

Talk to people in the area in which you hope to work, to determine if the environment suits you. If possible, try it out.

Gus Kious worked part-time for an insurance company while continuing to see patients in his family medical practice. He liked the taste of making decisions on behalf of an entire group of people, and is now senior vice president for medical management for the eastern region of the Cleveland Clinic Health System.

"It's hard to give up something that you know and you're good at and people respect you for, for something unknown," said Kious, 57. "Putting yourself in an uncomfortable position is the beginning of growth and wisdom."

Leaving a career -- especially one to which society attaches prestige or status -- means changing your sense of self, an emotionally difficult process no matter how much you want the switch. Those who have undergone the transition say it's vital to have a strong support network of family and friends to help in times of doubt.

Deborah de Leon Brin didn't anticipate the shock of leaving her career as a genetic counselor and researcher, where patients and their families regularly expressed their gratitude and acknowledged her expertise.

"I lost an identity. It was depressing," Brin said. "You have to get your gratification somewhere else."

Stephanie Mann, a pediatric neurosurgeon in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., didn't want to stop being a doctor, but couldn't afford to continue treating patients full time. Malpractice insurance costs were soaring even as reimbursements for her services fell. "I was paying to be a neurosurgeon, which made no sense," Mann said. "I went to law school to afford to be a doctor."

The cost to her family was tremendous, both in law school loans and the time she took away from home to study and train as a lawyer. But her current life is much more satisfying -- seeing patients part time while working on product liability cases to pay the bills.

Starting at the bottom can be tough. Mann, 51, found it belittling to be a nameless face in a large class, struggling alongside younger classmates.

But mid-career students have life experience and external interests that can be a source of confidence. "I have a sense of security that maybe a younger person doesn't have," Mann said. "My ego isn't invested in this the way it might have been 20 years ago."

When you're learning a new profession, it's important to ask questions and be willing to look stupid.

"The biggest challenge has to do with learning the basics of the new field you are entering," said Ana Rita Velazquez, 44, a senior vice president and partner at the Fleishman-Hillard public relations firm in Miami. Velazquez had earned a doctorate in health policy and worked for 10 years at the World Health Organization before taking a public relations job. "I had to temper my approach to really be interesting and attractive to the media."

Build relationships with your colleagues and rely on them to fill in gaps in your knowledge. When Velazquez finally wrote a press release on her own that got coverage, her team members sent her an award for "most improved in media."

In the end, taking the risk can be rewarding.

Heyman, the lawyer who turned to telecommunications, is now chief executive of Pittsburgh-based ServiceWare Technologies Inc. and has never regretted his decision.

"I found it so liberating to make the change," he said. "Once you learn you can make that break, you gain the confidence that you can do anything professionally."

(Katherine Reynolds Lewis can be contacted at katherine.lewis(at)

This story was originally published Thursday, Oct. 2, 2003.