There’s nothing like a global pandemic to make you reassess your priorities. Home-schooling aside, it’s our careers that have experienced the most seismic shake up since we entered this strange new world. Commutes have been cancelled, working remotely has gone from a rare privilege to a regular fixture and achieving the elusive work/life balance has – depending on your job and home situation – either become a lot more attainable or slipped even further away.
If you’ve found yourself daydreaming about a new career or just wondering how you’re going to get through another 30-odd years in your current role, you’re not alone. According to a 2020 survey, 1 in 4 US women are considering a new career path as a result of the pandemic, while a Get Into Teaching study from the same year found that 44% of participants said they’d like to change to a more rewarding career before they’re 40.
Of course, thinking about changing jobs and actually doing it are two very different things. When you’re at the back end of your twenties, have rent or mortgages to pay and maybe kids to feed and clothe, saying see ya to the safety net of a regular salary and benefits – even if the actual job bores you to tears or stresses you out beyond belief – can be terrifying. But, more often than not, it can also be so worth it. We asked four women to tell us how and why they turned their career change fantasy into reality in the hope it will inspire you to take the leap too…
Anna Samuels, 34, went from Chartered Accountant to founding Boxx, a boxing fitness app and boutique fitness studio in East London.
“I spent 12 years working in finance as a chartered accountant, but I knew I wanted to run my own business and dabbled in a few side hustles. I had the dream of opening a boxing studio a good few years before doing anything about it because I knew I wanted to start a family and the time wasn’t right. Then, when I was on maternity leave in 2015, I saw a boxing studio in New York open and it was literally like someone had pulled my vision out of my head and brought it to life. I knew right then I needed to just go for it.
A few weeks later I was looking at studio premises in East London but without any financial backing, I could see it was going to be too capital intensive. Being a new mum I was struggling to actually get to a studio class myself, so I started looking online for boxing workouts and couldn’t find one. That’s when the penny dropped: I can’t open a bricks and mortar boxing studio so why not take my idea online?
I was 30 when I began working on Boxx, but I continued to work part-time as a chartered accountant for the next three years so I’d have some financial security. I decided Boxx would be my full hustle in February 2020. It felt like jumping out of a plane not knowing if your parachute would open.
I had no experience in fitness, video production, digital businesses or marketing, so had to learn everything myself. The two jobs are so completely different: my old role was very similar each day, with a set routine and hours. In this job, no two days are the same. I am doing lots of different roles, constantly learning and being challenged (on the daily). There’s no real routine as I work evenings and weekends (the downside) but my favourite part is that if I have an idea, I can act on it and see it go from concept to reality!
I know that had I continued down the accountancy route my salary would be at least twice as much – if not more – but money isn’t my main motivator. My priority is that I am doing something that I want to be doing and that I don’t wake up everyday dreading going to work feeling unfulfilled. Life is too short for that. Don’t get me wrong, on the tough days I sometimes say it would be so much easier to just work for someone else. But those thoughts are short-lived because ultimately I know I am right where I am meant to be!
If you’re considering changing careers but feel daunted, at least explore the idea. Speak to as many people as you can and do your research and dip your toe in first to see if it is actually what you imagined it to be. I’m all for taking risks but calculated ones. There are so many different ways to change career – you can just jump straight in or you can do it gradually. I always ask myself, ‘if I wasn’t here tomorrow, would I regret staying put I was or would I regret giving it a go?.”
Dinah Williams, 40, went from Media Accounts Director to Client Services Director at Inclusion & Diversity consultancy Creative Equals.
“In February 2019, two years after I took redundancy from my job as Media Accounts Director for Asda.com, I was working for a global tech company in a role I detested (but paid the bills) with a toxic company culture. It was taking a huge toll on both my physical health and mental wellbeing, I had a call with my mum one evening and she said, “Dee, quit in the morning – nothing is worth this.” I’ve always been impulsive and optimistic so, at 39, I made a deal with myself to embrace my impending 40’s and take the jump. I said to myself, ‘You may be here for another 40 years if you’re lucky, do what makes you happy and if it doesn’t work out – it’s just another life lesson, not the end of your life’. That night I wrote my letter of resignation and hit the send button on my MacBook.
Eek, what now? Well, I knew I wanted to take the elements of my previous career in media – working with a mix of clients, using my expertise of understanding how to effectively communicate and engage with different audiences and providing solutions – and combine them with the burning desire I felt to do something more ‘meaningful’.
Randomly, the next morning, a friend called me asking if I’d be interested in doing some long-term freelancing. A few people suggested this would be the right time to start my own consultancy business, so I registered a company name, but deep down I had a feeling even if I could make it a success, it wasn’t actually what I wanted to do. I’d recently come across Digital Mums and decided to apply for their social media marketing course. Gaining a place wouldn’t just give me a chance to upskill myself, I’d also get the opportunity to work with a client on a live project. When the offer came through, my answer was a resounding “Yes!”. I like to think that happened next was the result of me manifesting finding a job to fill the void I’d always felt; my client happened to be a start-up inclusion and diversity consultancy and I would be running their social media campaign.
Fast forward two years and I’m the Client Services Director at Inclusion & Diversity consultancy Creative Equals. Working in this sector has been a dream come true. I honestly wake up each day with a complete sense of purpose, filled with motivation, passion and the knowledge that the work I do positively impacts the experiences of people I may never meet, from employees of a global organisation to their under-represented consumers. I’ve always been passionate about challenging the status quo and fighting against injustice, but the last year has been emotive and at times challenging. That said, I love working with brands that recognise the importance of putting diversity and inclusion at the core of what they do, understanding it’s not a PR exercise or solely HR function but something that should be embedded across all their business touchpoints, from marketing and communications to supply chain and procurement. I sometimes have to pinch myself that clients consult me about addressing challenges and I provide insights to enable them to be more innovative, purpose-driven and forward-thinking. I had an enneagram personality test with a coach last week and discovered I’m a type 8 – ‘The Challenger’ – so it all makes sense now. After years of being told I’m ‘feisty’ and ‘outspoken’, I’m glad I’ve found a sector and career where being assertive, embracing change and approaching business goals with an intersectional lens is essential.
I’ve always said ‘Everything has a way of working out in the end, even in your darkest hour’, and I often think back to the night I decided to take a leap of faith and resign – remembering the uncertainty, the risk and the bravery it took – and smile at how far I’ve come. If you are considering a career change I say do it. Yes, it’s daunting but nothing worth having comes without risk – it could just be the best decision you ever make.”
Sarah Birchall, 39, went from Executive Assistant to a CEO to founding kidswear brand Cub & Pudding.
“In a former life I was the executive assisant to the CEO of a bank in the City. It was, unsurprisingly, a very corporate world dominated by men. My role started started as a maternity cover contract then somehow I’d been there for a decade before I resigned!
When I returned to work after my second maternity leave I had a sudden realisation that this was it. The days of hanging out at the National Theatre eating pastries were gone and 20-odd years of expenses and nonsensical PowerPoint presentations stretched ahead of me. I felt panicked and totally suffocated. I had also started to really feel a creative void in my life. Before kids and marriage I worked a features writer and prior to that a PA in media, and I missed using the creative element of my brain. I’m a boringly organised person by nature so nothing in my day job challenged me.
I went to an ‘inspiring women’ talk in London and in the goodie bag at was a card from a life coach – looking back that was a lifesaving moment. I had no clue how life coaches worked but I wrote her an email literally saying, ‘I am lost’. We met one evening to chat things through and when I unpicked some of my thoughts it came down to working out what made me tick – that was dressing my kids in unique and quirky clothes. When my son turned four I discovered the choice of boys’ clothes came down to Bob the Builder or dinosaurs, and I wasn’t having any of it. I found a small number of (mainly European) indie brands and dressed him in printed leggings and cool tops, but I knew it should be more accessible to buy playful unisex kidswear so I thought, why not try and design some myself?
The whole thing was completely brand new to me. I knew nothing about retail, design or fashion. The safety net of my full-time, salaried job meant I wasn’t up against any deadline to bring my business to life, but it also meant trying to fit in research into evenings and weekends. I took a weekend-long virtual short course on fashion production with the London College of Fashion, which gave me the basics then spent every spare moment in the brilliant resource centre at The British Library. That first meeting with my life coach was in 2017, and in 2019, I finally quit my ‘real’ job to focus on Cub & Pudding. Making the decision to leave was totally empowering. I’m impulsive by nature and pretty much decided overnight that I couldn’t juggle working four days a week (I’d finally asked to drop a day in early 2019), parenting and a business, and that if I really wanted to make Cub & Pudding a success, it wasn’t going to happen by working on it one day a week. I’d started to feel more and more resentful of my paid job as I just didn’t want to be there anymore and it showed in my output – I was making mistakes and just didn’t show up – at least mentally – anymore.
Financially it was a huge risk for me and definitely one I didn’t think through properly – I just assumed I’d make it work somehow. I’d never made my regular salary from Cub & Pudding when it was a part-time business, which was the minimum I’d need to pay the bills. The start of 2020 was both hugely exciting and terribly anxious, but there’s nothing like a bit of financial pressure to make you work even harder! I’d always been the main breadwinner and my husband and I had split every joint bill 50/50, so at the start of the year I had to ask him to contribute more than normal, which I found quite jarring to be honest. I think I felt quite shackled to be reliant on a man to pay my way but I had to get over that because the reality was it took me several months to find my feet and increase my monthly sales from the business. I have no regrets though – life is too short and I’m a terrible overthinker so I try and only look forward.
I believe that if you’re unhappy in your career then you have the power to make a change. It won’t be easy but the realisation of just how many hours we spend in a job, away from loved ones, over the years until retirement, when you could be doing something you love a whole lot more makes it worthwhile. Reach out to people already doing what you’d like to do and ask them about it, especially anything that may making you hesitate. I’m a big ask person. I contacted lots of kidswear brands early on to pick their brains and they were all so helpful. Funnily enough, that’s come full circle now as people often DM me on Insta to ask for advice. Surround yourself with supporters too. Often your oldest and closest friends and family can be the ones who’ll put the doubt in your head. They mean well, but if they’re not looking to change careers they can’t empathise or imagine in. Find the people who’ve done it before you, who thrive from it, and absorb their energy.
What I do now couldn’t be further from my old job. The organisation skills honed during my PA days come in handy for admin and keeping my inbox tidy but aside from that, my world is totally different. There’s no more 9-5, I work all hours and weekends too but the fact I don’t have to ask permission to just go and read a book in the middle of the day if I want to still blows my mind (and no, I don’t do it enough!). When I worked in the city I’d leave the house before the kids were awake and get home as they got back from after-school club or nursery – aka the most tired, grumpy time of the day. I’d never taken them to school and just wasn’t present during the week at all. That first month of being there to eat breakfast with them in the mornings and do the school run was surreal but brilliant.
I love that every Cub & Pudding sale still makes me emotional, that I can make a living from a business I love and have so many ideas for and that I get to work in a studio with my husband.
Saira Pike, 39, went from Criminal Lawyer to Project Management Analyst.
“From the age of nine I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer. Borrowing my Mum’s John Grisham books, I would immerse myself in the criminal underworld and imagine myself in a courtroom shouting ‘You can’t handle the truth’! All my education and career choices were made with that goal in mind. I qualified as a solicitor in 2006, aged 24. Over the next few years I worked on cases covering everything from petty thefts and traffic offences to more serious drug cases and assaults. I qualified as a Duty Solicitor before I was one year PQE (Post Qualified Experience) and completed further training and exams to become a qualified Solicitor-Advocate. This meant that I had the same ‘rights of audience’ as a Barrister, and could represent my clients in the higher courts like the Crown Court, which was always my goal.
The nature of my work meant unsociable hours. I was often preparing cases late in the evening or early in the morning. Then there were nights or weekends when I was ‘on call’, meaning if someone was arrested and needed representation at the police station I would have to speak with them and then go to the station myself or find someone else to go. When you are in the middle of a Crown Court trial, you can’t have a ‘day off’. The court cannot stop early because you must pick up your child from school. Got a holiday booked but your trial has overrun? The trial wins. If you’re sick you need to get yourself to court and take all the medicine you can to get through the day, because there are 12 jurors, a Judge, a prosecutor, the defendant (my client) and the witnesses waiting. It was relentless, but I loved my job. It gave me a buzz when I was in court and cross-examining witnesses and whenever I had what I called an ‘Erin Brockovich/Legally Blonde moment’ – when you realise you have figured out the flaw in the Prosecution case – I got such a thrill.
In 2013 I was instructed in my first murder case led by a QC (a high-ranking Barrister who deals with very serious cases). By 2015, I was on my fourth murder case and pregnant with my first child. There are many downsides to this kind of work – the pay and work/life balance were two big ones for me. You can’t work remotely to represent someone in a criminal trial (that may have changed due to the pandemic, but I doubt on a long-term basis). My income was above average but nothing to get excited about. When I was single with few responsibilities it was great, but I knew that as soon as I had a family the money and work/life balance (or lack thereof) would be an issue.
I started thinking about what I would do after my daughter was born. I knew that I wanted to work but I needed to figure out what my skills were and what I could do that would give me a better income and more chance of progression. I settled on Project Management as a new career path as I felt that a lot my skills could be transferred. The plan was to start my new career after maternity leave, but fate intercepted and I fell pregnant with my second child in September 2016 – yes, I was pregnant on maternity leave! I had started to draw a line under my legal career was preparing myself for a clean break, so realising that I had to go back in order to be entitled to maternity leave for my second child was very frustrating.
I returned to work in November 2016 and left for maternity leave in April 2017 – this time knowing that it was very unlikely I would be back. When my second child was born the next month, I knew our family was complete, and my goal was clear: I had to get everything aligned to be able to move careers by the end of maternity leave in April 2018.
My neighbour and I became had become friends during my first maternity leave, and I told her that I was a lawyer but wanted to change careers into something like Project Management. Turns out, that’s what she did. We became close and she was really supportive, helping me finesse my CV and advising me how to get into the field. In January 2018, I handed in my notice to the law firm I had worked at for nearly ten years – I remember telling the partners that they had ‘made my dreams come true’. I had represented a client at the Old Bailey in Courtroom 1, a big deal in the criminal world, I had cross-examined expert, and police officers and represented those that needed me. I felt that I had made a difference to people’s lives and I was very grateful. They said it was the best resignation they had ever received. I’m thrilled that I left on good terms as my Practising Certificate is a great fallback if my career change plan doesn’t don’t work out – I haven’t burned any bridges!
My friend advised me that the best way to find work would be as a contractor. I set to work sending out CVs to every entry-level job I could find while at home with my two-year-old and eight-month-old daughters. My goal was 20 applications a day, and one day, I got a reply!
The job was for a local ICT infrastructure company and the advert caught my eye because it explicitly stated the role would suit somebody who was looking for a career change. I hadn’t had an interview for a very long time and felt totally out of my depth because I didn’t know much about the industry. Thankfully, all those years of being interrupted by Judges or Prosecutors in court stood me in good stead for the onslaught of questions. I really wanted the job – it was 10 minutes from my house so I would be able to do the nursery run and easily get to the office on time. I cried when I was offered the position and started working as a Project Coordinator in February 2018.
My salary took a huge hit. My daily rate was very low and barely covered the nursery fees, but I had to keep telling myself to focus on the end game. Aged 36 and with two children, I didn’t feel like I was working with my peers at all, and that was frustrating. I’d gone from a career where I was at the top of my game – the ‘go-to person’ when people had questions – to suddenly knowing very little about the work I was doing. Instead it was me with the non-stop questions. I was working with graduates while everyone my age was at least two or three levels above me. However, I was excited to be learning new things and experiencing working at a much bigger company – they had their own canteen and I had a swipe card to get into the building, which felt very exciting and swish compared with the freezing, smelly cells in the Crown Courts!
I had a lot of heart-to-hearts with my husband and my neighbor, who both told me that I needed to think long-term. Yes, the transition period was difficult, but it was essential to gain the skills and experience that would help me progress in this new industry.
In 2018, three months after joining the IT company, my neighbour, who was working at a bank in the City told me there was an entry level role going, and the day rate was almost triple what I was earning at the time. Obviously, I was interested, and after a successful interview, I go the job. I’m still there now, but my contract is set to end this summer. That’s the downside to contracting – the company isn’t as invested in your development. My plan now is to find a permanent role where I can secure a decent package – hopefully with some flexible working – and continue to develop my career. Two years in, I am much more confident, but still feel out of my depth sometimes.
I used to have the mindset that I had to stay in a workplace forever, and it would look ‘bad’ if I moved around. Now, I’m not so sure that’s true. People change careers so much more now than before, and jobs like the one I’m doing now didn’t exist when I left university. The working world is ever changing and I think many workplaces embrace candidates who have chosen to change direction – they can see the value lies in their skillset not the fact that they stayed with their employer for 20 years.
Changing careers initially meant that our household income took a big hit, but now I actually earn almost double what I did as a lawyer. On paper, it sounds wonderful, but I have mixed emotions about it. It’s amazing to be able support my family, save and go on holidays, but I’ve also realized that my job now is mainly about the money. Am I passionate about my work? No. Do I feel like I am making a difference with what I do? No. When I worked as a lawyer, I was so proud of the work I did, but, unfortunately, it didn’t feel like enough.
I’m impatient by nature so I’ve also struggled with wanting to be further ahead in my new career now. I have to remind myself that every day is a learning day where I find out new things. I love that I get to use the skills I honed as a lawyer in a very different way, and that I’ve acquired new ones and grown to love spreadsheets – something I always used to make fun of my dad for loving! I now have huge respect for the spreadsheet and even have a spreadsheet for Christmas presents, which I update every year now.
For anyone else thinking about changing careers, once you’ve figured out what you want to do, my advice would be to apply for everything – you’ve got nothing to lose. It’s also worth considering a CV review service to make yours the best it can be. Prepare yourself for a lower income with a ‘money pot back-up’. My husband I released some equity in our home which meant I felt less pressure and guilt that I wasn’t bringing home the money that I used to.
Speak to everyone and anyone about your plans and get as many tips as possible. You can also sign up to free courses to boost your skills – the Reed website has lots. Tik Tok turned out to be my ‘secret weapon’! If you search the hashtag ‘CV tips’ or the role you’re looking to work in, you’re bound to find someone who’s created content to give you tips on how to improve your CV or LinkedIn profile. Finally, when you start your new role, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t know everything. This is a career change – it’s a completely different field and you can’t know things the way you did before. I have to remind myself that this is my second career. So what if the other women my age are further up the ladder? I’ve already climbed one ladder to the top. I’ll get to the top of this one too, and so will you if you stay focused.