How I Did a Career 180 When I Was Almost 40

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I was a West-Coast Carrie Bradshaw … sans Mr. Big.

You wouldn’t expect it from my childhood: I’d grown up poor in Iowa, and I watched my mother struggle to work full-time and raise six kids on her own, while wishing that Prince Charming would come. (He never did.)

She made ends meet using Sunday newspaper coupons, public assistance and homemade mac-and-state-issued-cheese.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and there I was, living in California and working an executive-level communications and PR job at Nickelodeon, where I’d been for nearly 15 years. I had the financial security that came with my position, including a sizable company pension, a 401(k) plan and a small money market account. I carried my mortgage on a condo as confidently as I carried my Balenciaga bag.

I was a single woman in her late 30′s, and on the whole, things were good.

As a senior director of corporate communications, I spent the bulk of my time in the office–and the rest running from studios to offices to sets. But my passion for the job was waning. I wasn’t miserable, per se, but I wasn’t feeling it anymore. And I was watching the company conduct rounds of layoffs during the recession.

I’d always vowed that money wouldn’t dictate my happiness, but I was used to stability. Changing career paths would likely mean a pay cut. Without a partner or family to support me–not to mention my mortgage, credit card debt and bills–I was afraid to abandon my executive life. Kind of like how people are afraid to abandon a relationship even when it’s no longer working.

The easy thing would have been to set my sights on a similar job in the same field, but I wanted to try something new.

Plotting My Great Escape

While still working my corporate job, I started taking classes at a local college to see where my interests lay–and if I could be a student again after being out of school for 15 years. I always loved psychology, so two semesters later, I plunged head-first into a graduate program in clinical psychology at night, while working full-time.

The days were long, and I was tired, but I felt alive again!

At work, layoffs were still happening, and I knew that I could be next. I decided if that happened, I’d commit myself to school full-time. I was actually excited at the possibility! Although my emergency fund would cover me for a few months, I hoped that I’d get a severance package to help with my transition into student-hood.

When I entered my boss’s office one summer morning in 2010, I was surprised with the very walking papers that I’d been expecting. Only, instead of celebrating, I panicked! You know that feeling when you’re going to break up with someone, but they beat you to it? It was like that–I was prepared, but scared nonetheless.

There I was, free from corporate shackles, but not free from my living expenses, graduate school tuition, credit card debt and a home mortgage. Most of my money was in long-term investments and untouchable without paying severe penalties. At least I had gotten the severance package I hoped for–a safety net to recreate my life.

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So I leapt into survival mode, becoming a full-time graduate student at 37 years old.

  • Len

    This is a great story! I am so impressed and inspired. Thanks for sharing!

  • Crystal

    Such an inspiring story!  I am gearing up for a career reboot of my own (from the nonprofit/criminal justice world to entertainment and TV).  I am keeping your story on hand to remind myself (and my friends) of what is possible.  Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Jason

    Truly inspirational, just what I needed to start 2013.  I loved the fact that she never gave up on her dream and worked hard accordingly to achieve it.  This is an inspiring story of someone achieving their dreams the classic American way, by being brave, working hard and never giving up!

    • Rochelle LF

      This is a inspiring story and one that touches me closely. I’ve spent over 25 years marketing products and projects for hi-tech companies and I too started originally down the path of clinical psychology working with distrubed children and adult group therapy. Recently laid off, I’m searching for a new chapter for my future. I wonder if at 66 yrs old there is an opportunity for me go forward into an area of psycho-therapy at this late date. I need to do some investigating but really appreciate Jennifer sharing her endeavors to do what she truly enjoys.

      • lovelynic

        I don’t think it’s too late for you, but only do it if it is what you want to do and what you enjoy.

  • Ana

    Thank you! Awesome story about taking charge of your own life. Very inspiring. 

  • Brooklynmoneyhoney

    This is so inspirational! I am so similar — work in PR, quit a great job to go to grad school full time. Got my degree, but then got cold feet and went back into PR for the stability. I’m same age as you just about too. Now I think I’ll try to work for another decade in PR and then switch. I commend your courage!

  • Val

    Ditto!  This is an awesome and inspiring story that is helping me at age 45.  Love it!

  • Iriantm219

    Very inspiring!  I just started my 2nd semester in college at 49!  I too was feeling bored and unfilled at my job as a claims asst, and decided to back to school to learn something totally different!  Now, like I mentioned earlier i have started my 2nd semester in college to get my degree in education.  Going to be a teacher in the exceptional student education program.  You are never to old or late to learn.  

  • Littlepearl1965

    I’m planning on going back to school in the summer.  I’m pursuing an associates degree to get a job in the medical field…and I’m in my late 40′s.  I have no choice.  I am a divorced mom to two children, 10 and 16.  The only way I will be able to earn a decent living is to get an education.

  • Lindt72

    Thanks for your inpsiring story!  It’s helped me finally let go of the Prince Charming myth.  Thanks!

  • Nicki

    How did you get into a graduate program in psychology? Did your undergraduate work include a lot of psychology courses? The graduate programs that I have found all require either a Bachelor’s degree in a psychology area or a certain amount of courses in psychology. I have always been interested in counselling psychology. I have two B.S. degrees in completely different fields though (Earth Science and Economics) and I have not been successful at finding a career I like, let alone love or actually make money at, and I am almost 30. I am lost and seeking out help/

  • Ajay Thakur

    Hello Jennifer,

    Thanks for sharing a beautiful chapter of your life. I rather put your name as – Jennifer Mussel(Wo)man – no offence meant.

    I find real life acts of endurance far more inspiring than
    any self help/ how to books. I can totally relate to your experiences. As having spent close to 20 years in the corporate rut, same question mark hanging over
    my head – what the hell am I doing?? I am too passing through the same stage of exploring and finding my true spark. And stories such as yours will keep me strong in the process.

  • Maritza Tacoronte

    WOW! Congratulations! I just turned 40, I’ve been at a dead end job for 9 years and so afraid of taking that leap. I think it has to do with the fact that i do not know what the “right” leap is… thank you for sharing your experience. This is blog one on the list of many that i am sure i will be reading.. Hoping to find what my perfect job, place on this planet .. HAPPY place in my planet… will be.

    Maritza

  • Rigo

    Very inspiring. As a now 40 year old, I went to Grad school three years ago as a 37 year old to improve my career opportunities and earned my MBA. I’m thinking I may need to go back again to either teach full-time or become an attorney. Still, I’m glad I did. Kudos to you.

  • Danielle

    You are never too old to learn. Excellent story.

  • T.J. Diggs

    Wow thank you for this. I really needed to read this article. At 44 I find myself laid off and about to start training as a MFT – Psychotherapist. This really gave me the confidence to keep going!

  • CPalm

    Hate to burst the bubble here, but I’m not impressed. But most single people have the ability to do this if they are willing to sacrifice. Quit a job, work part-time, go to school, and work all hours of the day. You want to write an inspiring story? Do it married with kids. You think you were panicked before? I’m not so sure you would have handled it!

    • Nicole

      Really. Everyone in life has their challenges and exercising compassion for anyone’s struggle is one of the first signs of a successful and positive person. People that are single don’t have the same responsibilities as those married. People who are married also quite often have their spouses financial support to support them not to mention, if in a healthy marriage, the emotional support as well.

  • Vicki

    Love this story!!!! Thanks for sharing

  • ESP

    I have to agree with Cpalm. I can see how it is
    inspiring for some, but honestly I don’t see it being much more difficult to transition
    in your 30’s, 40’s or 50’s than in your 20’s sans kids. I’ve transitioned from corp, to academic, and then to semi-pub-sector with 2 young kids and a pt stay-at-home spouse. Many trade offs and ultimately sacrifices for the good of the family.