Jobs: Consider carefully before making a career change

Have you decided what you want to be when you grow up yet?

By age 4, Heather Gunn was sure she wanted to be an actress. Her father was a medical researcher, but when she followed in his footsteps to Harvard University, she had Shakespeare and performing on the stage and screen in mind.

After graduation, she drove to Los Angeles, met a casting director and within four months had her first Sprint commercial. For a dozen years, she worked in commercials, television, the movies and live theater.

Having taught herself how to take the SATs, earning a perfect 1600, she taught SAT preparation classes to supplement her income.

“Then one morning at 34, I woke up thinking, ‘I’m supposed to be a doctor,’ ” Gunn said. “It was irrational, but I was sure this was what I was supposed to be.”

As she started taking pre-medical science courses and volunteering at UCLA's hospital, she also did a lot of soul searching.

“I knew I wanted to help people, but why in this way? I had the ability to talk to people and could understand the science to do a good job. I wanted to be the kind of doctor who could teach her patients,” she said. “I knew this profession fit my values and desire to make a positive impact on the world.”

She lived modestly and continued to give SAT prep sessions through her pre-med training.

“Being single, my decision didn’t destroy anyone else’s finances,” she said.

In 2005, Gunn was accepted to Harvard Medical School and is now in her second year of residency at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.

“I love my job and have an enormous sense of gratitude that I got to go into this field,” she said. “In the ER I see people every day in crisis, and it’s an honor to be the person who is there to help them.”

When making a significant career change, it’s important to have support from others and to try on the new career.

“I shadowed real doctors because I didn’t want my decision to be based on the fantasy of TV shows,” she said. “It’s also important to keep checking in with yourself.”

She found Po Bronson’s book "What Should I Do with My Life,' a collection of stories about other people’s career changes, affirming.

As an executive and career transition coach, Bob Reissiger sees more clients considering a career change after finding themselves out of work.

“As a coach, I want to support, encourage and challenge them to think through the process," said Reissiger, the owner of Reissiger Life and Business Coaching. "If they truly want to do or be something else, I want them to go for it with their eyes wide open because I want them to succeed.”

To help clients discover whether moving into a new field fits with their values, strengths, passions, skills and financial realities, he asks questions that come from his training and own work experiences. At 48, Reissiger was downsized from a bank and wondering what he should do with the rest of his life.

“I knew I enjoyed helping people grow and develop. Coaching fit my values and strengths. When I talked to Brian Ray [founder of Career Crossroads], he asked if I had lots of money in the bank and whether I was supporting a family,” Reissiger said. “After taking with him, I took another banking executive job and socked money away for five years before making the switch from the corporate world to my own coaching business.”

He encourages clients to create a plan for any career change. That includes doing due diligence in addressing one’s motives for wanting to make a switch.

“You don’t want to make a significant decision out of emotion. It takes time to process the emotion of a job loss or being unsatisfied in a career,” he said. You may find that a change of company or culture is really what you want.

Research the new field and its training requirements. Personality assessments can help you understand how you’re wired and whether the new field is a good fit.

“Informational interviews with people working in the new field can be a good reality check, as can volunteering in that arena,” Reissiger said.

You also need to look at your economic realities and life situation. A career switch often means an initial loss of income and status.

“Having a strong support structure is important. Friends and family will help you through the rough spots and the shifts that occur along the way,” he said. “It’s not an easy process, but the reward of becoming who you were designed to be is greater fulfillment in all areas of your life.”