CHICAGO -- What do you want to be when you grow up?
Ask yourself that question at 20, 30, 45 or 65 years of age, and the answer probably will vary each time, says Janet Schlaes, 43, a doctoral student in psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. She plans to combine psychotherapy with career counseling.
Mrs. Schlaes should know. Her work life has been a series of career changes.
Experts say career switching is becoming more common, not just because individuals' desires change, but because downsizing and mergers are forcing people out of what they once saw as lifetime jobs. Career changes have the best chance of succeeding when people honestly assess their skills and move only after learning about the new field, experts say.
Mrs. Schlaes' moves offer almost a textbook example of how experts say career switching should work.
She was in her late 20s, and a wife and mother of two when she decided to return to college for an accounting degree. "When I was growing up, women married and had children, not careers. Expectations were, if you wanted a career, you became a nurse or a teacher, and then only until you married," she says.
But her goals at 30 exceeded those expectations. With college diploma in hand, she entered graduate school and completed her master's in business administration. She also started working part-time as an independent commodity futures trader.
After examining her strengths and weaknesses, she chose what she saw as her next logical personal and professional step: career counseling and psychotherapy.
The ability to cast job experience in a positive light when changing careers is invaluable, says career consultant Christopher Rollyson, principal of Chicago-based Rollyson and Associates.
Robert Hood, 49, sees his career process as ongoing rather than abrupt. "I'm a firm believer that a career is a mosaic -- constantly changing and put together a piece at a time," he says.
His mosaic covers 30 years in sales, sales management, recruiting, human resources management and executive search. He is a marketing manager for Chicago-based Erminger Corp., which sells and services personal computer networks and business software.
He first changed career direction in 1973, when he was 31.
"Out of college I entered the fast-track sales management program at Procter & Gamble. I was proud of my accomplishments, but until I became bored with my job, I never realized that I defined myself as my job, my job as me.
"But after 10 years at P&G, I faced the awful truth that I didn't like what I was doing," he recalls. "And if I am my job, take it away and what am I?"
In admitting it was OK to dislike his job, Mr. Hood had taken the first step toward what psychotherapist and career counselor Merikay Kimball calls "honoring your want." Ms. Kimball, who has a private practice in Evanston, says successful career changers evaluate and re-evaluate the visions and values that are important to them.
Betty Freund, 56, knows what it's like to make a career change based first on necessity and second on want.
She was 42 when her husband, Dick, had a heart attack. Until then, she had been content rearing her family and working part-time as a secretary.
"When Dick had the heart attack, I was scared of being left alone with three young children and no means to support them," she says.
So Mrs. Freund, who had left school to marry, went back at 42. "I quickly got interested in the heart because I wanted to know what happened to my husband. I wanted to be a coronary care nurse," she says.
Though her husband recovered and returned to work, Mrs. Freund never regretted her decision. What began as necessity became a desire and then reality.
She has been a staff nurse in the coronary intensive-care unit at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., for 11 years. For the last six, she has held the highest rank for a staff nurse.
Despite the circumstances surrounding her career move, Mrs. Freund says she didn't rush into a decision. First she tested her desires and capabilities by reading about the heart. She also took a brush-up chemistry course.
That preparation helped ensure the success of Mrs. Freund's career move, says Marilyn Moats Kennedy, managing partner of Wilmette, Ill.-based Career Strategies.
"Preparation is a vital component of the successful career change, because changing professions involves learning a whole new language in an unfamiliar, even hostile, setting," Ms. Kennedy says.