Questions and Answers with Career Expert Karen Chopra
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Karen Chopra is a career consultant in private practice in the Washington, DC, area assisting individuals who are seeking to change or upgrade their careers.
|ica” color=”black” size=”+4″>Q:||What are the most common issues you encounter with people who want to make a change mid-career? Are there common threads in terms of what inspires people to change careers? Did they choose the wrong career in the first place, or have they matured or grown in some way?|
|ica” color=”black” size=”+4″>A:|| Mid-career changers do have a lot of issues in common. These are the ones I encounter most often:
Money: The fear that they won’t be able to make the same amount of money is a major deterrent for most clients. That concern often shuts down the whole exploration process. I ask that clients set aside the issue of how much money they can make until later in the process, when they have a better sense of what they might like to do.
Status: Many people fear that they won’t be respected by colleagues, friends and family if they change careers — which is especially true for people working in high-status jobs (lawyers, doctors, executives) and for people working for big-name corporations. This issue tends to be sneaky since many people don’t like to verbalize their concerns about loss of status.
Family/Peer Pressure: A lot of people are in jobs because their family and or their friends pushed them in that direction. Bucking that kind of pressure can be difficult. I work with clients to help them talk honestly change with the people they are closest to about their desire for a career.
Family Responsibilities: Concern for their family is another common theme among career-changers. They are afraid that they are being selfish by seeking out a career that is more satisfying. In reality, doing something that you love and find energizing is the most amazing gift that you can give to your children and spouse.
Starting Over: For people in mid-career, going back to zero can be a terrifying thought. In reality, you don’t start over. You carry the skills and abilities learned in your present job into a new field. Clients often find that their unique combination of skills makes them more attractive to potential employers.
The inspiration to change careers comes from a variety of sources. Some picked a career that didn’t fit well early on, and they are finally coming to realize that they want a change. For others, what worked well for them in their twenties and thirties no longer suits their lifestyle. Major life changes, such as the death of a parent, spouse or child, a divorce or a sudden downsizing, will often spur people to reexamine their careers. And many, many people are reaching retirement age in their early fifties and making a career change at that point.
If you are contemplating a career change, find someone else who has made a career change and talk to them about your fears and hopes. Having been through it, they will be able to share their experiences, and you won’t feel so lonely as you start out on a new career path.
|ica” color=”black” size=”+4″>Q:||Thinking “outside the box,” what’s the best way for job-seekers to figure out what career will give them the greatest happiness?|
|ica” color=”black” size=”+4″>A:|| Most of my clients come to me because they don’t know what they “really” want to do. They just know they hate their current job. People are bewildered and frustrated that they don’t know what they want, because they assume that they should know. But if you think about it, it makes perfect sense that many of us can’t hear that voice inside of us that says “I want.” It’s not like we get rewarded in life for doing what we want. From an early age, we learn that rewards, praise, love and affection come from figuring out what someone else wants, and doing that: “You cleaned up your room? Good girl!” Really, who ever WANTS to clean up their room?
Putting the needs of others before our own wants continues in the workforce. If you are successful at your job, chances are you are great at figuring out what your bosses and customers want, and doing it. Over time, the voice that says “I want” slowly fades, and when you go looking for it, you can’t hear it anymore. It is still there, it just isn’t accessible.
When I work with clients who don’t know what they want, I ask them to become detectives, looking for clues to piece together the answer to the question “What do I really want to do?”
These are a couple of the exercises I use for unearthing some of these clues:
The Nine Lives Exercise: Imagine that you have been given nine lives. In each life, you will have a different career of your choosing. You will make all the money you require, regardless of the career you choose. You will have the skills and talents required for each career. And each of your careers will be equally prestigious in the eyes of your colleagues, family and friends. Now, list your nine careers. Make them as outrageous as you like, provided that you would enjoy the job. Once you have the list of nine careers, write down any themes that you see among the various careers you have chosen. Get a friend to do the same thing. A theme must be shared by at least two of your careers, but does not have to be common to all of them. Now, look at those themes. Are they present in your current work? If not, how will you incorporate some of those themes into your new career?
The “read first” exercise: Pay attention to what you read for pleasure. What sections of the newspaper do you reach for first? Which articles do you read all the way through? What types of books appeal to you? What you read first may be a clue to some things that really interest you.
|ica” color=”black” size=”+4″>Q:||What your best advice for those transitioning from government to the private sector? What’s the most difficult aspect of the transition for them?|
|ica” color=”black” size=”+4″>A:|| Two things make it hard for people to leave the government. The first is the intense fear of losing the job security of the government. From inside the government, the private sector looks like a roiling mess. In reality, any job can disappear. And if you have managed to land one job in the private sector, you can land another. When I was contemplating leaving government, I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to get a job. But now that I have gotten myself into one new job, leveraging my government skills, I know I could find another if it became necessary. And so I no longer feel the need for a “secure job.”
The second thing that people find hard about leaving the government is that they don’t really know what goes on in the private sector. From inside the government, the private sector looks exotic (and vice versa!). But when you look closer, government jobs and private sector jobs have a lot in common, and government skills translate nicely into the private sector. I encourage my would-be ex-bureaucrats to do a lot of research and information interviews to get a better picture of where their skills fit.
One concrete piece of advice I can give to people wanting to leave the government is to dump your government resume and start from scratch. The government’s requirements for resumes are so extensive and nit-picky that they are almost impossible to work with. List your content knowledge and your top skills. Work those into a resume. Highlight your four or five key accomplishments for your most recent 10 years’ worth of jobs. Describe your government job in broad terms: “Responsible for monitoring environmental permits for eight Western states.” Build the resume up from those essentials, rather than trying to edit it down from the unwieldy things the government demands.
|ica” color=”black” size=”+4″>Q:||What do you feel is the most disturbing trend in job-hunting today?|
|ica” color=”black” size=”+4″>A:||The gold-rush mentality. Too many people are simply chasing dollars, rather than focusing on finding a job that is compatible with their values, that allows them to balance work and life, that will make them pleased and proud with their contribution to the company they are working for. Don’t get me wrong, I want my clients to get the most money they can when it comes time for salary negotiations and will encourage clients to go back and push for more money. Money is not the great evil. But when whole careers are structured around the question “How can I make the most money?” then I worry. We all need to make money to live. I am not suggesting that everyone take a vow of poverty. But I do think that it is critical for all of us to make well-considered decisions about our careers, and money is only one element of that decision.|
|ica” color=”black” size=”+4″>Q:||What’s the biggest “reality check” your clients face once they successfully make it into the workplace?|
|ica” color=”black” size=”+4″>A:||The biggest surprise to most of my clients is that getting a job doesn’t finish the job search process — it is just a rest stop along the journey. I have had clients find a job only to have the company sold within months, and they were back on the job market again. The job market morphs with such rapidity these days that you really shouldn’t expect to work at any company for more than a few years.
One client commented that he had always been too busy to talk to headhunters who called or to attend industry meetings. After struggling through a lengthy job search, and painstakingly building a network, this client concluded that he would never again ignore networking opportunities, even when he was working. That’s the attitude we all need to have, because we never know when we’ll be back on the job market.
Karen Chopra is a career consultant in private practice in the Washington, DC, area assisting individuals who are seeking to change or upgrade their careers. Chopra can be heard every Sunday morning on WMAL’s Your Career Moves radio show, where she is a guest commentator. In addition to her private practice, Chopra has worked with major outplacement firms, including Lee Hecht Harrison and Resource Careers, to assist individuals who have lost their jobs due to mergers and downsizings. She has taught career counseling theory at the graduate level, and runs career exploration and job search workshops. Chopra has master’s degree in community counseling and is a National Certified Counselor. Prior to becoming a career consultant, Chopra was a trade negotiator for the United States government.
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