Are you ready for a mid-life career switch?

May 24, 2021

7 mins

Are you ready for a mid-life career switch?
Janine Thomas

Writer and editor

“When Leo was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis we had to get help. We ended up at Great Ormond Street Hospital and all the interaction with doctors started to whet my appetite for medicine. The thought kept coming into my head, ‘I wish I’d done medicine’. I just kept thinking about it.”

Her son’s illness and a chance conversation at a party led Sarah King to retrain for a career in medicine, in her early forties. All of us have moments in our careers when we step back and re-evaluate, but would you be brave enough to quit what you are doing and start afresh? If you have a niggling feeling you just can’t shake that the professional path you are following isn’t for you, prepare to be inspired by these journeys.

A significant birthday

A milestone birthday often prompts soul-searching: are you living your best life, hitting personal goals, and, most importantly, are you happy? Your career has a lot to do with the answer to those questions. King was at a 40th birthday party when she had a conversation that acted as a catalyst for a change of direction. Although she had studied biomedical science at university, she began her career in the City as a management consultant at a start-up before moving into senior project management roles within investment banking. “I earned good money and traveled the world,” she said. “It was an utterly amazing opportunity.”

When her three-year-old son became seriously ill, King was the youngest female director at a big investment bank. She asked her employer for a sabbatical, but instead, she was made redundant. King sued and settled out of court but it left a bad taste. Then she met a former colleague at a party. “She was now chief inspector of a murder squad in London and she said, ‘Look at me, I’ve done it. You’ve been talking about leaving the City for years and you haven’t.’ Then she said, ‘Your second career will be longer than your first.’ It sounded like such a funny thing to say. But it dawned on me that I might have been working for 15 years, but I’m probably going to work after the age of 55. I thought, what am I actually afraid of? I’m going to do it, I’m going to do medicine.”

The desire to create

Julie Cook* was about to turn 30 when she took a long, hard look at her career. At the time, she had been working for a media company for two years: “I ran the regulatory side of things on the management team—a mix of HR, finance, and management. It was a great experience.” Cook knew she wanted to leave London but she also had an overwhelming desire to learn and to create. “I grew up in the countryside and knew I wanted to move out, but my job was very London-centric,” she said. “Although I was learning a lot in my role, I wanted to learn something where I was creating something or building, which is why programming and development appealed.”

Leaving the rat race

Many of us fall into a career and get swept along. This was the case for Janine Ford, who describes herself as “not a corporate type at all”, yet she found herself working for the civil service in her late twenties. “I enjoyed the buzz and the sense that I was working on important policy as a communications manager. I made amazing friends and met my then-husband. Those were exciting times,” she said.

Ultimately, she became frustrated: The never-ending hamster wheel of politics, media, and difficult personalities became wearing.” A course in “How to Identify Your Career Potential” at Alain de Botton’s School for Life, gifted by a friend, helped her to reassess. “It made me realize I had a choice in what I wanted to do and helped me to think about what I enjoy and how I could bring those aspects to my work,” she said. Ford was drawn to alternative therapy. I zoned in on my love of working with people, wellbeing and in particular massage––and the seed was planted.”

When James Wilthew left the RAF in 2008, he landed a job working as a civil servant at the Ministry of Defence. Wilthew, from Newcastle, had never seen himself working in London. “It was enjoyable at the time and it served a purpose,” he said. “But eight years of doing that three-hour commute was enough. I’d always said I’d never do the rat race thing.”

When his wife Anna was offered a job in West Yorkshire in 2015, the couple jumped at the chance. “I had a drone business in the background. I thought that was a strategic business but then another opportunity presented itself,” said Wilthew.

A friend convinced him to open a shop after seeing a stunning rug in Wilthew’s lounge that he had bought in Afghanistan during his RAF days. “My friend asked about the rug and if I could get him one,” he said. “He really started pressuring me to find Rafi, the friend and rug shop owner I had bought it from. He told me, ‘You need to buy lots of them.’ ”

It brought back memories for Wilthew. When he was in Afghanistan as part of the UK Provincial Reconstruction team in 2003, he had a military observation role in the north of the country. “When we had time, we would go into Mazar-i-Sharif and sit for hours drinking chai with the locals in the rug shops. I became good friends with Rafi, one of the owners—I fell in love with the rugs, the people, and the scenery.”

Wilthew realized that his new hometown, Hebden Bridge, would be an ideal location for a rug shop so he set about tracking down Rafi on social media. He didn’t even know his surname. It took him four months to find him. “Eventually I tracked down my old interpreter through Facebook and he passed a note to Rafi saying, ‘Mister James is trying to get in touch with you’ and we did a Facetime call. We were reunited online, looking a little older! Three months later, The Afghan Rug Shop was up and running.”

Bumps along the way

A career-switch journey is rarely smooth: there’s money, training, and risk involved. Ford worked full-time while training in massage and reflexology. She then quit and set up her own business in 2015. The change in direction took a toll on her personal life. “It perhaps influenced the break-up of my marriage as I became more certain about the type of life I wanted to lead and the type of person I wanted to be,” she said.

Going back to study holds many challenges. Cook buckled down to train at a coding boot camp in Bristol in early 2019. “It was so intensive. Mentally it was one of the hardest things I have ever done and so different to anything I have ever learnt before. It was a bit like trying to become conversational in another language in three months,” she said.

Meanwhile, King’s medical training was grueling. As more than five years had passed since her BSc, she first had to undertake a degree-level course. She chose an anatomy and physiology course, which she completed in 2017, before following a 27-month master’s to become a physician associate (PA). The role of physician associate is fairly new within the NHS. It’s a highly skilled medical role similar to that of a doctor, but ultimately there is no requirement to specialize. The hierarchy is flatter and King will always report to a consultant. The variety and scope appealed to her. “I don’t need to be the boss, I’ve done all that,” she said. “I quite like knowing a little about a lot. I quite like putting my finger into different pies and having the flexibility to move jobs.”

As a mum of three, it also suited her family life. “I was accepted to medical school, but if I had gone, I could have been placed anywhere for my foundation years, which doesn’t suit having a young family,” she said. “But the PA master’s was insane. I totally underestimated how much work it would be. It’s a 70-hour week, there was so much crammed into it.”

Reaping the rewards

Regardless of the challenges, a career switch is well worth it, according to Wilthew, 44. The Afghan Rug Shop is thriving as the only Fair Trade Afghan rug retailer in Europe and he is now focusing his attention online after website sales rose from 10% to 50% of his business during Covid-19. He would never go back to London. “It’s the lifestyle. The fresh air, the hills, the lakes. We are really rural but [are just] seven minutes from a decent town. It’s a great place to raise our two boys,” he said.

His business also enables him to support Afghanistan and its people. “There’s no point doing this if we can’t put something back in. We genuinely sell incredibly beautiful, unique things. And in doing so we directly support more than 200 weavers in Afghanistan and keep them out of poverty. We are a corporate sponsor of Afghanaid and give money whenever we can too.”

In 2019, Cook became a full-stack developer at an e-commerce agency in Bristol. She is about to take up a new role as a full-stack software engineer that is fully remote and is moving to Falmouth in Cornwall with her partner. “My first job was the litmus test, but I really enjoyed it,” the 32-year-old said. “With programming and coding, there is so much to learn. Every day something new comes up, which I love. It’s so fast-moving, there’s no room to get bored.”

Ford, 40, has never looked back. Janine Ford Therapies & Yoga offers massage, reflexology, and yoga to private and corporate clients in West Berkshire. “Offering people the chance to stop, breathe and feel into their bodies to regain a sense of peace is beyond rewarding,” she said. “My work is an unimaginably perfect blend of all the things I love.”

Meanwhile, King, 46, finished her masters in March 2020 and took up a role as a GP physician associate. “I loved the role, but I am ready for a new challenge and will be starting a new job in gynae surgical oncology at the Royal Marsden in London,” she said. “To work at a hospital which is a leader in its field is such an amazing opportunity and a really exciting prospect . . . . patients with cancer are facing one of, if not the, biggest health challenges of their lives. So to be able to advocate for them and their families, and help them navigate this chapter of their lives, will undoubtedly bring huge professional and personal satisfaction.”

Whatever that niggling feeling might be for you, isn’t it time you listened to it?

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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