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Changing careers can feel intimidating, but it’s not impossible. As American entrepreneur Jim Rohn once said, ‘If you don’t like where you are then change it. You are not a tree.’

In fact, you don’t even have to dislike your current job to want a change. Whatever your reason for seeking a new career path, postgraduate study is a good way to go about it, as demonstrated by two people who told us their stories.

From agronomist to lobbyist

Former agronomist Sam Birrell is now the CEO of a major regional lobbying organisation, the Committee for Greater Shepparton. He was encouraged to apply for that position while working in irrigated agriculture.

The move was a big change from a technical profession to CEO, and the transition wasn’t easy. ‘I enjoyed my previous job and felt a real connection to the company. You also analyse ‘what is the worst that could happen?’ – that you’ll fail in the job and have to re-start.’

Although Sam enjoyed his job, he had ambitions beyond that technical role. He’d already begun to study an MBA and the prospect of the lobbying position was exciting.

‘I just needed the confidence to take the leap and an understanding that I would need to learn and understand concepts outside my comfortable areas of knowledge.’

Was the hard work worth it? ‘Of course,’ says Sam, adding that he feels even more confident and excited by his new role, with ‘a sense of obligation to those who have selected me in this position and the region I represent.’

From butcher to teacher

Teacher Brock Chapman made a huge shift, too. Nine years ago, he was a butcher in Bundoora, managing the local supermarket’s meat department. When his wife Louise graduated from La Trobe University with a degree in environmental science and biology, they moved to Mildura, where she’d landed a job.

Mildura, it turned out, was all full up with meat managers. Brock had to find a new career.

‘I didn’t want to go back to being a butcher and wanted to continue pushing myself, so I had to try something different. I ended up in employment services through the job service network.’

Brock still wasn’t satisfied. He’d long been drawn to teaching, but the idea of pursuing that dream was daunting.

‘It took three years to get the courage to go back to study. It was a really big step for someone who didn’t complete secondary school; going back to school was very foreign to me. But teaching was a passion I had.’

Nevertheless, it took some firm encouragement from his Louise to get him moving. With that encouragement and help from a friend who was a teacher, Brock prepared for a life of essays and tertiary study. Further support came from the head of the faculty, who could see that Brock had the skills and mindset to succeed as a teacher.

Brock believes he would have succeeded through working hard anyway, but is certainly grateful for the support he had. ‘Every little bit counts. It really does,’ he says.

‘Even just to back yourself – we’re all our own worst enemy, so when other people have confidence in you, you gain that confidence in yourself.’

Facing the challenges

Confidence and support are important, but there were other challenges too. Studying meant taking a step back from earning a full time wage.

‘That was a concern, wondering how we were going to pay our mortgage,’ says Brock. ‘I actually returned to a storeman position because it was more flexible with the hours. This was enough financially to just get by. Over the four years, you have to sacrifice a lot of things, but the sacrifice was well worth the gain that I now have.’

The return to academia wasn’t easy, but the habits of working long, hard hours as a butcher paid off.

‘You know this isn’t something that’s going to come naturally. You can’t just kick back and get by – you’re going to have to work hard. My grades in the first year were Cs and Ds, and by the time I was in my third year I was getting As and Bs. So the progression was there, from doing the study. You have a goal that you want to achieve, and that was my driving factor – I wanted to do something that I was passionate about.’

Brock graduated two years ago and found work at St Joseph’s College, originally as a casual teacher but now under contract.

‘I love what I do. There were some trying times, times during my studies where I was second guessing, have I made the right choice? But it was well worth the effort.’

Advice from those who’ve been there

We asked Sam Birrell and Brock Chapman what advice they have for people wanting to change their career direction.

Says Sam: ‘First understand yourself. Get feedback on what you’re good at and your weaknesses. Make an informed decision of the direction in which you want to go. Then, take a strategic approach – find out the qualifications required and the key players in the industry. Get to know people, make yourself visible in the structures of the industry you want to enter.

‘Don’t think you are ‘starting again’ – you learn a lot of skills and knowledge from your current career which may be very useful in the career you change to.’

Brock advises you to work hard and keep driving towards your passion: ‘Because if you love what you do, a job’s not a job; it’s just easier. There are going to be hurdles, there’s no lying about that. It’s very daunting – as I said, it took me three years to get the confidence to do it.

‘But it’s been six years now since I started, and I have no regrets – whereas I believe that if I didn’t do it, I would have regretted not doing it for the rest of my life.’

 

Are you thinking of changing your career through postgraduate study? Book a one on one consultation and discuss your options with an expert.

This post was originally published on La Trobe University’s Knowledge Blog.