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If You're Thinking About Starting Over

Shelly Schwartz,|Special to CNBC.com
Thursday, 26 Feb 2009 | 5:01 PM ET

There you sit in your window office, embossed business cards and wall full of awards. An impressive career, by anyone’s measure.

So why do your thoughts keep drifting to that bed and breakfast for sale in Cape Cod?

Whether driven by layoffs, the desire for more meaningful work or a general sense of, well, blah, about their careers, a growing number of US workers are making the midcareer switch, pushing their old professions aside (and the assurance of a steady paycheck) in favor of a new line of work that speaks to their talents and interests.

“There are a lot of people out there whose companies are downsizing significantly and they see it as an opportunity almost to do something they’ve always wanted to do but didn’t have the courage or were too involved in the realities of life to pursue,” says Judy Hoppin, a career counselor and president of the National Career Development Association. “People in my field are swamped with calls right now.”

Unfortunately, however, many embark on a second career with eyes wide shut, lacking clear direction and a realistic sense of the costs involved—sending them back to their boss six months later with hat in hand.

“You need a really well thought-out plan for your transition, including the time frame in which you want to be in your next job and how long you can freely explore without running low on funds,” says Meredith Haberfeld, a career coach for the New York-based Institute for Coaching.

How Much Will It Cost?

That starts with projecting the cost of changing careers, an exercise that will not only prepare you for what to expect, but help clarify whether walking away from your current profession is feasible for you and your family.

“I am a pragmatist so I believe in having a solidly laid plan that fits your current financial situation,” says Haberfeld. “If you have six months worth of financial padding then the plan has to accommodate being situated [in a new job] where your basic life needs are taken care of in that amount of time.”

That’s not to say you can’t pursue a second career if your savings are insufficient, of course, but you may have to stick with your current employer or find an interim position that pays the bills while continuing to work towards your goals.

When running the numbers, don’t just include the financial cushion you’ll need to support yourself during your job hunt—which should amount to six months to a year’s worth of living expenses. Factor in the loss of future earnings, since you may be calling it quits at the peak of your career, lost retirement contribution matches and the temporary loss of medical benefits.

There's also the cost of classes or a new degree necessary to help you rewrite your career; vocational courses cost several hundred dollars, while a second degree can set you back tens of thousands.

“Any kind of schooling is expensive,” says Hoppin. “If someone is thinking about going back to school to get their master’s degree, for example, they would want to look at the cost-benefit ratio. Is it true that with this advanced degree you’ll be more marketable? And if you invest in this is it in the long run going to create enough of an income boost to pay you back for the money you’ll outlay.”

You can help keep educational costs to a minimum by exploring community colleges or vocational schools, which are significantly less expensive.

There’s also the Lifetime Learning Credit for qualified tuition expenses, which may help defray the cost of higher education. You cannot claim an education credit, however, if your modified adjusted gross income (AGI) is $60,000 or more for singles and $120,000 or more if filing jointly.

The best bet, of course, is to complete any classes required before you bid farewell to your boss so you can hit the ground running when you leave.

If you’re leaving a job to start your own business, the cost of making a midcareer switch (and uncertainty of success) is greater still.

There’s the interest you’ll owe on your business loan, monthly rent and utility expenses, the cost of supplies and foregone earnings while you build your customer base.

Hanging out your shingle

For Alison Greenberg, 37, who was 12 years into a successful career with a leading New Jersey law firm when staring out on her own, it was a small price to pay.

“I walked away from a lot,” she says. “I was a partner. I had a good salary and opportunities for bonuses, but I wanted to be more of a community-based lawyer and to reinvent the practice of law for myself. I also lived in Manhattan so I wanted to work where I live and get more involved with community issues and politics.”

She started her own business litigation and employment law practice in New York six months ago and hasn’t looked back since.

“I had two clients when I left and there was a lot of initial uncertainty of where the business was going to come from,” she says. “But I was always weighing the pros and cons of being part of a large firm and felt that to be true to myself and be able to represent more individuals and small business owners it would be better to go out on my own. It’s different now, and I’m living on a different budget but it’s very rewarding.”

According to Haberfeld, many working Americans suffer in silence at jobs they don’t like, but can’t put their finger on which occupation to pursue. If you count yourself among them, she suggests starting a list of all the elements you liked and disliked about your previous jobs, which elements you desire in your new career and which you do not.

Think, too, about all the careers you’ve considered in the last five years, making a list about what in each of them interested you.

“Based on the lists you create, patterns will emerge,” Haberfeld says. “Identify those patterns and condense them into the most essential value that it represents for you.”

That will help narrow down a list of career options, from which you can begin the research phase of your transition.

For its part, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook (2008-2009)provides information on hundreds of different jobs, including earnings data, job prospects, working conditions and a summary of what those workers do on the job.

The Small Business Administration also offers a small business planner, which walks you through how to write a business plan, secure financing, manage and market your business and handle legal matters.

You can always, of course, hire a career counselor to perform detailed aptitude tests and skills assessments to help direct you towards viable career opportunities within your areas of interest. Be prepared to pay anywhere from $60 to $120 an hour for their time.

If money’s tight, there are also free online assessment tools that perform some of the same functions. Careercruising.comand O*Net.com are two examples.

Get out and talk

No matter how committed you think you are to making a career change, Haberfeld says it’s critical to gain as realistic a picture as possible of what that job entails—before taking the plunge.

After all, a career in forensics is not what it seems on the television drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

“Devastatingly, most people focus career change efforts on submitting resumes to job postings and job boards,” says Haberfeld. “But the most important piece of this transition is getting out on the skinny branches and talking to real people about what you are looking for. It’s finding people in the field you are interested in and asking if they’d be willing to spend 15 minutes on the phone or having coffee.”

If so, come prepared with a list of questions.

For example, ask whether they are happy in their career, what they like and dislike about it, which companies are the best to work for, which you should stay away from and what recommendations they may have to help you land a job in the field.

“Not only do those conversations help clarify a person’s vision, but more importantly those contacts you make doing your investigating turn into the critical network that ends up parlaying you into that next job,” says Haberfeld. “My recipe for this phase is three new contacts every single day. Those are the keys to the kingdom to any successful career transition.”