Maybe you're a lawyer with dreams of being a pastry chef. Or a banker who longs to be a teacher. Or a journalist who wants to join the Peace Corps.
Career change is a thrilling and, for many, a daunting prospect. It often feels easier to keep a job you're unhappy with than to embark on a completely different path, especially in a shaky economy, especially if you happen to be your family's sole or primary breadwinner. Still, plenty of people -- including many women -- are leaping into the unknown, recession and all, and finding success. How do they do it?
Here's some advice from top career coaches on the best ways to get into a new field:
1. Start by figuring out what your ideal profession would be and what you really want in a job, says Steve Bohler, founder and head coach of The Oxford Program, a consulting firm that advises clients attempting to launch new careers. Then decide what you absolutely can't do without.
"You have to ask yourself, for instance, if I compromise on that, will I be unhappy again?" Bohler says. Do you need to live in a certain area, for example, or work in a creative industry or be self-employed? "It's about listening to your head and listening to your gut in terms of what you want and what you need."
2. Do as much research as possible on potential areas of interest and make a list of options for your new career. Then shorten that list to just a few choices that meet the requirements you identified in step one. "The more options you have, the more confused you are," Bohler says.
3. Take action, even if it's just baby steps initially. Bohler and other career counselors suggest signing up for relevant classes, joining professional organizations or clubs, volunteering with pertinent groups, reading up on the industry and talking to or shadowing people who are doing what you dream of doing for a living.
"It's about immersing yourself in the new area," says Judith Gerberg, a career counselor in New York City and two-time president of the Career Counselors Consortium. "Demonstrate some commitment toward what you want to do."
4. Schedule "exploratory conversations" rather than job interviews in the early stages of your research, not only with people who work in the desired field but with those who know you and your talents well, says Trisha Scudder, founder of the career consulting firm Executive Coaching Group. As a result of those discussions, the right path for you will begin to emerge.
"What happens over time is that the fog will lift," Scudder says. "It has never failed. When you start this out, you've got this big rock of marble, this big lump that's 12 feet high. After the first conversation with somebody, you may say, 'I sure don't want to go in the direction they went in.' Very good: You just chipped away at the marble. The statue of David starts to reveal itself."
Scudder's clients who have succeeded in that process include an advertising executive who dreamed of becoming a minister and a TV newscaster who wanted to work in the health care industry - and is now the head of communications for a major hospital. Bohler has watched a New York City lawyer he counseled open a wine bar and bakery, an IT director at a bank become a public relations writer for Outward Bound, and an anesthesiologist open her own llama farm.
Your own wine bar? Your own llama farm? The idea of starting your own business is exciting, but for many women, it's also practical (well, maybe not so much the llama farm). Being an entrepreneur can allow you to pursue your deepest passion, be your own boss and make your own schedule. That can be particularly helpful for women who want to be highly involved moms while advancing their careers.
Career coach Lynn Berger is a mother with her own job counseling company and knows firsthand the benefits of running your own show when you have kids.
"If you're the type of person who wants to direct and manage and have more control over your schedule, it's ideal," she says. "You have a lot of balls in the air as a mother, so you have to be very organized and know your priorities. But you can carve out time [for your children]."
That said, she cautions other mothers that self-employment is by no means a walk in the park.
"It's flexible to a point," Berger says. "But businesses don't run themselves."
The biggest downside to starting your own business is, of course, the risk involved. "You really want to make sure that you're entrepreneurial in spirit," says Berger. "It's a very different set of skills. It's not just doing the work but marketing it. You have to be comfortable with that process."
Getting to know the competition and finding a product or service that stands apart and will sell is also key for aspiring entrepreneurs, say job advisers.
"You have to do basic research: Who's doing something similar? Who's the competition? How is your product better, cheaper?" Gerberg says. "You want something that's unique. You have to have a product that you really feel excited about or a service that's really needed or wanted."
If you let that demand or personal passion for your product drive you forward, you're well on your way.
WHAT'S STOPPING YOU?
Whether you're considering switching fields or starting your own business, the number one obstacle in your way is often your own self-doubt.
"Adults in career change typically get paralyzed with fear" when it comes time to actually make the switch, Bohler says. "A lot of it is dealing with ... that inner critic, that part of us that wants to stay safe and keep the status quo. There are a lot of self-imposed obstacles that come up."
Women face different challenges than men when it comes to starting a new line of work. Though everyone is worried about failing or making less money, some of the women Bohler counsels "require more encouragement," he says.
"Sometimes they have more perfectionism than men and find something wrong with the options before them," he says. "Sometimes they have more fears."
One of those fears may be putting the financial stability of your family at risk. To minimize the impact of your career shift on your dependents, take time to save before you make the leap. "Make sure you have the financial reserve," advises Berger. "Your business isn't going to take off tomorrow." If you're starting a new job that pays less than your position in your current field, she says, "it takes a while to transition .... you're going to have to give yourself time to acclimate to it." Your family will probably need some time to adjust, too.
And if the sour economy has made you afraid of changing jobs, don't let it. In Scudder's experience, the recession provides a handy excuse, for those ruled by fear, to avoid trying something new.
"We can always use downside circumstances to keep us from exploring [other opportunities]," she says, adding that people find career change daunting even when the economy is booming. "There's always a good reason not to do it now."
Scudder advises asking yourself how strong your passion is for doing something you really love, and how much pain it causes you to keep doing something unsatisfying. If either is significant enough, you'll be willing to leave what you know or forgo a steady paycheck to pursue it. When it comes down to it, ask yourself the question Scudder poses to all of her clients: "How big is the itch?"