Q&A with Nic Paton
Nic is an award-winning journalist who has been freelance for the past nine. He writes predominantly on business, employment, education, money and health, for titles such as The Guardian, The Mail on Sunday, The Independent and The Sunday Times, as well as a range of professional. trade and business-to-business publications and websites.
He works from home in Barnstaple, north Devon. He is the father of three girls aged 12, 10 and 7 and is also studying part-time for an MA at Exeter University.
Q. ChristianaTheSeventh: I am currently a SAHM, but looking for a part-time job. I have a degree in philosophy and worked in the City for six years, before moving abroad and now back. I am a chartered financial analyst. My passion is food. I love reading about food, I love cooking for people, I love thinking about food. I am a really good cook... But how can I turn my passion into something useful, that I can do from home/ do part time? I need something that pays the childcare bills and also I can't work unsociable hours. Any ideas?
How do you 'start again' with a new career whilst affording childcare? If I were to go back to City work that would easily pay my bills, but not at an 'entry level' position in the food industry. I have a business idea that involves food but without any experience. I am not sure how I might approach banks for funding. Do you believe that passion for what one does leads to success? Or is that only in the most creative industries?
A. NicPaton: What's coming through clearly to me, first, is that going back into the City doesn't sound like what you want. Yes, the money may be good but it doesn't sound to me like the thought of returning to what you were doing before is exactly firing you up. So it may be you're right and what you need is a complete change of direction. It's great you've identified cooking/food as an option, as deciding what it is you want to do next – what I call in the book the "what do I want to be when I grow up" question – can be one of the hardest initial parts of changing career.
But I would sound a few notes of caution, some of which, in a way, you've identified yourself in your post. At the moment cooking is your hobby, that's all, it's not a job and definitely not yet a new career. You may well be able to turn it into that but you need to think it through carefully, logically and dispassionately. Do you enjoy it precisely because it's an escape, something that gets you away from the "day job" and, if so, will turning it into the day job mean it loses what you enjoy about it? It may well be that you end up loving every minute of it but you need to think about this before taking the plunge.
Second, there's a big difference between making a few pounds here and there from a hobby and doing it well enough, or substantially enough, to turn it into a living wage, if that's what you're going to need.
Third, if you're going to become a professional cook or caterer in some shape or form, perhaps as a business as you touch on, are you going need to get some proper qualifications first? Catering and hospitality are areas where it is possible to learn on the job and thrive without proper qualifications but are the skills you've got good enough to do more than just get you by? That then of course leads on to all sorts of further questions about what sort or level of qualification you might need, where and how to get it and how to carve out the time to do it.
Ultimately, only you can answer these but, if you haven't already done so, it might make sense to try and speak to some people who already do this – perhaps if you know anyone in a catering or events firm, someone who perhaps runs private catering courses or your local FE college about what sorts of qualifications people generally look for or expect.
You got your initial job in the City by getting qualified and getting experienced, this will be no different. Another factor, of course, you may need to consider is that catering/cooking can be highly unsociable in terms of hours, though if your aim is to do it as a business or self-employed it should in time (though probably not at the beginning) become more flexible. Then there may, too, be an issue of what sort of financial investment can you afford, whether course or college fees or perhaps in terms of proper, professional kitchen kit? So there's lots to consider.
However, there are also a number of positives that I think you can potentially latch on to. First, you've already from the sound of it got a good business idea, you probably have good contacts in the City (who might be able or happy to advise or even back your idea?) and, I should hope with your background, you have a good "business head" for all the financial, tax stuff and so on. It may be that some sort of business qualification will make you feel more confident about that side of it, but with your background it may not be necessary. Again, only you can judge that.
If you're starting out in business you're of course going to have to do a lot of market research, financial and business planning to make sure it's a credible, viable business idea. We hear a lot about banks failing to fund small businesses – and many do complain bitterly – but when it comes to approaching the banks, as long as your business plan is realistic (and in this climate even downplaying projections can be a good idea) and as clear and comprehensive as possible you're likely to get at least a good hearing. But you need to have done a lot of leg-work and research before you get to that point. The book covers things such as the sorts of questions/reality checks you need to ask yourself beforehand, market research, writing a business plan and approaching banks.
To me, ultimately, it sounds like – money and childcare notwithstanding (and what you can afford to spend or, just as importantly, afford to lose financially or in terms of time are factors you do need to consider carefully) – this is something you probably need to do simply because if you don't do it and opt for a return to the City instead you'll I suspect may regret it and spend years wondering "what if". But you may have to accept it's not likely to be a quick or easy answer, may well be a hard slog and may not make you pots of money initially.
On the other hand, get it right and you will be in control of the rest of your life. You may be working some unsociable hours (but kids get used to and accept that's how it is) and completely exhausted and stressed half the time and you may be more exposed financially but you'll be doing something you feel passionate about and, yes, passion does often lead to success. In fact to be successful in business, or indeed in changing career, positively requires you to be absolutely passionate about it, as well as stubborn and single-minded.
Q. snickersnack: Do you think that a successful career change can be driven by 'push' as well as by 'pull' factors? I have an interesting and well-paid job but find it hard to combine it with the demands of a young family, and am therefore considering a career change. However, because I do actually like my current job and don't have a burning passion for anything else, I find it hard to know what my next step should be. I've always assumed that career changes work best when you have a clear idea of what you want (rather than what you don't want) but would be interested to hear your views.
A. NicPaton: Yes, a career change definitely can be driven by push – just ask all the people over the past 18 months who have lost their jobs and found career change 'pushed' upon them. In an ideal world, of course, we'd always have our next steps carefully plotted out before we took them, but things generally don't work like that. It's probably a minority of us who know exactly what it is we want to do with ourselves throughout our lives and for most of us career progression tends to be much more chance-led and haphazard, a question of taking opportunities as they arise rather than having some big game-plan to work to.
My worry with what you say, however, is whether what you need is really a change of career at all? You call your job "interesting and well-paid" and confess to enjoying it so I would really be very cautious about giving that up and for some unknown and as yet unthought-through "other".
The one thing that became really clear to me while writing the book and speaking to lots of career changers is how hard it is to do. Changing direction and starting again is not something to be done lightly. And, unfortunately, without some clear idea of what you want your ultimate destination to be, the risk is you spend a lot of time and effort getting somewhere only marginally better or, worse, worse (as it were).
So what it sounds to me like you need to be doing is evaluating your job rather than your career. OK, the hours aren't working for you, so what are the options? Is there the option of doing the same job more flexibly – job-sharing, flexi-time etc etc – or will it simply consign you to a career slow-track hell (and will that matter)?
Could you do the same sort of work in a different way, perhaps through freelancing or contracting? If your industry uses freelancers it can be an option that can give you more flexibility and control around when, how and where you work but, of course, is also more precarious financially. I'm freelance myself and it can be a great life and a great way to make a living but it's not for everyone and can take some getting used to – again there's a chapter on making this transition in the book.
Alternatively, are there specific elements of your work that you enjoy more than others – and which are perhaps less intensive in terms of office hours – that you could gradually shift over to, though again you may need to consider the longer term career ramifications of this? As I suspect pretty much everyone on this site knows only too well, there's no easy answers when it comes to juggling home and work demands. But what I would caution against is slogging your way into a new career for negative reasons. You've got to really, really want it. So, in a rather long-winded way, I'd argue that yes career change can be driven by push but I think it needs to have some pull in it too.
Q. TopoftheMorning: I can't seem to think through how to move on to a new / better / different career. ie knowing where to start in terms of identifying a likely career that would be: enjoyable, doable and flexible.
In terms of my own background, having spent the past 14 years working in management roles in a fairly specialist industry (but which does not require professional accreditation/ qualifications), I would love to find something different, more vocational, active or even intellectual. There are lots of things I like doing casually but nothing I could identify as an amazing talent that I know I could develop. I am, in short, a generalist. Lots of common sense, articulate, able to write well (if not dazzlingly), educated and good at communicating. But I have no professional qualifications, just a good general degree.
I think some of the struggle about identifying a new career comes because not only might there be training involved but there is then also either very low-level entry (so money becomes an issue when you're a single parent with children to support alone) or because sometimes an ideal-seeming career is several steps away - eg, get more qualifications, get job in related industry to get experience, then try to move into preferred sector. Any advice you can offer on just how to get started would be wonderful, thank you.
A. NicPaton: The key I think is to try not to get swamped by the "why nots" and focus (and I'm not sure this really works spelt out online but there we go) on the "why not?" instead! You're also right that a lot of the scariness about career changing is the seeming immensity of it all – you're going to have to start back at career year dot, on no money or give up what you've achieved to spend years slogging to get back to the sort of level you were in something else, and so on. And, yes, no one said career changing was going to be easy.
What came through to me from all the people I spoke to for the book was how determined and focused you need to be to dig your heels in, come to a stop and step out in a new direction. It can be done but those around you, your family and friends are all going to have to "buy into" it and help you along the way as best they can.
But a few hopefully more optimistic notes if I may as well. First, however much you may feel you have to step back and start again, you do need to recognise you're not going to be stepping back all the way and starting back from where you were when you left school or college. Just the fact you've held down a relatively high-powered job, turned up on time, dressed the part, managed people and so on all count for something. It's true you may be starting with much more of a blank sheet but there is now a floor below which your experience or CV or whatever cannot go. Also, being a generalist and having lots of solid, general skills will always be something valued by employers.
What you need to be deciding is how you are going to channel all those valuable skills and experience you have, what is it that is going to make look you forward to going to work in the morning (OK that might be starting to become a bit like a coffee advert but I think you know what I mean). So think about working environments, ways of working, how you'd like to work as much as specific careers and then start on working out how to fill in the gaps or get there. Hope that helps.
Q. notnowdarling: I'm just after a bit of feedback on an idea I've got for a career change (and would welcome feedback from others, too). Thinking about coaching, specialising in women returning to work. Am currently training as a coach, and applying it within the organisation I work in, but wondering what the market would be like for doing this part time. Ladies, would you pay for this kind of coaching (obviously it was good)?
A. NicPaton: You're asking exactly the right question: is there a market for this? So in a way there's not a huge amount for me to add. It might, too, be worth asking people whether their employer would pay for this, whether your employer would pay for it on a freelance basis, what sort of work they would be more likely to pay for and to try and get a sense of the sorts of rates people around you charge for this sort of work so that you're not under-selling or over-selling yourself. Also, what other side-lines might it lead into that you could start to develop as a secondary income, just in case and, as I've said elsewhere, is there a particular niche or USP that you might be able to offer potential clients?
Q. TheHouseofMirth: I'm currently a SAHM and would be looking to return to some form of paid work in about three years when DS2 starts school. I drifted into my previous job (worked my way up through the same company from leaving university until I had my first son) doing an admin/marketing role. I don't miss it at all! I guess I've got three years to train to do something I'd like to, trouble is I've got no idea what. I'm 40 and still don't know what I want to do when I grow up!
I'm (finally) starting to be at bit more self-aware and now realise I'm really good at finding stuff out (apart from how to find a new career), I have lots of ideas but rarely see them through and having enjoyed the relative freedom of being a SAHM for five years I think I'd enjoy working for myself. Ideally, I'd like to do something where I can earn a high hourly rate but only work 15-20 hours a week.
How do I work out what I'd enjoy/be good at? There seems like a bewildering array of books around but are any of them any good? Money is very scarce but I'd happily save up and pay to get some professional advice if I thought it would actually provide concrete help...
A. NicPaton: Can I get that hourly rate and working week too, please?! Seriously, you've actually already made two of the key decisions: that you want to work for yourself and part time. So that's two big steps out of the way. In many respects a self-audit is little different from "what I'd enjoy/be good at" and "what do I want to be when I grow up", so that's exactly what you need to be asking yourself – if necessary just jot it down on a piece of paper, then do it again focusing it down and then again and so on.
You could of course use a careers coach, which can be good in that they will be able to take a cold, dispassionate look at you, your skills, what fires you up and so on, as well as do some practical work over your CV, retraining issues, applications and so on. But yes, they do cost money – which can, of course, be money well spent - but is something to consider. Also it's worth looking to check that they are accredited with the Association of Career Firms - a good port of call (and they may too be able to point you in the right direction of who is in your local area).
But, to be honest, do you really need someone to tell you this stuff? And, yes, a few self-help books might, well, help (and no prizes for guessing which one I'd recommend). But it also depends what you want, there are a lot of books that go the touchy-feely motivational, "inner strength" route, others that will be more practical and others again will be very detailed and specific, such as, say, on the nuts and bolts of running a limited company and so on.
There is also a lot of information available online with, and I suppose I would say this, The Guardian's careers website http://careers.guardian.co.uk/ offering some good general resources as well as a lot of graduate recruitment sites such as Prospects. Finally whatever business or self-employment idea you have doesn't have to be the next Virgin or Amstrad, it just has to be something you'd like to do and which people are prepared to pay for. So think initially about the sorts of ways you'd like to work rather than specific careers, whether from home, outside, over the internet, making or supplying stuff and so on, then think about hobbies or interests or things you could imagine yourself doing (however apparently unattainable) and what you (and therefore others) might be prepared to buy from someone like you.
Q. GrendelsMum: Thanks for coming on here after we made such a horrible mess of your Amazon "people who look at this book also look at this" ratings. I tried to help your wife fix it by looking at intellectual stuff, honest!
My question's pretty much the same as lots of other people on here. I'm mid-30s, and am categorically fed up with the job I currently do (project and change management in the public sector ) and would like to retrain as a gardener / garden designer / garden advisor. Ultimately, I see myself running a garden design consultancy, but after a few years of training and experience in the sector.
Do you have any tips yourself, or recommendations on books for how to build up your own consultancy, what clients would look for, etc? I'm thinking that if I start preparing now, I'll be ready to take off with my consultancy by the time I hit 40!
A. NicPaton: To be honest, you've pretty much answered this yourself, I'd say! You've identified very clearly what you want to be, so your first question probably needs to be what sort of qualifications do people who run garden design consultancies tend to have? I'm assuming Royal Horticultural Society or something like that, but it may be that there's some variation there so it'd be worth simply speaking to people already in the industry – and the RHS is probably as good a place to start as any – about what's expected, what clients will assume you'll already have in place before you make the leap etc.
Then, too, are there courses that include, as many should, a business element/self-employment within them, so you can start to get a feel for the financial, marketing, promotional side of things and so on? Are there, as well, any consultancies that might be happy to mentor you, either alongside or as part of a course?
Much as with going freelance, are there people or organisations – right now – that, if you had the right qualifications and infrastructure in place, you reckon you could go to and speak to about getting work? It might be friends or neighbours, organisations you have worked with in the past or just places you admire or identify with.
Are there, too, any public sector firms that you know who have maybe been clients or that you simply know of? And what sort of work might you do or what might be your particular niche that will help you to stand out from the crowd? It might not make any difference at this point to the reality of picking up contracts but it's starting to get into that restless, opportunistic, entrepreneurial mindset that you're likely to need to cultivate (if you pardon the pun).
As well, it'll probably be worth having a think about: what you can afford to invest yourself in setting up a consultancy; what assets you might be able to offer as collateral to a bank (and if it's the house are you really prepared to take that risk); what sort of loan you'd be able to service (and that really – as we've seen over the past 18 months or so – is the much more important question than what size of loan can I get); and what, if it came to it, you'd be prepared to lose?
As an aside, a couple of posts earlier on asked about franchises and franchising. There are quite a number of gardening-based franchises out there, again www.whichfranchise.com has a good section on these. But do please bear in mind the same cautionary notes I sounded earlier on about franchising being an unregulated industry.
Q. worcestersauce: I love writing - and not my rather dull, responsible job at the local council! But with my youngest child due to start school in a few months, I will finally have some time to try and change direction. Writing is something which I've always been complimented on, and which comes naturally to me. In my current job I write reports, but find this extremely dull and would love to put my skill to something more creative and exciting. I have some ideas, which I'd be really grateful for your feedback on.
I've wondered about feature writing or copy writing - focusing on my interests (food, clothes, home interiors, family life, motherhood, life events etc). I have experience at structuring articles, press releases and so, and am good at getting my message across. I've thought about sending in draft articles to magazines? As for copy writing - I'm really unsure how to approach this line of work?
The other idea is editing, which again I haven't a clue how I would approach. I recently did a creative writing night class as a first step to my 'master plan' - any tips on how to take things further would be really useful.
A. NicPaton: As you've probably gathered from the previous posts, I'm a freelance writer/journalist so, apart from the extra competition, I'd heartily recommend the life if you can make it work! Having done a creative writing course is good – I'd love to do one myself one day – but probably not something to stress while trying to sell proper journalism, whatever the wider public perception of journalists may be!
As to how to break into it, short answer is I'm afraid there is no easy way. Now, to be honest, is not a good time to be breaking into journalism in any shape or form – budgets are still being seriously squeezed by the recession (short-term) and the internet (long-term), meaning there is less commissioning, more writing being done by in-house teams and editors are more inclined to rely on their (probably small) trusted circle of specialists.
The other possible worry I'd have is that all the areas you mention are hugely difficult to break into even by journalism's standards, as everyone thinks they can do it when in fact writing good, interesting, quirky copy on food, clothes, interiors, family life, motherhood and life events that hasn't already been done hundreds of times before is fiendishly difficult.
Having said that, if you persevere, take none of it personally and develop a thick skin it can be made to work! On a practical note, I would recommend never to send in a speculative article. I've never yet come across an editor who would admit to taking an article in that way. Editors normally have a very clear idea of what they want on a page and will commission to a brief, so the very best case scenario is that you will get a kindly editor who has taken the time to read your article coming back and saying can you completely rewrite it for them in way x, y, or z! I never put finger to keyboard until I have been commissioned; I write to order.
Which brings us neatly to the feature pitch! What you need to be doing is working out a) what your target publications are, the sorts of features they write, the tone and colour of them etc and b) who you need to be approaching for your particular area or section on the paper. Either it'll list the section editors in the magazine or you can always ring up the switchboard and ask who edits that particular section.
Then, perhaps on the day it comes out (as that is when they are likely to be the least busy), call them up and ask, very briefly, do they accept feature pitches and, if so, how do they like to get them? Normally, they'll want you to email something over, though it does make sense to have it written down in front of you in the rare instance that they want you to explain it to them then and there. So in no more than a couple of paragraphs within the body of the email (not as an attachment they have to faff about opening), ping them the idea across using somewhere in your header the words "as discussed" so they're more likely to open it. If you're lucky.
Copy editing and copy-writing are also very viable freelance careers but, again, there are lots of people out there already that do it (or say they can) and also lots of courses, some better than others and some costing an arm and a leg. So it makes sense to do some serious researching about it and working out whether you need a qualification after your name or not. Much as with freelance writing, having a niche or specialist area that you cover can be a good move, perhaps putting jargony business brochures or flyers into proper English or something like that. The Society for Editors and Proofreaders might be worth checking out for more detailed information.
Having now given away all my own commercial secrets, I hope that helps!
Q. littleblondies: I was online looking for homeworking opportunities and I tried Mumsnet for the first time and saw this Talk board 'Q&A with Nic Paton'. It's 10pm, about the only chance I get! I've two preschool kids and have not returned to my NHS career after my second baby as I don't want to work full time and NHS part-time wages do not cover childcare in my area for two kids. I looked at lots of different options but we decided for me to stay at home for now. This is great but not sustainable forever, so I need to think about what I would like to do.
I worked my way up through the charity and healthcare sector, mainly specialising in information analysis and database admin and management reports. I did this for 11 years and I also have admin experience to supervisor level. Some of my work was very rewarding, having a direct effect on patient care or improving work for colleagues. Other bits were stifling and a bit demeaning. I need something that fits around my family.
I love photography (I assisted and worked in portrait studios when I was younger) I love the idea of buying and selling secondhand china, retro stuff, 'upcycling' old furniture... But I also think I need a regular money earner, so maybe retrain in proof reading or perhaps teaching assistant or child counsellor. I'm in such a muddle! I'll read your book but thought this could be a good opportunity to get some advice.
A. NicPaton: It's really the same answer as all the way through this thread. When it comes to thinking about your future direction, start off by thinking about what it is you enjoy doing and how you enjoy working rather than specific jobs. You've outlined an incredibly diverse range of possibilities here, which makes me think you probably need to be narrowing down your thinking.
So, keep it basic – do you see yourself working for yourself or employed by someone else, working with adults or with children, buying and selling or sat at home all day proof-reading? These are all very different careers that you suggest and so you need to be thinking about what sort of person you are and what sort of person you want to be before you start narrowing it down to specific careers.
Once you've done that then, by all means, start thinking about the likely skills or qualifications you are going to need, what you've already got and what the practicalities are going to be of making that transition. You also mention you still love some of the NHS work you did, so is there any way that you could keep on just doing that, whether on a freelance, part-time or locum basis?
On photography, it's much like the cookery posts earlier on this thread, in that there's a big difference between having a hobby and turning it into something that it going to make you a regular wage, and you may need to get some professional qualifications in that area before you become accepted as a "professional" by paying customers.
You also perhaps need to be thinking about what or whether these careers are something you want to be doing as the children grow and get older and more independent,and whether you are thinking about roles such as a TA or child counsellor as temporary stop-gaps or more permanent changes and whether, therefore, you really want to commit to such a change on that basis.
Finally on the "upcycling" issue, take a long hard look on whether it's a viable business proposition. Do others do it, if so how, are there many around you, what sort of local or national market is there for this sort of business, what sort of margins does it look like they're making (assuming you probably have a fairly good idea of what something like it would cost you as the seller) and what sort of overheads are there likely to be? Would you need somewhere to store stuff if it became a proper business? How would you accept payment? How would you market it? How would you get the goods to the customer? And so on. It's a great idea but don't fall too much in love with it until you're sure it's got cold, business potential. I hope that helps and good luck.
Q. ApuskiDusky: Quick background - I will shortly be starting maternity leave, and fully expect that by the time I am due to return, I will either have been made redundant or offered a job I don't really want. So I am planning ahead with alternatives, the most attractive of which is self-employment as a consultant. My field has a lot of sole practitioners and small consultancies (I buy them in in my current role).
I think I am very well placed with regards to my skills and experience, but two things are making me think twice about this - the quality of my network (I know 'sellers' rather than 'buyers') and my natural tendency to be shy about business development and sales. Any suggestions on how someone can develop the skills, confidence and thick skin to develop contacts and bring in work?
A. NicPaton: As mentioned, I'm freelance. I'm technically a limited company – on my accountant's suggestion – but in reality pretty much a sole practitioner so I knew where you're coming from on this. If you can make it work for you and your industry accepts that business model (which it looks like it does), freelancing or being a self-employed consultant can be a great way to go.
If you're serious about it, the first practical thing I'd do, to be honest, is shamelessly pick the brains of one of the "sellers" you trust (very important if you don't want it becoming public knowledge at this point) about what the life is really like, how they got started, how it works for them, how viable it is financially (without embarrassing them) and so on. It'll help if you're unlikely to be treading on their toes competitively if or when you make the leap but often I find people don't really mind talking about these things.
But you also need to think about if self-employment is a life you're cut out for. As you've clearly recognised, when you're self-employed it's all down to you – the self-promotion, business promotion, marketing, securing sales, invoice chasing etc. The fact it's you against the world can be exhilarating or terrifying, and either way make take some getting used to. How would you feel if the diary suddenly went empty for a week or two, would you mind no longer having paid holidays, doing your own with tax returns or working on your own or in a strange office where you don't know anyone for days on end? You do probably need a bit of self-confidence, probably more self-belief actually.
And yes, things like chasing contracts, being professional when talking about money and not under-selling (or under-pricing) yourself can be daunting at first. But they are skills that can all come with time. The important thing you need to think about is will you enjoy that sort of life, and I say "life" because freelancing, contracting, self-employment, whatever you want to call it, is as much an attitude to life as a way of working.
Practical tips for getting started? Apart from the brain-picking mentioned above, sit down and think about everyone you have worked with and whether you might be able to work for them. You might be surprised how many people you come up with it, not that they're all come off probably but it'll give you an idea of the sort of market you might be able to tap into. Most contractors/freelancers in my experience start off working for people and places they already know and widen it out from there.
Also, very important (as I didn't do this) spend some time building up a financial buffer, ideally at least three months because there will probably be a gap of at least this length before you actually see any money coming through. Also, from your list above, perhaps consider making some tentative, informal approaches to people. If you can get some promises of work – particularly some regular work – before you've even taken the plunge it will obviously be much less daunting than having to start completely cold.
Q. SweetGrapes: I am an graduate engineer. I worked in a steel plant for four years, then moved into IT and worked as a Java programmer for six years, the last two as a project manager. I have been out of work for five years now and am wondering what to do next. I haven't really seen any part-time IT work around. The only options that I can see are office type work part time or a full-on IT career. Ideally, I would like to have something a bit more techy and a bit less hours - something between the two. Does this even exist? Few and far between?
A. NicPaton: Obvious question that struck me from your post is what about the option of freelance/contract work? It's a fairly common and well-accepted business model in IT so could it work for you? If so, you'd be much more at liberty (well, theoretically) to work the hours you want and do the sorts of techy stuff that interest you. Of course, as covered in earlier posts, it's not a life or way of working that suits everyone but might be worth investigating? An organisation such as the PCG (formerly the Professional Contractors Group), which represents freelance contractors and has a large IT contingent within its membership, might well be worth sounding out for some more specific industry advice.
Q. snigger: I'm currently a low-level civil servant (where we live, it's practically the only job that doesn't involve fries). I have a knack for cooking and baking, and after a couple of forays for friends and family, am considering stepping up as a self-employed...erm...cake baker? I'm very precise and have so far taught myself from books with reference to wedding cakes, and this is something I'd like to explore, but I'm hesitant with regards to training, setting up on a 'proper' (ie legal, health & safety/HMRC-approved) basis, and just generally how to proceed.
I am getting a fair word-of-mouth reputation, and have catered dinner parties for a colleague six times in their own home, and that too is something I wonder about expanding, but how?
A. NicPaton: There's probably no getting around it that if you want to do cake baking or even catering parties professionally and properly you're going to need to get the legal, health and safety and qualifications issues all straight, as much as for your own professional indemnity and financial well-being as that of your potential customers.
There's no magic bullet to making a transition like this, you've got to get the skills (and the right pieces of paper if need be), put the right infrastructure, equipment, premises etc in place and go into it in the same professional way that anyone else would, because "anyone else" is going to be the people you are competing against.
You've obviously got a flair for this and the fact you are getting a good word-of-mouth reputation is fantastic, though the whole dynamic of cooking for colleagues I would suggest is very different from cooking for paying customers. Making a success of any business requires maximising every and any competitive advantage you have and going into it as an amateur is just asking to make life difficult for yourself.
By all means follow some of the advice in the multitude of "how to start out in business" self-help books out there (including mine, of course) but it will also probably make sense, first off, to go and speak to your local FE college about the sorts of courses and qualifications they offer that might be suitable as well as, perhaps, what sorts of business courses they offer.
You might also find, incidentally, that the right course gives you a wider range of catering skills than you have now or had thought you needed, again widening what you can offer people so you don't end up as just a one-trick pony and can improve your chances of making a success of whatever venture you choose to pursue.
Q. wilbur: I'd be interested to hear your thoughts about establishing a new business, especially in difficult times. I am a freelance writer and still do some dribs and drabs of work while I juggle three kids at primary school. However, I have always been a keen photographer and have often done pictures and photobooks for friends and family, and they have encouraged me to start that as a part-time business.
My weakness is marketing - I have a small budget to spend on some kind of promotion, but I don't know where to start. Is it worth hiring a PR person for a day or two to take me through some options? Do they even do that? I have set up a basic website and had some cards printed, but I know there are a lot of family photographers out there and I am looking for some advice about making my business stand out. Any thoughts?
A. NicPaton: As I'm sure you don't need me to tell you, starting a business in the current climate is not going to be easy. Having said that, it sounds like you're some way down the line and have of course already made the leap to self-employment. The obvious question here is: does what you've been doing have the potential to become a full- or even part-time proper earner for you?
As I've mentioned above, there's a big difference between making a bit of pin money from a hobby and turning it into something you need to rely on financially. But it's not impossible. What I'd suggest you need to do is work out what your "niche" is: is it family portraits, kids by themselves, indoor, outdoor and so on? I don't know how relevant it will be as an example but my brother some years back used to do a lot of professional wedding photography, which is definitely a very cluttered market, but what he did, quite successfully for a while, was set himself up as someone who took more informal, often black and white, shots at the reception and after the event. So it was about offering something a bit different. You can have a "USP" based on lots of things (though I'd caution against simply pitching yourself as the cheapest around) – quality, reliability, type or feel of image etc – so it's really just a question of choosing what it's going to be (after having done some research about whether there's a likely market for it) and going for it.
You're right in that in anything like this marketing and promotion are likely to be the key, but that's going to be the case in any business and so may simply be a nettle you have to grasp. It may well be that some professional help could be the answer – and simply informally sounding out a few, small PR or marketing firms local to you to see what they can offer, what it might cost and whether that's likely to help might be a good idea. But this I suspect is probably the sort of business that is going to build up more through word-of-mouth and personal recommendation, which can happen quite quickly if you manage to get well known on a particular local circuit or can be a bit of a slog.
Your local papers might be a good marketing option too, not just in terms of trying to get some work out of them (though they may well have a regular stable of people they use) but also perhaps in terms of adverts or, if you can find a sellable angle, even some editorial or "advertorial". As a freelance writer already, another advantage is that you may be able gradually to make the transition, so focusing on building up that side of your freelance "portfolio" while initially maintaining and then, if it starts to work, running down the writing side, though it'll rarely be as clean-cut as that.
Another option that may at least be worth taking a look at is a photography franchise. There are a number out there, some focused on portraits and some on children's pics and so forth and www.whichfranchise.com lists a few options. The book has a whole chapter on franchising and the key point I make is that buying a franchise can be a safer way of starting out in business in that, essentially, you are buying the licence to operate under the brand name of a bigger umbrella organisation (think McDonald's, Prontaprint and Domino's Pizza).
But I also caution strongly that, while there are a lot of genuinely successful operators out there, it's also a completely unregulated industry that can attract dodgy operators all too happy to fleece the desperate career changer, so be very careful and do a lot of research (including speaking to franchisees) before parting with your money!
There's no easy answers about how to make a business stand out from the crowd and even some of the best business ideas on paper fail. But to me it sounds like you have the motivation to do it, what you need now is to focus on perseverance, shameless contact building and gradually establishing it, first beneath, then alongside and finally on top of your other freelance work. Hope that helps, good luck.
Q. BariatricObama: I may be offered voluntary severance this week. Should I piss it up a will, retrain or start up my own business? I am leaning towards my own business making bits and bobs - I don't need to make a million, just enough to supplement DH's salary.
A. NicPaton: All of the above perhaps?! If you've got enough of a pay-off coming your way to give you a bit of a financial cushion then that'd be great because it'll give you time to reassess and work out what you really do want to do, rather than just rushing into the first thing that springs to mind, which may not always be the best option (possibly especially if it's late at night when you're doing option A!).
You don't mention if you've already got a specific business idea in mind but, and assuming your husband can tide things over for a while, you may be in a perfect position to start testing the water, starting on some serious market research and asking all those questions about you and the sort of business it is going to be that you need to ask before you even get to that meeting with the small business adviser at the bank.
It's also not clear if you're meaning retrain to help you start the business which, if that's what you're going to need to do to make a success of it, then yes of course you should use it for that. Or do you mean retrain simply to go into something else? Again, all the self-audit advice previously mentioned on this thread could be helpful, as might be the answers around "killer" business ideas. One plus point is that you've worked out the important initial point of what the business needs to achieve, ie a secondary rather than a primary income, which does potentially give you a bit more leeway on things financially.
My advice? If there's enough of a pay-off coming your way, don't rush into it and if your gut is saying it's time to be your own boss, and particularly if dh can keep things afloat at the other end for a while, then it probably is. If you go for the first thing that comes along, just because it's there and offers a financial safety net, you may end up either never getting this opportunity again – and you should be thinking of it as an opportunity rather than a backward step – or looking back and regretting what might have been. But only you can know the answer to that! Good luck.
Q. Tee2072: My maternity leave is just about over and I do not want to return to my previous career, or rather job, as a personal assistant. I have a degree, from aeons ago, in graphic arts. I have kept up to date with it and know the latest technology even though I have never actually 'practised' to borrow a word from the medical profession!!
How hard is it really to set up your own company? My current (hopefully soon to be former) employer has already offered me some contract work for after my leave is up, although not at a rate I'd be willing to work for, but at least its the beginning of a client! I'm in Northern Ireland, if that makes any difference in your answer!
A. NicPaton: If you've got some contract work lined up, you're already half-way there. I'm assuming from what you say that the plan is to set up as a freelance graphic designer, which is a very common business model, so eminently do-able and, if you can make it work, potentially a very flexible way of working. So the sorts of questions you'll need to be thinking about – and I cover a lot of this in the freelancing chapter in the book – are what sort of business you'll want to be, ie sole trader (probably most likely I'd imagine), limited company and so on.
It will partly depend what clients expect of you – some firms prefer to believe they're dealing with a "proper" company even if it is only just you. In terms of the practicalities, it's not that hard to sort out the paperwork to become a limited company, again the book has a lot on registering the name with Companies House and sorting out the Articles of Association and so on. But, as I say, you may be able to get started as a sole trader which is by far the easiest initial route.
Also you might need to think about what your average rate should be, again this might be a bit hit and miss to start with and you won't want to under-sell or over-sell yourself - so what do others charge? – and it may be that from time to time you make exceptions. For example, if your current employer is opening the door to the freelance life it might be an idea to accept that, even if the rate is lower than you would like, just to get started and on your feet.
The difficulty is that it is much harder to raise rates than set them in the first place. Or perhaps you could agree a deal to work for that rate as a "try out" for a set period and then agree it would be reviewed after that (hopefully upwards). If they like what you do well enough – and bear in mind they'll be saving all sorts of National Insurance, PAYE and other fixed-employee costs by using you this way – they may well be happy to revert to more of a "commercial" rate at that point or, if you have started to get loads of other work by then, you may feel confident enough to wave bye bye to them and move on yourself.
You will also need to tell HMRC what you are doing within three months of setting up and, ideally and as explained elsewhere, get in place a bit of a financial buffer to tide you over either any fallow times and/or the wait to get paid. Other considerations might be whether you need any specialist graphic design or computer equipment, which you will obviously be able to offset as a business cost but will still need to buy upfront, whether you will need to be working from a home office (and therefore are there going to be insurance or mortgage implications to contend with), whether clients are going to be visiting the house (ditto), whether you will need a website and how you will market and promote yourself.
Q. itwascertainlyasurprise: I've never settled into a career, am on maternity leave and really don't want to go back to my old job next year. I have been a probation officer for three years and ran an MP's office for two years. I think I actually don't enjoy office work or solving other people's problems anymore.
I'm very, very good at doing other people's CVs and application forms, they almost always get an interview, but always seem to move sideways rather than up myself. I'm currently earning around the same wage I was five years ago. I've done loads of online assessments and psychometric tests but still can't see a career I would like or be interested in. I am single and don't have money to formally retrain. I'm very jealous of people who have found their vocation and am sure I could work for less if I got any job satisfaction. Where do I go from here? How do I identify what I really want to do so I can make a plan. I hate not having a path to follow.
A. NicPaton: First thing to say is you're not alone. The vast majority of us fall into a "temporary" career that we had never intended – because it's there, will help us pay the bills or student debt or whatever – and then turn around five, ten, 20 years later to wonder "how did I get here"? What you need to be doing, I suggest, is what I term in the book a "self-audit", which is a rather grand term for basically doing some soul-searching about who and what you are, and what you enjoy doing and might, just feasibly, enjoy doing for the rest of your life.
You've recognised you've been unfulfilled in your previous jobs, so what you need to be examining is not so much the jobs or job titles as the work you did in them. Was there stuff you enjoyed doing more than others – working with people, managing a project, hitting a deadline, helping and coaching others for example (as that comes across as something you're good at even though you say you don't enjoy it)?
Then it might be a good idea to examine what sorts of skills you enjoy using as a result, so perhaps time management, self-motivation, accuracy and clarity of communication and so on? Then also have a think about what it is, either in or outside work, that inspires and motivates you? Again, this might be working with people, your hands, successfully juggling priorities or whatever. Would you want to work for yourself, outside, in a supportive, large corporate environment or a charity? Is there anything you've deep down hankered to do but always written off as impossible? Now might be the time at least to investigate it.
You've done some pretty varied stuff from the sound of it, but is there a common thread? Why, too, do you think you're always moving sideways – do you shy away from management or responsibility or is it that what you want is to be your own manager or boss? Perhaps you can get some of the people you've so successfully helped yourself to try and return the compliment – you just need to sit down and spend some time putting your (career) world to rights and, at this point, not be too hung up on specific careers, as that may well come once you've done this initial "what I like/don't like" thinking.
There's also quite a few online resources you can turn to. A lot of the graduate sites (for example GradPlus and Prospects) have pretty good databases of different careers in different industries which, while you're not necessarily looking for graduate jobs, may help you identify jobs you've never thought about that might be worth investigating further.
You're right in that you need a plan and just working out a destination can be one of the hardest initial steps when it comes to changing career. Depending on what you eventually go for, you may have little option but to retrain in some shape or form and don't be put off by the money issue. Yes, student debt is a real issue, and getting worse, but a lot of universities offer quite considerable financial help for those who are on low incomes. Also, there are options such as the Open University where you learn (and pay) by the module, meaning you can retrain at a speed that your budget can cope with (though it might take longer as a result).
Again, without wanting to resort to shameless plugging, the book covers a lot of these issues around self-auditing, choosing the right course for you (if need be) and funding it. I hope that helps. Good luck!
Q. TheDailyWail: My ex-colleagues are completely miserable with their work situation. A lot of them have worked for the company for 20 years+, they're hard workers but they're (IMO) undervalued and completely demoralised. What plan of action could they put in place to build their confidence, realise their self-worth and know their career options.
A. NicPaton: Again, without knowing a bit more about their backgrounds and aspirations this is a bit of a hard one to call. First thing they need to do is stop wallowing in the miserableness of their situation (easy to say, hard to do, I know) and start looking up and out and what they might be able to do next. It is very easy, especially after 20 years or more, to get stuck in a rut and very comfortable where you are but, particularly in today's climate, no one is safe, there are no jobs for life anymore, and have not been for some time. So the quicker they start taking back control, the better.
It's also, to be frank, got to be something they do themselves. It's really the same answer I given earlier – step back, think about the skills they got and the work they've done, rather than the job title, and what might work elsewhere. Step back, too, and think what sort of working environments or ways of working would appeal the most. And finally, get them to think about all the outrageous impossible things they've only ever dreamed about before and see whether they might, just might, be possible. Of course, cold reality will have to intervene at some point but take these initial steps and more will probably follow.
Q. wannafindajobbutwheretost: I was made redundant in June last year and now want to find a job. I was working in the banking industry within a call centre. I don't want to work at the same level now that I have a child and am planning more in the future. I worked my way up and do not have a degree. I'm in my mid-30s and have never had to look for a job before as I fell into my last job and then just worked up.
So my question is how do I decide what I want to do? Where do I start and how can I get a job when the last time I looked was 12 years ago?
A. NicPaton: Yours is probably the most common question on this thread, so look through all the answers I've given about "self-audit" and thinking about how you'd like to work rather than what you'd like to do. It's really just a question of breaking down the immensity of "what am I going to do with the rest of my life" into smaller, more manageable chunks.
Start with yourself, what you enjoy doing and what you think would be fun and challenging, what sort of environment you like to be in, whether you like to work with people or by yourself and so on. Only then start to think about jobs or careers that match that and, finally, any new skills or qualifications or experience you might need to get there.
As to the getting a job bit, again, I cover that in the book and going for jobs after a long time out of the jobs market is always going to be daunting. But while the technology has changed a bit and there are new things such as competency-based interviews that more companies use, the basics of employers simply wanting to find out whether you are a "good fit" (on all levels) for their organisation have not really changed.
If you need to retrain, make use while you are there of any careers department that your local FE or sixth-form college or university might be able to offer. You can also pay for professional careers' advice (see TheHouseofMirth's post) if you think that would help. You're not going to be alone as someone returning to the job market following redundancy, so try and see this as an opportunity to make a new start and take some control of your career.
Q. Tummum: I have recently returned to work from maternity leave, and have found myself in a job I can't stand, but it is part time (four days a week) and it's a job I can do standing on my head in a specialist industry I have worked in for ten years.
My ideal role would be to run my own business during school hours so I can spend more time with my kids and have no childcare costs. I think I have what it takes to run a business but the biggest problem is I have no idea what sort of product or service to provide. I have considered buying a franchise, but after much research I've pretty much concluded that they are expensive and restrictive. So my question is, how do I go about finding a 'killer idea' for a business?
A. NicPaton: Well done, it sounds like you've identified the problem – lack of being challenged – and the potential solution – taking control and being your own boss. But, as you've also rightly identified, all you've done is the easy bit! To cover the franchising issue first, you're right, they're not for everyone, can be a very expensive investment and the most successful franchisees tend to be the ones who are happy to work to a tried and tested business model, including being locked into paying a management fee or "royalty" to the franchisor for the duration of the contract.
In fact, many franchisors say they prefer their franchisees to have an enterprising, but not entrepreneurial, streak, if you get the distinction. The plus point of them is that they do tend to be geared towards career changers, will offer you training in whatever area you are moving into and, as said before, generally have a success rate that is better than independent small businesses, mostly because they are sheltered by the bigger brand of the franchisor.
Without knowing a bit more about you and your interests, it's hard to suggest a "killer idea" for a business. Suffice to say, take a look at what you buy, use or have a passion about, is there anything you really think would be helpful to you or your friends or acquaintances that you'd assume someone makes or offers somewhere but is not around you? Also, don't get hung up on being the next James Dyson, your business idea doesn't need to be brilliantly innovative, just brilliantly in demand.
So think about the sorts of ways you'd want to work – from home, visiting people's houses or offices, delivering stuff, over the internet, actually making whatever it is yourself or simply buying and selling it on and so on? That will immediately start to narrow down your options. Of course it'll also open a Pandora's box of other questions (supplied or homemade, storage or garage, premises or home, how are you going to distribute it and/or accept payment, what web presence will you need etc etc) but at least you'll be making progress!
Q. Romanarama: I have often wondered why I can't have that killer idea. I'm definitely intelligent and creative, but I'm nearly 40 and still waiting for the idea. I've been a SAHM for six months now, not really by choice, as we moved for my husband\s job, but I did think it would be a welcome break after both working long hours and not seeing enough of our three kids. But I absolutely hate it, it feels so inane, and I have become apathetic, unable to use all those free hours to enjoy the hobbies that I used to manage to squeeze into the night instead of sleep. Is this normal? To be completely unproductive and unmotivated in any way when one has too much free time? What to do about it?
I hope to have a job by the end of the month (fingers crossed for me please!) partly to jerk me out of this apathy, mostly for the salary and to get my sense of myself as an independent human and not domestic slave back. How can I avoid wishing that I didn't have to go to the office every day two weeks in? My career is interesting by the way, dealing with policy in government, with excellent prospects. Part of me thinks I would much prefer to work for myself though, not risk ending up with an idiotic manager, which happens too often, and not have to deal with so much bureaucracy.
My dream would be to be Carrie from Sex and the City. I want fantastic clothes, and a column that doesn't require too much intellectual research seems fantastic. My real-life heroine is Lucy Kellaway, who I guess is similar in a way, but without the wardrobe. Do you think I can get the same fun and satisfaction from my office job, or should I be planning a more radical change?
A. NicPaton: Not sure, to be honest, that I'm hugely qualified to answer this one, as only you can say why it is you are climbing the walls at this point! But as I said to tummum whatever business idea you have doesn't have to be a "killer" – thinking that way can in fact make it more intimidating than it need be. It just has to work and be something other people will pay for!
Certainly what happened for me when I went freelance was the realisation that I was finding it increasingly hard to get enthusiastic about, and get other people to implement, exactly the same boring ideas (from the next fresh-faced new editor) that hadn't worked a few years back. If you're starting to feel similarly jaded, perhaps it's time to have no one to blame but yourself? But if there are things you still enjoy about the work and the "excellent prospects" issue is still attractive to you then, clearly, it'd be foolish to give up on that.
My advice? As you have the option of a job, possibly, why not take it, assuming you get it, and give it at least six months to get back into "work head" mode? But spend the time also doing some serious research about what sort of business you might like to run – as I've said elsewhere, the environment and way you'd like to work, selling or making, online, to others in offices, outside, on the road and so on.
Sound out people you trust about, scope it out and work out what it might all cost you, in time, missed family commitments and money. A business is a big, big commitment so there's no need to rush it, especially with the wider economy only slowly recovering, so take your time, plot it out and take it in stages. And in the meantime, the new job may give you back, as you suggest, a bit more sense of "you" and may even give you some unforeseen pointers for the future.
Q. moodlum: I promised myself that I would go back to work after having my son, and I am sort of doing some freelance PR and copy writing. How do you inspire yourself to really break free from being bogged down with the day-to-day crap and go out and sell yourself? I keep meaning to get around to it, and given what I do, you'd think it would be a cinch. It's not really about the how (I think I know that), it's more the impetus that I need inspiration with.
A. NicPaton: This is a tricky one, to be honest, because as you say, deep down, you know the how of what you should be doing. What I'd probably suggest is stepping back and looking at what's stopping you – are you really interested in freelance PR and copy-writing or would you prefer to be back in an "employed" or office environment but are doing this simply because it seems the easiest option in your circumstances?
Are there too many day-to-day distractions at home, too many people coming to the door during the day? Is your (and I'm assuming home) office well enough separated from the rest of the house? Also, are you expecting too much of yourself? Freelancing, as I found when I made that transition, can take some time to build up its own momentum and work will often lead to other work, which will in turn lead to new contacts and possibly into new areas that bring a fresher challenge but it doesn't happen overnight, particularly in a recession. Which brings me to, is it even you?
Many freelancers have struggled to ride out the recession so it may even be that you're doing everything right and the work just isn't there. At one level, just the fact you are managing to get some freelance work along with juggling everything else could be seen as quite an achievement? Of course, there are all sorts of tricks and ways of improving your time management and day-to-day motivation or efficiency – "to do" lists, set working times, monthly/daily targets etc etc – but I wonder if you need to be looking first at whether there's an underlying issue or hankering that you need to be addressing?
Q. Howmanytimes: I've been a secondary school science/physics teacher for 14 years. For the past six years I've been part-time. I like many aspects of my job, in particular working with the students, but the increasing pressure to get the kids to meet ever more ridiculous targets is getting me down. My current position, which I've had for ten years, is slowly but surely eroding my confidence because the faculty is 80% unmarried single males, who basically exclude me from everything. Should I find another school to work at and hope it's more supportive, or are there good jobs out there for former science teachers? I have a science and media degree.
A. NicPaton: This is a hard one to answer as really only you can say whether, inside yourself, you want to carry on teaching. Can I also suggest that everyone who has been posting here about wanting to go into teaching also reads your post before making up their mind!
It sounds to me as though you have the common teaching complaint of still being passionate about the teaching bit – which is why you became a teacher after all – but not all the other stuff that goes with it, all compounded by the unpleasant atmosphere of where you work currently. On the whether to find another job issue, that could be the answer if the main negative is the other teachers and the structure or management of your school. If it's more than that, a disenchantment with the profession or career of being a teacher, then I don't need to tell you that a change of scenery is unlikely to make much of a difference in the longer term. But, again, only you can answer that.
On the issue of what could you do next, again, you need to be stepping back and doing some of that "self-audit" I've spoken about elsewhere, particularly thinking not so much "what job can I do" as "what do I enjoy doing"? Potentially, you'll have lots of skills that you will be able to take to lots of places – project management, public speaking, motivational skills, time management, team-working and so on – these would all fit within a corporate environment, within a third sector or charity environment or, indeed, within the public sector and would be useful if you decided to become self-employed or start your own business.
But first you need to be sure about a) whether you really want to leave teaching and b) if you do that you have spent some time thinking about "what I want to be when I grow up".
Q. tryingabitharder: I'm putting myself in the generalist box here, too, I think. I have a chemistry degree but have worked my way from shop floor to senior management in telecomms and gained a management diploma on the way (actually, didn't finish a part-time MBA due to pregnancy then reality of adding DS to the family) doing lots of different things and am basically a generalist who is sensible and decent at communicating.
I'm on a great package but just had to take five months off due to working myself into a breakdown, and although I'm heading back to work I just don't care about it any more and want to spend my time away from DS doing something I give a crap about. I'm just not sure I can afford to or what that should be, and am pretty scared about starting a new career and chucking in 11 years worth of hard graft.
I'm currently toying with retraining to either be a teacher (which I think I'd enjoy / be good at but seems like a cop-out option and not sure the reality would be that great, plus the pay is less than in my first shop job) or going back to university to study pyschology, which fascinates me but I've no idea how I'd pay for it, what I'd do about childcare and what kind of job I might be able to do at the end. What do you think?
A. NicPaton: First off, the teaching issue. You'd be surprised how many people on threads such as these say they want to go into teaching. Sometimes it seems a sort of default option for "can't think of anything better". But teaching is not something you can "toy with"; it's harder to get into than many people think and once you're in it it's a very challenging career (as well as potentially highly rewarding). It's also definitely not a "cop-out" as anyone who has stood up in front of a classroom of noisy children or spent hours lesson planning would I am sure tell you!
What I'd suggest here, if for no other reason than to cross it off your list, is simply to try and get some experience of teaching a load of people them to see whether it is really something you like doing. You're unlikely, of course, to be let loose in a classroom but there might be the potential to do some unpaid shadowing just to see what it's like and what the life of a teacher entails or perhaps to run an after-school club or something like that.
If you find it inspiring and exhilarating it could be for you, but if you instead find it terrifying or just can't stand the ones that answer back it may be worth thinking again! It may well be what you are cut out to do – and with your chemistry, technology and management background you're likely to be sought after – but you need to find out more about what the reality is like first.
Second, money and "11 years of hard graft". It is true that career changing may mean having to accept, even just temporarily, a reduction in salary. If it's going to make you happy and feel inspired again, that's worth a lot. In many respects, if you want to maintain your salary, don't even think about changing career, just think instead about changing job. I'm not saying it's impossible to do but you shouldn't go into changing career expecting you're going to be able to maintain the financial life you've led up to now. It may come back, but you still need to give the issue of what you'd be prepare to give up or lose long and hard consideration. On the hard graft issue, what I said to Topofthemorning about whatever you change to you're not going to be starting from year dot probably holds true for you too. Yes, your previous experience may become less relevant but it is not, and will never, become irrelevant.
From what you're saying, then, it strikes me the psychology route is more what you're really interested in. But going back to college just to do that, as you've rightly identified, is going to cost so the question you probably need to be asking is "what would it be for?". You almost need to think of it in the other direction, identifying the psychology-related career and then identifying the skill or qualification, not the other way around. There's probably no easy or quick answers here I'm afraid. But, if you've got a specific course or university in mind, speak to the careers people and tutors there, also could it be done remotely, by distance learning, part-time or even modular? And, if so, would it count as much in the eyes of potential employers? Also it may be a good idea to have a trawl of some careers, recruitment and graduate sites to see what sorts of careers psychology graduates go into and start working out your steps from there.
Q. worriermum: When is it daft, impractical and just plain too late to start again? I am increasingly interested in becoming a clinical psychologist. But I'd be about 52 by the time I was qualified. Would this be barking mad? I think about the years of experience I have behind me in journalism and I wonder how I could possibly compete with someone who has that much experience in my prospective new field. At this age and stage (47), do I have to adapt my existing skills rather than making a dramatic change?
A. NicPaton: Short answer is no, no, no or we'd all be doomed! Clearly, if you're looking to retrain and start again it makes sense to look at the common age demographic of whatever it is you're aiming to get into. If it's a particularly "young" industry and you're already, how shall we put it, mature that might well cause problems, or at least need to be something you think about how you're going to get around.
But the default retirement age is on the verge of disappearing from this country (probably), age discrimination is banned, we have an ageing population, our pension provision is a mess and people, anyhow, are working much more flexibly and into much older age.
So, to try and knuckle down to your specifics, you'll be 52 by the time you finish training, will that be an age barrier? The only people you'll really be able to tell you are other clinical psychologists. It may be that there is some sort of magic hole 51-year-old clinical psychologists disappear into to be replaced by shiny new graduates, but I doubt it. If anything, I'd expect that life skills, life experience and a bit of "hinterland" might be a positive advantage (not to mention your probable experience of dealing with dysfunctional editors and other journalists!). You probably will be able to offer that profession a good 10-15 years, at least, which, if you think about, is the equivalent of a 22-year-old graduate staying somewhere until they're 37, which would probably be about the point when they'd start thinking of a career change themselves!
But it is worth speaking to some clinical psychologists, recruiters in this field, tutors and colleges and so on to find out whether your age is likely to be an advantage or disadvantage and how, if it is the latter, you'll need to get around that. On the experience issue, as far as I'm aware – and I have to confess this is not a profession I am expert on – clinical psychology is one of those fields with a fairly set career path from qualification, which has the disadvantage of meaning you're unlikely to be able to leap-frog younger graduates but the advantage of meaning that once you're qualified you're good to go. But of course, as much work experience as you can gain along the way as you retrain will always stand you in good stead.
Q. GettinTrimmer: I have a degree in English literature, I love books and reading, since being a SAHM (since my son was born, he's now seven) I have studied French from scratch, and am doing AS Level French at evening class. I've sold Usborne books and worked as a receptionist in a local leisure centre part time since my ds was born, just for a bit of extra money.
I trained as a primary school teacher, but didn't pass my final teaching practice (this was 1995) since then I've worked for local government in admin roles, and decided against teaching.
So far, I just haven't found my niche. Both my children are at school, I have started looking at Local Government jobs website for work in libraries, but just found out they have a recruitment freeze. I want to avoid working in a dull office. I was thinking one option for me could be to continue studying French and when my skills are adequate use them in a job, I noticed another mumsnetter is a translator, but I would need to find out more about this role.
A. NicPaton: It certainly seems a positive idea to try and make use of your French skills that you have learnt so hard to get. Clearly a "corporate" environment is not firing you up and nor are local government roles – and you're right the budgetary climate there over the next couple of years or more is unlikely to be pretty.
Freelance translation/translator roles do exist – I have a relative who is one – but the key, much as with the photography post earlier on, seems to be to carve yourself a niche. For example, my relative specialises in translating quite technical commercial and legal documents, which while not exactly high literature are a steady, pretty self-contained market where there is a fair bit of repeat work for the same clients.
So if you're planning to try and establish yourself a selling point like that, especially if it is going to be the sort of thing that clients need to keep coming back for, could be a good way to go. But you may also need to think about what sort of level of language skill you need as, clearly, translating for a business audience is different to translating for a more commercial, consumer audience and so on.
Might there, too, be the option of using your skills to create a "portfolio" career, so perhaps a bit of translation, a bit of private coaching or tuition or depending on how or whether you want to try and re-establish your teaching qualifications, some teaching work? Or some other combination? Could you maybe work into it your admin skills in some way? Singly none of them may make you a living wage but together they just might, as well as give you flexibility and control in your working life.
Anyhow, just a thought. As I've said elsewhere, going the freelance route can be attractive and a relatively easy way to change direction and take control, but it's not for everyone – you'll need to think how you'll prefer to work, whether if you're wrestling by yourself with a translation all day you're going to get isolation and how, too, you might market and promote yourself to the wider world? On a practical note you may want to check out the Translators Association, a subsidiary of the Society of Authors.
Q. KLDS: I'm a commercial property lawyer. Whilst I was pregnant I was made redundant and now I am thinking about going back to work I'm not sure that my previous job is for me. I was very career minded but I know that having a small child and being a lawyer with deadlines (if I was fortunatue enough to secure a role in this market) are not compatible, as from my expercience there is no such thing as a part time lawyer.
I am looking to change careers, I have considered retraining as a teacher but the drop in salary would mean that I couldn't even cover childcare costs so I would actually be working to pay a childminder, which seems crazy. I am trying to think of something to do but I seem to be out of ideas. The thought of setting up my own business sounds great but I have no idea what to do and to be honest I don't want to get involved in a direct sales and most of the business franchises I have looked at seem to be this type of role. Any ideas or suggestions, or even just a push in some direction, would be greatly appreciated.
A. NicPaton: On the retraining issue first, you're quite right in thinking that retraining and career changing will often mean a drop in salary, and of course no one likes to be taking home less than they were before. But that's not why most people change career. Yes it may mean, in pure financial terms, you end up simply working to cover the childcare costs but if it's what you want to do; if it's what's going to give you a new sense of direction and motivation in life during and (let's not forget even though it probably seems a long way off) post-kids, then that may be something you just have to accept, at least at the beginning and until you become more senior and established in your new career. Realistically, how likely is it that you're going to be able to match, even pro rata, what you were on as a lawyer and, you have to ask yourself, how important is having that money and lifestyle to you now?
Having said that, I'd suggest taking a look at what I said about teaching in response to tryingabitharder's post earlier on this thread, particularly around how, unless you're fully committed to it (and even then) it's a challenging career in its own right and, if you're serious about it, you need to get some teaching experience under your belt first (even just informal or coaching) to see if it truly is what you want to do with yourself.
You also need to be sure you're switching for the right reason – if you still, for example, get a buzz from the law and are simply considering switching to teaching solely on the assumption that it'll be an easier option while juggling a family, something that many teachers would strongly dispute I expect, that may well not be the best reason for doing it.
You also mention there's no such thing as a "part-time lawyer". But could working as a freelance lawyer be an option? While not as common as full-time, freelance lawyers and solicitors do exist – I just did a Google search while writing this answer for example and a load of links came up, some of which will probably be more useful than others. As mentioned elsewhere (and in the book!), the freelance life doesn't suit everyone but if you can make it work it may be an easier (and less salary dropping) transition than a wholesale change of career.
It might also meet some of the yearning to be your own boss and run your own business without having to come up with the mythical "killer idea" that others have posted about on this thread or becoming enmeshed in the whole franchising business, many of which, as you say, do have a strong sales-bias to them. Hope that gives you some food for thought at least.
Q. coxiegirl: Find myself in a similar position to lots of the posters on here - qualified as a mental health nurse and loved it for nine years, then moved and worked with a small and very unfriendly/unsupportive bunch who made it quite clear they didn't like me from day one. Had two miscarriages while I was there and decided to leave, quickly had DCs 2 and 3 - now haven't worked for three years so I'd need to requalify.
I really lost my confidence working with that last team (note to self: next time someone says at interview "we're a really friendly team!" run like hell) - coupled with few years trapped staying at home with the children, now I'm not sure whether to retrain and go back to a job I did, once, enjoy, or... And I'm 40 now and pensions etc seem like a really big deal all of a sudden!
I have trained in reflexology and a couple of other complementary therapies and would love to set up on my own but not sure I could crack a market big enough to make an income like I could in nursing. Have also thought about teaching, like many others here, but am aware I really enjoy training/studying and could go on ad nauseam without ever actually starting paid employment.
A. NicPaton: First question I'd say you need to be asking yourself here is: was it the job or the career that went wrong? From what you say it sounds like it was just the job but then, as you'd need to requalify anyway, clearly now is a good time to have a think about whether the time is right for a change. But don't discount it just because you had a bad experience last time.
The kernel of an idea that you have about starting a complementary therapies business could work, of course, but, as said elsewhere, you'll need to think about the practicalities of setting up, whether there is a market for you where you are, what people would be prepared to pay for, what you might need to invest and so on. If it worked you could, I imagine, well end up making a living from it though it might well be a hard slog at the beginning. Also, running a business and having a secure retirement income do not always go hand in hand, as many people who have assumed their business will be their nest egg only to be hit by the recession have now discovered to their cost. So that will need to be another consideration.
So, if you know anyone already doing this, shamelessly pick their brains and find out what it's really like and how viable it might be for you.
Q. fatarse: My question is simply, should you ever just say, "I'm too old to change career now?" I'm just about to return to work after my first baby and I'm 37 this year. By the time I've retrained in a professional career (I'm interested in studying law), I'll be in my 40s and competing with high flying 20-somethings! I have a feeling big corporates wouldn't touch a 40-something trainee!
A. NicPaton: Take a look at my answer to worriermum earlier on, as I think that'll answer some of your worries. As we all work for longer and in more than one career the notion of a 40-something trainee is becoming more common and accepted by managers and employers alike. Also, just think about what you can offer in terms of life experience and common sense that a "high-flying 20-something" cannot!
If you've got the qualification, have got some good experience under your belt while doing so, show you have the motivation and single-mindedness to make this change and the willingness to take on new challenges (all of which you should have shown through the first two things on the list) then you should, at the very least, be able to give the young 'uns a run for their money.
And in fact all the extra skills that you can bring from your previous life/career could be an extra selling point. The point is that these have to become the "second sell" and so you have to get yourself to a point where employers want you for what you are now, not what you have been.
It'll be hard work but I'm sure you can do it. There's a whole section in the book, by the way, on landing a job after retraining and, bear in mind too, employers are going to be more than aware that an ambitious twentysomething might be less likely to hang around than someone who is looking for stable second career.
Q. claraquack: I will have been out of the workforce for at least five years by the time I start seriously looking for work again, when my second daughter starts school in 2012. I am very worried about all my skills being completely out of date. I keep reading about marketing yourself, but can't keep up with twittering and blogging etc. Do you think we need to be on top of these things in order to be able to compete properly with younger candidates?
I am also, or course, terrified of the dreaded questioning about what I have done with my time since I left full-time work. Do employers take childcare seriously? Finally, apart from reading your book, what is a good way to go about finding out what it is I actually want to do when I return to work? Is it worth paying one of these companies good money to tell me what I probably already know?
A. NicPaton: Let me try and take your points one at a time. First off, getting back into the workplace. Yes that'll probably be intimidating, there's no way around it. But in a way no more intimidating than for someone whose suddenly been made redundant after years in a "safe" job, so don't assume it'll just be you who will feel they're floundering (though in reality you probably won't be). Yes the technology of job hunting changes all the time, but the nuts and bolts of employers wanting to find someone who will fit in whatever shaped hole they have probably won't change.
A few practical things – you'll need a CV that will work online, you'll need to get used to applying to jobs online, you may have to go through what's called a "competency-based" interview (one that looks for evidence that you have key skills, attributes or "competencies" that they value for the jobs), you may have to do a telephone interview and possibly a psychometric test. None of this is that new, to be honest.
As for twittering and blogging, yes that's what everyone is talking about and yes some people in some industries are starting to land jobs this way and network professionally but, in my view at least, it's not the be-all and end-all. The working world, I suspect, is not going to change that much between now and 2012. Most employers want to know you're going to be able to do the job and as long as it's clear you're prepared to learn and relatively happy with new technology – and you are after all posting on an internet forum so you're obviously not a complete Luddite – it probably shouldn't be an issue.
On your second point, saying you've been a SAHM is an absolutely valid answer to what you've been doing since you left "full-time work" (as if being an SAHM isn't?). But perhaps you can work to start making it not the only answer. So, think about things you might be able to do that are going to keep at least some of the skills you have from going rusty or things that you can later on "sell". These don't have to be earth-shattering, running or organising some sort of local group (whether child-related or not), being involved in your local community, with the school, becoming a school governor etc.
Without knowing a bit more about you it's hard to second guess this, but do you get the idea? As for childcare, in an ideal world of course employers should accept and realise that the parents they employ (dads as well as mums) will need to use, and get to on time, childcare if they are going to function effectively in their precious workplaces. The reality of course is that it's often not easy to juggle the two and you may up feeling as if you're being pulled in all directions.
Parents do now, of course, have the legal right to ask to work flexibly, though that is only a right to ask and not a guarantee that it will be accepted (though the business will need to make a case as to why it has refused) and also, if it is accepted, it will probably become a contractually binding change of your employment terms and conditions, so don't go into it lightly. The government has more information on this here.
Finally, yes of course I'd recommend that it makes sense to read my book to find out what it is you want to do! In fact, however, I make the point in the book that that's the one thing the book won't tell you – I can't tell you what is the right career or job for you, only you can do that. What my book, and there are many others like it, can do is, hopefully, help to break down all the questions and challenges that so often flood into your head on something as big and intimidating like this into more manageable chunks.
So I'd suggest take a look back at some of the various "self-audit" answers I've posted on this thread and see if that all helps. As to paying someone to do it for you, as I've said earlier too, careers advisers can help to see things you may not have spotted, but it does make sense to do your own thinking first; it may well be that it's money well spent or it may be, as you suggest, that they end up telling you something that, with a bit of navel gazing, you could have worked out for myself!
Q. Niecie: I really identify with many of you on here. I have been a SAHM for nearly ten years but have been doing a MSc in Psychology for the past few years. Have also done voluntary work and am sort of starting my own business but can't ever see it taking off to the extent I can make a decent living - it is more for fun (on-line store). Plus I feel like I am wasting my qualifications.
My original degree was law and economics. Started training as a chartered accountant but hated it and didn't finish the exams. In the end did AAT and carried on working in accounts. Couldn't bear to go back to that or any kind of office work.
When I started studying psychology 12 yrs ago I was 31 (did post-grad conversion in psych with OU). Now at 43 I am way too old to be a clinical psychologist. I wouldn't get on a course without relevant work experience and nobody is going to take on a 43-year-old graduate trainee who graduated years ago. I would probably like to do educational psychology but again, no relevant experience and time isn't on my side to do the four or five-year PhD.
Could do teaching but don't have core subjects and it's difficult therefore to get on a training course. Plus it I am not sure if I would be good at it. I suppose that is my problem. I can't afford to make another career mistake but I don't know what I am good at or even what I want to do. I need careers advice but it needs to be cheap and adult careers advice doesn't seem to be. Free careers advice seems to be geared to the young or the unemployed and those who don't yet have much of an education. Don't really know where to start!
A. NicPaton: As you're the second poster who says they're too old to be working as a clinical psychologist I'm wondering whether, with my journalist hat on, there's something here I've missed and needs to be exposed in the press! I'd welcome responses from clinical psychologists as to whether there genuinely is an upper age limit to entry to their profession and, if so, what the justification is, given that laws on discrimination on the basis of age have been in place since 2006!
Certainly, a very quick internet trawl by me has shown that, for example, Oxford University's doctoral course in clinical psychology says it "actively welcomes" older applicants. More generally, what I said to worriermum earlier on still stands, so it may be worth taking a look at that. If age is going to be a problem to progression in a new career then clearly you need to be consider how you are going to deal with this, but don't self-select yourself out just because you think you'll be too old.
There's lots of different things going on in your post, lots of ideas, different directions, confusion about whether you want to go back to something you did before or start afresh. From what you say, for example, we can discount accountancy, as clearly that didn't work for you, ditto office work and voluntary work as one will drive you mad and the other won't pay the bills. So I'd suggest first off, taking a step back and doing some of the "self-audit" stuff I've mentioned earlier in various posts.
You don't have to come up with an answer straightaway, but what it does help is in starting to break things down and helping to look at things in a more logical, considered way. In a way it's not thinking about what you're "good" or "bad" at as much as what you like and dislike doing, although they may well end up being the same thing. So, what ways do you enjoy working, in what sorts of environment, for yourself or for others, with the public, with your brain or your hands and so on? It's all too easy to get caught up in a fog of job and career titles and miss out this first, basic, step that is really all about asking "what sort of person do I want to be" rather than "what sort of job do I want to be in"?
You also say the online store is "fun" but lots of people turn something that initially is just a bit of after-hours pin money into a full-time new job. For the book I spoke to, for example, a former council worker who has made buying and selling clothes on eBay into a full-time job and a former Tesco buyer who now runs an online horse-themed gifts store, and both love what they do. So don't discount it if it's what is attracting you though, yes, turning it from a hobby into something more substantial could well take a bit of work and you are likely to have to start thinking about your online presence and visibility, marketing and promotion and all that sort of stuff (and if you're not already, tax issues, as one area HMRC has been becoming much more strict about in recent years is people who "moonlight" financially online and yet don't declare their income for tax).
Re: teaching, same answer as to KLDS and tryingabitharder and others, well find out then! Get involved in an after-school or weekend or voluntary club, do some shadowing and find out whether standing up in front of a load of kids is for you terrifying or exhilarating! It'll answer the question for you, probably in the first five minutes, and if it works for you will start giving you great experience to put on the teacher training course application.
Q. LackaDAISYcal: Ooooh, this subject has been praying on my mind recently. I am a structural engineer, or was in my former life prior to DC2 and 3. I haven't done that job for almost three years and although I'm keen to get back into the workplace, structural engingeering isn't what I want to do any more...too long hours, too much travelling, not enough sympathy for working mothers, etc etc.
Now as someone who was managing the engineering side of construction projects ranging up to £7m, I am not without a set of what I think are good, transferrable skills, yet I have no idea on how to go about looking into alternative careers. More more crucially, I am stumped as to how to get prospective employers to see that I have a great skill set that could be applied to whatever career I end up considering.
We are also in the position that I need to be earning £30K plus in order to break even after taking tax, NI and childcare costs into consideration. I would retrain, but again, childcare costs are preventing me do anything during the day as we cannot afford to pay full time care costs if I'm studying full time.
I feel like I am a complete failure and that the 15 years of a career I had before having my DD have been a complete and utter waste of time, but my brain is turning to jelly here and I NEED to work!
A. NicPaton: First off, anyone who has carved out a successful, high-powered career in a tough industry such as engineering, in the process managing multi-million pound projects through to completion is most definitely NOT a failure and complete and utter waste of time. So stop thinking yourself down and recognise that, yes, you have a huge amount to offer both now and in the future.
It strikes me that you are stuck on a) the money issue and b) exactly what it is that you see as being next in your life. In a way it's not really about your skills because, believe me, you have a lot of skills that are eminently sellable to future employers – project management, leadership, budgeting, precision and accuracy, health and safety, team-working, your specialist engineering skills etc etc etc. Yes you've been out of it now for three years but, in the grand scheme of things, that is not that long so I would be surprised if, when you get back into working mode, whether you will have lost that much of what you had before.
But, given that you say the structural engineering side of things is no longer viable with a family, and there is the issue of the money then, yes, it is tricky. If need be, and as long as there was the prospect of hitting that £30K mark in the relatively near future, would you be able to take a financial hit for a few years as an investment for the future? I only ask because, as you've rightly identified, career changing is rarely straightforward and will often mean, at the very least a temporary, loss or lowering of earnings.
You need to sit down and work through the financials carefully and think what is doable here. Is part-time studying, perhaps in the evenings or through somewhere like the Open University, an option? If you need to stick at that £30K mark your options are going to be more limited and you may have little choice but to try and get back into something pretty similar to what you were doing. If that is the case, is there any way you start slowly recapturing the momentum you had before, perhaps doing some piece-rate consultancy work for people you worked for in the past or simply re-establishing contacts and getting back on to the circuit and frame of mind?
If it is a complete career change that you reckon is the way forward then, again, it'd be a question of stepping back and really thinking hard about what sort of work you enjoy, how and where and in what sort of ways you want to work and, then, what sorts of careers match that and what skills you will need or what gaps you need to fill to get there.
Q. phdlife: Having spent the better part of a decade getting qualified, I then had to make a horribly stark choice between career or babies - babies won. Now I wonder what will happen when they're a bit older. Various mentors advise me to keep publishing, in order to be eligible to get back into it when I'm ready.
I think that any career where smart, nice people can tell you, perfectly seriously, to keep working for free - when they know you're looking after two under-3s and haven't had a job in three years - in the hope of one day being competitive, is possibly not a sane good career. On the other hand, there's that (wasted?) decade getting qualified, the fact I'm good at it and love it, the fact I'm already 40, the fact I have no other ideas...
Q. skiffler: Like phdlife, I have a non-career in academia. I've been on a series of fixed-term post-doc contracts and even if there were any permanent lectureship jobs around at the moment (unlikely given the current state of HE funding) my publication record, the only thing anyone really looks at, is not fantastic and pitted with gaps corresponding to maternity leave and working part-time.
Unfortunately, I have never really found anything I enjoy as much as academic research. Obviously I've invested a fair amount of time and effort on qualifications etc, but it looks increasingly like my career is going nowhere, and I don't have the time resources to give it the kick-start it needs. So my question is, is there a point at which you should give up on trying to achieve your dream, and if so, how do you know when you've reached it and how do you find something else and overcome the idea that you're settling for second-best?
A. NicPaton: Hi skiffler (and phdlife for that matter), tough call I'm afraid and really only one that you can answer. Perhaps the way to look at it is whether, if you do jack it all in, there is anything else that is going to give you as much pleasure and, when you look back once the kids are all grown up, are you going to regret making that decision? If there is a "yes" to the first question then, clearly, that is worth at least considering what that might be but if the second question is also a "yes" then you, equally clearly, need to be thinking hard about what you could potentially lose.
Sometimes, of course, it can become clear that you are flogging a dead horse and the time has come to move on – just ask any jobbing actor who can't get beyond jobs dressed up as a vegetable outside supermarkets – but if you've committed a lot of time and effort to getting somewhere you shouldn't give it up for something that, deep down, you know is a second choice option, unless you are absolutely sure. Unfortunately, if you go into something resigned to it being second best, you're unlikely at any point to be able magically to change it in your mind to being something you always wanted to be doing.
Having said that, if you're at the point where it might actually be a relief to make that decision, or have it made for you, and that the only thing keeping you is the fact you have invested all that time and effort in getting to somewhere that no longer motivates you, then it might well be time to move on. My worry, though, is you still describe academia "your dream" so would anything else match up to it, even if the career you have ended up with has been, as you put it, second best?
Are there, too, complementary careers that you might be able to consider away from "pure" academic work – archivist, museums, think-tanks, the third sector etc – where you would still be using your academic skills but would not be on the same publishing treadmill? And, finally, yes it may be worth considering the bigger HE picture within this – the financial climate there is likely to be grim now for at least a few years, so do you want to carry on grinding away in that environment? As I say, only you can answer this. I hope though this has been helpful.