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Double Down, Pivot, or Start Over

Decisions, decisions.


Image by Pixource from Pixabay

 

I find myself at a crossroads.

Approaching my mid-30s. I’ve been working in research for almost 10 years (including the PhD itself).

Coming to the end of another fixed-term contract, with about 7-8 months left. Long enough to plan, but not long enough to ignore.

Time to make a decision about what’s next.

 

Double Down

The first option is to double down in my current career pathway, and commit to trying to achieve the next level.

Whilst I have been working in research for almost 10 years, I switched disciplines after my PhD. This meant that the first couple of years post-PhD were spent trying to catch-up with those more experienced than me. On the one hand, it probably set me back a couple of years; maybe I would be further along the career track if I hadn’t switched. On the other hand, my previous research area was on the decline; marked for less funding from various research councils, and therefore fewer job opportunities. Meanwhile, this new research area is a growing field and appears to have more possibilities.

I’m arguably in a position where I am now an expert once again in my field. Of course there is always more to learn, but I can now hold my own in a conversation about this new (to me) field.

Having established that I do vaguely know what I’m doing, the next steps would be:

  • make the most of the rest of my current contract and publish as much as possible
  • start researching funding opportunities
  • seeing as these opportunities usually take between 12-18 months to receive, apply for one more research position towards the end of this current contract
  • once I start that next contract, start applying for funding.

It doesn’t look so bad, when it’s written down like that (although make no mistake, it would be a lot of work). There’s just one problem, however… I really don’t enjoy much of my job. I don’t like it now, and I doubt I’d like it with the added stress of constantly searching for the next round of funding.

 

Pivot

The second option is to move sideways into something that still uses my degree and work experience so far, but is not actually research.

There are a number of things that this could cover, including:

  • Scientific writing/publishing – a lot of work happens behind the scenes to get science out of the lab and into the wider world.
  • Policy, government, think tanks – I could make a direct difference to things that are important to me (climate change, for example).
  • University professional services – universities aren’t just teaching and research; there is a lot of other work required to keep the whole operation working. One thing that appeals is that the working culture (probably) wouldn’t too different to what I experience now. The biggest hurdle is that universities are facing the prospect of losing a huge amount of their funding thanks to covid-19!

The advantage of option 2 is that I wouldn’t really have to retrain. Career moves from academia to these roles are relatively common. It  would just be a matter of rejigging my CV, picking a sector and then applying for any jobs that I find.

 

Start Over

The final option is to identify a new field that I am interested in, retrain and then start from the bottom. Some roles that I am particularly interested in are:

  • Financial planning / advising – this being a finance / investing blog, it should come as no surprise that I would be interested in pursuing a career in finance. However, this runs the risk of turning a hobby into a career. Sometimes that can be a good thing, but may lead to me disliking the hobby/job and wanting a new one!
  • Accounting – obviously another finance-related career. I like this because, once fully trained as a chartered accountant, you should remain very employable for the foreseeable future. However, I worry that it might eventually be subject to automation.

I like the idea of this in principle, but recognise that it would take a large amount of work to retrain myself.

 

So, what to do?

I am pretty confident in saying that option 1 is not for me. There is very little about my current role that I like and/or enjoy. The prospect of doing something similar for the next 30-odd years is not very appealing.

I could do “one more year” in this current role, by getting another fixed term contract somewhere else. Putting off the decision for another 1-2 years. But life is short. Although the money is decent, do I really want to waste another few years?

This probably makes option 2 the default. It won’t really require any extra effort on my part, beyond updating my CV and applying for jobs as usual. But is that really a good reason to choose a career?

I am drawn to option 3 the most. In the short term, it would require studying during some evenings/weekends in order to qualify (or at least part-qualify) before the end of my current contract. Or a period of unemployment whilst I study. That is doable, as I have the savings for it. But I think it makes sense to start learning sooner rather than later; who knows, I might start studying to be (for example) an accountant, and quickly decide that I hate it. Better to find that out now, rather than when I’m unemployed and changing course may well be harder.

I do find myself drawn towards being a financial planner/adviser. My wife has commented in the past that when I start talking about finance stuff in general, my eyes light up. The most recent example being the time I was discussing pensions with my parents and the best options for them. I felt in my element, able to help them out whilst talking about a subject that I am passionate about.

It may be that “the grass is always greener.” My current logic, however, is why not give it a go?

 

Thoughts?

I’m curious if any readers have changed careers in the past, or are considering doing so in the near future.

Or if you think that changing careers during the midst of a pandemic is a terrible idea!

Any and all advice / thoughts / comments are welcome.

Thanks for reading.

 

18 replies on “Double Down, Pivot, or Start Over”

I had the same exact thoughts a few years ago. I was a deep into my career and felt an urge to change. In the end I decided to double down on it, reach FI first and then decide. So here I am, a few years later with the same exact thoughts but with a more comfortable financial base.

Was it a right decision at the time? Who knows. One thing is for sure, I wouldn’t have reached FI if I would have decided to start over. On the other hand, that’s not all there is to life. It needs to be enjoyed as well.

Cheers!

Hi Backpack Finance. I think that if you can look back with no/few regrets, then it was probably the right decision for you. For me, achieving FI is all about balance. If I can find a career that is better suited to me at the cost of working an extra 5-10 years, then so be it. Having said that, it’s not like my current career pays megabucks anyway; I think (maybe optimistically) that any career change wouldn’t result in a huge loss of income initially, and that it should only take a few years to get back to my current salary, before hopefully progressing further. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

Thanks for sharing this, Dr FIRE – some big decisions to make.

Although I made a career switch myself in my mid-30s (from Finance/Credit to Legal), the company I worked for allowed me to do so relatively easily and seamlessly. Despite not having the formal qualifications for the role, my long experience at the company and my ‘soft’ skills were deemed transferable and got me the job. I also had a good mentor so my first 3 years in the role was training on the job.

When I was made redundant, I considered the training required to be a financial planner and It was only when I was looking into it that I realised there was a difference between a financial planner and a financial advisor and I think the former appealed to me more than the latter. Do you have a preference?

I then I got my current job, so that idea was quashed!

Good luck in whatever you decide to do.

Thanks for sharing your experiences, Weenie.

You’re right, I keep using the terms ‘financial planner’ and ‘financial advisor’ interchangeably, when they are actually different things! I have been looking specifically into training to be a financial planner. Did you start the process of training to be a financial planner before you got your current job?

Thank you. I may need it!

No, I didn’t start any training, I was just initially looking into what was required (qualifications) and checked out vacancies to see what was in the job market and what job specs entailed, eg they were asking for. I recall this varied, depending on the company recruiting, ie some asked for accountancy qualifications, but not all did. Some even had financial planner/advisor in the title so perhaps even they didn’t know there is a difference between the roles!

Same as Backpack Finance I have been in similar situations, not one but twice.

The first time was before I came to the UK. I was completely burned out from my previous job in Spain and at that time I had no idea what the heck I wanted to do with my life.
After a few months I discovered that the issue wasn’t the job itself but the surroundings. For some reason, engineers (at least mechanics) tend to have a strong ego. I really struggled to control myself in not having arguments and kept everything inside me (until I bust).

Now with my current job I am having some up and downs and I recently had the exact same thought of switching to a career in finance or business. The main reason being is because I love the people I’ve met in the PF community. They are not trying to be right all the fuc**ing time because the rules are in fact ‘simple’.

After pondering about it for some time (it’s a big decision that should not be rushed) I came to see that It wouldn’t be for me. Being an accountant is damn boring and repetitive after a while (ask any accountant). Yes I love tracking and I love spreadsheets, but they are my numbers, my life, not others. It’s like kids, you may love taking care of yours but not others. Being a financial planner or related is risky. Think about the barrier entry and the competition you’ll encounter. The lower the barrier is the less money it will make you (not good for FI/RE purposes).

At the end I decided to stick with my career and learn how to cope with problems, or in other words change myself not the surroundings that can’t be changed. I love designing, there’s not a same day and the potential learnings are infinite.

It’s a great idea writing about this on the blog. I’d get ideas from all your comments and then put pen to paper all pros and cons. Do a Weighed Average Decision Matrix (WADM) Google it, so you make sure you make a rational decision not emotional.

Hi Tony, thanks for commenting.

Good point – sometimes it isn’t the job itself, but the people you work with. However, I am confident that is not the case this time. Firstly, I have worked for several different employers over the last few years, and I always end up having similar feelings about the job. So it isn’t specific to my current job. Secondly, I actually like most of the people that I work with! Hence why I am considering a drastic change. Of course, if I end up feeling the same way about a completely new career, then maybe the problem is actually me! I’ll cross that bridge if I come to it…

I think you also raise a good point that, just because I enjoy the finance process for myself, it doesn’t mean that I’ll enjoy it when I’m doing it everyday for a boss/manager.

I could be very wrong, but I don’t think that there is a low barrier to entry for these roles. If nothing else, I believe you need to get a diploma, which would cost around £2,000 for the entire thing and demand several months of study.

Thanks for sharing your experiences and perspective. This is exactly why I posted about it on the blog! I wanted to bounce my ideas off of other people and see their own recommendations. I shall look into this WADM and see if it can help me.

I can’t say I’ve ever had a gross change in career direction, although that’s definitely something I contemplate. Options 2 and 3 don’t seem mutually exclusive – could you use your remaining ~8months buffing ye olde CV and applying for new jobs, but also start the part-time process of learning another trade?

Fair point, there is no reason why I have to eliminate all the options right now! I think you’re right, I won’t close any doors just yet, but will definitely look into some extra training as well, and see how I fare.

What changes in career have you considered?

Thanks for commenting, Mr MedFI.

When it’s the middle of your night shift, exquisitely sleep-deprived and stressed up to the eyeballs you’ll consider just about any other career instead! I’ve thought about anything from teaching to selling out and working for big pharma. Sticking with medicine for the time being though.

Interesting decision there Dr Fire.

Long ago I qualified as an accountant, and worked as one for a while. I had enjoyed the purity of numbers while I was at university, but found the “what do you want the answer to be?” aspects of management accounting in the workplace disconcerting. There is an old joke in the accounting profession that more lies have been told in Excel than Word and Powerpoint combined. Funny because it is true!

A change of scenery resulted in my falling into an IT freelancing role, which paid three times the amount I have been earning as a permanent accountant. The money became addictive, and while I have never loved the work, it has afforded me a comfortable income that has made the seasonal semi-retired working pattern I enjoy today a reality.

Early on I too fancied the idea of becoming a Financial Planner. I completed the qualification, but could never get past the inherent conflict of interest that underpins the profession: rarely does what is best for the client align to what is good for the advisor.

The best advice may well be to open an ISA and drip feed savings into a low cost global index tracker for example. Except the advisor doesn’t make much money from such guidance. Which is a problem if they have a mortgage to pay or kids to put through school!

Instead they are encouraged to promote churn. Chase trailing commissions. Up-sell into expensive insurance products a client probably doesn’t need.

There are some genuinely good financial planners out there, who steadfastly look to their client’s best interests at all times. Unfortunately, there are an awful lot more who don’t. The recent defined benefits pensions transfer scandal is just the latest example of such misaligned commercial behaviours that plague the profession.

Hi Indeedably. Thanks for commenting and sharing your story.

I don’t know if the qualification has changed substantially since you qualified, but, how did you find it? Part of me thinks, ‘how difficult could it be?’ as I believe a diploma is supposed to be equivalent to the first 1-2 years of a degree. The other part thinks that it’s been a long time since my degree, so I may not be as sharp as I used to be!

I agree that there can be a conflict of interest. The best products for a client are unlikely to offer much of a commission! Perhaps I’m being naive, and it is of course easy to say now, but I would want to be one of the good ones. However, my biggest worry about becoming a financial planner is that I end up working in exactly the sort of sales situation that you describe, pushed by my boss to sell unsuitable insurance to every customer. I haven’t yet figured out how (un)likely such a scenario is, so I think more research is needed there!

I found it easier than my undergraduate accounting degree. It is entirely possible that I had the balance wrong between studying, drinking beer, and chasing pretty girls back when I was a student however!

If you want to try before you buy, take a look at the CFA society’s Investment Management Certificate. Read the two text books (total investment ~£200) and see if you find what they teach you interesting. If it is, then do the exams (another ~£500 in total). It is a self paced qualification, each book takes a couple of weeks to digest.

There is a big overlap between the syllabus and what is taught across several of the CISI units, so it would give you a head start and a fair idea of what you would be getting into.

Plus it would signal to potential employers that you were serious about changing direction, and have an aptitude for the subject matter. That might help with getting a junior position at a financial planning/wealth management shop and being trained up while on the job.

Thanks for the advice. Interesting that you mention the CISI route; I had been leaning towards the CII, but will give this another look. As for the IMC, I had not even heard of that! That may well be a good way to dip my toe in. I’ll have to do some research into it.

Agreed that, whatever I decide to do, having a few exams or a qualification under my belt would be a good way to show that I’m serious, and that isn’t just on a whim.

Hi, I’m a former STEM PhD’er who thinks about this frequently too, one difference between us is that I left academia for industry shortly after my PhD, and I have now been in industry for a few years.

When it comes to ‘doubling down’, you have to really think to yourself if you have the the conditions set for such a competitive choice as a lectureship. Do you have a lot of high impact publications and awards? I assume you are on post-doc contracts, did you get this money yourself or was it attached to a professor? I always felt that by the end of your PhD you’d kind of know if you had momentum going for a long-term academic position, even if you did change areas. It also sounds like your heart isn’t in it anyways.

If you were to pivot to something like policy, have you considered doing something like a POST fellowship whilst finishing your current contract? Since you’re unsure of where to go next, you may want to use your remaining 6-7 months exploiting all these schemes as a kind of ‘try before you buy’ experience, whilst also boosting soft skills on your CV. When you finish your contract these schemes become closed to you, even if you’re unemployed.

Hi ChemFI.

I probably should have left for industry as soon as I finished my PhD. However, as I have mentioned in previous blogposts, I had the opportunity to work abroad for a few years, and I couldn’t resist! And since coming back, I have been supporting both myself and my wife while she finishes her own PhD, so I have been following the lure of higher wages rather than taking the jump to something new.

Honestly, although I laid out some of the steps in the ‘doubling down’ section, I already know that much of what you have said is true – momentum is not on my side to achieve the next level, and neither is the passion. Which is why I ended up deciding that, after this contract, there will definitely be a career change. To what… well, that’s what the next few months are for! As you said in your final paragraph, I intend to use these next 7-8 months to gain some experience (difficult in lockdown, but maybe that will change as it eases) and also some new skills. “Try before you buy” is a good way to put it – I intend to begin one or two different courses and see how I feel about them. If I like them, then great, I’ll finish the qualification and try to get some real experience. If I don’t, at least I can cross something off the list!

Good point regarding the POST fellowship. I believe you’re right; it’s tied to various UK funding bodies, and therefore only available to people currently being funded by one of them. Something else to look into whilst I still can. Working in a university also provides access to many career seminars and a wide range of other career services (usually aimed at students!) that I’ve also been taking advantage of.

Thanks for commenting and sharing your thoughts.

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