Alternative Careers

Have you fallen out of love with your career? You’ve invested money, time, talent, sweat and even tears into your chosen profession, yet you find yourself fantasizing about handing out the smiley face stickers at a big box store. Or maybe you just need a change.

There must be something else you can do and get paid for it, right? So what gets in the way? Probably fear in the form of “what-ifs.” What if I fail? What if I lose my professional identity? My skills, expertise, security, etc.?

But fear can have a powerfully positive effect. Jeff Wise describes fear as an “ancient and automatic resolve” that can help us do better at tasks that challenge us. (Psychology Today, November 2010).

These anxious thoughts cannot be ignored but need to be dealt with directly. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “We gain strength and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face. . . . We must do that which we think we cannot.”

What Happened to Me

After working several years in an innovative acute partial hospital program, I became the director. I just added my new administrative duties on top of all my regular staff responsibilities. Let me tell you this is a sure-fire recipe for burnout.

Feeling absolutely terrible about myself and my work, I began to pay attention to the characteristics and dynamics of people who viewed healthcare’s demands as challenges, and I saw them thrive. So I did some research and started to tell everyone my findings.

As I fielded more requests to speak, I realized I could parlay my passion for my message into a career.

Being a healthcare professional gave me credibility. To my amazement I found individuals and organizations were willing to pay for important health information, especially when it is delivered in a humorous, interactive format.

To learn more about the speaking profession, I studied speakers and performers whom I admired. I joined the National Speakers Association, attended workshops and networked with other speakers. Qualifying as a professional member of this organization gave me more credibility and confidence. This is an example of an entrepreneurial alternative career forged by burnout. Crisis does create opportunity.

What Else Can You Do?

Healthcare professionals use the aforementioned transferrable skills to start consultation and coaching businesses. They become medical writers and teachers. Informatics also is emerging as a hot career prospect. With the government endorsement and a target date of 2014 for electronic health records, opportunities will abound, so get tech-savvy.

Federal and state positions can be found through web listings. Other possibilities exist with insurance and legal practices, and pharmaceutical, research and medical equipment companies. For example, a medical technologist at a recent job fair spoke of being hired by one of their vendors to demonstrate equipment and train staff.

Even with several options out there, pursuing an alternative career is like jumping from the known to the unknown. Well, before you leap, there are important steps to consider.

Take Inventory

The first one involves a personal inventory of you! Get your laptop, Blackberry, PC or paper tablet (remember paper?) and do the following:

1. List your strengths, talents, interests and achievements.

2. Do a timeline of your life history, including your career path.

3. Reflect on your educational and career goals. How many were accomplished? Which ones do you still hope to achieve?

4. Write where you’d like to be (professionally) 1 year from now and 5 years from now.

Now write down all the limitations and areas of dissatisfaction with your current position. Complete sentences like “I wish I could …..” or “Somebody should …..” in relation to your work. These thoughts are your motivators for change. Irritation drives change.

Consider Florence Nightingale. She was dissatisfied with the poor medical practices of the British Military Health System. Going outside of her caregiver role, she pioneered statistics and evidence that revolutionized healthcare and redefined the nursing profession. Her alternative careers included researcher, medical writer, statistician, public health advocate and educator. Yet, Nightingale, first and foremost, retained nurse as her primary identity. An alternate career builds onto your professional identity.

Your particular dissatisfactions also point to a need and possible niche for your expertise and interest. This sets the scene for a heart and head agreement in which you find yourself doing the career that’s really a fit for you in healthcare or a related field.

In other words, your irritation with your career (what’s not working), can lead to inspiration (what else to do) and then to insight (what you’re capable of). Implement your action plan and you’re on your way.

Sometimes dissatisfaction with the career is not the issue. Situations such as injury, downsizing or a change in family obligations can force a healthcare professional to make a career change. When dealing with such tough circumstances, keep in mind that your critical thinking, communication, teamwork and flexibility are transferrable skills to many other fields.

Time to Search

After completing your personal inventory, start an Internet search. One of the best sites I found is University of Pennsylvania’s website ( Alternative careers for nurses are described, job titles are listed, and there are excellent library and web resources.

The website is touted by Fortune magazine as the best place on the web to prepare a job search. Other career sites are the Riley Guide ( and WetFeet (

Going to ADVANCE job fairs gives you access to recruiters, information and great networking opportunities. Find and interview professionals relevant to your interests. Ask them the positives and negatives about their career, as well as the job outlook.

Also be sure to check out professional organizations. Ask to attend a meeting. Volunteer or shadow a professional in a related field.

Pursuing or creating an alternative career is a process not an event. There will be setbacks or moments of doubt. Keep focused with faith in your abilities. You’ll know you’ve made the right career choice when you can say, “This (career) is who I am.”

Rita E. Miller is a certified psychiatric and mental health nurse with more than 2 decades experience in group, individual and marital therapy. Currently, she is a therapist in the private practice of Peter Thomas & Associates in Wyomissing, PA.

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