Starting over in mid-career

#SAMid is back from vacation! Kristen Abell shares what it was like to start over in mid-career. Thank you, Kristen for sharing your story.

Three years ago, I was 35 and running a university housing department of approximately 1300 students and growing. I was presenting at conferences and serving on committees all over the place. You name it, I had my fingers in it, as any high-performing mid-level student affairs career woman does.

What I also had were severe health problems – both physical and mental, a ridiculously high stress level, and not nearly enough support to keep going for much longer. I also had a strong interest in learning more about web technology – specifically building and maintaining websites – and not enough time to spend on that interest.

And then I interviewed and accepted a position that was not only a step into a completely different department, but a step down – into a position as a web developer for the university. I was no longer a mid-level professional by most standards (though I still consider myself mid-career). In fact, I was starting practically from the beginning. The learning curve was steep, but I was doing something I enjoyed, I was learning a ton of new stuff, and I wasn’t killing myself in the process.

Was it hard to start over? You bet. I still have people asking me how I like my “new” job – you know, the one I’ve been at for two-and-a-half years now. There were a number of people who just didn’t understand – I mean, the career ladder is only supposed to go up for those people that are competent, right? Also, as I got uninvited from certain meetings and groups, I definitely felt the weight my director position had held – and the weight I didn’t have now. To be honest, that part of it sucks pretty hardcore. There’s nothing like having doors that used to be opened to you suddenly slammed in your face – not because you’ve changed as a person, but because the work you do has changed. On the flip side, I figured out who my real friends and colleagues were pretty quickly – and I’ve been able to maintain relationships with them.

Here’s the thing – people say it’s never too late to start over, and they’re right. You can even do it mid-career – believe me, I know. As long as you can understand and deal with the fact that there may be repercussions for that move. But weigh it against what you’re trying to do and make sure those repercussions weigh more than the benefits before you give into them. For me, they haven’t. And because of the depth of my experience, I’ve been given opportunities that others starting out in this career from the beginning probably haven’t been given. These often allow me a chance at leadership that I might never have gotten otherwise.

I know I’m not your typical mid-career student affairs professional – and I’ll be honest, I sort-of love that. It fits with the twisty, curvy path I’ve chosen to take in life. Is this path for everyone? Hell, no. But if you’re a brave soul who is looking for something different, don’t be afraid to turn down the road less taken. I promise you, it’s doable – and I’d even argue it’s infinitely more interesting.

Kristen Abell

Kristen Abell is a web developer at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and has been in student affairs for fifteen years, in a variety of roles. She’s worked primarily in housing and women’s centers at three different universities over that time. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, women’s studies and English and a master’s in social welfare from theUniversity of Kansas.

Kristen has been blogging since 2006, and she is a cofounder of and blogger at the Student Affairs Women Talk Tech collaborative blog. She has presented both regionally and nationally on various subjects in students affairs.

In addition to student affairs, Kristen blogs frequently about the issue of mental illness, especially depression. She edited and contributed to the Committed e-series and book on mental illness in student affairs with colleague Sue Caulfield.

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