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The Big Pivot: 7 Insights from a Finance MBA-Turned-Psychotherapist

January 11, 2019 | Filed in: Your Career

The Big Pivot is a new series featuring women who have made major career reinventions (think going to work in totally different industries) on why they did it, how they did it, and what they learned. First up is Susan Bernard, who, after earning her MBA in finance in the 1980s and working for over fifteen years in banking and human resources, had a change of heart. In search of more meaningful work, she returned to school to become a psychotherapist. “As the cliché goes: The worst day I have as a therapist is better than the best day I ever had as an HR executive,” she says. “I’m happier and more effective by a multiple of a hundred.” And in her private practice, she often advises clients about how to mindfully plan their career transitions (ancient Tibetan goatherd bells are involved).

Explore what truly motivates you.

“Somewhere in my mid-thirties, I became disenchanted with my role as a crackerjack HR professional. It was a good job, but I’m not money-motivated or particularly adept at corporate political gamesmanship. I was in search of meaningful work that was intellectually stimulating and emotionally involved—something that Buddhists refer to as ‘right livelihood,’ or being in flow. I wanted my work to enhance my spirit. The ‘90s and the early aughts were the era of books like What Color Is Your Parachute? and Finding Your Own North Star. There was a belief that there could be a deep connection between who we are and the work we do, and I was in search of that connection.”

Don’t rush—take time to mull.

“My transition from HR to psychotherapy was a multi-year process. At first, I was ambivalent about whether I should pursue a second career. I knew it would require a different Master’s degree, extensive post-graduate training, and a lot of pain and suffering before I would feel professionally secure again. I spent a lot of time in therapists’ offices trying to puzzle out whether it would be a good move. My own therapist was a role model who inspired me. One pivotal moment was when I started participating in group therapy under his auspices, and I found myself giving damned good advice to the other members. A lightbulb went off. I thought, Oh, sheesh! The therapist is barely working! I’m doing all the work here! I think I could be good at this.

Be a researcher.

“A career transition should be a well thought-out and well-researched process. I’m a proponent of doing extensive reading and networking before you make any decisions. Make sure you have lots of conversations with people who are in the field you hope to enter. By the time I applied for social work school at NYU, I was very well-informed about what it took to be a good therapist. I did many years of my own therapy; I read every therapy-related book I could get my hands on; and I went to various conferences. Being steeped in information helped me feel confident in my decision.”

Be realistic about supply and demand.

“Don’t choose a new career until you’ve looked at the laws of supply and demand within the industry. What are you up against? What is the competition like? What is the demand for the service you hope to provide? What is the problem people in that industry are trying to solve? And what is the role you plan to play in solving that problem for a company, industry, or individual?”

Make a gradual transition.

“My career transition wasn’t a leap of faith. I kept my full-time day job for a few years as I added on. I attended my social work classes at night and on weekends. I also had to do an extensive internship—I worked at a homeless shelter and at a community-based health clinic—on weekends and evenings. Everyone at my full-time job knew I was pursuing a second career, and my boss was very supportive. I still took my day job seriously, but I had one foot out the door, and I was transparent about that. And my social work training ended up enhancing my work as an HR professional during my final years at the firm.”

Run the numbers.

“Something that initially scared me was: How much will it cost to get a second Master’s degree? How many lost hours of gainful employment will I have to sacrifice while I’m training? It’s humbling to go from being a well-respected HR professional with a nice office and a salary and benefits, to being a newly-minted social worker who was working weekends just to keep it together. I had to ask myself, What are the sacrifices I might have to make? Am I willing to make them to achieve my bigger goal? What is the minimum income I can make in order to sustain myself as a single person in my early forties living in New York? I settled on a modest number, and then I taught myself how to be an ardent minimalist (without being a cheapskate). In my first few years as a psychotherapist, I did part-time work at a local hospital in addition to serving my growing private practice. Within a three-year period, I had reestablished the income level I had before making my career change. It helped that I knew how to be happy with just enough.”

“Be present for the struggle.”

“This is a piece of advice I give all the time—I should patent it. You need a lot of courage when you make a career transition, and you’ve got to fight to get where you want to go. It takes initiative, confidence, and being a self-starter. You also need a support system—not 500 Facebook friends, but two or three people who are in your corner and can buck you up on a rainy day. When I was mulling my career transition, I went to an event at a bookstore where a woman was channeling spirits. She selected me out of the audience and asked me what I needed. I said, ‘I need the courage to go back to school and get my MSW.’ And then this woman—god knows how she did this—used her vocal chords to channel ancient Tibetan goatherd bells. It was by far the freakiest experience of my life to hear this sound emerging from a blond-haired, 40-something woman in Park Slope. But right after that, I filled out my application for social work school. Still, there were many lean years before I felt secure in my second career, and I had to continually summon that gung-ho, can-do spirit. But being present for the struggle taught me that the hardest climb sometimes leads to the brightest view.”


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Tory Hoen is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and brand strategist. She spent five years as the Creative Director of Brand at MM.LaFleur (where she founded The M Dash!) and has written for New York Magazine, Fortune, Bon Appétit, and Condé Nast Traveler. Read more of Tory's posts.


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