20 Feb 2012

From accountancy to… lion taming?

For Sarah Dale, occupational psychologist and author, any change of career presents the opportunity to apply past experience

Becoming a chartered accountant is not a soft option. Qualifying is a hard-won achievement. So why would anyone change direction after all that?

Careers are arguably less predictable than ever. The pace of technological change, and the seismic shifts in world economies, means that many people face daunting uncertainty and change. Prosperous job security is rare.

All this can mean that we might want to (or have to) change course over our working life. New interests may develop. Old ones might be re-ignited. Our responsibilities and priorities might alter with our circumstances. Or we might simply fancy a change.

From accountancy to nursing, psychology or teaching

Radical changes are possible. I qualified as a chartered accountant and went on to become a chartered occupational psychologist. Others have become nurses and primary school teachers.

For me, the change came about when I was two years post-qualification, when the question of what next? loomed large.

The people aspect of work, always a fascination, became increasingly interesting with the more clients I met, working in all sorts of roles and organisations. What made work either rewarding and motivating, or stressful and exhausting? Could that be changed? What makes a good boss?

How do people work together effectively? What about burnout? What can be done to improve peoples experience of work, and productivity, given that we all spend so much of our lives doing it?

Inspiration versus aversion

Reasons for changing direction can either be inspiring (pastures new offering novelty and excitement) or stressful (a sense of not being able to stand another day of the job you are currently in, when anything starts to seem attractive as an alternative).

The inspiring reasons are usually a more sustainable force towards a rewarding new direction. Aversion is very powerful (and extremely uncomfortable), but can result in a hasty leap in a new direction which you may later regret.


When we contemplate change in our careers it is important to nurture some resilience. The process of transition has three stages: endings, the neutral zone and new beginnings.

The neutral zone (which I think of as camping) is temporary, exciting, uncertain and often uncomfortable; a stage between old familiarities and an unknown new start.

This stage is a vital and creative stage of exploring your options, rather than being tempted to settle for the first permanent direction that presents itself; a temptation that can be particularly strong if you are suffering from aversion from your current job.

Camping is about investigating ideas, weighing up pros and cons, seeking support and preparing to make an informed decision.

My first degree was in psychology. I found myself unearthing old notes and making new sense of them. I talked to people, attended conferences, undertook some career coaching and thoroughly researched courses.

By the time I emerged from the camping phase, I had a clear and committed decision to return to university to specialise in occupational psychology.

Challenges and benefits

For me, money was a concern so I changed the company car for a bike and took in lodgers. But experience tells us that if you really want to make a change work, you will find a way.

For Sarah Goldberg, who now works in the NHS (and completed a PhD in the nursing field), the biggest challenge was gaining formal recognition of previous experience.

As Sarah says, to succeed you need a high sense of professionalism in everything I do, so it is unthinkable to miss a deadline, or not to treat all clients (ie patients to me) with respect and courtesy. Working as an accountant I developed exceptionally good project management skills.

I too have never regretted the hard years spent gaining that experience. These skills are valuable in just about any new career. Probably even lion taming. 


Spirits up

economia is giving away two copies of Sarah Dale's book, Keeping Your Spirits Up (£7.99, Creating Focus Publishing) to the contributors of the best two comments about this story. Email your comments with contact details to economia@icaew.com