The Career Pivot Series: From Academia To Politics, How To Change Careers In Your 40s

Picking a job or career and sticking with it for the whole of your working life is far less common than it once was. Also, in the five years since Covid upended pretty much everything for pretty much everyone, we’ve become more open to doing things differently at work – and not just within our existing jobs. Some people have pulled off a full career pivot and moved into different fields.

Perhaps you, or someone you’re close to, is wondering whether to pivot between careers and, if so, how. Perhaps you or they are thinking things like: what job would I want to do? Will I be any good at it? Are my skills transferable or not? Do I need to retrain at all? Shall I take what I’m offered or negotiate?  Does the organisation share my values? Should I stay where I am, if I can? Should I just keep my options open?

Welcome to our Career Pivot Series! Whatever your situation, we hope this series will be a place that can provide some inspiration for a career pivot, while also acknowledging its challenges. We’ll talk to women who have pivoted careers and to a coach who works with career pivoters, and we’ll also look at the psychology of it all. Because a career pivot is a bet – a bet on ourselves.

If there’s something you would like us to cover, or if have your own career-pivot story, please email us at [email protected]!

First up we talk to Natalie*, 42, who explains how leaving academia felt like a break-up, how she landed her current job, how her skills were transferable, how to handle an interview, and how to remember your own value.

How did Natalie go from being a university professor to now be a manager at a political party? Well, she has long embraced uncertainty and adventure. That’s how she ended up in New Zealand.

Natalie was born in Edinburgh, studied and worked abroad, and got her PhD in the U.K. She taught English as a second language in South Korea and also in Chile where she met her Argentinian husband. In 2011, when she landed an academic job in New Zealand, they moved here and have since had children (now aged eight and six).

Natalie had thought she would be an academic for life – perhaps at the same university, perhaps in a different city or country. But then the pandemic came along. “During Covid,” Natalie tells me, “the university didn’t do much to help academics who had small children, especially during lockdowns”.

She was already feeling rundown because of an ever-growing, unsustainable workload, and also felt under-appreciated. “I started thinking ‘do I really want to be here anymore?’. I was thinking about leaving but hadn’t got any concrete time-frame.”

So, 2021 wasn’t an actual leap year, but it was in terms of the leap she made. For the first time in a decade, Natalie scrolled through job listings, just to see what was out there – and straight away spotted a listing for the job she now has. “The political party completely aligned with my values, and I thought, ‘hey, I could maybe do this job’.”

She applied. “I thought it was a long shot. In the academic world, and in quite a few organisations, there is this narrative that you need to be a niche specialist in your job. So someone in a niche job might think ‘who else is going to want me?’. I had that initial feeling of ‘no one’s going to want an academic’. It was definitely tricky mentally to get over that.”

“That said, I was quite confident that my skills were transferable, but also knew I had to explain that in my cover letter. I wrote something like ‘you might not be used to this type of application, but here are the ways the things I do in my university job are the same things that you’re looking for in this job’.”

She handled a wide array of tasks at the university, where her days were varied. “I’d go from delivering a lecture to 200 students, to doing a one-on-one session with a PhD student, to doing two hours of deep archive [research] work. And I’ve dealt with a huge variety of people on different parts of their journeys.” She knows that whether they’re PhD students or members of a political party, they’re all, well, people.

“Also this might sound weird, but the basis of academia and the basis of politics is how we tell stories about the world and people’s place in the world.”

The Break-Up

To her surprise, Natalie got an interview. She was well-prepped and, in the room, also asked questions, particularly about how staff are treated. “To feel supported by my employer, particularly as someone with young children, was a big thing for me.” 

Because Natalie still had the security of the university job, she didn’t feel pressure to take whatever job came along. “I thought ‘I’m only going to take this if it’s really the right fit’. When I was offered the job, it was still really hard to even think about leaving academia. I knew I’d be giving up the identity of an academic.” So she took a weekend to really think about it, and discuss it with others – and decided to say yes.

“It was absolutely the right timing, but it was also such a big change. I didn’t expect to feel the degree of sadness and emotions that I felt. It was kind of a break-up with academia because it felt like leaving a relationship, and it was me who had split us up.”

A Good Move

When Natalie started talking about looking for a new job, some people were surprised. “Some academic colleagues, friends and family thought I’d struggle because they thought I was only trained to be an academic.”

When she told friends and colleagues about her career pivot, she said something along the lines of “‘yes the jobs might sound really different, but actually you’d be surprised by how doing X, Y and Z are similar’. And most people say ‘oh, that makes sense’.”

Natalie was warmly welcomed into her job, and there was no pressure to be up to speed on everything right away. She had wondered whether she would have the same degree of intellectual fulfilment at her new job – and she does.

“My ideas and my creative brain are being tested. I feel really privileged to have this job. I wouldn’t want to give it up.” She doubts she’ll return to academia, but isn’t completely ruling that out.

Natalie recommends that, if possible, you don’t quit a job before finding a new one. “When I applied for mine, I still had the security of the academic job, so I wasn’t feeling under pressure. And if you walk into an interview knowing you don’t have much to lose, that can give you confidence, so you aren’t in panic mode.”

Initially, Natalie had to juggle both jobs because she had to give three months’ notice, and needed to finish teaching her courses. “Thankfully my new employer was willing for me to only work part-time for those first few months.” But it was exhausting. “Ideally, I’d have had some time and space between the jobs.”

Remember Your Value

Natalie negotiated within the wide range of the salary band offered in the job. She also talked to her employer about Kiwisaver contributions, and when they’d discuss a potential pay rise (they agreed on six months).

She suggests that you negotiate both your salary and start date. “You might feel so excited that you’ve landed the job that you might just take what’s on offer. But if they’ve already chosen you, it’d be very unusual to give the job to someone else who can start a bit sooner.”

Natalie also thinks it’s important for employers to reject ageism. “Having been on hiring committees in both my current and my job at the university, I know that the qualities I really value in employees are reliability and a genuine commitment to the job, and those things come from people of all ages.” To her that’s more important than the person’s exact training or exact skills.

So Natalie reckons be open to a career pivot, like she was. “If someone offers you a job that sounds cool, go for it! Have an open mind. You might think ‘I didn’t imagine going in this direction, but here’s an opportunity, and I’ll see where it takes me’.”

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