How I Did a Career 180 When I Was Almost 40

By Jennifer MusselmanLearnVest

You wouldn’t expect it from my childhood: I’d grown up poor in Iowa, and I watched my mother struggle to work full-time and raise six kids on her own, while wishing that Prince Charming would come. (He never did.)

She made ends meet using Sunday newspaper coupons, public assistance and homemade mac-and-state-issued-cheese.

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Fast forward a couple of decades, and there I was, living in California and working an executive-level communications and PR job at Nickelodeon, where I’d been for nearly 15 years. I had the financial security that came with my position, including a sizable company pension, a 401(k) plan and a small money market account. I carried my mortgage on a condo as confidently as I carried my Balenciaga bag.

I was a single woman in her late 30′s, and on the whole, things were good.

As a senior director of corporate communications, I spent the bulk of my time in the office–and the rest running from studios to offices to sets. But my passion for the job was waning. I wasn’t miserable, per se, but I wasn’t feeling it anymore. And I was watching the company conduct rounds of layoffs during the recession.

I’d always vowed that money wouldn’t dictate my happiness, but I was used to stability. Changing career paths would likely mean a pay cut. Without a partner or family to support me–not to mention my mortgage, credit card debt and bills–I was afraid to abandon my executive life. Kind of like how people are afraid to abandon a relationship even when it’s no longer working.

The easy thing would have been to set my sights on a similar job in the same field, but I wanted to try something new.

Plotting My Great Escape

While still working my corporate job, I started taking classes at a local college to see where my interests lay–and if I could be a student again after being out of school for 15 years. I always loved psychology, so two semesters later, I plunged head-first into a graduate program in clinical psychology at night, while working full-time.

The days were long, and I was tired, but I felt alive again!

At work, layoffs were still happening, and I knew that I could be next. I decided if that happened, I’d commit myself to school full-time. I was actually excited at the possibility! Although my emergency fund would cover me for a few months, I hoped that I’d get a severance package to help with my transition into student-hood.

When I entered my boss’s office one summer morning in 2010, I was surprised with the very walking papers that I’d been expecting. Only, instead of celebrating, I panicked! You know that feeling when you’re going to break up with someone, but they beat you to it? It was like that–I was prepared, but scared nonetheless.

There I was, free from corporate shackles, but not free from my living expenses, graduate school tuition, credit card debt and a home mortgage. Most of my money was in long-term investments and untouchable without paying severe penalties. At least I had gotten the severance package I hoped for–a safety net to recreate my life.

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So I leapt into survival mode, becoming a full-time graduate student at 37 years old.