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4 Ways to Quietly Test Drive a New Career

These strategies will help you discover whether you’re cut out for your dream job before quitting your current one 

By Nancy Collamer

The idea of changing careers in midlife can seem scary, which is why some people won’t leave their unfulfilling jobs. So how do you move past the fear, stop ruminating about switching fields and actually make the leap?
Well, as I once heard a therapist explain, “FEAR” is just an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real. That’s why you need to get out of your head and start testing out your idea.
It isn’t easy. As Richard Pascale notes in Surfing the Edge of Chaos: “Adults are much more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking than to think their way into a new way of acting.”

4 Career Test-Drive Methods

Fortunately, there are a number of ways you can test drive a new profession without quitting your job. Here are four to consider:

(MORE: Why You Should Have a Side Hustle)
1. Volunteer strategically. There’s a difference between volunteering because you should (like baking cupcakes for the church bazaar) and volunteering with the goal of furthering your career (such as when you sign up to run the social media campaign for an animal rights group). The latter is what I’m talking about.
You’ll want to target volunteering assignments and organizations that synch with your career-switching goal.
For example, if you think you might like to work for an environmental organization, volunteer with a group like the Sierra Club. If you want to test out your interest in fundraising and development, volunteer to work on the capital campaign at, say, your local hospital.  
Professional associations in the field you’re eyeing can be smart options as well. Those groups are always looking for people to help out with events and leadership roles.
Even large national nonprofits such as AARP offer volunteer opportunities that could help you learn new skills to ease the transition to your second act.
(MORE: What to Do When You’ve Lost the Passion for Your Career)
For instance, the AARP Foundation is now recruiting volunteers for its Tax-Aide program to assist people (generally, over 60 years old) prepare and file their 2014 tax returns. Prior tax experience isn’t necessary; AARP will train you on the latest preparation forms and software.

You can even “volunteer” where you now work as a way of springboarding to your next career.
One of my clients, who was a project manager at a pharmaceutical company, volunteered to help organize and run a local Toastmasters International group at her office. Toastmasters teaches and promotes public speaking and leadership skills and her volunteer work provided many of the  necessary assets to succeed in the business she now runs as a public speaking coach.
Like any endeavor, the more effort you expend, the greater the return. So plan to devote at least three to six months at an organization for your career-switch test drive.
To learn more about nonprofit volunteer opportunities that could help you enter a new field, I recommend visiting these websites:, and
(MORE: How to Create a Profitable Second-Act Career)

2. Take a class. Going back to school — whether you’re enrolling for a college degree, a community college certificate or just a single online class — can be a fun way to see whether a different field would be a good fit for you.
You’ll have opportunities to interact with professors, lecturers and other students who are actively engaged in that industry. You might also be able to line up hands-on activities, such as internships or fieldwork, which can help you decide whether to make the career switch.
Fortunately, there are a multitude of online and in-person venues to further your education, with varying price points.
For example, if you dream of writing the next great mystery novel, you can enroll in online classes offered by the Gotham Writer’s Workshop. To pursue a second-act career in health care, you might take a few courses at a community college. Then, if you’re hooked, you can look for a more intensive program.
3. Pursue a side hustle. A lot of people want to start their own business, but life as an entrepreneur can be a risky proposition. That’s why Pam Slim, author of Escape From Cubicle Nation and the upcoming Body of Work, advises starting a small business on the side before quitting your job.

She calls this a “side hustle” and says it’s a “part-time job with powerful potential.” For more on this idea, read Slim’s article about side hustles on Next Avenue.

I wrote Slim and asked her how a side hustle could be useful to people wanting to test-drive an idea for launching a new business in a different field.

"One of the benefits of working on your business while still employed is that it allows you to see if the business is as fun in reality as it is in the fantasy stage,” she said. “When you don't need to depend on the business to generate revenue immediately, it allows you the time to set it up, to test your assumptions and to try a few things without suffering economic consequences."


If you do decide to have a side hustle, make sure it won’t jeopardize your current job. Slim offers three tips:

  • Make sure you are not violating any clauses of your employment agreement.
  • Be certain you accomplish all your job duties and performance goals.
  • And never work on the side business during work hours or with work equipment. 

Otherwise, Slim says, you could be terminated by your boss.
4. Request a sabbatical. Taking an extended time away from the office can give you time to research a new field, volunteer, travel, learn new skills or do some combination of those field-testing methods.
Think you have to work in academia to enjoy a sabbatical? Not true. Companies such as American Express, Charles Schwab and Hallmark now offer programs that let employees take time off — anywhere from a few weeks to several months or more.
According to the 2013 Employee Benefits Report issued by the Society of Human Resource Management, 16 percent of U.S. employers offer unpaid sabbaticals and 4 percent offer paid ones.
Admittedly, this option won’t work for everyone. In many cases, sabbaticals are reserved for long-time employees with senior-level positions.
But even if your employer doesn’t have a formalized leave program, you might be able to talk with your boss about setting up a sabbatical for you. Check out the sites and for tools, templates and advice on how to write and present a proposal.
Twists Along Your Test Drive

Whichever strategies you use to test-drive a new career, expect to encounter unexpected twists and turns along the journey.

But by surreptitiously meeting new people, learning new skills and reaching outside your comfort zone, you’ll gain the courage and expertise you need for your career reinvention.

Photograph of Nancy Collamer
Nancy Collamer, M.S., is a semi-retirement coach, speaker and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. You can now download her free workbook called 25 Ways to Help You Identify Your Ideal Second Act on her website at (and you'll also receive her free bi-monthly newsletter). Read More
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