If you’ve got the drive and passion for a new field of work, you can change careers no matter your age.
That’s the resounding message from Zoë Black, Nicolai Ahlstrand and Susan Mizrahi. These 3 UQ postgrad alumni are now pioneers in their respective industries and living proof that it’s never too late to change careers.
But it’s one thing to say you can drop everything (including an established career) to pursue a newfound ambition. Doing so is another – and it takes time and work.
We asked these career-changing role models:
how to know if it’s time to change careers
how they made the change themselves
what advice they have for others who want to do the same.
Whether you’re on the fence about leaving your current field, already committed to making a move or wondering “am I too old to change careers?”, read on for inspiration and practical tips to help you on your journey.
How to know when it’s time to change careers
Some people experience a lightbulb moment where they suddenly realise what they should be doing with their career (or that they should leave their current job). For others, it takes time and self-reflection to get into the right headspace to consider the possibilities. Susan, Nicolai and Zoë have shared their stories below to show how every career change is unique.
Susan's story: a realisation and a reason
I’ve always deliberately sought to make career changes, moving in and out of sectors to influence systemic change.
Chief Sustainability Officer, Australia Post
For Susan Mizrahi, the “aha!” moment came from recognising that corporations today have just as much money and social influence as governments – if not more. This was a stark contrast to how things were during the post-Cold War era when she was growing up, where states were perceived as the dominant actors and changemakers in society.
The problem is that many organisations don’t use their resources to full effect.
“Most companies aren’t necessarily seeking to do the wrong things, but they don’t know how to do the right thing,” Susan says.
“Businesses need to develop the ability to positively impact society and the environment, especially given the complexity of issues facing the planet today.”
This realisation led to Susan transitioning from her human rights work in Washington D.C. to become Australia Post’s first Chief Sustainability Officer – and just the second in the country. Now she leads a team of sustainability and corporate responsibility experts. Her team focuses on how Australia Post can enhance its positive impacts while reducing the negative (e.g. carbon emissions, packaging).
And this wasn’t her first major career change.
Prior to her 10 years as a human rights advocate and campaigner, specialising in areas such as China-Tibet relations and human trafficking, Susan worked in the communications sector.
She recognises her career as having 3 key phases:
human rights advocacy
Yet even while jumping between these different fields, Susan’s career paths have been united by 2 common goals:
developing herself professionally
making a real difference in the world.
“In each role, I was able to build on the skills and knowledge from the previous phase,” she says.
“Through each aspect of my career, I have focused on bringing about positive, systemic change.”
Nicolai’s story: circumstances and a spark
I could’ve still been where I was before, but I wouldn’t feel fulfilled like I do now.
Chief Transformation Officer, Resources Safety & Health Queensland
For Nicolai Ahlstrand, who previously worked in resource sector infrastructure development, the final push to make a career change came from the mining downturn of 2015. After having to let a lot of people go, he came to the realisation that he couldn’t stay either.
“Eventually I just told the boss it was my turn to go,” Nick says.
“That redundancy provided the vehicle I needed to get out and make the transition to the public service.”
This move had already been on Nick’s mind for a while, since he started noticing how the mine operators engaged with regulators whenever they attended a site.
“I knew I didn’t want to be an actual mine inspector,” Nick says.
“But I wanted to learn more about how it all works. I wanted to find a level of involvement across the industry, something that would enable me to influence health and safety outcomes for these people working in such a high-risk industry.”
Now, as the Chief Transformation Officer at Resources Safety & Health Queensland (RSHQ), Nick gets to do just that. He supports regulators and mine operators in ensuring health and safety standards are met through the organisation’s unique operating model. He's also responsible for managing RSHQ's long-term transformational programs that span across data, digital and business change
Even though the career change was somewhat forced upon him, Nick hasn’t looked back for a moment.
“There’s no way I’d come close to gaining the same knowledge so quickly in my old role,” he says.
“I’ve learned more about the industry in 2-3 years than I did in my 15 years in the previous job. And it’s easier to sleep at night knowing I’ve played a role to help improve safety and health outcomes for mine workers.”
Zoë’s story: self-reflection and a social enterprise
I’m a workaholic. So if I’m going to be working so much, I should at least enjoy the work I’m doing.
CEO and Co-founder, Happy Paws Happy Hearts
Zoë Black used postgraduate study to pivot her career – but not in the direction she originally intended.
“I actually started my MBA with the plan of becoming a project manager,” Zoë says.
“But a whole range of things led me to changing the course and finding a pursuit more aligned to my values.”
Previously working in the commercial construction sector, she is now the co-founder of Happy Paws Happy Hearts Foundation, a social enterprise that brings isolated people and rescued animals together for everyone’s benefit.
While Zoë did have a lightbulb moment, self-reflection was the key to her considering a career change in the first place.
“Before I left the commercial sector, I spent some time reflecting on how to get back to the things that brighten my life,” she says.
“Then, while volunteering with the RSPCA, I got to see how powerful the work being done there is, and I saw people working towards a clear vision and purpose.”
It was during her extra work in the social sector via the MBA that Zoë discovered the concept of social enterprise and started exploring how her societal interests could combine with her commercial experience.
“It was a very ‘wow, worlds come together’ moment.”
5 key steps for changing careers
A lightbulb moment and some inspirational examples aren’t enough to make a successful career change. So, we asked Zoë, Nicolai and Susan to share their advice for chasing your new ambitions.
Our alumni were unanimous in saying that connections are essential for a career change. Building relationships with professionals in your new industry is important. Doing so gives you the chance to learn from them and hear their experiences.
“Never shy away from approaching people who seem interesting or are relevant to your field,” Zoë says.
“It’s key to create a good network of mentors who care about you as well as people who challenge you.”
For those starting from scratch in a new industry, postgraduate study provides a great opportunity to begin building these connections. Developing those strong bonds with peers is one of Nick’s fondest memories of his time back at uni.
“I can still call on them today if need be,” he says.
Finding your feet in a new industry can be tricky. Susan recommends repositioning yourself and your background in a way that adds value to your desired field.
“Think carefully about how your existing experience can benefit an employer in that new space,” she says.
“For example, the learning from my human rights advocacy proved incredibly helpful in tackling social sustainability challenges, as I was able to combine a technical, corporate and governmental perspective.”
Consider how your unique career history could set you apart from others in your new field. Then use that to your advantage.
You’ve done well in your current career for a reason. Believe that you’ll thrive in your new field too.
“Have confidence in your ability,” says Nick.
“If you’re competent and confident, you can contribute to the success of any organisation.”
Zoë agrees but knows that taking the leap can be frightening, especially for perfectionists.
“Fear of failure is big for us all,” she says.
“You just have to recognise life doesn’t have to be perfect – because it isn’t and never will be. But the best endeavours often come from your biggest failures.”
Susan has a similar warning about not letting fear paralyse you.
“Some people are frightened of change, but it’s around us all the time,” she says.
“Sometimes resisting change is more harmful to your career and wellbeing than taking the leap.”
For some career changes, postgraduate study is essential. And even when it’s not, a master’s degree or graduate diploma can go a long way in helping you get into your new industry.
From her human rights work to her sustainability roles, Susan has used further education to stay a step ahead every step of the way.
“Postgraduate academic study was essential to my success with both career changes,” she says.
Nick agrees. His postgrad study reassured him that his instincts about running a business were correct. It also taught him even better ways of doing so.
“Learnings from the MBA still help me every day,” he says.
“Just the other day, I used an extract from one of my assignments to help me complete a board report.”
Zoë is a strong advocate for self-reflection, as this puts you in the right headspace to identify what you truly want to pursue and make sure you’re ready to change careers.
“It’s too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and miss out on revisiting those hobbies and aspects of work that bring you joy,” she says.
“Try to find time in the week, even if it’s just a few hours, to get back to something you previously enjoyed.
“And ask yourself the tough questions, like ‘who am I as a person?’ For example, I know I’m a workaholic – so if I’m going to be working so much, I should at least enjoy the work I’m doing.”
Susan also sees the value in developing a deeper understanding of yourself and your motivations.
“If you’re energised by your work, that’s what makes it meaningful,” she says.
“Always follow your interests and seek what makes your heart beat faster.”
If you’ve read this far, you won’t be surprised by how these alumni responded when we asked them: “is it ever too late to change careers?”
That’s a definite and confident no from all three.
By following the practical advice above, you too can pursue a newfound passion – no matter your age or prior work experience.