Perseverance, and a strong nerve

It takes more than just going back to school to make a successful change, career counselors say

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / May 16, 2010

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Diana Kennedy spent much of her 20s jumping from job to job in magazine publishing, putting in long days doing demographic research and leaving the office with little satisfaction.

Home was the only place she felt like herself. She could spend hours in her New York area condominium decorating and redecorating, but she hesitated to risk a stable job to pursue a career doing what she enjoyed most: interior design.

Then, shortly after her 30th birthday, Kennedy made the leap, quitting her job, selling her condo, and using the proceeds to help pay for a graduate program at Suffolk University’s New England School of Design.

Today, she’s an assistant designer at Daher Interior Design, an Andover firm with clients across New England, New York, and Florida.

“Sometimes, when you get to the point where you don’t want to do what you’re doing anymore, it’s not a risk at all,’’ said Kennedy, now 35.

“It’s like having an epiphany. The impetus to move forward and to change becomes an inevitability,’’ she added.

Kennedy’s move from publishing to interior design shows what it takes for thirtysomethings to execute a successful career switch.

In her case, it took perseverance, more than four years of graduate school, and a strong nerve when times got tough. She admits to plenty of uncertain moments along the way.

“It was very daunting,’’ Kennedy said. “I thought at one point that it was never going to end.’’

Kennedy’s process started with a step that many career counselors say is often overlooked by young people hungry for a career change: doing extensive research to determine whether the desire to switch fields is practical and possible.

“There is a common misperception among people that if you just go back to school everything will work out,’’ said Dan King, principal of Career Planning and Management Inc. of Boston. “There ends up being a lot of disappointment for people who don’t do the research on the area they want to get into.’’

Much of Kennedy’s research involved finding the right graduate program in a community where she could build a successful design career after graduation.

Most of the schools in New York required extensive undergraduate studies in art and design, something she lacked because her major at High Point University in North Carolina was English.

After months of investigation and introspection, Kennedy settled on Suffolk University in Boston, where she could gain entry after completing an intensive 10-week program in the arts.

She started at Suffolk’s school of design in September 2005.

Her degree program included a thesis that took 18 months to complete and a 120-hour internship in Suffolk’s facilities planning department, where she helped design and redesign academic and office spaces.

All the while she was watching the economy plummet and firms stop hiring.

Despite all her work, she still faced the prospect of ending up without a job.

Kennedy graduated in May 2009, with the economy still in recession. Interviews were hard to come by. She had one with a firm that specialized in kitchen cabinets, another in office cubicles.

“Nothing really excited me,’’ she said.

Then came an opportunity with Daher Interior Design. The firm’s portfolio would allow her to focus on both residential and commercial spaces for an array of clients.

The clients ranged from businesses interested in remodeling large offices to families seeking to renovate kitchens or add new touches to vacation homes.

Kennedy’s education and work experience at Suffolk, along with her determination, gave her a leg up over other applicants, she said.

Daher hired her in January, almost five years after she left New York and a career that left her bored and unfulfilled.

She’s earning thousands of dollars less than she made in publishing, but is doing the work that she loves.

“It’s such a relief,’’ she said of her new job.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I go home every day and feel like I’ve accomplished so much more,’’ Kennedy added.

You started on a career path after college, but you’ve passed 30 and want to make a change. Is graduate school the answer? Here are some tips:

How do I get started?

Do your homework, says Dan King of Career Planning and Management Inc. of Boston. King says many career switchers go back to earn another degree without fully assessing the job prospects after graduation. "People feel like going back to school will get them away from a job that’s tearing at their souls," he said. "But then they have trouble getting themselves situated in a new career. Education alone isn’t enough. You need to do some research and know how to market your qualifications."

What graduate degrees are hot?

The Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts ranks the following five graduate programs as the most popular in 2009: Business management, law, education, engineering, and biotechnology/life sciences.

Where can I learn about training requirements for specific careers?

One resource is the state’s Career Information System, an online tool to help you match desired occupations to the right training and educations program. Its address is Another is the state’s system of 37 One-Stop Career Centers. To find one near you, go to

Is another degree the only way to break into those jobs?

No. Career planners note that health care firms and energy companies have an array of financial, administrative, and communications positions that offer a more direct point of entry to those fields. Getting experience in those environments may make for an easier transition than showing up on their doorstep with a diploma.

Casey Ross can be reached at