By Martin Tillman, President, Global Career Compass

What is a mid-career transition and how do you know when you're in it? One way that change happens is when it occurs without any purposeful direction or planning. Unfortunately, for many NAFSA professionals in recent years, this kind of change has been the result of lay-offs and firings due to the global economic crisis in the late 2000's. A forced transition like this obviously leaves no time for developing a strategic plan and taking measured steps to get where you want to be. What I'd like to address in this post is the kind of transition where you are in control and that is defined by a series of planned transitional steps.

I'm going to use an arbitrary number of years and say that mid-career refers to a 10- to 15-year period after starting work in the field. Of course, given that we're all living longer - and working longer - a mid-point could occur at 15-20 years out, or even later, for some professionals. I think each individual is likely to self-define their career plateau at some mid-point stage.

When discussing this topic, I'm fond of using a baseball metaphor to say today's workforce is like a sports team - there is a "free agent" outlook on building a career for many young professionals. Commitment and loyalty seem to extend only until a better offer and salary come along. I'm not judging this practice, only stating a new reality. But, for those reaching mid-career in 2012, it's likely they have spent quite a bit of their career in just a few long-term roles. However, along with the security of longevity come several barriers to making a smooth transition to a new career path in our industry (or any other for that matter). Among the most difficult are:

  • Complacency: Feeling that there is no rush to prepare a new action plan or take out a resume to see whether it's up-to-date;
  • Fear: Stemming from the first point, one can feel insecure about venturing into the market for the first time in a decade or more; and
  • Lack of familiarity with social media: Job searching is not what it used to be. Along with the traditional tasks of preparing resumes and cover letters, it's absolutely necessary to be comfortable with using a Web site like LinkedIn to build a wider professional network and expand connections to colleagues.


The most important first step to take in managing a successful career transition is a self-assessment to determine the key priorities in one's personal and professional life. Ask yourself these important questions to begin the process:

  • Are you where you want to be? If not, do you have a vision of your new career role?
  • Do you know how to get from here to there? What's the roadmap you need to follow?
  • Are your present skills and experience a good fit for your new professional role? If not, what steps do you need to take to close the skill gap?
  • What's the most important aspect of the new direction you want to take? Money? Status? Location? Organizational culture? What else?
  • Do you have a game plan for marketing yourself along with your experience and skills?

Crafting Your Search Process

Once you've reflected on these and other questions that are important to you, it's time to move forward and outline the action steps necessary to advance your job search. Your self-assessment should enable you to craft a clear and focused message about your new career direction - a message that needs to be conveyed consistently throughout your job search. Whether at professional meetings, in private conversation and informational interviews, in a cover letter or online, you need to inform people why you're looking, where and for what type of assignment. It's essential to craft a search process that is purposeful and that builds upon the success and accomplishments of your career to date.

As I outlined in an earlier post, one of the most important elements of the job search process for the experienced professional is crafting a carefully planned networking strategy. Obviously, many years in the field will result in a broad network of professional contacts. If a job search is taking place after a lengthy period of employment, there's a lot at stake. This is why one of the most important first steps is to inform your most trusted colleagues and contacts that you are considering a career transition. And then you need to act on several tasks before launching your search:

  • Update your résumé. In my experience, it's highly likely that, in this instance, a resume has not been updated for a long period of time.
  • Assemble a list of close and trusted professional colleagues – a kind of "posse" of friends and advocates who can play a central role in providing support and ideas as the search begins.
  • Consider the importance of becoming proactive in the use of an online tool like LinkedIn. I believe it's an invaluable resource for conducting research about career opportunities at other institutions and organizations of interest, and for expanding your connectivity to others in the field.

In the current economic climate, the search process will very likely take longer than expected; I suggest planning, at a minimum, for a six-month transition period. Careful planning, purposeful self-assessment, and research, together with a focused "pitch" outlining your new career direction, will provide a strong foundation for a successful mid-career transition.

What are your tips for making a smooth career transition? Let us know on the NAFSA blog.

Martin Tillman is president of Global Career Compass, an international consultancy, and former associate director of career services at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is a regular contributor to International Educator magazine, and an authority on global workforce development issues and the impact of education abroad on career development.