Opinion & Editorial

How to Find Your Passion with a Successful Mid-Career Shift


If you’ve found yourself neck-deep in a dissatisfying career, even taking one or two classes of interest can lead your career in a new and unprecedented direction.

We spoke with the School of Continuing & Professional Studies’ (CAPS) Associate Dean for Academics, Pat Matthews, who distilled her years of experience into reflections and stories of University College students who have undergone powerful metamorphoses. Keep reading to learn more.

Can you talk about some examples of students who came into the CAPS (formerly University College), program looking to discover a new passion?

Most of our students actually come to us from the other direction. They have very practical considerations—advancing their career, completing a degree—but then discover a passion.

One student who comes to mind is a single mom who came to finish a Bachelor of Science degree. She had been working at a department store and decided to continue further, achieving a master’s degree in American Culture Studies. Now she works at the National Archives and Records Administration. She came into the program with practical considerations, but discovered a passion and advanced further than originally intended. If you ask, she describes her educational experience as life-changing.

Another example is a student who came to us with a strong passion for sustainability and a desire to complete her degree. She was actually able to move into a new position in her field before even graduating. We also had a student whose career began in the military, and he came to CAPS for a Doctor of Liberal Arts degree. Through the program, he worked with a faculty member and a dean to develop a course that combines classic liberal-arts texts with the study of leadership. Another student began as a pre-med student and worked with a medical school professor in his lab—he later told us the work she produced was just as good as his postdoctoral students. We have so many stories like that.

What tends to surprise students the most about CAPS?

We often hear how surprised they are by the diversity in the classroom—diversity in age, race, ethnicity, backgrounds and experiences. They are also surprised by how important they are to their professors and how empowering that can be. The people at CAPS are here because we want to see adults achieve their goals. The result is a community that’s very supportive and kind.

What do you feel are the assets of CAPS that make it the ideal place for students to undergo the process of personal reinvention that is required for a successful career shift?

We have outstanding advisors who help students from start to finish and beyond. They work solely with adult learners, so they understand mid-life changes, competing responsibilities and the seriousness with which adult learners return to school. Elisa Wang, our coordinator for student services, puts together resources and networking events, and makes students aware of the many opportunities on campus. They also have access to the university’s Career Center, which offers individualized career advising among other vital opportunities for professional placement.

Students also have a real opportunity to explore passions, which often results in career advancement. They can try out courses without finding themselves off-track in a rigid program, though it is not unusual for us to have physicians and lawyers come to take a course and then go on to pursue a master’s or doctorate in liberal arts. We often hear that they didn’t have time to pursue passions when they first achieved a degree—or now they are mid-career and the kids are out of the house. It’s a time where they’re doing something solely for themselves.

There is a spirit of true collegiality among students, and understanding and support when things get difficult. Instructors also understand the unique demands on an adult student. Some students come to us because they had difficulty their first time in college, or did not consider themselves good students in high school. For these adults who are concerned about perceived past failures, they may simply need confidence-building and support to thrive the second time around. If students are inspired to learn or are passionate about an interest, we can also help them achieve their goals.

What are some of the most powerful personal transformations you’ve seen occur in students who really give themselves over to the process?

We’ve seen so many powerful transformations. One student who came into the program explained that after high school, he was not a great candidate for college. He entered the military instead, and later began taking classes at WashU. It was then that he quickly came to understand his own intelligence, interests and abilities. With the encouragement of his advisor, he completed a bachelor’s degree, worked in a psychology research lab, completed independent research and now works full time in a research lab at another university.

Another student was a stay-at-home mom from Peru who had accompanied her spouse to the U.S. She began with courses in political science, moved into a joint bachelor’s/master’s program, and graduated with both an undergraduate degree in Political Science and a graduate degree in International Affairs. Another transferred from a local community college, the first person in his family to even go to college at all, and also struggled with ADHD. Once in a challenging math degree program, he thrived, and now works full time as a data scientist.

Oftentimes, practical considerations of salary, location and likelihood of job placement can prevent students from engaging a career path that best suits them and satisfies their passions and curiosities. How is this addressed and covered with students?

These are issues advisors frequently discuss with students—some students also choose to take a course called Individual and Organizational Introspection, which helps them sort through these issues. Students also discover that the “impractical” courses in which they are interested truly provide them with valuable career skills. It’s where they hone their writing, research, problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities. Employers search far and wide for employees with these skills, which are also necessary across multiple fields.

WashU also has an incredibly strong alumni network and many instructors also work in their respective fields, so they are uniquely able to offer insights, advice and experiences.

Note: this post was originally published with Alive Magazine.