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What to do when you picture yourself in a brand-new career

Now that we are a few days into the new year, we may be seeing the first sproutings of success or failure in our New Year's resolutions. And some people's lists of resolves no doubt include, along with such hardy perennials as losing weight and exercising more, a more delicate cultivation project. Finding a new job, for example.

But be leery of anyone who offers a quick solution to your career crisis. Indeed, be wary of the myth of the mid-life crisis.

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Making a career switch is inevitably a do-it-yourself project. Says John C. Crystal, a noted career-planning consultant: ``People think, `Someone will place me.' But really, they have to place themselves.''

Many dissatisfied cogs in the corporate machine have no real idea where they actually want to be. This is unfortunate, Mr. Crystal suggests, because employers tend not to devote much thought to the career development of their employees. He quotes, in toto, the career-development section of the employee handbook of one large corporation: `` `Career development is the responsibility of the employee.' ''

If you work for a large organization, or indeed any organization, you probably don't think of yourself as in business for yourself. But, says Crystal, ``You are a private entrepreneur.''

Most of us enter the marketplace as buyers most of the time -- whether of doughnuts or life insurance, shoeshines or rock-concert tickets. The most important sale we make all year is the sale of our services to our employer.

To find a truly satisfying career, the questions to ask may well be, ``How do I translate what I want to do into something that people will pay me to do? And, How do I package myself as a product that someone -- an employer -- will buy?''

Mr. Crystal blasts what he identifies as three major misconceptions about mid-life career changes: ``People think that you have to go back to school to do it, that you have to start at the bottom of the new field, or that you just can't change careers.''

Among alumni of his in-depth seminars in New York City, he boasts a 95 percent success rate in facilitating career switches ``outside the system'' -- circumventing the usual r'esum'e-want-ads-and-personnel-department route. About 1 in 5 made lateral moves -- lateral in terms of earnings, that is. The vast majority increased their earnings substantially. ``And only 1 percent made changes and had to take a cut -- and most of them come back to say it's worth it.''

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Virtually all of his ``students'' are college graduates, 54 percent of them with master's degrees or higher, 54 percent of them executives, managers, engineers, or other professionals. (``We've begun to see a lot of female lawyers lately.'') Their average time in the work force is 12.5 years. ``They've begun to feel a certain dissonance in their lives'' -- between what they're doing and what they really want to do -- ``and so they seek out means to change that.''

One woman who did this after being ``Crystallized,'' so to speak, is Marjorie Balazs, president of Balazs Analytical Laboratory, in Mountain View, Calif. Trained as a chemist, she had worked for a while at SRI International in Stanford, Calif. She moved into a position as ``coordinator,'' or liaison between staff and management. She enjoyed the work but, especially after going through the ``Crystal process,'' she realized it was not her first love. She ended up establishing not only the laboratory but also a career-counseling firm called Refocus. (Refocus is still functioning, although on a cut-back scale, and Ms. Balazs is not actively involved.)

Her advice for other job-jumpers? ``I would warn them against the belief that they can do this quickly.'' Specifically, she warns against quickie weekend seminars. ``You shouldn't expect a shortcut program to be anything but informative.'' With Refocus, she says, ``We had an 80 percent success rate with people who took our 12-week course, and with our `shortcut program,' only 35 percent.''

The best courses are in-depth ones and involve extensive self-examination. For example, ``Where Do I Go From Here With My Life?'' is a lifework planning manual which John Crystal wrote with Richard N. Bolles, of ``What Color Is Your Parachute?'' fame. Its instructions include the following: ``Advise each student to purchase: (1) a three-ring notebook; (2) at least 300 sheets of 81/2-by-11-inch three-holed paper . . . .'' This is for the ``work autobiography'' career-changers are supposed to write.

Career counseling became a real fad during the '70s, says Ms. Balazs, when recession had put so many professionals out of work. ``Today there's not a lot of really effective excellent stuff going on'' in the field.

John L. Holland, professor emeritus of Johns Hopkins University and a noted researcher in the field of careers, is concerned that career counseling is one of those foggy areas like ``therapy'' and speaks disparagingly of people with ``just a BA, some good intentions, and a little training they've picked up on the side.''

He also decries the notion that ``everyone goes through a mid-life crisis at 40'' as a product of the collective imagination of ``the media.''

``There are people who have these problems at any age -- but they're a small group.'' Many ``career problems'' are manifestations of personal problems, or reflections of a specific ``local problem,'' such as a particular supervisor.

Professor Holland does acknowledge that for workers in declining industries -- such as steel or autos -- there is a real problem of economic dislocation. ``But even that has been exaggerated.''

And as for the idea that ``in the future everyone will have five or more jobs,'' he says, ``all the evidence on careers suggests that there is a great continuity to them.'' People tend to continue to do the same kinds of things over time, even if in different situations. ``Take ex-priests, for example. Eighty percent go into `social jobs.' They tend to go into teaching or counseling, or selling insurance, which is a sort of enterprising `social job.' You don't see them becoming plumbers, for example, in great numbers.''

``If you're thinking about a change, get the best professional help possible,'' says Professor Holland. But be wary of having to pay too much for it. A good place to go for a start may be the counseling service at a local university, which is set up for students but which probably accepts adults from the community for a fee. ``Ask for an experienced counselor. Tell 'em right up front that you don't want somebody right out of graduate school. And if you think it isn't working, say something right away, complain, and get your money back.''


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