Returning to Your Career A Guide to Coping with Career Transition Stress

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The Impact of Career Transition Stress

Each year, millions of people make an internal shift, reaching a point where they are ready to explore a new career. For some, this transition means leaving the workforce to go back to school so they can develop a new skill-set. Others make the transition back into the workforce after graduating college, serving in the military, or taking care of children. No matter what the impetus for a career transition, the path is filled with new challenges. This guide is designed to ease the stress of transitioning out of or into the workforce.

Meet the Expert

Portrait of Dana Manciagli

Dana Manciagli

Dana Manciagli is a career expert, speaker, and private coach. She has spent more than 30 years as a Fortune 500 sales and marketing executive, now retired after over a decade's tenure at Microsoft. Dana is the author of the book, Cut the Crap™, Get a Job! and a prolific blogger. A recognized career, networking, and business thought leader, she is a sought-after speaker and a regular contributor to print and online publications, including her own weekly “Career Mojo” column in all of the Business Journals nationwide. She was named among Seattle's Women of Influence, sits on the worldwide board of Junior Achievement and received her MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management.


Women are more likely to make changes in jobs and career paths than men, with an average of eight transitions.

“Today's Professional Woman Report”- National survey exploring women's career and financial concerns co-sponsored by Citi and LinkedIn

15 percent of people expect to change jobs and careers more frequently than the previous generation, and nearly 75 percent say they are likely to return to school during working lives.

Sloan Work and Family Research Network,
Study of Generation X'ers born 1965-1970

An estimated
43% of highly qualified working mothers leave the workforce at some point in their career and stay out an average of two years.

Center for Work-Life Policy

91 percent of millennials expect to change jobs every three years

2012 Multiple Generations @ Work survey by Future Workplace.

Tips for Making a Career Transition

The decision to make a career transition isn't one that most take lightly. Depending on the education requirements, the transition can sometimes take at least a year. The following tips break down the steps to figuring out if a career transition is the best option.

  • Assess your interests and skills

    It's important to assess your past experiences in order to identify your interests and skills. Review the roles you have enjoyed performing in the past, including jobs and activities. Then ask yourself the following questions: What skills did you acquire? What are your core values in regard to a career? Look for free online tools to guide you through the process of identifying your strengths.

  • Seek support

    A career transition can be a difficult process if you don't have support. Seek out friends and colleagues for tips and advice about your transition. Ask for introductions to people in the field you are exploring. Find a mentor to help you with questions that come up along the way. If your career transition is a result of a lay-off, check with your company to see what services they offer, such as counseling, resume assistance, and job placement.

  • Research career possibilities

    Examine all of the many career paths available to you. One way to do that is to find someone who has done your job and moved to another company. What industry did they move on to? Once you know the industry that interests you the most, immerse yourself in their culture: Read industry-specific blogs and newsletters, join professional groups, and attend networking events.

  • Get involved

    Be open to new opportunities. Consider volunteering in different areas of interest to see whether you would be a good fit. You can find opportunities at,, and You may also want to shadow someone who has the job you want to see what it's like day-to-day.

  • Go back to school

    Head back to school to update your skills or learn brand new skills. You can take an online course, weekend seminar, or work toward a new degree. Many schools offer online programs with the flexibility of scheduling around your current responsibilities.

The College Transition

Whether you go back to school after being in the workforce or are ready to graduate college and re-enter the workforce, you will experience many changes. Besides taking classes with students younger than you, going back to college means taking on a new financial obligation, handling time management issues, and dealing with change in general. Re-entering the workforce can also be tough as you adjust to new responsibilities. It's important to plan for these changes. Knowing what to expect can help you begin to prepare.

Going Back to School

The thought of going back to school appeals for many. School is an opportunity to learn new skills and collaborate with people you may not meet otherwise. Before making the decision to spend the money and potentially time away from work, ask yourself the following questions.

Is it worth it for my career?

Before making the decision to return to school, consider whether it is necessary for your career goals. Leaving your job is a big decision and will affect your life professionally and emotionally. In many cases, it's not necessary to attend school full-time to make a career transition. You may already have the required skillset or you may just need to take a few courses to catch up.

Can I afford to pay for it?

College is a big financial investment, especially if you don't plan on working while you are enrolled. Make sure your finances can withstand the time away from work before making a permanent decision. If you know college is the best path for your situation; there is financial help available. Visit the website for the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid to determine how much assistance you are eligible to receive.

How long will it take to complete?

Do you plan on earning a two-year degree, four-year degree, or graduate degree? Consider the amount of time you are willing to invest in a new degree program. Perhaps you can schedule classes around your current work schedule and still take a full-time course load. Another option is to attend school part-time and take a little longer to complete the program.

Is this the best time in your life to go to college?

Think about your current situation. For parents of small children, it may be more difficult to add a college schedule to the mix. Is there a spouse who can take on more responsibilities while you concentrate on your education? Find out what your family thinks about a possible change and how it will affect them.

Do you have the necessary support system?

Taking on the challenge of going back to school takes confidence. Make sure you have a support system in place to assist you along the way. For instance, will you need back up childcare? Is there someone you can talk to about the stress you are bound to face. It's better to create a community of supporters before you begin than to find you are on your own with too much to handle.

What Students Can Expect After College

The day one receives their diploma changes everything. From a new schedule to a new wardrobe, transitioning into a new career after graduation takes some time. Here is what to expect.

Adjusting to a new schedule

One of the biggest challenges new graduates face when re-entering the workplace is a stricter schedule. Unlike college, where you have the flexibility of creating a course schedule around other activities, a job has the same hours each day—for most of the day. Going to work after college also means having to earn your vacation time. In most cases, employees are lucky to get two weeks of vacation right off the bat. Choosing when to take that vacation may not be easy either, depending on the restrictions you are given.

Increased debt and expenses

Managing a budget is an essential skill, so it is a good idea to get started before you graduate college. After graduation, you are likely to have a new set of bills, including student loans, which can be a big expense. A deferment is an option if you are unable to make timely payments. It may not be easy to find a job right away, so you also need to prepare yourself for a period with no income.

Handling different demands from bosses

Showing up late and leaving early will probably not be an option in your new job. Even if the office is less-than-strict, you'll want to make a good impression to improve your chances of moving up the ladder. Take initiative, even if you are feeling pressure. Ask your boss for a weekly meeting where you can make sure you are accomplishing what you are supposed to.

Dressing professionally

It's likely that your new job will come with a dress code. Find out what is expected ahead of time and purchase the basics before your first day. Dressing appropriately is mandatory. You will be judged by your appearance, and not following the dress code can not only ruin your chances of advancement--it can result in no one taking you seriously.

Balancing work/family/friends

Working takes a big chunk of time out of your schedule, especially when you are following a new career path. Your family may think they will see more of you now that you've graduated, but that may not be the case. Prepare them for your new schedule as early as possible. Also, let your friends know that although they are important, your focus needs to be on your career for now.

Skills Needed After College

According to a 2014 Gallup survey of business leaders on issues in higher education, only 11% “strongly believed” undergraduates leave college with the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace. Here are a few of the skills students need after college.

  • Adaptability

    Along with your new job comes a new set of challenges. Being able to adapt will make a big difference in your success. For example, you will be expected to work as part of a team, and you may not get along well with everyone. But making it clear that you are a team player is essential. Your boss's style may not be the best match for your personality, but you have little choice in the matter. Learn to get along with him or her as you build your interpersonal skills.

  • Organization.

    Being disorganized is a fast path to unemployment. Excuses won't be accepted as easily as they may have been when you were in school so make it a habit not to miss deadlines. Write down everything you can, especially in the beginning when it will be easy to forget. Documentation is the key to success in the workplace. Keep track of long-term projects on a calendar and smaller tasks on a to-do list. Make it a point to keep your work area clean and clear of clutter when you leave at the end of the day so that you know where everything is when you return in the morning.

  • Leadership

    Employers look for individuals who are good leaders. Effective leaders know their strengths and limitations, are accountable, and instill trust. If you are concerned that your leadership skills are lacking, find a mentor who can assist you in building them. You will have many chances to prove yourself to be a leader in your career. Be prepared to demonstrate your ability to lead a group and you will be successful.

  • Public speaking

    If you panicked when faced with a presentation in college, you need to take action now. Public speaking is part of almost every career. Being comfortable talking in front of others will also help you when working in groups. Consider taking a course like the one offered by Dale Carnegie to build this skill. Look for networking opportunities in your area as a way to practice.

  • Time management.

    Managing your time may be tougher than you think. When you were in college, time management involved managing projects, tests, and activities. But at work, your future with your employer depends on how well you are able to manage time. It starts with getting a good night's sleep the night before because if you are tired it is going to be a struggle to stay on top of tasks. Complete your work and never fail to deliver and you will be on the right track.

On-Campus Resources for
Students to Help Make the Transition

Campuses recognize the need to help students get started with their education. That's why they have multiple resources available to students to ease the transition:

  • Enrollment services

    Getting help with the transition into college starts before you begin your first day of class. Most colleges have enrollment services staff to help new students who are transitioning into college. Students can receive pre-enrollment counseling, learn the procedures for admissions, and find out how to get financial aid assistance. The staff is trained to help adult learners who are in the midst of a career transition, so it's important to ask for help.

  • Academic advising

    Academic advisors are one of the most important resources at a college. Academic advisors help students make a smooth transition into a school or program and continue to assist them in many ways. They keep students on track to meet their academic goals by ensuring students are taking the appropriate classes for graduation. Students can meet with their advisor one-on-one to get answers to individual questions and concerns. Most importantly, academic advisors guide students into making academic choices that support their life and career goals.

  • Adult student services

    Many schools now have an adult student services department to meet the needs of nontraditional students. For example, UNC Charlotte has an Office of Adult Services and Evening Services (OASES) that runs an adult mentoring program. The Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education is a national organization that provides support for nontraditional learners through support networks, scholarships, and academic opportunities. Students can check their adult services office for more information about on-campus programs like Adult Student Week.

  • Counseling Center

    Campus counseling centers provide transitional support counseling for students entering and leaving college degree programs. This service can help students who are dealing with the stresses associated with making a transition at little or no cost. Students can find their campus counseling center online and make an appointment or walk in to request assistance.

  • Career services

    For students preparing to graduate and transition back into the workforce, the career services department on campus can be very helpful. Students can meet with career advisors to discuss goals and complete career assessment surveys. Career services centers sponsor networking opportunities and job fairs and host mock interviews, so students are prepared during their job search. Students can also get assistance with cover letter and resume questions.

Top Jobs for College Grads

1. Education

Of the top 650 schools on FORBES' Top Colleges list, 35 percent were recent graduates in education. Teachers must work long hours preparing for classes and grading papers, particularly in the beginning. However, depending on the state and subject taught, teachers can make respectable salaries out of college.

  • Elementary school teacher $53,430
  • High school teacher $55,050
  • Special education teacher $55,060
  • Advisor/Counselor $53,610

Military Veterans
Returning to Civilian Workforce

Military veterans face many challenges when returning to the civilian workforce. For that reason, Congress signed the Veterans Opportunity to Work and Hire Heroes Act of 2011 (VOW Act). It requires service-members to attend the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) which offers support in the way of workshops and resources for easing back into the civilian workforce. The U.S. Department of Labor site outlines the TAP program and links to a participant guide.

Transferable Skills for Veterans


Service members are constantly under pressure to meet deadlines and perform on command. There is no question that they must do their job right the first time, setting priorities to meet deadlines. Service members are responsible for developing meeting schedules and accomplishing their missions while under stress. Part of their training is learning how to handle stress in a positive and effective manner.


Service members are consistently assessed on organizational skills, as most military operation require thorough planning and time management. They must follow specific schedules while dealing with the strengths and limitations of others, all while meeting carefully considered objectives.

Respect for Authorities

The foundation of the military is rules and structure. Service members must be accountable for not only their own actions but the actions of their subordinates. They recognize and accept legitimate authority, following rules each day and developing loyalty within their units.


Service members work well with others, regardless of race, gender, religion, and other factors because the military attracts people from all backgrounds. They learn leadership through accepting and discharging responsibility for others, giving directions, and motivating personnel in the group.


Part of serving in the military is accepting the need to be flexible and adaptable, as situations and missions are constantly changing. Service members must adapt to last minute changes as well as physical and safety demands.

Resources for Veterans Returning to the Workforce

The following resources are for veterans making the transition back to the civilian workforce.

Airman & Family Readiness Center

This resource by the U.S Air Force includes a “Career Corner” with a regularly-updated list of vendors seeking veterans to fill positions. Service-members can get information about career fairs and access the Transitional Assistance Program.

Department of Defense Civilian Careers

Service-members interested in exploring civilian careers with the Department of Defense (DOD) can find information at this site. The DOD employs more than 800,000 civilians in an array of critical positions worldwide, with opportunities for people from all walks of life

Fleet and Family Support Programs-Transition Assistance

The Navy manages a program called Transition Goals, Plans, Success (Transition GPS), designed to ensure that Sailors are better prepared to transition from military to civilian life. It's made up of four parts: Pre-Separation Counseling, 5-Day Workshop, Career Tracks, and Capstone, all which focus on post-military benefits, certification and training resources, financial planning, and job search techniques. Service-members can access information about Transition GPS to plan their retirement or separation in the 2014 Stars and Stripes Transition Guide and Career Track Podcasts.

Helmets to Hardhats

Helmets to Hardhats is a free, 14-week, federally-approved apprentice program that provides service members the opportunity to learn and earn income at the same time. The site provides a Career Search feature with thousands of opportunities all over the country.

How to Successfully Transition from Military to Civilian

Dr. Randall S. Hansen, founder of Quintessential Careers, provides veterans with tips and advice for finding a new career and beginning a job search in this comprehensive guide.

My Next Move for Veterans

Designed for US veterans who are current job seekers, this interactive tool examines career options and has tasks, skills, salary information and job listings for over 900 careers. The site was developed by the National Center for O*NET Development under sponsorship of the US DEPT of Labor/Employment and Training Administration.

Marine Corps Transition Readiness Program

This comprehensive site for the Marine's transition and assistance program emphasizes a proactive approach to enable service-members to formulate effective post-transition employment, educational, and entrepreneurial goals. The program includes a Personal Readiness Seminar mandatory training on personal and professional programs and services and an introduction to financial topics. TRS is a 5-day seminar devoted to Resilient Transitions, Military Occupation Specialty Crosswalk, Department of Labor Employment Workshop, Department of Veterans Affair Benefits, and financial planning. Career and advising services are also available. Spouses Transition and Readiness Seminar (STARS) is a new program developed to orient spouses to the transition process. Veteran Employment Center

Service members can find military-friendly employers, learn about popular veteran jobs, and access veteran job search tools at this site in order to find employers looking for military experience. also links to articles containing popular career advice.

Transitioning Soldiers and Veterans

The Army OneSource Resource Center helps service-members handle the transition out of the Army with a multitude of resources. Service-members can access resume-building services, links to off-site articles, and many programs. The site also offers web events, such as How to Use Social Media in Your Job Search and Meeting the Challenges of Transitioning from Military to Civilian Life.

United States Coast Guard-Office of Work-Life Programs TAP

This Coast Guard family readiness site includes a Transition Toolkit: checklist, seminar schedule, definitions, statutes, career readiness standards, pre-separation counseling, and Individual Transition Plan (ITP) information. Service-members will find external links to helpful resources.

Veterans Gold Card

The  Gold Card provides unemployed post-9/11 era veterans with the intensive and follow-up services they need to succeed in today's job market. The Gold Card initiative is a joint effort of the Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration (ETA) and the Veterans' Employment and Training Service (VETS).

Parents Returning to the Workforce

Parents returning to the workforce need to deal with the emotions associated with being separated from their children at the same time as they must integrate back into their workplace. For many parents, the return to work is a constant balancing act. It's helpful for parents who go back to work receive support from their friends, families, and colleagues, but it is not always the case. Parents who have a strong support system find it easier to make the transition.

What You Should Know About Parental Leave

Parents need to know their rights under the Family and Medical leave Act of 1993 (FMLA). FMLA entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave with certain rules, such as continuation of group health coverage, returning to work at the same or similar position, and more. More information can be found at the US Department of Labor website.

When leave is taken after the birth of a healthy child or placement of a healthy child for adoption or foster care, an employee make take leave intermittently or on a reduce leave schedule only if the employer agrees

FMLA - US Department of Labor

Many men spread paternity leave over several staggered months because it is easier for their family. Men and women who are able to transition back to a full-time schedule slowly, beginning part-time can benefit from the decreased stress. In some cases, they may be able to work from home. However, it is up to the employer to give approval.

It's important to prepare for returning to work while still on parental leave. Some ways to prepare include:

  • Finding good childcare and backup childcare
  • Making arrangements with the employer for a pumping schedule if breastfeeding
  • Discussing a return to work schedule that both parties can agree on

Both parents should have clear boundaries between work and home, which includes establishing no-cellphone times if possible. Discuss dividing household responsibilities, and arranging from drop-off and pick-up from childcare well in advance.

Resources for Parents Returning to Work

Briefcases & Diaperbags

Established in 2014 to support women's life choices, this site offers mentoring services and a career development center.

Connecticut Working Moms

Created in 2011 by Michelle Noehren, CT Working Moms (CTWM) is an award-winning, online community for women balancing work and family life in Connecticut.

Fathers Work & Family

A site dedicated to supporting work-family balance for fathers by Scott Behson, Ph.D, author of Working Dad's Survival Guide.

Moms at Work (Orlando Sentinel)

Tips and Advice for Working Moms

The Working Parent's Survival Guide

This site provides encouragement, information and humorous anecdotes for mothers and fathers.

Homemakers Returning to Work

Returning to a career after a few years off to take care of a child or family member can be daunting. People may wonder where to start and whether they need to pursue further education to get started. The following tips ease the uncertainty for stay-at-home parents and caretakers returning to the workforce.


When returning to work, it's important to remember the skills you've developed while out of work. Here are some examples of transferable skills:

  • Elder care management
  • PTA role or committee chair
  • Volunteering
  • Household budget
  • Charitable organization
  • Board of charter school

Make a functional resume instead chronological so you aren't forced to explain blank spaces of time. Take a look at examples of resumes in your field and then create your own working document. Be sure to include keywords that make your profile easy to search for. When you are finished, have people in your industry look at it and give you advice on how to make it stronger.


Sign up for a LinkedIn account because it is the leading social network for businesses and professionals. With over 200 million global registered users, LinkedIn is an important way to gain exposure, industry advice, and job opportunities. A basic profile is free. Check out one of the YouTube tutorials for writing an effective profile. Here are three tips to get started:

  • Your profile must have a photo and professional headline
  • Include keyword and skills to get noticed
  • Get a vanity profile

The best way to meet people in your field is by networking. It can be as informal as a get-together with friends, family, and neighbors. Joining a professional networking group will be even more beneficial. Also, get in contact with any LinkedIn contacts who may know of employment opportunities.


Online courses make it easy to catch up if you are behind technologically or need to become re-certified in your specialty area. Check your local community college for course schedules.


Look for job openings on job boards and at job fairs. For example, Women for Hire sponsors job fairs all over the country. Consider working part-time, which can be a great way to transition back to the workforce. You'll have more flexibility and get your foot in the door at the same time.

Interview with Dana Manciagli

When someone decides to make a career transition, how does it impact their life?

Emotionally, the impact can be huge, ranging from excitement, relief and anticipation to fear, anxiety, and trepidation. The person making the transition should share what they are going through with their family and support team to assure they can go through the transition in the most positive way possible.

On average, how long does it take to make a full career transition?

There is no average since the results in time and quality of job are a direct correlation of the amount of energy the candidate puts in, the quality of their job-search tactics, the job market in their city and so much more. It also depends if someone is simply searching for a new company in their industry and functional space (marketing, sales, operations, etc.) or if they are completely transforming to a field. Don't believe the ancient and unproven rule of thumb that says it takes one month for every $10,000 in annual earnings.

The typical career path takes kids from high school to college. Can you talk about what students face once they graduate and start looking for a job?

College students need to start looking for a job by December ahead of the May/June time they graduate. Although the unemployment numbers have improved, college students face an increasingly challenging time finding their first major career move. They need to maximize the services of their career placement center on campus, purchase the latest books with job search programs, and budget a lot of time to invest in their search.

For non-traditional students returning to college (whether it be for their bachelor's or graduate degree), what can they expect?

The job search discipline is the same, regardless if the student is returning to college, regardless of their discipline or their age, gender, etc. Everybody needs to follow three main steps: (1) Pinpoint their job goal, (2) Prepare for the job search and (3) Execute the application and interview process brilliantly. Learn how to complete every step better than other candidates to earn that all-important position.

What are some tools students can use to make their transition easier?

There are more tools available to students today than ever before. However, too many students are still “winging it” and expecting results with little effort. Here are some basic tools:

  • Time. Yes, time management and prioritizing the job search over other things is one of the most basic tools yet least utilized.
  • Books. Students today rely too much on short blogs and quick searches to learn. Well, if their job search is important, invest under $20.00 in a great book that takes you through every single step. As an example "Cut the Crap™, Get a Job" has 9 free downloadable templates such as a job search tracker, cover letter template, an interview guide and much more.
  • The college or university's career placement center and alumni network.

For military personnel, please talk about the transition from military to civilian life. What tips can you offer for those making the transition?

The military personnel need to learn how to “un-learn” military language and speak the civilian career language. The best way is to dissect job descriptions and review your resume and cover letter with civilians to get feedback.

Please talk about the various reasons why parents leave the workforce and what they should consider when deciding to return.

The primary reason why parents (primarily women) leave the workforce is to raise children, which is hugely admirable. I have helped many parents return into the workforce and there are some special things they need to consider:

  • Put their break from the workforce, no matter how long, on their resume.
  • Highlight the skills you learned during that time that are relevant to the jobs you are targeting (organization, prioritizing, etc.)
  • Be proud, NOT apologetic, about the time off.
  • While on the workforce break, stay current with your field and industry.

In your experience, what types of successful career transitions have you seen people make? What made them successful?

Oh, every career transition is a success. However, those people who had a clear job search goal and found jobs in their bull's eye are the most satisfied and excited. Some people feel they need to “settle” on a lesser job or one that didn't meet their criteria, but they, too, are very successful. Simply remember: There is a direct correlation between the job seeker's efforts, quality and time invested with their results. There are no shortcuts, expect some frustrations, and raise the bar on your efforts with every move you make.

Additional Resources

This is a Part-Time Placement Service for college-educated women who want long -term positions.

Catalyst is an organization that works with businesses to provide inclusive workplaces while expanding opportunities for women in business.

Dress for Success

This international, nonprofit organization provides professional attire and personal support for disadvantaged women.

Families and Work Institute (FWI)

Families and Work Institute (FWI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that studies the changing workforce, family, and community.

Glass Hammer

The Glass is an online community for professional women that offers news, advice, jobs ,and networking.  

Women for Hire

Tory Johnson created this site for women in the workforce to have easy access to career resources, including a recruitment service, online career fairs, seminars, and videos. The site also offers a job board.

This networking community is geared toward professional women and provides career advice from top leaders.

WorkIt Mom!

This community of working moms share experiences, advice, and support to ease the daily stress of managing a family and career.

Become Team
Become Team
Contributing Writer is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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