Change careers and live the dream

Londoner Rhona Gardiner, 32, used to get quite depressed on her way to work in the City "I was a work-hard, play-hard girl, but the rat race was beginning to lose its gloss," she says.

Rhona followed her dream of living by the sea, moved to Cornwall and set up her own business, Big Friday, which organises surfing weekends for Londoners in the South West. The company has been going from strength to strength since Rhona launched it with her friend Kate Czuzman in 2001.

Rhona's story shows that changing career can be hugely rewarding. Many of us dream of doing something exciting like becoming an artist or singer, being our own boss or retraining, but lots of people stop dreaming and actually do it.

It can be scary taking the plunge - particularly when it involves giving up your security, retraining and taking a drop in income - but everyone we spoke to said it was the best decision they ever made. Career changes are less about money and more about the chance to do something you enjoy and redressing the work-life balance.

Triggers for change

It's easy to plod along in a comfortable job that you don't enjoy and push your ambitions to the back of your mind. Professor Ivan Robertson from Robertson Cooper, specialists in occupational psychology, explains "It often takes a trigger, such as a significant change in circumstances, to finally push you into making the change."

Anila Vaghela, from Walton-on-Thames in Surrey, says being made redundant pushed her to turn herhobby into a business. "I was a working mum, and I didn't have time to prepare a home-cooked meal every night so I'd make curry sauce and freeze it," she explains. "I offered jars of my sauce to colleagues one day and they were snapped up."

Anila decided to sell her curry at craft fairs. For the next five years she kept working and made and sold the sauces in her spare time.

"When I was made redundant, I decided to really give it a go." Years of hard work followed but it paid off. Anila's sauces are now sold in shops throughout the UK, including Fortnum & Mason and Harrods in London. Anila's business has expanded and her husband has given up his job to help manage the company.

Planning and research

If you're inspired by these stories and considering changing direction yourself, start with some serious research and planning. This is key to a successful career change.

Thoroughly investigate the job you are interested in - speak to people who do it every day and find out if you can do work experience. This will probably be unpaid - but it's better to find out now whether it is something you want to do than when you've already given up your job.

There's also the emotional side to consider. "Analyse your current job to define what you enjoy and what you want to avoid in the future," advises Emma Kirk, an occupational psychologist from Pearn Kandola. "What motivates you? What are your priorities? Is it recognition, development, money, status, relationships with others or security?"

Kirk says you can learn more from your current job before ditching it. "Reflect on the transferable skills that you've acquired, and how they can be used in your new career." At some point, you'll have to think about money. While it might be a nice idea to quit your job to write a novel, this won't pay the bills straight away. While money is often not a reason for changing careers, it can be an obstacle.

Retraining for your new life

If you need to retrain, look into evening or weekend courses so that you can continue to work, before considering options such as working part-time, taking out a loan or relying on the financial support of your partner. Changing careers will need to be a joint decision if it will affect your shared household income.

Martin Sexton, 38, from Ealing in West London, worked in administration for a medical research company for 10 years before deciding he wanted to do something more rewarding. Martin took part in a project with Community Service Volunteers. He relocated to Chester for six months, leaving his wife Alex behind in London, and took up a voluntary position assisting adults with learning disabilities. Alex supported Martin financially and CSV provided an allowance of £70 a week. Martin now has a full-time job in London and is applying to do a degree in social work.

Without the financial support of a partner a complete change of direction can be difficult, but it's still possible. Craig Howe, 36, from Portsmouth, found life hard when he gave up his 13-year career in banking to become a photographer. "I went from a salary of £50,000 plus bonuses to living off student loans and savings," says Craig, who now runs his own photography company.

Craig took a foundation degree in photography at the Arts Institute at Bournemouth. After the two-year course, he carried on for an extra year and graduated with a BA Honours. Since then Craig hasn't looked back. "Luckily I saved when I could, which made things easier." he says

As Craig did, it's sensible to save if you need time off to gain qualifications and don't expect an immediate income from your new career. However, depending on your chosen path, there are grants, bursaries and loans available.

Extra help with finance

If you plan to do a degree, the Student Loans Company is a government body that gives means-tested financial support to students in higher education. Or there are Career Development Loans (CDL), which can be used to fund a range of vocational courses, and you can borrow anything between £300 and £8,000 over two years.

Aim Higher, an organisation provided by the Department for Education and Skills, is a good starting point to finding out about courses, colleges and funding. Hot Courses and UCAS also list courses available throughout the UK.

If you fancy doing something you love, why not look into it? Providing you research your chosen field, plan carefully and ensure your finances are in place, there's no reason why you can't do a job you really enjoy.

Going it alone

Setting up your own business can be rewarding, but takes hard work, commitment and a determination to succeed. If you're turning a hobby into a career, remember that however talented you are, you still need business acumen. Use the knowledge of people who have experience. Recognise your strengths and weaknesses. "Look at your network of friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances and find out if anyone can help you," advises Emma Kirk.

Kirk stresses that you also need to keep yourself motivated if you want to succeed. She advises formulating some goals in the early stages. Finally, never be afraid to ask for help. There are a number of organisations, such as Business Link, that provide practical advice - from where to go for funding to get your business off the ground, through to employing staff and growing your company.

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