how do I rebuild my career after destroying it in my 30s?

A reader writes:

I was relatively successful in my twenties. I got a job right out of college and climbed the ladder, going from an assistant position to a director position, all at the same workplace. I even accomplished some pretty amazing things—many of which are still in place. My personal life exploded in my thirties as my marriage took a turn toward the abusive, and I became a worse and worse employee, eventually agreeing to resign under (appropriately) frosty terms. I got a part-time position after that but I hadn’t pulled myself out of my tailspin. Then I had a kid and took care of my parents as they died and eventually ghosted my last employer out of shame because I felt like I was failing. I know how bad this sounds.

I am now in my early 40s. I went through tons of therapy, went back to school, got a second bachelors in a completely unrelated field—graduating magna cum laude with a major department award—and now I’m trying to find a job. I’d like to go to grad school, which tends to be rife with mentorships and placement help, but I don’t have the hands-on work experience I need.

I am deeply ashamed of the past several years (but proud of my recent academic achievements). I know I messed up. And I understand the ways that I messed up. And I’m not trying to make any of it okay. The jobs I am applying for are entry-level. I don’t want to ride on my prior work experience. But my years of instability took a toll. Right now, I don’t have any references. And I’m obviously older.

How do I address this period of instability? How do I talk about my prior life? And how do I find a job without references? Are there positions that don’t require them these days? I’m absolutely willing to volunteer, but I’m having trouble finding places to do so.

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 105 comments… read them below }

  1. Clorinda

    Use academic references. Taking care of elderly parents is a non-eyebrow-raising reason for an employment gap. Don’t apologize for your recent history! Go and start your next act. Good luck.

    1. thankful for AAM.

      If it helps, I got a second BA and then a masters in my late 40s and got a job after graduation in a field I had never worked in before with only references from professors and a student campus job (also unrelated to previous jobs or the new field).

      And then I switched careers (related) again 5 years later!

      I did include older jobs on my resume to show work history but many of them don’t exist or the managment has changed so much no one would know who I am and I never even got asked about them.

      Like you, I was caring for a child in my time away from work. It barely came up in interviews.

      I wish you every success and congrats on all you have achieved!

    2. Topcat

      As is having a kid. And if there was a bit of a gap between the last good job and the kid, then you can claim there were health/fertility issues.

      Sounds to me that plenty enough water has passed under the bridge, and upskilling taken place, that OP is more than ready for a fresh start.

  2. Sloan Kittering

    Take comfort, OP, some of the people in my life that seemed to be in the biggest gulf (got fired, started over, had a breakdown) have picked themselves and are doing great now – way better than me, who’s kind of just been plugging away all these years getting nowhere! Life is funny that way. You know you can do it, you just need the right first step. Take pride in having gotten to this place and in still trying.

    1. Foreign Octopus

      Totally agree, and such an interesting letter as well. Situations like this must happen all the time but people don’t speak about it because of the shame that they feel. I wish more people did as it can be very helpful in knowing that you’re not alone.

      Best of luck, OP, and I’d love an update when you have good news (or otherwise) to share!

      1. selena81

        I thought the same thing: this probably happens a lot in secret, with everyone thinking their career is the only one that is not instagram-perfect

        It always seems like other people either never fail or fail trampoline-style (a huuuuge fall into years of depressions and crime and drug-use followed by an enormous jump straight to the top).
        I think the reality is that most people fail at some point, almost always for mundane boring somewhat-preventable reasons, and never recoup for the full 100% (although the negative effects do tend to fade away with time)

  3. Flash Bristow

    I feel so sorry for you, op.

    I currently can’t work due to illness, and as my previous career falls further behind I feel more out of date and “stupid” when I mix with friends still in the industry.

    But look at what you’ve accomplished! A new degree! And critically, the wherewithal to recognise what went wrong before, and what’s different now.

    I think you’d be a great employee with that maturity. Alison is spot on about not letting yourself think *you* were the screw up, only that your circumstances were. You’ve come out the other side and have a long way to go. Best wishes, be strong!

  4. CommanderBanana

    LW, I had some similar stuff happen right out of grad school because of an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. It definitely impacted the trajectory of my career, and at the time I felt like I’d never be out of it, but I did and you will! You sound very brave and I wish you the best.

    1. gmg22

      +1. (Seriously, I could have written this comment word for word about myself. A lot of us out there with this kind of life experience, and being able to extend compassion to others who have been through it feels good!)

    2. jenniferthebillionth

      I also could have written this comment! It took a while to get things to work in my favor, and to feel *worthy* of things working in my favor, but it happened for me and can certainly happen for others.

    3. Djuna

      Same. Burnt out spectacularly in my late twenties and thought I could never come back from it.
      Once I landed that first job after a long break to get well, I started building a new track record.
      Been a few hiccups along the way for me (layoffs, etc.) but it’s been easier to bounce back from them – even in my early forties.
      OP, you’re gonna be fine, and you’ll be an asset to any team you land in.

  5. Future Homesteader

    OP, I’m a complete internet stranger who is proud of you. I know you can’t just let go of shame like turning off a light, but you’ve dealt with a whole slew of difficult things all at once and come out on the other side. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You’re amazing, and while the rest of the road back probably won’t be linear, it’s going to get better from here. Good luck! We’re rooting for you!!

    1. TeapotDetective

      +1
      OP, you’ve got a whole bunch of folks, connected through this site, who are pulling for you and wishing for you to succeed. You’ve got this. <3

  6. Crivens!

    OP, I don’t have any advice but if hearing from someone who pulled themselves out of a similar career destruction helps:

    I spent all of my 20s and the first few years of my early 30s in active alcoholism and lost so many jobs because of it. I showed up drunk. I wouldn’t show up at all. I lied and lied and lied. I was a horrible employee and I rightfully had no references.

    Once I got sober, I took an entry level job not in the field I was interested in and stuck with it, as an excellent employee, for two years. I used references entirely from that job. When I was ready to move on, I applied to jobs back in my field, but kept entry-to-mid-level in my expectations. I’m certainly not making as much as I would be if my 20s and 30s had been “normal”, but I love my job and I know I’m continuing to build up an excellent professional reputation. It can be done! I believe in you!

    1. Kittycritter

      Very similar story to mine – from 25 to 32 years old I had a raging pain pill and then heroin addiction. I messed up a couple of good jobs exceedingly, horrifically badly. But I got treatment and have been drug free for 5 years. Yes I had to take an entry level job to get back into my field, and I’m not where I would be on the career ladder if I didn’t have that gap of several years, but I’ve been at my current workplace for almost 5 years now and been promoted a couple times! I was really circling the drain at one point so I know if I can bounce back and get a great job that I honestly really enjoy, you definitely can too. Good luck OP!!

    2. Bone!

      I have a sort of similar story, except I got sober at 24. (I was a teenage drug addict and knew I had a pretty serious drinking problem by the time I was 20.) I’m now 30, more than five years sober, and only just starting my professional career after clawing my way to normalcy. (Also had a baby at 28 so that put things on hold, too.) Congrats to you for your sobriety, I love hearing other stories.

      OP, you sound like a gd survivor to me. You’re going to be ok. And know that you are far from the only person with a less than ideal career trajectory. :)

  7. The Man, Becky Lynch

    You climbed the ladder once, you’ll do it again! Get in on the floor level and start one rung at a time. You did it before, you hopefully will climb even faster this time.

    You’ll run into places that won’t give you a chance but that’s the case for every job search. You are in a headspace where you’re thinking too much about your journey and thinking worse case scenarios. I dig it, I’m the worst about doing that as well.

    You’ll dust yourself off. You’ve got this.

  8. AMT27

    You have nothing to be ashamed of! You had life circumstances beyond your control completely derail you, as they would most people. It’s easy to say “I wish I had handled this part differently” or “It would have been better to give notice and quit rather than ghost my employer”, but you were struggling and you recognize the mistakes that you made in the moment. When there are so many things going wrong in our lives it’s not possible to handle everything the way we know is best; you were reacting while dealing with a series of personal struggles. You did the best you could in the moment. Maybe you wish you’d done things differently, but so do we all. All you can do is look at what happened (and stop beating yourself up for being human!), learn from it if possible, and move forward trying to do your best. Good luck!

  9. R.D.

    OP – I have had some reference issues early in my career and one thing that I found worked was to find jobs through temp agencies. References frequently aren’t checked for temporary jobs and if you do well at those short term jobs, they can provide good references for your next longer term jobs, as can the temp agency itself. Frequently those temp-to-perm jobs aren’t the best available, but they can help you get a foot in the door at a variety of companies.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch

      Fascinating to hear there are temp agencies ran like that! My only experience is with a specific large scale national agency and they require not just references but good ones. My former supervisor had applied with them right after quitting because the company was going bankrupt. They turned her down due to the big boss being…emotionally exhausting and pinning the destruction of the company on her. Granted that’s a company for accounting professionals and screening is massively different! It must be different for the agencies not placing in such restrictive roles.

      That aside, I got my breakthrough job as a temp-to-perm setup. It’s a great option to try out if it’s available for your new career path.

    2. Gregor

      Most temp agencies I have worked with ask for and check references, I think they would risk a lot (i.e. losing clients) by not doing their due diligence in the screening process of their candidate pool.

    3. ContentWrangler

      I also got work through a recruiting agency that didn’t proactively check my references. Though I am in a creative field so they were more interested in seeing my samples. OP, you mention there are still existing products of your earlier career (“accomplished amazing things that are still in place”). Perhaps you could find a temp agency that would be more interested in that portfolio rather than traditional references.

    4. Dagny

      I agree.

      Apply to all of the relevant temp agencies out there. If you’re answering phones, that’s a reference. If you’re typing into a database, that’s a reference. If you’re doing a three-month project in your new field, that’s a reference.

      Also, you do not have to volunteer in your field to have it be good for landing a job. Do something, and you will meet people who can introduce you to people in your field, and who can provide references for you.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch

        I would caution assuming these temp gigs are references. You won’t have a relationship established for a 3 month stint of data entry. You’re just a temp, you’re gaining experience and maybe networking but networking is very limited as a temp.

        I’m not giving anyone I had on a temp project a reference. I know that you showed up and at the moment the job is done…that’s very little to go on for putting my professional credibility on as a reference.

        The best thing that came from my temping was the fact many places wanted to to keep me. So I had steady employment after a year gap that gave me traction tp propel up a permanent gig.

        But I didn’t even have the contact information for the client I worked for. All information was given through the agency because they have strict rules about these things. You’re not their employee, you are their vendor.

        1. Super dee duper anon

          This had not been my experience at all. I ran into a situation where I was left with no references a couple years after graduating. Temping was exactly how I built up my references.

          No one checked my references off the bat, though they did have me list them. I worked with multiple agencies (though obviously I cannot speak for all agencies). One off, single day or very short term assignments weren’t going to be good for references, though they reported back to the agencies positively about me, which gave the agency the confidence to send me out to longer or high level assignments. However I think I had someone offer to act as a reference for me at every longish term assignment I went on – sometimes multiple people from the same company.

          I found most people very sympathetic to the fact that I was clearly looking for permanent work and very willing to help me out in any way they could. I am also very vocal to temps or interns that I work with that I’d be happy to provide a positive reference for them (if I was impressed with their work). Obviously a reference saying that they managed me for three weeks on temp assignments is nowhere near as good (to prospective employees) as hearing from a person who managed me any period of time in a perm job, but it’s a start and it’s better than nothing if nothing is all you have.

    5. AmethystMoon

      It depends. Some jobs are perma-temp, meaning you are there for more than a year, but technically still a contractor. I got my first log-time permanent job out of such a gig. However, this will not happen to everyone. I was shy and introverted when I was younger. I temped around for 10 years before I finally found my long-term permanent job.

      Good luck!

    6. cncx

      This. I had a messy marriage and an even messier divorce, and i job hopped a lot because of what was going on in my life at the time. When i was out of that marriage, i took a temp to perm position which became perm, and i’ve stayed seven years. Also, when you’re doing temp work, people are usually happy you’re there (because if management finally got it together to get a temp, the employees have been needing help longer), which is a big boost if you’ve had some self-esteem issues from previous jobs. I tell everyone i know who is coming out of a slump to take temp work, it really helps build self-confidence back and build a résumé.

    7. voluptuousfire

      It helps! I did a gig at an investment bank a few years back for about 3.5 months and while a lot of it was boring, it was great. I got to establish myself again as a competent employee and the director of payroll adored me and would have very likely hired me for a role in her department if I had any experience in it. :P

      It was good to feel like a viable employee again.

  10. SheLooksFamiliar

    I second Alison’s advice, and hope this also helps. I’m in corporate staffing, and a frontrunner candidate for a key role was out of the workplace twice for an extended period – once to take care of his ailing parents, and once for his own medical care. My hiring partner didn’t even blink.

    Another candidate I remember fondly – and hired! – had a history similar to yours. He didn’t grovel or low-crawl, he simply explained his ‘lessons learned’ and recent accomplishments. You have so much more to offer than you think, and you can speak to your accomplishments, too.

    Please keep us posted, please be kind to yourself, and know YOU GOT THIS.

  11. nonprofit type

    Just want to send lots of support and compassion to the OP. My husband’s career also imploded when he was in his early 30s, for a variety of reasons that made it impossible for him to continue working in that field, which was the only field (a fairly narrow one) he’d ever worked in. He spent his 30s trying to get back into the workforce, with years of doing part-time entry-level temp work (after having been a VP) and taking care of our son. It wasn’t easy but he was able to forge a new career in an entirely new field and he is now doing well in his 40s. You can do it too! One thing that really helped my husband was getting referred to a very basic temp job by a friend who knew someone who was looking for data entry people… and eventually the company for which he was doing data entry realized he could do a lot more. Don’t be afraid to tap your whole network of friends/family, even in unrelated fields–although I know it can be awkward/discouraging. I’m really thinking of you–your letter struck a chord in me as I remembered those tough years for my husband. You have been doing really important work of caregiving, too–and when you are settled professionally you will eventually look back and see the beauty and value of what you have done and everything you have gotten through. I know my husband considers his time as a stay at home dad a saving grace and he looks back on it very fondly even though it was also one of the most stressful times in his life. Best of luck to you.

    1. thatGuy

      100% related to your comment! It’s been several years, and I’ve never seen a comment/post like this that I’ve related to. I’ve always questioned if what I was doing what the right thing. Thank you for this! I was in the same position as your husband literally. Having to be a stay at home father, taking care of my daughter (while trying to get back on track) is something I’ll never regret because I’ve got to experience my daughter grow and develop, something ill cherish forever.

      1. nonprofit type

        Of course you did the right thing, thatGuy! I’m glad my husband’s story resonated with you.

    2. wandering_beagle

      “you will eventually look back and see the beauty and value of what you have done and everything you have gotten through”

      Wow… beautifully put and so true!

  12. Pipsqueak

    I feel for you, OP! I too suffered from some crazy personal things that transferred over to poor work performance.

    One thing that was important for me to learn after I got back on my feet was that I didn’t have to punish myself forever. The things that happened to me were out of my control, and when I was back to work in full force I really over-extended myself to try to “make up for” my poor performance in the past.

    It wasn’t even a therapist, but a personal trainer who asked me (after too many missed workouts because of working late) why I was working so hard all the time. I didn’t have a good answer–my boss/colleagues didn’t ask or expect it of me. I was just haunted by the guilt of previous poor performance and felt like I had to prove that I deserved to be there after messing up in the past.

    It took a while for me to let that guilt go and focus on the future. Best of luck to you OP!

    1. TootsNYC

      Even if those things had been IN your control, it’s not necessary to punish yourself forever. Or even for very long.

      To learn? Yes. To insist upon discipline in yourself? Yes.
      To be firm with oneself? Yes.

      But you get to start over. There is forgiveness.
      Forgiving yourself, or accepting forgiveness, doesn’t mean that the good things that were before will come back. But it does mean that you don’t have to carry around the BAD things anymore.

  13. Sarah N

    Sending lots of support to the LW! Even if you didn’t work while you were in school, could you ask some of your professors who you had a good relationship with to act as a reference for you? Even if this isn’t quite “as good” as an employment reference, it sounds like they could at least speak to things like reliability, professionalism, professional skills like writing/speaking/leadership/etc.

  14. Hold My Cosmo

    When I had a spotty work history (one layoff after another in tech in the mid-aughts, plus an extended bout of parental illness) I emphasized the caregiving aspect, and was explicitly asked if the parent was deceased or still living.

    Based on that experience, my slightly ruthless advice is to emphasize the caregiving aspect over the mothering aspect. From the employer’s perspective, your parents are gone and can no longer take up your time, but you will always have a child. It’s not particularly fair or nice to have to think of it that way, but it’s worth noting.

    You can do this.

    1. AnotherAlison

      Well, you won’t always have a child. But yeah, the OP’s child is probably in the pre-teen age range, so it’s true for her now. Also when coupled with the fact that her story also reveals that she doesn’t have parents or a reliable ex-spouse, you definitely want to find a delicate way to explain the gap. Or, emphasize how you managed getting the second degree, working, and raising a child because that gives some credibility that you can handle the juggle even without family support.

    2. Ellie

      The single parent thing can go either way – my mother’s been questioned about it in interviews, but in an, ‘oh, so you need to work then’, and ‘wow, you must be organised!’ kind of way. Discrimination is out there but showing that you’ve been through some tough times can impress an employer as well.

      OP, these examples aren’t for everyone, but I know two people who have come back from a bad relationship/illness/poor career decisions period and one did it through call centre work (they always need people, and if you can handle the stress you can get some good experience out of it) and the other did it by joining the army, who I promise you do not care about references. There’s always a way back.

  15. AnotherAlison

    It sounds like OP was at the first job (in different roles) until things went sour, so I would not recommend getting references from there, even if she did so much so well. I’ve worked with a couple people who were extremely successful, and then completely unraveled. From inside the company, you have no idea what is going on, and you can’t give them a reference in good faith. I would echo the advice to get academic references.

  16. Karen from Finance

    OP, I don’t have any advice but I wanted to tell you that I’m really proud of you. Best of luck in the future! We’re rooting for you. You can do it.

  17. Washi

    If OP finds that the lack of references is hurting her, I wonder if there’s anyone she could contact at the first company, where she was a director, who had been a mentor/ally. I can’t tell from the letter, but it seems like the shame has potentially kept the OP from asking what kind of reference they would be willing to give. If she did accomplish so much and her manager was aware of what was going on in her life, a reference along the lines of “OP accomplished amazing things before being derailed by her personal circumstances” might be possible and much better than nothing.

    1. Not A Manager

      I was thinking something very similar. If LW had an excellent track record at that company before things unraveled, is there anyone – a peer, even, or a mentor – who could attest to that? Sometimes a parting can be “frosty” without actually erasing all the good stuff that came before it.

    2. Washi

      I should add that I managed someone who wasn’t even amazing, just good, whose work went kind of wonky towards the end of her tenure. A lot was going on in her personal life, but she kept refusing the accommodations I offered her, insisted she could do everything, and then continued to fail to complete the necessary tasks. We parted semi-frosty terms, but if she came to me and acknowledged very honestly that she hadn’t handled the situation well and showed that she was trying to regroup, I would be rooting for her, and happy to give her a decent reference.

  18. Nerfmobile

    Been there, done that. Recovery is possible and many people will have their own scars they don’t discuss in this regard. The new degree is an excellent reset point, so work that angle as much as possible. I also suggest figuring out the story that tells your history as concisely as possible – highlighting the good, and framing the problem spots as development points that make sense in your career trajectory. For instance, my “career history story” feature two inflection points that spotlight interests that didn’t help with my first career but play very well in my current line of work. And practice telling that story over and over again until you’ve got it down to a confident tale that takes 3-5 minutes.

  19. Falling Diphthong

    I’d like to go to grad school, which tends to be rife with mentorships and placement help.

    I’m dubious about this. Are you thinking of going to the same institution from which you just earned a degree? Because those mentorships and placements should have been rife at the undergrad level, too. My kids are in/entering the hard sciences, which is its own thing, but those internships and research opportunities were being emphasized starting with freshmen–not as something reserved for graduate students.

      1. Falling Diphthong

        I admit to a dirty lens that may be coloring my take on this–a relative who repeatedly bought into sure-fire advice like “all educational debt is good because then you’ll get a great job (by definition high-paying, if they want a college degree for it) and pay all that debt off” and “the housing market always goes up, so buy even if you have terrible credit.” That italic line seems like something you tell people in a pyramid scheme–“No mentorships or placement help on this level, no, but if you just pay for the premier access you’ll open up so many opportunities.”

        1. That Girl From Quinn's House

          Yes, my (well-ranked, you’d recognize its name) alma mater was all about the “mentorships and placement help!” you got from being connected.

          Long after job applications were online, they had a binder full of cheeto-stained, expired, handwritten or typewritten fax-copies of job openings and that was the “placement help.” Or you could have a career counselor ask you, “Do you want to work at a BIG company or a SMALL company? A FORMAL company or a CASUAL company? An URBAN company or a RURAL company?” and then tell you to look on Monster or Indeed for openings.

          Of course after the recession they realized this wasn’t working and stepped it up…and they have the audacity to brag about the “new improved Career Services!” in alumni mailings.

          1. Super dee duper anon

            Ahaha – I’d say we must have gone to the same school, but I doubt anyone would recognize the name of my school. The Cheeto stained binder of expired printouts was the extent of their career placement help and when I went to sign up for an internship I was given a different binder with Cheeto stains full of out dated print outs and was told to call the number on the printout of any internships I was interested in and arrange it myself.

            However, I will say, I figured out later that it really depended on which program you were in. The school has a couple of very unique, highly regarded programs and if you were in one of those programs there were way more opportunities available. I was not in one of those programs. I was in a significantly cheaper to run and completely non-selective program that the school just pumped people through.

            So basically – if you have direct knowledge of the opportunities afforded to students (like from speaking to alumni/current student), then you can probably rely on that. If not, yeah, be cautious and know that just because you heard a school has good resources for their students, it may be limited to certain programs or even students with certain advisors.

      2. n

        I mean, undergraduate institutions *should* be pushing mentorship opportunities regardless of major. I was a humanities major and very strongly encouraged to take advantage of summer research opportunities, go to conferences, build relationships with people in the field, provide tutoring, and basically anything else that would make a resume/CV look good. Of course, I was planning on an academic career track at the time, but would assume (hope!) that students interested in a professional career track would receive similar advice.

    1. AnotherAlison

      What does placement help mean? At my undergrad (engineering), we have a big career fair and on-campus interviews all the time. Is that placement help? Most of us got jobs that way, but there wasn’t much “help”. It was just a matter of them making the opportunities available to the students. I’ve also seen more the opposite where career placement is for undergrads, but I suppose I could see it being different where the terminal degree for a professional job is a Masters, so that is where the career placement focus is.

    2. Nesprin

      Yeah, speaking as a bench scientist, grad school is probably not going to get you a job in STEM and grad school in the humanities is really not going to get you a job. You have a track record demonstrating your ability to get things done. That’s what’s going to get you a job despite the bumps in the road.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch

      Yeah…given the many beloved friends and acquaintances I’ve seen with advanced degrees who are still in retail, my heart crashed at the continued idea of getting a job by connection with a university program.

      But I’m jaded and busted with a dim view of the false hope sold by institutions, so that’s cluttering up even my natural Pollyanna POV.

  20. Yeah, anon for this

    I know where you are coming from.
    I had a good solid career and mental health issues landed me on social security disability for 5 years. During that time I did the serious therapy and managed to finish my first degree. Obviously, I did not want to discuss any of that with an employer.
    So I took the tack of “I had an early mid life crisis, went back to school, finished the degree, and ready for work.” Employers bought that. No one asked me for a reference from a previous position. My degree required an internship, so I could use that and my professors. Actually, my GPA (also magna) spoke for itself.
    I would just go with “spent time taking care of my dying parents and got another degree.”
    Good luck!

  21. wittyrepartee

    OP, I was a hot mess due to bad relationships for a while. I got very bluntly turned down for a recommendation because of it. The shame still lives in me after a decade.

    Chin up! Fake the confidence, explain that you were a caretaker for a while and use academic references. It’ll be okay. Having gone through all that, you have a lot to bring to any role that you are hired for. If it will help you feel more confident, maybe you can get in contact with a former boss and apologize? It sounds like this is about regret more than it is about references.

    Cheering for you!

  22. De Minimis

    I got fired from my first job after making a career change that started right as the Great Recession began, and was unemployed for nearly three years afterward. You can turn things around, especially since your current field is not the one where things got off track.

  23. Orange Crush

    My heart goes out to you. Boundless empathy & encouragement. I too was a bit of a superstar in my early/mid-20s, until a number of interpersonal, family, financial, and medical “events” all swooped in at roughly the same time, and resulted in me dropping out of grad school unceremoniously. Several silver linings, in the medium & long-term: 1) I realized the career trajectory I was on would never be satisfying, since my work failed to provide even the slightest bit of respite/break/distraction from everything else going on in my life. 2) I never would have met my spouse if I hadn’t relocated after dropping out. 3) The “second time around” career I began pursuing in my late 20s has provided me with more financial and personal stability than my more-prestigious “first time around” career would have. 4) I’m in grad school again, it’s subsidized by my employer, I received some transfer credits from the Bad Old Days (not wasted!), and I’m a more well-rounded, down-to-earth, self-forgiving student because of all I went through.

    TL;DR: Take excellent care. <3

  24. BWooster

    Hey, OP, I’m you from about 3 years from now. I also had a pretty impressive career in my 20s, trashed it for a different set of reasons and had to pick everything back up in my late 30s. I finished my second degree at 37, started an entry level job at 38, and now, 3 years later I have been promoted twice, once over and above my cohort because it’s a real advantage to come into the workplace already knowing how to function in a professional environment. My company is currently forking out for my Master’s.

    For references, I used ny academic ones as people have suggested. I am not gonna pretend it was easy but it wasn’t that much more difficult than it was for younger people I graduated with. You can do it. You will be great.

    1. Zev

      Yes! Coming out of a degree program as a 40-something adult can win you a whole lot of “Oh thank goodness, we don’t have to train her in professional norms / office culture / behaving in Adult Society” points when applying for jobs. Being (perceived as) more mature, confident and steadfast compared to younger new grads can definitely be an advantage.

  25. Bee

    I’ve told this story here before, but it is totally possible to build a new career starting in your early 40s – my mom did it. She left a job at the phone company to be a stay-at-home mom while my sister and I were young, and then when we were in middle school (~2002), two things happened: she got really bored being home alone all day, and my dad’s industry imploded and he lost all security. She got a part-time job as a receptionist at the real estate company where a neighbor worked (thanks in large part to said neighbor’s recommendation – lean on your non-work contacts for connections too!). Now she’s their top independent agent. She managed that climb in about a dozen years. It seems impossible when you’re at the beginning, but it is absolutely doable. Good luck!

  26. RNL

    I’ve interviewed people who have said “I had some personal difficulties during X period that led to A,B,C. While I’m not terribly proud of that time, I’m very proud of how I recovered and what I learned about myself and success from getting through that period. For example, E,F,G.”
    It was incredibly effective, and honestly interviewing people for a difficult career knowing that they are not unused to struggle and have demonstrated resilience made me very receptive to their candidacy.
    Good luck OP!

  27. Foreign Octopus

    This is definitely a thing you can do, OP.

    A lot of people (myself included at one time) believe that if you don’t have all your ducks in a row by the time you’re in your early thirties, then you’ve failed, but life is so much more complicated and interesting than that. That’s why you get people in their fifties, sixties, and on starting new things and looking for new challenges. There isn’t a point in life when we just suddenly become the person that we’re meant to be, it’s a lifelong process and we’re constantly changing. So one point of your life might have been objectively bad, but that doesn’t get to define you for the rest of your days.

    We’re all capable of change and anyone who judges you on a period of your life that you’ve put behind you and worked to overcome isn’t going to be a company that you want to work for.

    My dad worked in dead end jobs for twenty years because when she was eighteen years old, he spent six weeks in prison for a crime he committed (theft), and for the next twenty years, he punished himself for it but not trying for more. When he did, he went back to university, retrained as a teacher, taught at college (UK: 16-18) for two years and then he set up his own company that meant he could retire two years ago at the age of 57. Change is possible, but forgiving yourself is an important step in that, and my dad was only able to change when he forgave himself for a stupid decision he made as a teenager.

    You can do this, OP. Believe in yourself like we believe in you and you’ll be amazing!

  28. Stephanie

    You can recover! I didn’t have any personal meltdowns thankfully, but as some long-time commenters know, I was in a bad fit career and had a firing then a long-term unemployment spell then a meh job with another firing and then a slightly shorter, but still long unemployment period. I did a lot of volunteer work and did well in some jobs I was maybe a little overqualified for. I did end up getting my MS (I went back full-time) and was recruited into a what’s been a great job at a F50 company where I’ve been getting good performance reviews.

    Definitely lean on the second bachelors, especially if it’s something that’s an obvious career switch (like going back to get an accounting or engineering degree). Employers looked at the prior work history, but it was more a neutral to positive since I was coming out of school. You could perhaps get an academic reference. My boss from that second job actually did write me a grad school recommendation letter (where he mostly said “She’d be a good teapot glazer, but wasn’t a strong kiln operator”), so you may also be able to get a good reference from your prior job, if it’s not too ancient.

    I know I said I went back and got an MS, but I’d carefully evaluate that as a solution. I was able to get into a top program and have my tuition covered and was leaving a meh, not lucrative job, so my debt and opportunity cost were minimal. But if you’re paying full freight with questionable post-school employment prospects, you might want to reconsider.

  29. TootsNYC

    I just wanted to say–even though you left that job on somewhat frosty terms, you might find that individuals from that job might be willing to be references, more than you know.

    Time has a way of softening the negatives in ways it doesn’t the positives.
    And if you have the opportunity to point out some mitigating circumstances (abusive or unhappy marriage making you unable to function properly), without making excuses, you may find that there is more goodwill than you know.

    So think about people you worked with then who might have memories of you from when you were functioning well, and reach out to see if you can buy them coffee. And ask whether they’d be willing to speak about your pre-crisis work.

    1. TootsNYC

      I’m thinking of a freelancer with whom I severed ties sort of abruptly, and a bit frostily on both sides. If someone asked me about her now, I’d give her a good reference.

      I think she and I just got tired of the whole arrangement. There wasn’t anything toxic about it, but it was just time to move on. And it took a bit of a blow-up for that reality to manifest itself.

  30. Super Anon

    My husband had a somewhat similar trajectory. His first career was as a musician. He suffered a permanent disability that left him unable to play at a professional level. He diverted into music education, but addiction blew his life up.

    He got a low-pay, data-entry job at a great company based on the strength of a personal reference (a friend who referred him), worked his way up the ladder there for a few years, earned a professional credential, then decided to go to business school. He’s now a director at a Fortune 500 company and makes six figures doing work that he’s genuinely interested in and excited about.

    But more than that, blowing up his life gave him the opportunity to build a life he wanted (starting with building a SELF he loved and trusted). He’d say that it’s the best thing that ever happened to him.

  31. Jessen

    This is very encouraging to read after the years of IF YOU DON’T GET YOUR LIFE STRAIGHTENED OUT RIGHT AFTER COLLEGE YOU’RE DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMED FOREVER!!! I had such nice, neat, lovely plans for my life at 18. They did not work as planned and now I’m 30 and working on starting over.

    1. Drew

      I didn’t even know the job I had at 30 existed when I was 18. I spent most of my 20s convinced I wanted to do one thing and I so, so, SO did not. No regrets, though, because I learned a lot about myself and it put me in the right place to find the job I’ve been doing for the last two decades.

  32. Sam Sepiol

    Hugs (if you want them), OP. I believe you’ve got this.

    I think you’re being far harder on yourself than you deserve <3

  33. PorecelainOne

    I really needed to read this after going through a pretty bad patch in my life that lead to me having a complete breakdown at work and being hospitalized. I think how am I going to go back to work, which I have to do when my alimony runs out, when I have a horrible job history and no references from the past 5 years? Like I completely fell off the map, if it doesn’t involve something I have to do for my kids, I’m not doing it. I’m just trying to figure out what it is I want to do that isn’t going to make me feel like I want to crawl back into bed everyday when the alarm goes off.

    1. Margaery Moth

      This resonated with me. I had basically the same thing happen, although I had to rely on family help and not alimony. Eventually, somehow, a hobby I’d started turned into a realization I could switch careers. If you have something you really love doing, I’d recommend trying to volunteer your time to see if it could become a career someday.

  34. Harper the Other One

    Alison, this is such a wonderful, compassionate response, probably one of the best I’ve read.

  35. AndLars

    I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief reading all of this. OP, thank you for your candidness and vulnerability in sharing this, and Alison for posting it and your response. I’m job searching in my mid-30s after a decade of low-impact self-employment and freelancing due to needing maximum flexibility while I dealt with a health issue that went undiagnosed for years. Now that it’s finally been diagnosed and resolved, I’m wanting to get back on a traditional career track and have been really anxious about my prospects. Alison’s reminder that it just takes one employer who isn’t wary of your background was so welcome, as were all of the commenters’ stories of success after a long time away from work. I’m going to keep at it. Best of luck, OP. It sounds like you’re far from the only one in this boat.

  36. Asenath

    You can come back from this! As Alison says – and I told myself when I was rebuilding after a rough patch – you only need one employer to give you a chance! Use your academic references to start with. I’m not sure if grad school should be your next step – as you say, it might be best to try to get some recent experience. I kind of did both – temporary contracts when I got them; courses when I didn’t during the period when no one wanted to hire me full-time. I’m not sure the academic program made a difference, other than giving me a recent academic reference. You can mention if asked that you spent time out of the workplace for family reasons , and focus on your new degree and plans for future employment instead. My situation was a bit different – family reasons would have been a much preferable reason! – but really, all I needed to say in the end was something about how I’d decided to make a change after Previous Occupation and was now interested in a new direction, which I was taking time to work on. True, too, if lacking in all the details. Mostly interviews (when I got one; I do remember the time no one seemed to want to interview me) focused on what I thought I could bring to the job I was applying for.

    Believe me, there was a time when I couldn’t go back to what I’d been doing (burned my bridges there really thoroughly) and couldn’t find anything else to do – for a while, I didn’t even know where to look. Lots of people have been in a similar situation, but for me, what worked was plugging away – trying any resources or advice I could find, when I decided more education might make me more employable, figured out a way to start that, applied and applied and applied for jobs, mostly not getting interviews, especially at first. I had to focus on my daily plans at times to avoid panicking when I thought long term (eg what will I do when money runs out??). And finally, one of the part-time contracts went full time, and I had and am still in a steady job that I like a lot more than the one I had Before. Recovery is possible.

  37. Zev

    Your professors totally count as references! I just finished grad school as part of a major career change, and my current (wonderful) job called 1) my internship supervisor and 2) a professor I had taken 2 classes with and done well in. Absolutely 0 previous-career references were called.

    Email your favorite profs your resume and ask them if they are ok being a *phone* reference. They get asked this all the time — AND, they’ll be super extra pleased because a phone reference with an employer is 10,000 times easier than the other kinds of references they get asked for (i.e., grad school reference *letters* which they have to sit down for several hours and *write.*) Chatting on the phone for 20 mins about how great you are? No -reasonable- professor is going to be put off by that.

  38. Kitty

    Sending positive thoughts to the OP!!

    FWIW, I wouldn’t go to graduate school unless you really, really have to (i.e. if it is required for your chosen career, you have funding, and you are very sure about job opportunities that will justify the expense) It’s just not worth it otherwise.

  39. Working Hypothesis

    I spent twenty years of my adult life unable to work due to disability, before finally receiving effective treatment and getting well enough to go to technical school, get my license to practice a healthcare profession, and look for a job. I’d had maybe two years of broken-up work experience before that in my life, because I could only hold jobs occasionally for a few months at a time before my health took a nosedive again and I had to drag myself back to bed for the next X months or years.

    To my astonishment and delight, I found that nobody much cared, when I went looking for work at 41, whether I’d gotten my license at 20 or at 40, and whether I’d had any work experience or not. They treated me like anyone else coming out of technical school with my degree, and they looked at my grades and my license and they interviewed me and they tested my skills, and they hired me based on those. I got a decent job fresh out of school, and then when I left that to return to school for my advanced degree, I got a better one when I returned to the job market. None of it gave me trouble.

    There are industries which will care more than mine did — mine was as careless as this about anything that happened before my licensing in part because I work in a field where it’s very easy to test my actual skills and find out for sure just how good I am at my job without having to rely on the proxy of looking at my experience in order to guess at it. They asked me to show them how well I could do the work by doing the work in a practice run with them, and when I did that, they had all the answers they needed; you can’t do that in every field, I know. But still, I think it’s a lot easier to reset a career from scratch with a totally new field and degree, so long as you learn well in school and have the skills that they would look for in any new employee.

  40. Jennifer Juniper

    OP, you did not destroy yourself or screw up. You weathered life’s storms with grace while completing your education. You got this.

  41. Jayne Err

    OP, be proud, you’ve done well.

    So many of us can relate. I grew up with some mental-health issues it took years to recognize. I went back to school and started anew. I did OK. You have the benefit of Alison’s wisdom and other posters’ advice. You got this for sure!

  42. dumblewald

    OP – you are totally allowed to be a human being outside of your career. I’m sorry that life got so hard, but you are clearly smart and capable of success – you just had to deal with other things in your life for awhile, and that is okay. So in Alison’s words, you are NOT a screw-up. There is not a single human in this world who’s life carries on peacefully with no incident (I mean, maybe there are some, but they’re not normal..) Many of us struggle every now and again.

    Remember to continue taking care of your health and well-being while you pick your career back up!

  43. Late-bloomer

    Good luck OP! I’m in a similar boat as you are except without having ever had a stable period, but I might be well enough to work soon. I’m in my mid thirties.

  44. Indie

    Healthy employers won’t bat an eyelid over the fact you’ve had a life, and the odd drop-everything crisis. Healthy employers aren’t interested in doing a shame-o-meter measurement with you. They just have some stuff that needs doing and they need to know if you can do it or not.
    They may have some questions about rough spots, but you have answers. A healthy job will have also enough work-life balance that you’ll be able to carry on being a human being who isn’t perfect and who is expected to have tragedies and dependants and problems. If you ever again have a Life Thing that is so bad that it eclipses your entire ability to work, that isn’t a thing that requires your shame, it’s just a thing that healthy employers will think of as ‘Ok so that role requires a replacement’.
    Jobs really are not a referendum of our worth. Hard as it is to remember; it’s just business.
    Do keep this in mind, because while interviewing you will meet plenty of unhealthy employers who enjoy weaponizing shame.

  45. architeuthis

    This could not be more timely for me, as the past two weeks I have started actively reaching out to people I ghosted in my cataclysmic grad school/life burn out. Almost 3 years later, I am still fighting a huge amount of shame, but I finally got the ovaries up to apologize to my boss and……it’s fine. He’s going to give me a reference, and I can start applying for jobs back in the field that I love. Don’t underestimate the power of time to temper what happened. Most people are more understanding about Life Stuff than you’d think.
    That’s as far as I’ve gotten though, and it is immeasurably reassuring to see that so many people have managed to rebuild or create new careers after even longer and more explosive gaps than mine. I am very inspired by the people who put in the time and parlayed a temp/entry level position into a real career, as I am applying to a ton of temporary summer positions with hope of eventually climbing the ladder. Definitely bookmarking this for days when it still seems impossible. Thanks everyone for your incredible compassion. After 3 years of beating myself up, it is a breath of fresh air.

  46. LivingMyLife

    Op, don’t get discouraged – you will have an opportunity to restart your career. I was diagnosed with cancer three years ago and had to leave my job because of the intensity of chemo and transplant. I started looking for a job in my field a year ago. I had over 30 interviews all over the country before I got hired at a university in California. I decided that nothing was going to stop me from going forward. While some interviewers asked me about the gap in my employment, my current supervisor didn’t even bring it up. Right before my interview with my current employer, I was ready to give up and applied for a job at Barnes and Noble. They offered me a job, but I realized that I shouldn’t settle for just a job. The following week my current employer called about setting up an in person interview. I’m so glad I waited – it was well worth all the ups and downs of my job search!

  47. MollyG

    I messed up my career in my 20’s also and I got stuck in low wage jobs ever since. I even went back to school and got a PhD and that ended up counting for nothing. It is all about luck, if you can get an employer to give you a chance, then you could be ok, but you may not and be stuck. There are loads of stories of people who make it, and loads of stories of those who spend the rest of their lives in misery.

  48. JP

    I wish OP the best. I’m encouraged by many of the responses here.

    My story is different – I’ve been lost career-wise since a layoff, and earning a BA didn’t change things as much as I’d hoped. But I can empathize with many of the same feelings OP has. I am ashamed of my lack of achievement over the last few years (just some freelance work). I briefly had a job that I thought would be easy (similar to a prior job) but ended up being one of the most toxic workplaces I’ve ever experienced, and I don’t want to include them on my resume. I also have been taking care of an ill parent, as well.

    I’m ready to jump back in, but it’s hard when some of my last great references and relationships, workwise, were 8 to 10 years ago. And to make things more complicated, my spouse and I are moving.

    I’m willing to start with temp work, but even that has been a challenge, as me and my resume seem to fall down the same bottomless rabbit whole (the ATS) that it does at regular companies.

    I’m rooting for you, OP. For you and for all of us who are hard, talented workers with imperfect resumes.

  49. UnabashedVixen

    OP, I have been where you are, and I am hear to tell you, like many of the other commentators, that what you’re facing is totally doable! My life blew up in my early 30’s, due to mental illness, and I went from working for a Member of Parliament (the Canadian equivalent of a Congressperson) to living with my parents in the space of a couple of months. I had no option of a reference from that job, and it was my only professional experience out of university. Without references, I had a lot of trouble finding another job, so eventually I swallowed my pride and reached out to a former colleague at the store I had worked at almost a decade previous, when I was in school. She hired me, and gave me a full-time retail job, that I was able to survive on. I was able to leverage that job (and good reference!) into an entry-level job at a non-profit, which helped me get a slightly more senior job at another non-profit (and another good reference!) Eight years since things blew up, and I’m a Program Coordinator at a large non-profit, and my mental health is stable. It can be done. This is a hard time in your life, for sure, but there is a way forward.

    1. Jennifer

      I cannot even begin to imagine… My life blew up as a stay at home parent and I don’t know if I’d have the courage to do what you did (both public servant and retail servant) and nobody even knows me so, no problems laying low, as it must’ve been for you, even just in your circle of friends and acquaintances. That said, whatever party was yours (I’m hating on them all these days), I commend you for dragging yourself out of that pit of gossip and despair that is Canadian politics! We’re nice but, we’re also a smug lot tbh. Anyway, I sincerely hope you stayed long enough to get the pension! High five if ya did! :)

      1. UnabashedVixen

        I was lucky in that my hometown was far away from Ottawa, so I went back home to lick my wounds. It was a hit to my ego, for sure, but I’m much happier now, though I do miss Ottawa as a city, and my friends there.

        Only MPs get pensions after 6 years – I will get a bit of a pension when I retire, but nothing to write home about!

  50. Jennifer

    Please, cut yourself some slack. You didn’t beat your bosses baby, rob them blind or destroy their business. Your life imploded. You coped as you coped.
    So many more of us get stuck there. But, not you! You got another degree and are pursuing grad school. Pat yourself on the back for accomplishing what you have. Which is A LOT.
    As we like to say up here in Canada, keep your stick on the ice! (Yes, a hockey reference, roughly translated: stay focused, keep your eye on the prize, don’t punch your interviewer etc.)

  51. Commentator

    I’ve been there, although not to the same extent. And, while you see it as messing things up, feeling ashamed about your own mistakes won’t help you move forward. You’re human, you lived your 30s the best way you knew how, and you made mistakes. It’s not like the corporate job is the only way to do life and you owe someone a certain way of doing things. You don’t have to have a 9-5 job to be considered ‘normal’ (whatever that means anyways) or successful. You can find a job by listing your academic accomplishments, prior skills, and even prior experience if your name wasn’t tarnished in national headlines, it’s not like you’re OJ Simpson who killed his wife and another person.
    That being said, feeling ashamed and discarding your prior work experience as if punishing yourself for your mistakes is not the way to go. You earned your status/accomplishments in your 20s and I don’t see why you can’t use that. Forgive yourself and move on, and do build on all the experience you have, and your education. You don’t have to somehow erase your past, it won’t change it, you can probably build really well on all the experience you have behind your belt.

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