Making the Big Leap Into a New Industry: Michelle Brence’s Job Search Success Story
If you’re considering switching career fields, you’ve probably experienced the insecurity and fear that come along with not only changing jobs but entering a whole new sector. If you’ve been in your field for many years or perhaps even decades, the switch can be even harder. On this bonus episode of Find Your Dream Job, Michelle Brence and I talk about how she overcame her fears of leaving the field of journalism after 25 years. Michelle also shares her surprise and delight at how transferable many of her skills were, and how she used some of those skills in the interview process itself. Learn more about Michelle’s career history below in this installment of our Success Stories series.
What do you do for a career? Who do you work for?
I work at OHSU, on the Digital Engagement Team. In my role, I’m currently focusing on reworking parts of the website and leading a team of contract writers in producing web pages for patients on cancer, brain illnesses, and other conditions.
We aim to reorient health care pages and site structure to better serve patients as we prepare for a new content management system. We’re also updating information with a “show, don’t tell” philosophy borrowed from journalism to better reflect OHSU’s excellence.
How long did it take you to find this job?
I found my job in a single afternoon. It was finally deciding to leave journalism that took years.
In 2015, I was the politics editor at The Oregonian. I had an amazing team of reporters covering government, from Portland City Hall to Oregon’s congressional delegation. I loved the sense of mission, the adrenaline and the camaraderie of smart, irreverent and dedicated journalists.
After 25 years at newspapers, I felt like I finally had the skills to do my best work. One of the projects I led was even named a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
But newspapers were cutting jobs. I’d survived a string of cutbacks at The Oregonian, including a 2013 bloodletting that claimed my husband’s job. He found a new job quickly, but at a pay cut. I knew more cutbacks were probably coming. I also knew that, at 50, changing careers wouldn’t get any easier.
One Sunday afternoon, I was struck by a sudden sense of urgency, almost as if a voice were speaking to me: “It’s time to jump. Now. Now. Now.” I sat down at our kitchen computer and pulled up Mac’s List. My eyes fell on a job at OHSU that seemed to match my skills. It also offered the chance to come full circle: In high school, planning to pursue a career in medicine, I’d had an internship with an OHSU pathologist.
The day of my phone interview, I got a sharp reminder of the stakes. I was in The Oregonian newsroom when a company email dropped: Senior newsroom employees would be offered buyouts. If fewer than 25 accepted, layoffs would follow.
I shut the door to a private office to begin my interview as chaos unfolded on the other side of the window. I hit it off with my soon-to-be boss, who turned out to be looking for a journalist. I joined OHSU in January 2016.
How did you find your job? What resources did you use? What tool or tactic helped the most?
I found the job easily. To land it, I spent hours researching the university and preparing for interviews. I also talked to the current and former OHSU employees I knew. That helped me ask good questions and enter the job with my eyes open.
Beyond that, I wouldn’t recommend my approach. My boss and I laugh about it now, but she notes that I didn’t exactly radiate an eagerness to please. I peppered her with questions, including after she sent me an offer letter. Luckily, she saw that as evidence of persistence and information-gathering skills.
What was the most difficult part of your job search? How did you overcome this challenge?
Deciding to leave the only profession I’d ever known was gut-wrenching. I’d applied for a couple of jobs in prior years and gotten as far as a second interview, to no avail. My less-than-wholehearted commitment to leaving journalism probably didn’t help.
With the OHSU job pending, I overcame this in part by talking to friends and former colleagues who’d left journalism. They offered a clear-eyed view of life on the other side, but none said they would go back. I finally decided to leap.
What is the single best piece of advice you would offer other job-seekers?
If you’re in a precarious job or industry, don’t wait until you lose your job to look for another one, especially if you’re over 40. The Portland job market can be tough because so many talented people want to be here. It’s much easier to make sure a job will be a good fit – and to ask tough questions – when you have the flexibility to turn it down.
Why do you love your job?
I love that I’m still part of a mission-driven organization with dedicated co-workers and a lot of autonomy. Every day is different, and I still spend my time learning. I enjoy crafting pages to help patients during what may be the worst days of their lives.
My bosses, meanwhile, not only support but appreciate my journalistic approach. They don’t even seem to mind the profanity and sometimes uncoated candor I carried over from my previous life.
Find Your Dream Job, Bonus Episode 30: Michelle Brence
Making the Big Leap Into a New Industry: Michelle Brence’s Job Search Success Story
Airdate: June 8, 2020
This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.
I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.
One of the best ways to get good at job hunting is to talk to people who do it well.
That’s why once a month, I interview a Mac’s List reader who found a job they love.
Our guest today is Michelle Brence. She’s the digital content manager at the Oregon Health and Science University. Also known as OHSU.
Learning about the dream job she has today at OHSU wasn’t hard for Michelle. The position was publicly advertised on a job board.
In a story you can find on the Mac’s List website, Michelle says her biggest challenge was deciding to leave journalism, a field where she’d worked for 25 years, in order to start a new career in health communications.
Michelle, why do you love your job?
Oh gosh, I love the mission-driven quality of being at OHSU. I think a lot of people are motivated to become journalists because they do want to make the world a better place, they want to make a difference. They need money from their job, just like everybody else, but that’s usually not the first thing that they think about. So, when you’re looking, as a journalist, to change into something else, most of us really want to preserve being part of something bigger and something that makes the world a better place and I really feel that here.
Well, let’s talk about your job search. You changed careers, moving from journalism to health communications; how did you know it was time to make the switch?
That was the hardest part. I had really been thinking about it for years, as the journalism industry became increasingly difficult. We’d had a series of lay-offs at the Oregonian, where I was working, but I loved what I did. I loved the people that I worked with. I trained to be a journalist my entire life and had finally reached a place where I was doing my best work. It was really hard and I also didn’t want to leave Portland. And I have 2 kids and they were both in High School at the time and had their soccer teams and their friends and everything in place. And so, I really just had to make the decision at when was a good time to switch careers, and felt like I had kind of hit the point where if I was going to change careers, it needed to be soon. And then I just had, I mean, it was very strange, just one day I had this feeling wash over me of like, “Now is the time, you need to look now. It’s now.” And so, I sat down at a computer and looked and found the advertisement for this job on Mac’s List.
It was the first one I saw. Which is kind of crazy.
Do you have any sense of what inspired you to sit down that day? Because I know from reading your story, you had applied for other jobs in the past and it sounded like you didn’t get very far. Can you talk about why this time was different?
Yes, I actually did okay. I think I made it to the top two or three in another very good job, a couple of years before this, but my heart was not in it, and I think that showed a little bit. The person who got the job was very well qualified, they may have gotten it anyway, but I couldn’t help but feel like that probably showed and probably didn’t help. And so I knew that when I was ready to apply again, I really had to jump in with both feet. And it’s just, I finally reached that point of, I had recently turned 50 and felt like I had a lot of work-life left, but maybe not a lot of time left to learn a whole new career or get someone to take a chance on teaching me a new career. I just…I don’t know, it’s hard to say, it was just…I was standing in the kitchen and it just hit me that, “Right now is when you need to start looking. You can’t wait anymore.”
I asked about that change of heart because so many people struggle with that. They know that they need to make a change and they might try, and as you say, it might be apparent to an employer that perhaps the candidate’s heart isn’t in this particular position, and they’re competing against someone who is determined to get this job and it shows.
Any tips about how to get clear about…that it’s time to make that leap?
Yes, I think being pretty clear-eyed about what’s going on in your industry, and journalism, you know, it’s really hard. I have really good friends who are still journalists, I certainly would never discourage anyone from being a journalist; it’s a profession we need now more than ever. It’s a foundation of democracy. It’s hard to know, as there are more lay-offs and as the industry grows smaller and smaller, and people are asked to do more and more, and things like pay cuts and rising healthcare costs, it was kind of a pressure cooker in a lot of ways. But it is extremely hard to decide when it’s time for you to move on, and everybody has to make that for themselves.
There were people that had left years before me, and looked back at the rest of us like, “Boy, you guys don’t know what you’re doing. You really need to get out. You’re frogs in the proverbial boiling pot.” And others who looked at me as I was leaving, and said, “How can you leave? This is the best job you’ll ever have.” Because it is a calling, at least in journalism, and so that makes it particularly fraught compared with some other industries.
I don’t know that there’s one answer. I think you just have to feel pretty compelled to jump, but also not fully comfortable jumping. I certainly wasn’t. I still had misgivings. I still wasn’t absolutely certain it was the right time, even as I was doing it, so recognize that some discomfort is going to come with it.
As you made that leap, Michelle, did you turn to others for advice about how to manage the change, colleagues or mentors?
Yes, I talked to a lot of people. That helped a lot, a tremendous amount. I spoke with people who already worked at OHSU, and there were a couple of people that had worked at the Oregonian and had made the shift to OHSU, so they were amazing. One gave me an excellent clear-eyed view of what was different about the Oregonian and OHSU, and he turned out to be 100% right. But he also gave me a really great view of the Oregonian and where their vulnerabilities as a business lay, and I think he was right about that, too. And he had an attitude of, “Don’t look back. This is the right thing for you to do and so don’t spend a ton of time looking back.” And I think that was good advice.
The other thing that I noticed, I talked to somebody else, a former colleague who went from the Oregonian to Portland State, also somebody who I really admire and respect, and he said, “It’s a job not a calling.”
His new job, and I feel there is some truth to that. Even though I do feel a bit more of a calling here than I would in most places but he also said that he wouldn’t go back and of all the people that I talked to, no one said, “Boy, I wish I hadn’t left.” Nobody said that and I think you don’t see a lot of people go back. I know of one person who left journalism and came back. I’m sure there are others but you don’t see it too often.
When you were reaching out to people, did you find that most folks were willing to talk to you about the transitions that they’d made and give you advice?
They were wonderful. They spent an hour or more with me. Either on a phone, for lunch, or coffee. I had one person here I contacted and talked with multiple times; they could not have been more generous and kind, and I try to do the same when people contact me about leaving or looking at applying for a job at OHSU.
Now, you mentioned that you found the job just by looking at a job board, Mac’s List, and so that was easy, learning about the position. But you also spent, you say in your article, a lot of time preparing for your interviews. Tell us what you did and how you got ready.
I did some research on OHSU, of course, and on the job. It was a little tricky because the job didn’t exist at the time. It was a new position, a new role, but I looked up the people that I was going to be interviewing with to learn a little bit about them. I sort of talked myself through being…again, putting my heart into it, being really dedicated that, okay, if this was the job that I wanted, I needed to go after it with everything I had and show what I could do.
You were mid-career, you’d been at the Oregonian for, I think, more than 20 years, so what advice would you have, Michelle, for a listener who is thinking about making a career change? Particularly someone who might be in their 40s or 50s.
Oh gosh, I’d been at the Oregonian for about 14 or 15 years. I would say, take stock of your skills. I worried a lot about changing careers, thinking that I would be starting from absolute scratch doing something else, and that turned out not to be the case at all. A lot of the things I did at the Oregonian, as a journalist, and did well, are some of the very same things I do in my new job. They may be called something different but they’re very very similar, and I was very pleasantly surprised to see how transferable my skills were. So, talking yourself through anxiety about how you’re going to compete and recognizing that you probably have a lot more skills and a lot more transferable skills than you realize.
You hadn’t done a job search for some years when you applied at OHSU. What did you do to brush up your job-search skills or how did you get advice, Michelle, about how to do a search?
It was so easy for me. I really, literally, just looked at Mac’s List, so I don’t have a ton of wisdom to offer there. Although I will say, the previous, really excellent job I applied for, I saw an email or something. Somehow I got word through the grapevine that a person was leaving their job, they were retiring and it was a great job. And so, I contacted him, even though I don’t think I’d met him personally, but he knew my husband and I told him, “Hey, I understand you’re retiring, I might be interested in the job. Would you be willing to have coffee with me to tell me a little bit about it and what you do?”
And he did, he was very gracious about it, and that is a job that I got 2 interviews for. But the one that I did not get because, at least in part, I was not convinced, myself, that I was ready to go. And I learned later from them, the same person that was really gracious about, “Give me some feedback on why I didn’t get it.” And they had some trepidations about hiring someone directly out of journalism because he knew it’s a pretty big leap, that there’s a big adjustment period.
I talked about the transferable skills, that’s all true, the culture’s pretty different and there is an adjustment period, and I did have quite a bit to learn, and for that particular job, they were able to hire someone who had already made that leap and they thought that would be a better fit.
That’s a common challenge for people, moving from one sector to another, showing to a new employer that the skills that you do have are indeed, transferable. How did you address that in your conversations at OHSU when you were interviewing for the job? How did you show that you, indeed, had transferable skills? And could work in that new culture and very different environment?
Well, this is funny; my boss really wanted a journalist. She had set out to find a journalist because she wanted somebody who would ask a lot of questions, be pretty tough, not be intimidated by interviewing doctors or very high-level people at OHSU. And so, my style was, because I wasn’t 100% certain I wanted to leave. But I was pretty much 100% certain that I needed to move on, but I wasn’t certain this was the job. And so, I was interviewing her as much as she was interviewing me. Which may not be the best advice to somebody looking for a job. She and I joked about it later, that I was not particularly acting like I was going to bend over backward to get this job. I was sort of putting her on the spot, too, but she loved that.
She thought, “This is what I need. I need someone who is going to go in and ask the tough questions and gather the information and not be put-off, and so I demonstrated that for her through the process, that I was going to be someone who could get good information and be persistent. But again, I’m not sure if I would recommend that exact approach to other people.
The one thing that I did not do that I would recommend is learning more of the language. I did some research on…what I do now is mostly content marketing, and medical writing, and medical editing. I had not done much research at all on the lingo of content marketing and I probably should have. There were times during my first few days where she would mention something, and I’d have this blank look on my face like, “What’s that?” And she would have to explain what turned out to be a pretty basic concept, and so, I’d tell people to get some education on that ahead of time.
Well, it’s been a great conversation. Now, Michelle, tell us, what’s your number one job hunting tip for a listener?
I would have two, if that’s okay?
You can have two.
One would be, I hear a lot of advice out there about, “Don’t tell yourself no; just apply for jobs even if you don’t think you’re qualified.” And I would hedge on that. I would say, don’t wait until you find a job you’re 100% qualified for, maybe it’s 75%, but don’t apply for jobs that you aren’t qualified for. It takes so much effort and work to apply for and get a job. You don’t want to waste your time and you don’t want to waste the employer’s time.
Then, number two is what I talked about before, put your heart into it. If you really want that job, show it. I think that people want to hire someone who wants to be there, who wants to be part of the team, and who shows that they are eager to join you.
Well, thanks for sharing your story, Michelle.
To learn more about Michelle’s job search, visit macslist.org/stories.
And check out the Mac’s List website for dozens of other success stories.
On the second Friday of every month, we add a new interview with a Mac’s List reader who has found a dream job. Go to macslist.org/stories.
In the meantime, thank you for listening to today’s bonus episode of Find Your Dream Job.