Michelle Brence had a long and successful career as a journalist, working as an editor at The Oregonian for over two decades. When she found her newspaper facing significant challenges and major layoffs, she knew it was time to make a career change. Michelle reflected on her interests from high school, particularly in the medical field, to drive her job search and successfully navigated a career transition into a new industry by conducting detailed research on her prospective employer, finding a job that aligned with her transferable skills, and bringing passion to the interview process. Get more of Michelle’s job search advice in her job search success story.
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.