Carolyn McElhaney on Making a Major Career Shift Later in Her Life

It’s Mother’s Day this weekend, so She Spends wanted to take a little time to honorCarolyn McElhaney, the mom of founder Alicia. Alicia interviewed her mother about working as an occupational therapist and how she made a major change to her career later in her life.

Carolyn began her career working at Pittsburgh hospitals as an occupational therapist before transitioning to part-time work when she had her two daughters. While her daughters were young, she took the exam to become a certified hand therapist twice — and failed. She put her career on autopilot for a bit while focusing on motherhood. When Alicia, her older daughter, went to college, she decided to take the exam one more time.She passed, and totally revamped her career. Read on to find out how. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

When did you decide to have kids, and what were your experiences like with work? 
When I got pregnant with you, my boss called me into his office and said you know, you want to be a manager, and you won’t be able to do that if you work part time. The Family and Medical Leave Act was very new at the time. I took my 12 weeks and said I wasn’t coming back because I got part-time work closer to home. I was able to get short-term disability because I got a C-section. You have to make the system work for you.

I was kinda still in the mindset that I can have it all and do it all, so I am going to work part time. Part-time work is a lot when you have kids at home, though. I was determined to do it. I never thought about not doing it. When I had my second daughter, as time went, I de-emphasized work, especially with both of your medical issues. (Editor’s note: Both of McElhaney’s daughters were diagnosed with food allergies and asthma. Her youngest was also diagnosed with colitis and lupus, so she spent a lot of time on medical care.) I quit when you entered kindergarten. I was in the financial position that I didn’t need to be working at that point. 

You decided to take the certified hand therapist exam one last time when I went to college. How did you go about doing it? 
I wasn’t used to studying online. The internet was new to me. They offer the test in May and November. It was a New Year’s resolution to do it. I was going to take it in November. I divided the book up to study and made a schedule. I was going to take it in November. I miscalculated. I got to August and I realized how much more time I had to take. I delayed it to May the year after. 

Learning at an older age is harder. I don’t feel like that point was a confident era for me. It was a lot harder for me to trudge through. Figuring out how to use the internet to study, I was just kind of doing it. I didn’t feel confident about it at all. 

I made a schedule of how I would study this huge book that is considered the Bible of hand therapy. I divided the weeks I had by chapters. I had ancillary stuff, too. I would cross reference that book with quiz books or Quizlet. A lot of people use study groups. In my life I just needed to do it myself. My husband was really helpful; he took over paying the bills and cooking and let me study. I had so many notebooks, which I took everywhere. Whatever downtime I had, I read the notes. 

It was a 50% passing rate, the hardest test of my life. I didn’t have a good feeling about it. I was very surprised when I passed.

What did that certification change for you? 
It immediately gave me confidence. That was the unexpected part about it. In my same job, I immediately asked for and received a raise. Then, I was more confident in interactions with doctors and with patients. I wasn’t asking for help as much. Yes, it was all the studying, but those three initials after my name helped.

How did that change your career? 
The company I worked for had contracts with therapy clinics. I saw one of the places and I wanted to work for them. I was worried because I had a noncompete. I approached the clinic’s owner and asked if he had every considered hiring an OT. We took a few meetings. We looked at the noncompete. I consulted two different attorney friends and they found holes in that contract. I was advised that it wouldn’t be an issue.

I’ve been there for four years now. I started the OT program, so it’s been my baby. I like their philosophy. My boss is not afraid to spend money on things that will increase the quality of care. I’ve had to think of ways to market, when marketing really isn’t my thing. I’ve had to embrace technology; I now text doctors, and that’s all marketing. I’ve started a weekly feature on Facebook.

What ways has your life outside of work changed over the years? 
I felt encouraged by She Spends to start mentoring. I can get professional credits for doing it. I’ve found that it keeps me current. I’m learning from my mentee. She has more current knowledge. She shares things I didn’t learn at school. I’m giving her more daily, practical tips. 

I'm not happy with the country's political climate right now, so I knocked on doors for Conor Lamb. It's not my favorite thing, but I thought I have to somehow make that change. I also started volunteering for Make-A-Wish. It's nice to have a purpose outside of work.

What kind of advice can you offer up to our readers about making a career change? 
If you have something you want to do, make a plan and go for it. A lot of the stuff that comes up in the She Spends group is all about planning. I think it’s really good to have a long- and short-term plan. With your career, if you want to go a certain path, how are you going to get there and what do you need to get there? If you really want to do it, you go for it. Research the paths and find out what works for you. How do you best learn? How would you best get to the goal? 

Dad is really supportive of your work, and has been since you two got married when you were 23. Do you have advice for readers on finding a supportive partner? 
Whatever the habits you see in your partner are, good or bad, never really change. If they’re supportive, they’ll stay supportive. If anything, the marriage advice that I’ve always given is that whatever it is, it’s never going to go away. It’ll be magnified. If they’re not supportive now, they won’t be in a rough time. 

He knew that I wanted to go to school, that was always fine. He knew that. We talked about having kids and that we would share responsibilities. That’s the most we talked about it. It’s something I really appreciate. That’s what a marriage is. I appreciate it, but that’s a good example of what someone wants to aspire to, but it wasn’t anything I looked at or thought about. We’re good about being equal. We grew up in traditional homes, but we said, no you can do whatever you want.

I just think having the feminist movement around me was good. I never asked his permission to do anything.  

- Alicia McElhaney / She Spends Issue 53

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