Many people enroll in an online degree program to prepare for a career change. If you're one of them, here are a few thoughts to consider as you take the plunge.

Marie Urban knew she wasn't happy any more in her job as an executive assistant, but it took a phone call from a stranger to convince her to take the leap and change careers.

A man had called her office, and the receptionist was having trouble understanding what kind of help he needed. Marie took over the call and spoke with him for a while, growing concerned about his state of mind. After their conversation, using some of the information he had provided, she called the police in his home state and asked them to do a wellness check on him.

Her coworkers were surprised at the lengths she had gone to, but to Marie, the experience cemented what she had known all along — she needed a job where she could make a difference in people's lives.

"I hung up from that call feeling concerned and knowing right then and there, it was time to go back to school and do something to help people," says Marie, 44. "I felt it was a calling."

She resigned from her job and enrolled as a full-time student in Saint Leo University's online psychology degree program. She intends to finish her bachelor's degree by the end of the year and pursue a master's of social work.

Taking the plunge

Career changes come about for all kinds of reasons — a shift in priorities, a sudden layoff, a desire for something new, or the decision to pursue a dream. In some cases, the path ahead may be clear, as it was for Marie. Other job-seekers may know they need something different but be unsure of which direction to head.

If you have been in the same type of job for any length of time, it can be difficult to imagine doing anything else, even if you have lost your passion.

But summoning the courage to take the plunge can be well worth the effort.

Natalie Gill Abu is a graduate student in Saint Leo University's online MBA program, moving into human resources/corporate training and development after nine years in the education field. She says she is turning a dream into reality.

"When I think of the future of my new career, I think of endless opportunities and avenues to helping employees and their business to reach their highest potential," says Natalie, 34. "I'm ecstatic about starting a new chapter of my life."

It doesn't just happen, however. A successful transition depends on preparation. Here are five tips to help you change careers with confidence.

Tip 1: Look at your past.

Before you flee your current job, think about what attracted you to it in the first place. Natalie liked that teaching allowed her to give back to the community and serve as a role model. She knew her next career had to be in a field that would allow her to help others.

Think about accomplishments you enjoyed, why they were important to you and how you could replicate that in another field. Think about the obstacles, too. Have you always struggled to get your footing? Maybe your job never was a good fit for your values and personality.

Perhaps you still enjoy the work but feel stuck. In that case, you may not need a career overhaul. Could you use your existing degree and skillset in a similar position in a different industry? What are your transferable skills, and how do they align with your dream job? Research positions and read job listings to see if you would need a particular certification or license or if a new degree is necessary.

Tip 2: Look at yourself.

Marie and her husband had served as foster parents before adopting their daughter. She knew about the needs in the system and felt like she could contribute, which influenced her decision to become a licensed clinical social worker for families in the foster care system.

But what if you need help figuring out what career choice would suit your personality and values? Saint Leo career services advisor Nancy Cheek recommends an online self assessment such as Human Metrics or My Next Move that will identify your interests, preferences and personality traits and match them to potential jobs.

Think about interests seemingly unrelated to work, too. What are your hobbies and why do you enjoy them? What did you do as a child? What do friends and family members say you are good at? Explore these different areas and see if common threads emerge.

Tip 3: Be practical — but not too practical.

Once you have an idea of what you'd like to do, do your legwork. Research your potential job to determine the training the position requires, the average salary, and whether the field is expanding or declining. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides great detail on many jobs in its occupational handbook.

Keep in mind, however, that a job that looks great on paper may not suit you. Weigh industry statistics against the information you gathered from self assessments and see what it reveals.

Understand the tradeoffs. If you are entering a completely new field, you may be starting at an entry-level salary. Can you afford any change in lifestyle? Natalie knew that her new career would mean giving up the perks she had as a teacher, including having summers off. She considered the pros and cons and felt as if a different position would help her better manage her personal and professional life and make it worth the trade.

Tip 4: Make a plan.

A career management plan that includes a self-assessment and action steps has helped Natalie work toward her degree.

Career strategist Jenny Foss says to start with the end in mind. Identify your primary goal and your timeline for making it happen. Then, write down the major milestones involved, such as the education you need, the networking you'll have to do, and the personal adjustments it requires. Break the major change into manageable pieces that you can accomplish weekly or even daily.

It's easy to get overwhelmed when you start this journey. Marie's recalls her first class in ethics. "When I got that book in the mail, I thought I was in over my head," she says. But she pushed forward and surprised herself, receiving an A- as her final grade.

Tip 5: Build your network

A career change isn't a solo journey. You may need to rely on friends and family as sounding boards for your new ideas or frustrations or for practical help, such as watching your kids when you have a paper due or an interview to attend.

You'll also want to develop relationships with people in your new field. LinkedIn is the world's largest professional networking website, so be sure you can be found there and that your profile is up to date, accurate and attractive to recruiters.

Once you have connected with people and participated in groups, you can move some of those conversations offline. Ask local contacts if they can meet you for coffee to learn more about what they do. Look for volunteer opportunities or part-time jobs in your field of interest that can allow you to gain experience and meet potential employers as you work on you degree.

Natalie, for example, participated in Saint Leo's MBA study abroad program in Panama, which allowed her to meet some of her online classmates in person as she studied global management and become acquainted with local business leaders.

Leaving your comfort zone

Changing careers is a significant move that can pay off in big ways. Whether the decision is sudden or comes about gradually, it requires you to push yourself out of your comfort zone and explore new territory.

Marie says it's OK to feel intimidated as you begin, but don't let it paralyze you.

"If the only thing holding you back is your fear, I say jump in with both feet. I'm excited when I think about my future. Not only will I have finally completed my B.A., but I will have my master's degree, and I will finally be doing what I love and be helping others."

Are you pursuing a degree to help you change career paths? What's your plan?

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