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From TV actor to neuroscientist: what does a career change in your forties look like?

5 Sep 2019

Siliconrepublic.com spoke to Sabina Brennan about career changes later in life and joining the academic community in your forties.

Dr Sabina Brennan is a research psychologist and neuroscientist in Trinity College Dublin, but her daily grind goes far beyond that. She has written books, conducted research into brain health, created a podcast and developed animations. That’s not to mention the media appearances that crop up throughout her week, as well as company talks on work wellness.

Many of these tasks are completed on the move, as she travels around the globe for her work.

“Over the next few weeks I’ll be travelling to Washington, Lausanne, Bucharest and London,” she said at the time of her interview with Siliconrepublic.com.

From the small screen to student life

Before beginning her undergraduate studies in Trinity, however, Brennan’s work routine was very different. Spending her days portraying Tess Halpin on Fair City, her character arc eventually came to an end and she was left unemployed.

Researching literature to help her son reach his full potential in school with learning difficulties inspired her to learn more and pursue an education in psychology.

‘I was 42 and had already dealt with far more challenging things than completing an undergraduate degree’

When asked about how she got from her undergraduate degree as a mature student to where she is today, Brennan said that her initial response would be “hard work”.

“But actually, it’s more than that,” she added. “Initially, I didn’t have a plan. I went to university, almost by accident, as a mature student, and loved that so much that I was completely immersed in the moment with no concrete plans for a career.

“One of my lecturers suggested that I do a PhD. To be honest, I barely knew what a PhD was, but applied for a scholarship and just sort of fell into that too.”

Taking stock

Managing a demanding career change in her forties wasn’t necessarily straightforward, and Brennan described the overwhelming seven years following her PhD. Overcoming that required taking stock of her priorities, she said.

“I made an appointment with myself and took time out to look closely at what I was investing my energy in. I made a list of all of the roles that I took on each day and the purpose that they served. I prioritised them in order of importance and then pruned out the ones that didn’t provide fulfilment. This really helped me to identify the things that I did just for money or to please others,” she said.

“It really helped me to identify what I love and what I’m good at. I created a plan to achieve my goals, now all I had to do was to find a way to get paid to do what I am passionate about.”

‘The most important thing is to pick a topic that you love and work hard. If you love your topic, the hard work will seem like a pleasure and a privilege’

There were other challenges, both in being a mature student and in what came after. However, Brennan found that her acting skills and her life experience were beneficial for the journey.

“After finishing my degrees, I found it difficult to get across that my work experience prior to my degrees was just as valuable as my degrees. In academia the focus is very narrow, and only degrees and publications have currency,” she said.

“I think that’s wrong. I believe my prior work experience in business, and my creativity and my experience working in film and television, are integral to my success and deserve to be taken into consideration.”

One of the keys to success, she added, is having confidence in yourself as you try something new later in life.

“Don’t underestimate the value of the experience and wisdom that comes with age. I was worried about keeping up with the bright young things, fresh out of school with a gazillion points, but actually there was no need.

“I was 42 and had already dealt with far more challenging things than completing an undergraduate degree.”

Making the career change less daunting

So, what can we do to make a career change less daunting for people at a later stage in their lives?

“I think tackling ageism is critical,” Brennan said.“It is so pervasive in western society. People are written off as ‘past it’ far too young. Indeed, people write themselves off.

“Thanks to scientific and medical advances we are all living longer, far too long for a single career. We also need to change our attitude to education. Investing in life-long learning is key.”

Indeed, life-long learning is becoming increasingly important as modern-day careers require more upskilling, professional development and flexibility.

Brennan also gave some valuable insight based on her research, speaking about the health benefits a career change can bring.

“From the age of 30 our brains shrink by about 2pc every 10 years. Hit 60 and the rate of atrophy accelerates. When the brain atrophies in this way our brain won’t function as well as it should.

“We can keep this shrinkage at bay by living a brain-healthy life that includes regularly challenging ourselves by learning and doing new things. Taking on new roles and embarking on a new career is a great way to hang onto your mental function in later life.

“You only live once,” Brennan concluded. “I certainly plan on making the last chapter of my life one of my best. There are so many things I have yet to do. I would highly recommend that people make an appointment with themselves to find out what they are good at, what they love, whether there is a market or audience for their expertise and passion, and then finally figure out a way to make a living from that.

“The most important thing is to pick a topic that you love and work hard. If you love your topic, the hard work will seem like a pleasure and a privilege.”

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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