A “Midlife” Career Switch?

As I took the elevator to Room 510, the fifth floor graduate study room at George Washington University’s Gelman Library, I felt exhilarated by the hustle and bustle of students around me. It felt wonderful to be a student again. I entered the room using my fob and soaked in the complete silence. I turned on my Mac and began to focus; but I also couldn’t help but reflect. 

I had been a teacher for over 12 years when I “retired” and went to graduate school at GWU for their instructional design program. I had been saving money for some years so I wouldn’t have to take out a loan. The extra cash came in handy, but many questions and uncertainties remained. Would I be able to make it through grad school with my other responsibilities–first and foremost–as a mom? Would my kids be alright while I devoted a major chunk of my time to my studies? Did I have the intelligence to go through the rigors of grad research with my midlife, rusty brain? After all, I hadn’t been through school in years. As a ‘Hijabi’ and a neophyte in instructional design, would anyone hire me once I was done? Would I be well-prepared to make the switch to the corporate world? The list went on. 

My grad program at GWU was extremely helpful in providing the guidance needed to make the switch. Many in my field of study were in the same boat as me, having been teachers in the past. Instructional design is a good career path for teachers who like to try something different while still staying in the realm of curriculum development. It allows them to stretch their understanding of instruction and take it to a different level using digital technologies. As explained by Sean Michael Morris, the director of Digital Pedagogy Lab and a Lead Instructional Designer at University of Mary Washington:

“Because instructional designers are not IT staff. They are not technologists. At the root of what they do is a maddening desire to create meaningful learning experiences in digital space. Instructional designers, then, understand digital space. They understand learning. They understand teaching. And they understand technology.”

Hence, this transition was a natural extension in my case, as I wanted to make progress in my career. I loved trying out new instructional technologies and recognized a growing passion for it. I needed to give myself the chance to grow. 

Going into grad school, I knew I had less than two years to finish all the required credit hours. I needed to get back to paying bills, and I couldn’t afford a ‘retired’ life yet. In the fall of my first year, I took six credit hours and gave my brain some time to work its way up to the state of a well-oiled machine. Come spring, I took nine; summer another six; and fall, another huge load of nine credit hours with three to go. This is not to say that everyone can handle this much work. I had the liberty of not having to work and focusing solely on my studies. I recognize that not everyone has that luxury, but to those who do, I say take it and put it to good use! 

Imagine not working for nearly two years — I would have had a huge gap in my resume, and I didn’t want that to reflect negatively on me. As soon as my grad school had started, I also took up substitute teaching in the county schools. By my fourth semester, I was seriously looking for internships, eventually landing one at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in DC: an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress that offers a robust internship program. I had been hired by the Continuous Process Improvement Office (CPIO) at GAO where I learned a fair bit about project management, change management, and process improvement principles. It also gave me a good outlook on business processes and scope management, along with some skills I was able to develop, such as content delivery using virtual classrooms like Adobe Connect and developing work breakdown structures using MS Visio. As interesting as CPIO’s work was to me, it was not my intended career, and I was just not ready to drop what I loved just to have work. Instead, I opted to apply specifically as an Instructional Systems Designer (ISD) to various other companies, especially knowing that GAO was not hiring an ISD at that point for their Learning Center. However, interning at GAO provided me with invaluable skills that I use regularly in my work at ICF. 

Within a month of finishing off my internship, for which GWU awarded me the last three credit hours in lieu of a course, I was offered a job as a junior ISD at a great company, ICF, soon after my graduation. I whole-heartedly took it, as I was going to be trained by the masters of instructional design in this junior level position. This is exactly the kind of work I was seeking. I was not ashamed to let them know I would be learning, and I went in not having to pretend I knew it all. I feel comfortable learning here without being judged, being given the room to grow and make mistakes. My work involves developing storyboards for e-Learning modules (online trainings), a task that requires a lot of research and creativity. I am learning that hard work is essential. There is no other way one can grow and learn without putting their best work forward. Sometimes, that just takes extra patience and extra effort, and to me, that’s okay! I know there is a long way to go, and I am happy to take it one step at a time! 


Morris, M.S. (2018). Instructional designers are teachers. Hybrid Pedagogy. Retrieved from https://hybridpedagogy.org/instructional-designers-are-teachers/

Tahira Afzal Rahman
Tahira Afzal Rehman

Tahira Afzal Rehman is an Instructional Systems Designer at ICF. She received her MA in Educational Technology and Instructional Design from George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development in May 2019. She is currently a member of the Board of Directors at the Washington International Academy. Tahira specializes in training-needs analysis, developing blended learning solutions, linear and non-linear storyboards for e-Learning, graphics concepts, audio scripts, and performance-centered design in the field of human-computer interactions.


  1. A1 on March 19, 2020 at 7:16 pm

    Ma Sha Allah, Tabarak Allah! You’re an inspirational mom, teacher and instructor. Us 21st century youth complain about time shortage and hardly doing above the required while you’ve done a stunning job handling various responsibilities whilst persuing your dream. You rock.
    All the best.

  2. Dr Bilal Abdullah Sheikh on March 20, 2020 at 8:43 pm

    A great read. Well poised and professionally written. Well done champion.

  3. Saleha on April 7, 2020 at 1:25 am

    Beautifully written. I love how personal you’ve made it rather than just talking about the pros and cons of a massive career switch. It adds a lot of vibrancy to the story. And I’m so glad that your current role allows you to learn so much. Hope you continue to learn and grow always.

  4. Asif butt on July 18, 2020 at 12:26 am

    Very inspiring and rightly said keep it up welldone

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