Recession Refuseniks: Getting a Job in a Dying Profession

Mike Henderson of Denver became a real estate agent and mortgage broker last year, even though he knows both professions "have been killed lately."

A New York social media strategist I'll call "Justine" plans to ditch her stable, well-paid social media career this fall in pursuit of a far shakier, much less lucrative one -- as a tenure-track English professor. (Justine didn't want her real name used because she hasn't shared her plans with her employer yet.)

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And despite the fact that charitable donations have suffered greatly thanks to the recession, Eric Galvez from San Diego launched, a non-profit foundation and Web community for newly diagnosed cancer patients.

Meet the Recession Refuseniks -- those stalwart souls hell-bent on pursing a profession that's been pounded by the miserable economy.

None of these people are independently wealthy or living off someone else's dime. They're just incredibly enthusiastic about their career choice -- rotten odds and stiff competition be damned.

Henderson, a former professional poker player who's no stranger to risk taking, said he saw opportunity where most didn't, from helping real estate investors find deals to helping people save their homes.

"I describe it like the buildings were on fire and everyone was running away," he said. "I started running right into the fire."

For Justine, a 2009 college grad, literature is her passion, no matter how few university jobs there are teaching it.

And Galvez, a 34-year-old brain cancer survivor, hopes to fill what he sees as a gaping hole in online information for newly diagnosed cancer patients and their loved ones.

I know what some of you are thinking: Are these people crazy, entering a profession that's been trounced by the recession? Yes, passion for one's work is a beautiful thing, but it won't pay the bills.

Do these career idealists need to take off their rose-colored glasses, or do they know something the rest of us don't?

Temper Your Passion With Pragmatism

"It's OK to pursue something in an industry that's been crushed as long as you're realistic about it," said Julie Jansen, author of "I Don't Know What I Want, But I know It's Not This."

It's one thing to suss out the competition, earning potential and education costs of a shiney new career. But don't just crunch the numbers and call it good.

Educate Yourself

Your next stop on the reality train should be educating yourself on exactly what a week in the life of your hopeful profession entails, Jansen said. (This is where informational interviews, volunteer positions and internships come in handy.)

"If you're going to pursue something in a gutted industry, you'd better have a real good idea of what the job is like," Jansen advised.

Set a Deadline -- And Have a Plan B

Giving yourself a deadline by which you must start earning a living wage in your chosen field is a must, both for your bank account and your morale, Jansen said. Depending on your finances, emotional resilience and endurance for couch surfing, this deadline might be nine, 12, even 18-plus months.

After that point, you should start seriously considering Plan B. Plan B need not be anything more concrete at the moment than "If this journalism thing doesn't work out, I'll look into corporate communications or tech writing," Jansen said. But, she explained, if Plan A blows up in your face, having a backup can be a great comfort.

It is for Justine, who this fall will start graduate school with the hopes of earning her Ph.D. in English and eventually a coveted academic faculty slot.

"If I don't make it, I should be able to land a job as a high school English teacher. Maybe I'll even go back to social media," she said. "For me, failure is worth the risk to do what I love."

"Cecilia," a recent college grad and hopeful science journalist in Washington, D.C., shares that sentiment.

"I'm still too much in the infatuated puppy love stage of my relationship with journalism. We only just met, I can't leave now," Besides, the recovering science major said, "This is already Plan B."

Although like the rest of us media optimists, Cecilia's hopeful that the need for journalists will endure, she hasn't ruled out writing for a public information office at a university or an institution like NASA or the American Physical Society.

"That would definitely be a decent Plan C," she said.

Skip the Beaten Employment Path

Picture an office building with a row of four to six doors at the entrance. Most people who want into that building will bottleneck around one doorway instead of taking the time to open one of the unused doors themselves. (Admit it; you know you've seen this real-life scene a thousand times.)

Like lemmings, we're conditioned to do what everyone who's gone before us has done. My advice to those entering an already saturated profession: don't be the career lemming.

Patrice Williams, a management consultant in Vallejo, Calif., seconds that. She recently finished law school and is taking the California Bar exam this summer, despite the fact that big firm jobs are scarce and the burnout rate is high.

Unlike many of her former classmates, Williams has no intention of banging down the big firms' doors once she passes the bar.

The Job Seeker

"Instead, I will add a legal division to my current management consulting business," she said. "I also belong to a tight network of property management professional and will be able to obtain legal contract work."

Shane Arman, a journalism student at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, also plans to bypass the beaten path. Rather than entering the overcrowded media market, he's heading straight for public relations (where many laid-off journalists have recently wound up).

"I never had the intention of going into print journalism, in part because of the status of the industry," he said. "After taking a few PR classes, I knew it's what I wanted to do."

Be Ten Times the Job Seeker Your Competitors Are

If you want to stand out from all the other sardines in the job hunting can, you'll need to be better, stronger, faster than the competition. For starters, you'll need to offer employers something all the other candidates don't.

Cecilia, the hopeful journalist in Washington, said she knows that her science background distinguishes her from the crowd. But she's not resting on her astronomy laurels.

Instead, she's letting employers know that technologically speaking, she's ready, willing and able to "do podcasts and video and shoot my own pictures and blog and Twitter and whatever else may come up."

You'll also need to look for work where most candidates or business owners aren't.

"I try to network about three times [as much] as most of my peers," said Deborah Wexler of Bellevue, Wash., who's currently trying to build a business as an independent financial advisor.

Marian Schembari, a 2009 grad who wanted to work in New York book publishing, had to get "really aggressive" with her job search.

"Everyone I knew in publishing said that the only way to really get an interview was through people, that no one reads your resume or carefully crafted cover letter," she explained.

"I knew I just needed to meet more people and get my name out there," she said. "So I started a blog and got on Twitter. Twitter resulted in a few interviews and the blog lead to more freelance work."

Schembari landed a book publishing job in four months flat but has since left the position to pursue freelance writing, editing and social media consulting.

Make no mistake, the Doubting Thomases will come calling. But that doesn't mean you have to listen -- unless of course they're paying your way or you haven't sufficiently researched the career path you're pursuing.

"Most people who give you advice, it's not like they have any professional foundation," Jansen said. "You have to look at the source. And I think you have to discount all relatives. What does your mother know about mortgage banking?"

Job Hunting: Tune Out the Naysayers

Wexler, the new independent financial advisor, said she agrees.

"Family members of mine judge my success on how much I am currently earning, not on the value of the practice I am building," she explained. "I try to focus on the big picture and not be disturbed by the short-term critics."

That's what Gayle, a high school guidance counselor in the Pacific Northwest, is doing. (Gayle didn't want her last name used in order to protect her job.)

After 21 years of counseling teens on finding fulfilling work, she's decided to take her own advice and has been taking steps to launch a travel consulting business on the side.

"Many people have said that I am crazy for wanting to launch a new business during a recession, especially in travel," Gayle said. "I find that the more that they say it can't be done, the more I am inspired to make it happen."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist and former cubicle dweller. She is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube". For more information, see