Susan Jarrett is the owner of Structure Design and is an accredited building designer, GreenSmart Professional and a former national Skills Week ambassador.

She is a former medical scientist who made a career change after 30 years as a scientist through studying a Diploma of Architectural Technology from TAFE NSW.

Architecture and Design spoke to her about giving up financial security for her career change,  starting her own business while she was still a student and why it’s important to be passionate about what you’re doing.

You were previously a medical scientist. What prompted the change to architecture?

I trained in New Zealand as a medical scientist, mainly because I didn't know what else to do as a school leaver and it was easy to follow in my father's footsteps. Having trained for six years, I went on to work in laboratories and then for a number of large multi-corporate organisations in the medical science arena.

After being in the field for 30 years, I realised that I wasn't enjoying my work and that this was affecting how I was feeling about life. I knew that I needed to do something about it.

The problem was that I didn't know what else I could do, and so I travelled to New Zealand to see a career counsellor, who helped me discover what I should be looking for in a new career. When I initially started looking, I focussed on areas closely aligned with my existing skills, but nothing was inspiring me, so I cast my net further and found building design.

What the hardest part about making the career change?

Giving up the financial security of my previous career was the hardest thing for me. As an older person I have a number of financial commitments and that coloured my thinking about such a major upheaval. However, it was a matter of deciding whether happiness and health were more important than continuity in financial comfort.

I thought it through and realised that I could forego that comfort for a period of time while I retrained and started a new business. I also had to be ready to humble myself, after 30 years in the same industry I was very confident in my knowledge even if I was no longer passionate about it. It was a clean slate when I moved across to studying and working in the built environment but rather than being daunted, I thankfully found myself energised by learning new skills and increasing my competence in this new area.

What has been the most memorable project you've worked on?

This is a hard question for me to answer! Every project is memorable. I really appreciate the challenge of this work, with every project – I learn something new. But my most memorable project was my very first one while I was still a student.

The project involved keeping the external framework of the rear of a terrace house but reconfiguring the internal spaces to make it flow better. I remember very clearly the day I went to the site when the builders had finished the demolition.

Demolition is still the stage that makes me slightly nervous. At that moment in particular, the weight of responsibility became very clear to me – this family had entrusted me with their home and a lot of money. Their happiness, their time and the memories they will make in that space rested on the capacity of my design to achieve its purpose.

The design worked well and the family was very happy with their newly renovated home. As soon as the new structure starts to form, the excitement of seeing the design and the result of my training and passion replaces any nerves.

You started your business while you were studying. How difficult was it to do this?

Starting my business wasn't too difficult as I found that I had strong transferable skills set from my previous career. I also made sure that I had systems in place such as a business logo, marketing material, accounting and business structure, and insurances. The practical training I received from TAFE NSW also gave me the confidence to be job-ready and I was keen to hit the ground running.

I only took on projects that I felt confident with, gradually building up from there. Most of my clients that contact me these days are referred to me by my first few clients or by recommendations from builders who I work with. There’s great satisfaction knowing that word of mouth has sustained my practice.

What advice would you have for students who are also thinking about starting a business?

Be passionate about what you are doing – passion is contagious, and when your clients see your enthusiasm and creativity, they trust you.

Also, ensure you have the right qualifications and choose a reputable training provider. Getting a real education that will establish your skill set and help you develop your expertise is not simply a matter of sitting in a classroom and emerging with a piece of paper. The right kind of education is one where you have the opportunity to gain practical, hands-on skills that make you job-ready. This is imperative if you want to enter the field of building design where you are dealing with heritage matters, the safety of a design and people’s most prized possessions: their homes.

I also believe that we must continually educate ourselves, not only to keep our knowledge up-to-date, but to improve ourselves and keep our passion fresh.

I also strongly recommend that you establish good relationships with consultants and suppliers that you work with. Not only do they provide you with the occasional referral, but you can each help one another out from time-to-time.

Most importantly, check in with your interest and passion daily. Changing careers halfway through my working life has shown me the absolute importance of just simply enjoying what you do. Finding something that makes you happy really does make a world of difference.