What's one positive outcome of the recession? It's leading people to consider a career change. Though the process of figuring out what to do next can be overwhelming, it's also empowering. Taking stock of one's skills, strengths, interests and experience makes an individual realise how much he or she knows and has to offer. Investigating career options also helps employed professionals extricate themselves from dead-end jobs. For people who are unemployed, a layoff can be the catalyst for pursuing a professional dream.

Considering alternatives to the work you're currently doing or you've done in the past is a worthwhile exercise for anyone, at any point in a career. Despite what the unemployment rate may lead you to believe, there are always options.

Yet those options may make career change difficult. Figuring out what path to pursue and where to focus your limited time and energy can be daunting. As a result, professionals sometimes go about career change in a scatter-shot way that squanders time and energy. To help you focus, career experts offer some realistic advice for pursuing a career change.

1. Don't rush to go back to school. Many people decide to enter academia after they've been laid off because going back to school is socially acceptable, says Martha Manglesdorf, author of Strategies for Successful Career Change (Ten Speed Press 2009.) "It's easy to rush the decision to go back to school because it feels like you're making progress," she says.

The danger is wasting your time and money on a degree that you end up not using, which happens often enough, says Mangelsdorf. She recommends talking to people with the degree you're thinking of pursuing, to find out what's involved, how they're applying it, and whether it's right for you.

2. Figure out what you want to do.
Kim Batson, a certified career management and leadership coach, asks her clients a variety of questions to help them zero in on their next career moves: What do you really want to do? What have you always dreamed of doing? What's motivating you to consider a career change? Is there an industry or group of people you'd like to serve? What are your strengths and skills, and how and where else might you use them?

3. Find out what the work is like.
If you have an idea of the work you'd like to do, test your theory that it's right for you, says Carl Wellenstein, a career coach and author of 12 Steps to a New Career (Career Press 2009.) Do research on the field or profession that interests you. Find people who are working in the profession you're considering and talk to them, says Wellenstein. You might even be able to shadow them on the job. Look into signing up for a program like VocationVacations, which allows you to "test-drive" your dream job by working in it for a one- to three days.

4. Don't assume that pursuing your passion will lead to riches.
The idea that following your dream will lead to financial liberation is a misconception, says Mangelsdorf. When she interviewed people for her book on career change, she says she didn't see a correlation between people's passion and their financial success. "If you're thinking about a career change because you have a dream you really want to pursue, do some homework first to make sure that the economic opportunities are OK with you," she says.

5. Realize that any kind of career change takes time.
"A career change can take significant thought, motivation, time, money, support and perseverance," says Batson. "It is harder to achieve than searching for a job in the same function, even in a recession."

That's why it's important for people pursuing a career change to be patient with themselves and with the process, and to persevere when they hit roadblocks or dead-ends. And if you have any inkling that your job may not be secure or that you just want to try something different, start the process now, because you may not have the luxury of time later if you do get laid off and find yourself under financial pressure to take another job. An easy way to start the career change process: start following people on Twitter who work in the fields that interest you.

6. Consider small changes.
If a wholesale change in your career seems too risky, consider smaller shifts you could make, says Mangelsdorf. For example, if you're employed, are there projects you could take on that would help you transition into a new role?

"Organisations that have had to downsize are having their remaining workers take on more roles," notes Mangelsdorf. "If you're currently employed, that could be an opportunity for you to take on work that will bring you closer to your long-term career goal."

A series of small changes during a longer period of time can lead you to the more dramatic change you ultimately desire. "Career change is often a gradual process," says Mangelsdorf.

7. Don't dwell about losing a job you loved.
You may feel forced into a career change if you lost a job you loved through a layoff and you know your odds of finding a job in your field are slim (e.g. you're in a specialised area of IT that's being outsourced to a developing nation.) As hard is it is to let go of things we love, it's important to realise that something better can come along. Says Mangelsdorf: "Keep in mind that if you've had success in one field and been happy in that work, that's a good thing. It means you can find another field where you'll be happy."