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How to Test Drive Your Dream Career

Follow these 4 steps and get some hands-on experience before pursuing a new job opportunity

Karen Pike may be a successful hotel resort manager today, but there's an alpaca farmer in her just itching to come out.

At age 53, as she nears retirement, is it too late for her to try her hand with these llama-like creatures?

"I knew I was in love with the animals, but I also know there has to be more to it than that!" Pike says.

See also: 50 great jobs for a second career

Woman gardening in backyard

Your dream job may be a few steps away. — Cultura/Getty Images

Career experts suggest that people like Pike find a mentor in the field before jumping out there — to get a reality check. But actually trying out the work can be even more important in telling you whether the new work is right for you.

"It is wise to test the waters before making a sudden shift," says Gail Gasper, founder of iDecideCoaching.

It will take gumption on your part. If you have that, here are four ways to get some hands-on experience in the encore career of your dreams:

1. Tap a professional organization 
There's a professional group out there for almost every occupation. Reach out to one in your hoped-for field to see whether there's a networking event you might attend. Try to latch on to some helpful person there who'll give you advice and maybe let you come to the workplace and see how it's done.

2. Use nonprofits 
If starting a business is your goal, many local governments and nonprofits provide free help. SCORE offers advice on starting a business, with mentors available by email and in person.

A new alliance of AARP and the Small Business Administration supports encore entrepreneurs in starting or growing new businesses. Other SBA resources include the Women's Business Center and the Small Business Development Center. Got military service? Consider the Veterans Business Outreach Center. Mentorplanet.com focuses on free support for people who want to start social innovation groups.

3. Volunteer 
Grab a notebook and offer to work pro bono for a company or organization that can give you the insight you need. Jot down your observations as you go. You'll find out whether you can handle the hours, the financial investment and the work involved with, say, herding alpacas.

4. Pay for real-world experience 
To find alpaca aficionados, Pike used the PivotPlanet website, where hundreds of advisers in various fields offer inside knowledge via phone or Skype video conferencing. With hourly fees that range from $50 to $360, you've got to be serious in your interest, but you can get firsthand information on what it's like to be a dog groomer or the marketing manager for a rock star.

After talking to some alpaca farmers for an hour, Pike decided to take it a step further and pay for a visit to their ranch in Oregon.

Stacy Julien is a writer and editor at AARP Media.

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