At first, Diana McLaughlin loved being a teacher. But after five years, the job began to wear on her -- the 12-hour days, the parent hassles, the paperwork, the data collection and the $23,000 salary.

It was time for a change. But to what?

The Fairfax County resident spent a summer looking, but when August came, she felt that time was running out, so she took a job with an arts organization. It wasn't a great fit. At the end of her contract she jumped again, this time to a small business that wrote and edited publications for government agencies about best practices in youth policies. She was learning a lot, but it was still not quite where she wanted to be.

Then, early this year, a friend encouraged McLaughlin to apply for her former job as a technical writer. All of McLaughlin's teaching, writing and editing experience qualified her for the position. She got that job and really likes it, for now.

"I see myself doing this for the next five years, which will give me time to think about things," McLaughlin said.

Almost half of working Americans are unhappy with their jobs, according to a Conference Board survey last year. If you're one of them, you, like McLaughlin, may feel it's time to switch careers. But how do you find the new path that's right for you?

First, be patient, career counselor Donna Brand tells her clients. Changing careers typically takes at least a year, according to Brand, who works at the Women's Center in Fairfax County and runs seminars there on career switching.

Start by getting to know yourself. Brand peppers her clients with questions: Are you dissatisfied with the career or with the job? Can you express your values on the job? Do you have an understanding of your personality and the type of environment you would like to work in? Do you feel you can use your abilities and skills in another occupation?

McLaughlin agrees, and advises would-be career-switchers to slow down and think. "Is it really that bad? Do you have to get out now or can you use your current job as a foundation for a job search?" she said. "Don't put yourself in a place where you have to take something."

Many people don't think far beyond salary and benefits when looking for a job and then are surprised when they're unhappy, said Katherine Stahl, executive director of American University's career center. "Sometimes what we call 'softer understandings' are the things that are the most critical factors in people hating their previous jobs," she said. By this, she means things such as the dress code, employee socializing or cubicle work spaces.

The result, Stahl said, is that people go from job to job without solving their core problem. "What are the things you like to do? What do you dislike doing?" Stahl asks her clients. "Don't mistake the place, the content, the product or the size of the company for the core problem with the job."

The career counselors urge potential career-switchers to research possible fields and get to know what options are out there.

Brand suggests scanning company Web sites to see what jobs are available, talking to people working in a field of interest, joining a professional organization and going to conventions and meetings.

Alumni networks are a source of advice. So are friends and neighbors -- you never know who or what someone might know.

"Sometimes people have misconceptions about a field: what the environment would be like, the preparation required, what they'd be doing and how quickly they could move into a particular role," said Anne Kirchgessner, an alumni career adviser at American University. "How to combat that is to talk to people and ask for advice."

Think about the skills you have amassed in your current line of work and how you can showcase them on a resume targeted at a different position. Write a description of your duties and highlight those you enjoy. Stahl tells job seekers to "really probe what your core skills are so you can translate certain skills you have into bonuses for a new position." But be realistic; you may need to go back to school to get a certificate or even a degree if your new field of interest is specialized.

The most important thing you can do is listen to yourself.

"Giving yourself permission to be who you are is very tough to do, but a tremendous relief for people," Brand said. "Oftentimes the reason why they don't take the path they considered earlier is because they really don't know who they are."