How to Change Careers Without Going Back to School

career change concept
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If you’re thinking about changing careers, but you don’t want to spend the time and money to get a new degree, here’s some good news: it’s entirely possible to change careers without going back to school. You just need to assess where you are right now, and make some realistic plans for the future.

The average person changes jobs 10 to 15 times over the course of their career. The Department of Labor doesn’t track how often people change to an entirely new career, however—and the reason why will give you hope for your own career change.

In short, the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t track career changes because there’s no real consensus about what it means to change careers. Why? Because many of these transitions are subtle, gradual shifts, not abrupt leaps into the unknown. You don’t need to change your working life entirely, all at once, to embark on a new career path.

If you want to make a change, but don’t want to spend years paying to do it, these steps will help:

Talk to People Who Love Their Jobs

One of my favorite career change stories is my mother’s, because it shows how important it is to find your people when looking for the right occupation. She became a registered nurse because she happened to get a secretarial job at a hospital … and realized that she felt right at home with the nurses on staff.

Sure, the job appealed to her, but she also sensed that she would fit in. Talking to nurses who loved their jobs helped her realize that it was the right path to take.

Now, in that case, she had to go back to school. But depending on the job, you can find your fit without extensive retraining. The key is to start talking to people who love what they do, and think about whether you’d love it, too.

Keep an eye out for these folks in your daily life, at work and after hours, and be prepared to ask them how they got to where they are now. Chances are, they’ll be delighted to tell you. People who love their careers love talking about them.

Set Up Informational Interviews

Once you’ve targeted a new occupation—or narrowed your list down to a few possibilities—it’s time to set up some informational interviews.

A more formal version of the conversations you’ve been having with people in your dream career, informational interviews allow you to gather intel on jobs, industries, and employers before taking the plunge.

Again, you’ll likely find that people are eager to talk to you—especially if you make it clear that you’re looking for information, not an immediate job. Using your networking connections, make a list of potential interviewees, and then start sending out requests for meetings.

Look for Transferable Skills

For your next step, look for transferable skills. Skills lists can help.

Make a list of the skills required by your current job, and skills required by your target job … and then look for the match. You’ll probably be surprised at how much overlap there is, especially among the soft skills prized by hiring managers.

Identify Your Personal Skills Gap—and Fill It

Of course, when you’re making your lists, you’ll also notice areas where your current skill set doesn’t quite match up to requirements for the new job.

Don’t despair. There are often free and cheap ways to close the gap. For example, if your target job requires coding skills, you might look into free coding classes online.

Get Experience Any Way You Can

While some hiring managers may take a chance on you, based on your transferable skills and motivation, you’ll bolster your case if you can acquire relevant job experience. No worries, though: you don’t need years of full-time work to show that you know your stuff.

Look for opportunities to get experience developing your new skills and/or working in your target field, including freelancing, contract work, and volunteering. The goal is to learn … and get something on your resume that speaks to your new career direction.

Keep Reassessing

As you network and interview and research, keep in mind that nothing is set in stone. You’ll learn more about your potential career path as you pursue it. Sometimes, what you learn will validate your previous decisions … sometimes, it won’t. If you learn something that makes you question your choices, listen to your gut.

You’re not committed to one course, just because you’ve started in that direction. Learning what you don’t want to do is just as valuable as learning what you do want to do. Take that information and consider whether it’s time to change course.