How to Jump-Start Your Career Without Going Back to School

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Maybe you’ve hit a wall in your career, and can’t quite seem to land that promotion. Or your real-world experience has shown you another career path you’d like to pursue, but you don’t yet feel qualified to take the leap.

For some, sharpening the pencils and heading back to school is the go-to solution, but it shouldn’t necessarily be your default. “Sometimes [your best move] can be circumventing school altogether,” says Jenny Blake, author of Pivot: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One.

School will always be there if you decide you want to invest in it. But spending a boatload of money and potentially loading yourself up with debt to get to the next level may not be necessary. Here’s a game plan to follow instead.

Define Your Desired Outcome

Outcome-oriented investing is all the rage in the financial world these days, and you’ll be in great shape if you can do the same thing with your career. Instead of looking at what you’re lacking, or getting stuck on feeling behind, focus on what you want your success to look like a year from now.

If you’re not sure what to aim for, think about what you’re best at, what you most enjoy, when you’re most “in the zone,” and what people come to you about most often for advice. Use those strengths as clues to propel you toward related learning or research you can do to move towards your outcome.

Hone Your Mission

Take your personal strengths and set them to paper. Then, make a concrete list of what you need to learn. Focus on the right skills—ones that are worth your time and may help break down any career walls you might be facing. Then conduct a sanity check to be sure the skills on your list are valued by people who would want to hire you. 

You can do this by asking a “native” to coffee—someone already doing what you’d like to do—and asking about the top strengths required to be successful in their role. “Then, find your own gap,” says Pamela Mitchell, founder, and CEO of The Reinvention Institute. And, before you get started on filling in the blanks, take a good look at your background and make sure you haven’t already done something similar in the past. Mitchell says that as a career coach, she regularly sees people forget about certain qualifications and accomplishments they've completed in their prior work and other histories.

Explore Skill-Building Platforms

You can add new skills to your repertoire and round out your existing knowledge at no charge or at low cost in many cases by taking online courses through platforms. Some of these courses offer certificates of completion, which can help you demonstrate your level of expertise to current or future employers. Some universities also offer classes through extension programs, which are open to all students without needing to be accepted to the university itself, such as U.C Berkeley and Stanford University, among others.

Where to Find Career-Building Courses

  • Lynda.com: This site offers a wide variety of video courses taught by industry experts working in many different industries and roles, such as software, creative, and business. The company offers a one-month trial of free classes and is a subsidiary of LinkedIn. LinkedIn members receive a certain number of free courses each month as part of their membership.
  • CreativeLive: This organization broadcasts free live classes to people all over the world, ranging from topics like "How to Write a Blog Post That Drives Traffic" to "Build an Etsy Storefront That Sells." 
  • Khan Academy: Take advantage of free courses and practice sessions on everything from engineering and the humanities to computing and finance. 
  • General Assembly: This entity offers paid skill-building workshops (online or at brick-and-mortar campuses) in areas like design, marketing, coding, and data. The company also offers regular networking events by skill area and location.
  • Coursera: This online education-focused technology company offers free and paid online courses in areas like data science, computer science, business and machine learning from top schools like Stanford, Yale, Duke, and Johns Hopkins—and financial aid is available for those who qualify. 
  • Itunes and Audible: These two online resources can open the door to audiobooks and podcasts for learning the ins and outs of many new topics. Most podcasts are free, and a subscription to audiobook platform Audible is $14.95 per month after the 30-day free trial. (Membership grants you one audiobook free per month, plus 30 percent off any purchase.)  

Seal the Deal With Some Experience

There’s a reason “learn by doing” is such a popular piece of advice—it builds your skills and your resume at the same time. “Get miles on you!” says career and executive coach Maggie Mistal. Once you've gained new skills and put them into practice, you can list them in both the "skills" and "experience" sections of your resume. In the beginning, you may need to offer your assistance at a reduced rate or pro bono, so reach out to local startups and offer them this deal.

Sites like TaprootFoundation.org, VolunteerMatch.org, and Idealist.org are also great places to start if you’d like to gain skills while working with a nonprofit. It'll likely be easier to get your foot in the door and put the skills you've learned to use. Another option is Catchafire.org, a website that matches talented people to causes they're passionate about. Input a topic you care about, as well as what you're good at, and the site helps you find a project to contribute to that incorporates both.

 By choosing this route, you can contribute to a good cause—and beef up your resume while you’re at it.