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Face it: there’s almost nothing worse than the looming feeling of a career dead-end. Every fiber of your being is telling you there’s no future in your current situation, but with a full calendar, getting a new job seems easier said than done—especially if you’re looking at a full-blown career change. Who has four or more years to spend getting a new degree or certification, much less the money to spend on another round of student loans?
I reached out to a group of career coaching professionals to get their take on career upskilling without another degree. Is there any way to leave a dead-end job without going back to school? The short answer— “yes!” It’s not only possible, but practical, too. Read on to hear what these pros had to say about taking on a career transition‚—minus the crushing debt or debilitating classroom hours.
Before You Resign, Try to Save
When it feels like your job or career is hitting a dead-end, the first thing you should do is assess whether or not it’s salvageable, says Andy Chan, founder at career coaching center Prime Opt. Rather than jumping into the job market immediately, Chan suggests talking to a manager about making a change to your current duties. It doesn’t mean telling your manager you hope to leave your job—the goal is to see whether they can offer you new tasks in your current position, or whether they might even be able to put you in a new role on the same team. If it isn’t possible to come up with an acceptable solution after transparent conversations with your supervisors, that’s when it might be time to look elsewhere. Ultimately, Chan says to think about the future development of your career path and ask yourself, “Does my career path have a ceiling? Is my current position limiting where I can go, career-wise?” If your answers are “yes,” Chan says it might be time to start considering a new job or an industry change.
Commit to How Awesome You Are
If it’s truly time to move on, and you’re hoping to escape a dead end job without the cost and time burden of more college, career coach Carlota Zimmerman says it’s important to realize there’s no one-size-fits-all-secret. “I’ve had clients who’ve gotten new jobs through LinkedIn, others who were introduced to a company that was hiring by someone in their knitting circle, and still others who got an interview after talking to a fellow college alum at their alumni association Christmas party,” Zimmerman says. “Commit to the process, commit to the belief that you deserve a job you love, commit to the belief that you have something to contribute. Commit!” she says. Zimmerman adds that this is particularly crucial if you’ve been in a dead-end, depressing job for years. “It’s akin to being in an abusive relationship,” she says. “You have to learn—all over again,—to believe in yourself and your abilities. The worst thing you can do is half-heartedly attend one networking group, speak to no one, and go home deciding, ‘Oh well, I guess my boss is right, I’m a loser.’”
If you’re in a toxic workplace where you aren’t getting the encouragement, challenges, and opportunities you need to be happy and fulfilled, it’s easy to overlook just how draining that unhappiness can be. Before formulating the specifics of your plan for career change, it’s important to take some time, reorient your perspective, and go all-in on the commitment Zimmerman describes. Your dead-end job may have sapped your enthusiasm a long time ago. Recapturing your drive and reframing your self-worth is the first step toward something better.
Up Skill on Your Lunch Hour
Once you’ve kicked the tires on your commitment to career change and reoriented your POV to one where you KNOW you deserve a better job, it’s time to take practical steps toward making that job a reality. You might have put off career change in the past due to the fear that a lack of relevant degrees would make your transition impossible, but Career Counselor Rebecca Beaton says that—despite the myth of degrees being a barrier to entry—today’s employers are less interested in whether or not applicants have x or y degrees, and are more focused on skills specific to the roles they’re trying to fill.
What’s more, Beaton says that plenty of skills necessary for either entering a new career or improving your marketability in your current one, don’t require a fortune and excessive amounts of time, to acquire. Skills like programming languages, spoken languages, software suites, and management techniques can all be learned at your own pace during chunks of downtime—say, during your lunch break, or while you’re waiting for a dentist appointment.
According to Beaton, once you have a general idea of what you want your new job or career to be, then it’s time to review online job postings and learn what specific skills are required for that line of work. After you identify the skills you need, Beaton says there are thousands of free or cheap online courses that can be found through sites like Udemy, Coursera, EdX, or Pluralsight. Online courses like these will give you a good foundation in the skills you’re interested in learning, but Beaton says they’ll also serve to give you a better idea of your fit within a particular career path.
“If you thought you wanted to become a web developer but took a coding course and hated it, you might want to consider a different avenue,” says Beaton. However, if you love your coding class, you can take it a step further and invest in something like an online 3-month bootcamp program. After you’ve taken a course or two and decided you’re on the right path, Beaton says the best way to solidify those skills and generate experience for your resume is to do some actual work for a client using the skills you’ve been learning. “Find someone you can work for, probably at either a reduced rate or for free,” says Beaton. “It’s a great way to start building your portfolio.”
Through this process of researching job listings, building on your skillset, and putting those skills to work in practical situations, you’ll be firmly on the road to career change, sans massive student debt and four or more years of your life spent languishing in classrooms.
Don’t Be Shy
Developing relevant skills is a big part of career change, but those skills won’t do you much good in a vacuum—making connections in the industry you’re hoping to break into is just as important. Valerie Streif, Senior Advisor at Mentat, a San Francisco-based organization for job-seekers, recommends setting up informational interviews with people working at the kinds of jobs you’re interested in. That way, you’ll be networking and meeting potential future colleagues while learning more about the skills you need to sharpen as you make your career move.
Streif says the best approach is to send a warm outreach email to your interview prospect and ask if you can take them to lunch. If you’re at a loss for who to reach out to, talk to any current industry connections or acquaintances you have and see who they can put you in contact with. Then, Streif says, when the meeting happens, take notes and make sure not to be too pushy or to outright ask your interviewee to help you get a job. Focus on listening, gathering information, and establishing a connection with your interviewee as a future professional contact.
Resume Coach Robyn L. Coburn says that attending industry-specific networking events is also a must when laying the foundation for a career change. Sites like Meetup, Eventbrite, and Eventful are good places to start searching for relevant events in your area. While Coburn knows that networking feels daunting at first (and for some people, it never stops being scary), the key to making it easier is preparation. “Instead of thinking of networking as a job interview, think of it as a fact-finding mission,” Coburn says.
Coburn also suggests preparing two or three questions about the job or company you’re interested in that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer, and to be ready to ask the people you meet. Much like an informational interview, this is a chance to listen, get better insight into your career of interest, and start getting to know people in the field. And remember, you don’t have to speak to the CEO of a company you want to work for, in order for a networking event to be successful. Coburn says that simply connecting with one new person who works in the field is enough to make the effort worthwhile.
Don’t Sell Yourself Short
So you’re building skills in your downtime, and making connections to learn more about the industry you want to break into, but when you’re ready to make that final leap you’ll need to package yourself in a way that stands out to potential employers. What can you do to polish off your resume and market yourself in the best way possible?
Streif says DO fill your resume with transferable skills—anything relevant you have previous experience with, alongside any skills you’ve familiarized yourself with in preparation for changing jobs—but DON’T add fluff.
“This is something so many people struggle with, and doing it incorrectly won’t help your chances of making a career move,” says Streif. “Trying to make up for a lack of experience with excessive, meaningless words like ‘effective communicator’ or ‘team player’ isn’t going to fool anyone. You need to be creative, think of the SPECIFIC projects you’ve completed in your current role, and brainstorm how those responsibilities transfer into a different role or how they’d help you complete tasks in a new one. Specificity is key!”
Beaton says that your resume is also a great place to circle back and present any test work you’ve done while building your skills, even if you did it for free. “The fact that you worked for free or cheap isn’t relevant to the employer,” says Beaton, “the main thing is that you have the right skills and you know how to use them. Beaton says it’s also important to include the results you achieved for your client (or employer) using those skills. For example, if you took a course to learn Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and did some free SEO work for a friend, you might put something like ‘Optimized full five-page website, resulting in a 200% increase in traffic and website appearing on the first page of Google for two primary keywords.”
Marketing yourself effectively is as important as any aspect of your job search, so don’t sell yourself short—everything relevant to your future job counts, and it’s up to you to advertise it proudly.
Leave on a High Note
Finally, Coburn cautions, never complain about your current job or company during your transition process. “If you are asked why you want to move on,” says Coburn, “express your reasons in terms of your own growth or needs, rather than due to not liking your company. Coburn suggest the approach of, “It’s been a great place to work, but I’ve reached as far as I can go there and I want to make a contribution in a larger organization with more opportunity to advance,” or, “It’s been a great place to learn about the industry from an industry leader, but I’d like to find a smaller company where my skills and experience will make a difference in the day-to-day operations,” depending on the type of company you’re applying for.
Maintaining a positive relationship with your current job while you work toward a career change is also critical, Coburn says, because it’s important not to leave a job you have without securing your financial situation and—hopefully—your next position.
“Remember,” says Coburn, “the currently employed person is always more attractive to employers than someone who is out of work.” By the same token, Coburn says not to accept a new job offer out of desperation—a surefire way to end up in another unsatisfying employment situation. Instead, take your time and really consider any new job opportunities that come your way—how will it address your current job unhappiness and how will it help you grow your career moving forward? When the right job comes you’ll know it, and—through upskilling, networking, a solid resume, and a positive commitment to change—you’ll be in a prime position to make your move.
Scott Morris is Skillcrush's staff writer and content producer. Like all the members of Skillcrush's team, he works remotely (in his case from Napa, CA). He believes that content that's worth reading (and that your audience can find!) creates brands that people follow. He's experienced writing on topics including jobs and technology, digital marketing, career pivots, gender equity, parenting, and popular culture. Before starting his career as a writer and content marketer, he spent 10 years as a full-time parent to his daughters Veronica and Athena.