Will A Degree Help Me To Successfully Switch Careers?

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If you’ve ever ridden a bicycle, chances are, you learned through trial and error. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that unless you’re a professional cyclist, you’ve never taken a class or read a book about how to properly ride a bike. You just hopped on and figured it out, perhaps with a few scrapes along the way. After all, it’s tough to translate the experience of biking without doing it. So, why is returning to school a popular first step in a career switch?

Taking classes does have some appeal:

  • Formal programs offer structure. Humans dislike ambiguity, so the built-in organization of a degree or certification program feels less daunting than figuring out a path.
  • Studying a topic can help you understand the key acronyms, concepts, and theories. Every field seems to have its own “language” and vocabulary. Reading case studies and text books can help you become familiar with the vernacular.
  • Being in a classroom can help you build your network. Any time like-minded individuals gather together, there’s a chance to build valuable relationships.
  • Having an instructor enables you to ask questions. Most formal programs are taught by experts who are well-versed in the area of study and who can help you to untangle complex equations or confusing approaches.
  • Learning about a topic can help you target an area of focus. If you’re uncertain where you’d like to specialize, getting a broad overview can expose you to niche areas that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

As someone who has always enjoyed learning, I’m an advocate for investing in degrees or certifications when it fits your purpose. But unfortunately, many people under-invest in the up front research, and dive in without fully understanding how their hard earned money and precious hours in the classroom will support their career goals. I had a client spend two years getting her Master’s Degree in speech therapy, only to learn during her internship in her last semester that she didn’t like the actual work.

Formal education can certainly provide a boost in: 1) demonstrating commitment to a field, 2) building connections and 3) learning the concepts, but employers will be most interested in practical experience that demonstrates your ability to apply what you’ve learned in a way that gets results.

The benefits of learning a new field through application include:

  • Handling unforeseen complications. Real life is messy, and situations rarely unfold like they do in a textbook. Sometimes what’s on paper, doesn’t translate to reality.
  • Learning the politics. When people are involved, politics emerge. In most fields, it’s not enough to know the written rules – to be effective, you also need to learn the “unwritten” ones.
  • Solidify meaning. Many times we have a vision of what we imagine a role will be like, only for it to be very different in practice, or not a good fit for our individual needs and values.
  • Understanding your brand. Even if professionals have the same role, each of us has unique strengths and personal limitations that shape how we approach our jobs. Knowing this will be important when differentiating yourself and communicating your specific value.
  • Recovering from set-backs. Mistakes are one of the best teachers, and failing an exam isn’t the same as losing a customer or miscalculating a product launch. Experience enables you to be agile, foresee challenges, and build contingencies.
  • Achieving results. To build credibility with employers, you’ll want to have a few “wins” under your belt. Don’t discount similar or related experiences that showcase the same competencies in a different environment. You don’t need to get a paycheck or have a title to gain valuable outcomes.
  • Recognizing outliers. In the classroom, we study “textbook cases” that are created to teach concepts, but in life, we need to identify and handle outliers or borderline cases, which sometimes are difficult to spot until we experience them.

Unless you’re planning to change to a field where formal training or licensing is required (e.g., lawyer, nurse), you may be better off saving your money (at least initially) and investing your time in learning new skills through trial and error first.

Here’s a few ideas of where to start:

  • Look inside your current organization. Many companies recognize the value in retaining stellar employees, even if in a different department. If you’re looking for a change, begin networking with people in the department you’d like to explore. Work with your manager to carve out time to do projects with the target department, and possibly a timeline to formally switch to the new function if things progress favorably.
  • Set up a self-created internship. Many non-profits or resource-limited organizations would love to have free (or low-cost) help. Put together a proposal stating how you can assist a company in reaching its goals or mission. This will build your applied skills (and references!).
  • Hang a shingle. Today, you can start a website and market a side hustle for almost nothing. You don’t need to wait to be selected by a company to start delivering services or gaining clients, and you may find that you enjoy having gigs, while still maintaining your day job.
  • Find an applied program. If you learn best though formal instruction, seek out programs that emphasize application such as internships, practicum or capstone projects with real customers. The more real-world training a program offers, the better prepared you’ll be to do the work verses talk about it. Bonus: Research the career services offered. In most educational institutions, this is not where your budget dollars are funneled, and you’ll want to ensure your expectations about career placement are aligned with reality.

Classes make you conversant in a topic, but application builds your competence and enables you to navigate unexpected situations, which inevitably happen in the real world. That’s why hiring managers prefer applicants with experience. However, paid roles aren’t the only way to gain experience and many of your skills may have transfer value, so get creative, do your research and go after what you want.

Happy hunting!

Reposted from: Forbes.com

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