How to Escape the Trap of the Career Dead End—Without Going Back to School
A version of this article previously appeared on Skillcrush, an online education program for creatives, thinkers, and makers that gives total tech newbies the tools to make major career changes.
Scott Morris, Skillcrush
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.
It's been six years since Sarah Cooper graced us with her 10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings. But how on earth can we appear smart in our new virtual world, in which for many of us, going to work is just sitting in one long series of probably-not-necessary Zoom meetings?
1. Dial in.<p>Dialing in rather than joining via the link instantly boosts your credibility. Who calls into Zoom meetings? People who are still busy and important enough to be leaving their houses! But you needn't actually be one of those people, or even more than a foot away from your computer to pull off this maneuver. (Remember, this article is called *seeming* smart, not being smart.)</p><p><strong></strong><em>Bonus: </em>If it's a large meeting at which attendance will be taken, the person running the meeting will inevitably ask, "Who's calling in from 443-322-2121?" That's when you raise your metaphorical hand, jump off mute, and say "[Your name] here. Really looking forward to hearing your perspective on [meeting topic]." And voila! You've stolen the meeting spotlight.</p>
2. Don't come on camera—ever.<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0ODU5OS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjMwNjI3OX0.4fLyq2CvkZAJ7n_03esZepY37mOdyGdDdTEUYt5XEU0/img.png?width=980" id="bc7e6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fbbf21cc5d8c863b30654ae6993b04f5" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p><br></p><p>Much like the "dial in," this technique works because it makes you appear aloof. If <em>The Crown has </em>taught me anything, it's that the key to maintaining a sense of mystique and prestige is to keep people at arm's length—and if you absolutely <em>must</em> touch them, wear a glove.</p>
3. Only communicate via chat.<p>Once you've mastered the art of staying off camera, you can level up by communicating exclusively via the chat box. Don't come off mute at all, even if the speaker asks your opinion. You are the elusive chatter and you will not be forced into actually participating in said meeting.</p>
4. Ask to share your screen.<p>Being aloof is great, but it's all about balance. Sprinkling in some active participation will really shock and impress your colleagues if you catch them off guard, so save this technique for when you've strategically <em>not </em>participated in a string of meetings.</p><p>Spend a few minutes prior to the meeting prepping a few inspirational slides with words like "synergy," "optimization," and "redefining 'culture'", or spend a few minutes poking around in Google Analytics. </p><p>Then wait for the opportune moment to say, "Can I just share my screen for a moment? I have some really interesting data I'd like to share...." and BAM — brilliance established.</p>
5. Show off your Zoom-saviness.<p>Try saying, "You know you can mute people, right?" to the host when they beg whoever's got the lawn mower and crying baby in the background to put themselves on mute for the nth time.<br></p>
6. Create an alter ego.<p>This tactic requires commitment, but the pay off is certainly worth it. Join the Zoom meeting from your normal account + name, and then join it again on a second device from an alias. Have your alter-ego ask some probing or stat-based questions in the chat and have the answers ready ahead of time. It should work something like this:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><strong>Your alter ego Charlene</strong><strong>:</strong> "Does anyone know what percentage conversion rates increased by in Q2?"</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><strong>Real you</strong>: *doesn't miss a beat* "It looks like Charlene has a question in the chat. That would be 36%."</p><div>Never mind that no one on your team knows who Charlene is or why she's at this meeting, they'll be too blown away by your brilliance to notice. (Bonus points if you use this strategy in conjunction with techniques 1, 2, 3 or 4!)</div>
7. Place an obscure object in your background that exudes intelligence.<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0ODYxOC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzk5Njg2Mn0.V9_-3Ij3v_QndseqlrXRt5Nn39EJ97-itjls5zzYPf8/img.png?width=980" id="a369d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="604a2f04b53c2e3bc801bfa5256f367b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p><br></p><p>We're talking a telescope, or perhaps a hardcover copy of <em>War & Peace </em>(no one need know that its only purpose in your life is as a makeshift yoga block).</p><p>If you don't have any suitable props at your disposal, do not despair: download some screenshots of Sheldon's apartment from <em>Big Bang Theory </em>or the chalkboard in <em>Good Will Hunting </em>and use those as a virtual background.</p>
8. Ask "Is this really the best course of action given the current climate?"<p>Economic collapse, COVID, racism… No need to specify whether you're referring to one or all of the above; just sit back and watch your boss squirm amidst the ambiguity.</p><p>This strategy pairs very well with techniques 2 and 3. You can prep additional vague-but-probing questions ahead of time and pepper them into the chat box throughout the meeting:</p><ul><li>How will this scale?</li><li>Do we really have the bandwidth for this right now?</li><li>What's the value-add here?</li></ul>
9. Remind everyone that you have a paid Zoom account.<p>"Oh, it looks like we're getting the 40-minute warning. I have a paid account, do you want to switch to my room?" It's helpful, with just a touch of condescension. Everyone knows condescending people are smart. And everyone knows that people with paid Zoom accounts are super important.</p>
10. Tell everyone you have a hard stop.<p>When pressed for details, share your philosophy on "work-from-home" balance and how committed you are to getting up once an hour to walk to your refrigerator.</p>
11. Ask the screensharer/host to "pull something up" for everyone.<p>Ask the presenter to navigate to a screen that only you know how to navigate well. Laugh maniacally while they suffer from crippling performance anxiety. Let them struggle for as long as is tolerable before saying, "Oh you know what? I can just share my screen if you want. That would probably be easier." BAM you're the hero. Don't worry, no one will even pause to consider that you could have proposed this course of action from the start.</p>
12. Say Zoom fatigue as many times as possible.<p>If you're too tired to employ any of the other strategies, just say "I know everyone is experiencing a lot of Zoom fatigue, so we can keep this meeting short." Then hang up as quickly as possible. Meeting averted! </p><p>After all, there's no better way to demonstrate your intelligence in a virtual meeting than to demonstrate why it wasn't really necessary in the first place. </p>
I sat in front of my CEO to discuss several complaints of racism. I was new to my role as a Culture Director. I was nervous about his reaction to the complaints. But I also knew he strongly supported developing this new department; I knew that he would take the right steps. So I was shocked when I heard him say sheepishly, "I don't know, Noelle...all of this stuff about racism. I just don't see it. I don't even see color. I'm pretty much color blind."
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