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.
5 full-time work-from-home roles that pay seriously well
We—we being the internet in general, as well as PowerToFly specifically—often talk about remote work as this glorious thing: you can find professional fulfillment, friendly co-workers, and career growth potential from the comfort of your own home. All while collecting a check!
But where should you look if you want that check to be as big as possible?
Start with this guide to the best high-paying remote jobs. These career choices (and the example companies hiring for them) don't skimp out on paying remote workers well, and you'll still get all the work-from-home flexibility you're looking for. I've linked to specific job posts for each category below, but also look through the 300+ remote jobs on PowerToFly's always-updated remote job board for more.
As you apply and interview, keep these work-from-home interview questions in mind. If you find yourself with a salary offer that's good, but not quite as good as it could be, reference these salary negotiation tips for remote workers to advocate for what you deserve. And when you get the job with a great salary, make sure your home office is set up for success. And then send me a note to tell me how you're doing!
1. Senior Software EngineerBusiness woman using laptop
Why You Can Do It Remotely: Like most heads-down-and-create work, developing software and programming are best done with minimal distractions. You'll collaborate with your team for check-ins and bug fixes, but you'll be able to focus on your project work from a home office.
Average Annual Salary: $131,875
2. User Experience Researcher ManagerYoung adult woman working with laptop at mobile app
Who It's Good For: Proven researchers who know how to understand the behaviors and motivations of customers through feedback and observation, who have experience synthesizing insights into a brand story, and who have managed teams.
Sound Like You? Check Out: Senior Research Operations Program Manager at Zapier.
Why You Can Do It Remotely: As UX researcher Lindsey Redinger explains in her helpful Medium post, remote research allows companies to reach users all over the world, not just within driving distance to their headquarters, and can be cheaper for companies and easier for participants.
Average Annual Salary: $105,810
3. Senior Product DesignerFemale graphic designer smiling at desk in office
Who It's Good For: Creatives with technical chops who like the challenges of evolving and improving the production of current products, leading designers, and collaborating with other parts of the business.
Sound Like You? Check Out: Senior Product Designer at SeatGeek.
Why You Can Do It Remotely: While design teams definitely need to share lots of feedback, there's technology out there to make that easy. The Help Scout design team has shared their favorite tools and tricks to collaborate remotely, which includes recording daily videos of new designs to explain features and ideas in a way a photo file just can't express. (They're also hiring! Check out open Help Scout jobs here).
Average Annual Salary: $107,555
4. Senior Security AnalystDeveloping Concentrated programmer reading computer codes Development Website design and coding technologies.
Who It's Good For: Thoughtful, vigilant thinkers who enjoy identifying and fixing gaps in a company's security posture, including through ethnical hacking (hacking a company's system before outsiders can, and addressing the weak points found) and incident response (containing the negative effects of a system breach or attack).
Sound Like You? Check Out: Data Protection Security Analyst at Deloitte.
Why You Can Do It Remotely: Not all security analyst positions are remote-friendly; sometimes they require working with very sensitive data that can be compromised if taken off-site or accessed from a VPN. But with the right data processing policies—like using a privacy filter over your laptop, only using secured wifi, and encrypting your data, all suggested by WebARX security's all-remote team—remote work as a security analyst is definitely possible.
Average Annual Salary: $108,463
5. Technical Project ManagerA strong wifi connection makes for a strong relationship
Who It's Good For: Tech-friendly jack-of-all-trades with a sweet spot for spreadsheets and other organization tools.
Sound Like You? Check Out: Technical Project Manager at Avaaz.
Why You Can Do It Remotely: Project management can sometimes be like herding cats, but you don't need to be in the same room as your feline team members in order to direct them around. With collaborative software (and a highly organized home office, like PM pro Patrice Embry recommends), you can PM the most complicated of projects from wherever you're located.
Average Annual Salary: $95,129
Other high-paying remote-friendly jobs include certain roles in healthcare (like nurse practitioners and psychologists, who can check in with patients via video conferencing and phone calls), app developers for both iOS and Android products, actuaries and tax accountants, and data scientists.
And remember that even jobs that don't seem remote-friendly at first, could possibly be done from home or on the road. If you find a well-paying, exciting job that doesn't offer remote work immediately, it might be worth negotiating a more flexible schedule with a 1-2 day work-from-home option. Both you and the company can see what remote work actually looks like in action, and if it goes well, you can make a pitch to transition to remote work full time.
Other resources you may want to check out in your quest for meaningful, well-paid remote work:
Today we celebrate our partnership with Braintree! Check out this video to see highlights from our recent networking event.
If you missed the event, fear not! Stay connected by following Braintree on PowerToFly and email us at Hi@PowerToFly.com for future events near you.
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