3 Better Ways to Get Experience in a New Field Than Going Back to School

Anyone who’s ever tried to break into a new field has faced the catch-22 of the career world: You can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get the necessary experience without a job.

The solution in the past has either been to take a low-paying internship on top of your full-time position (or quit and somehow scrape by financially), or go back to school—often accumulating massive amounts of debt, hoping and praying that you made the right decision.

Unfortunately, neither of those choices is particularly appealing to someone with bills to pay and a desire not to be consumed 24/7 by work.

In an effort to short circuit this process, I’ve worked with my clients to create other options, ones that allow them to test out potential careers, get valuable experience, and maybe even get paid real money in the process.

I call these ‘micro-experiments:’ ‘micro,’ because they’re the smallest unit possible—sometimes no more than a few hours spread over several weeks, and ‘experiment’ because we’re not sure what the outcome is going to be.

I’ve found that entering into these arrangements with low expectations and a sense of adventure lowers the stress level dramatically. It sure beats quitting your job and starting a grad program only to realize one semester in that you detest what you’re learning.

Here are some guidelines for how to set up your own micro-experiments so you can make a career change to your dream job without going broke or aging 15 years:

1. Just Do It

Despite your beliefs to the contrary, often the only thing standing between you and a test-drive of your desired position is you! Sure, if you want to be a pilot or a surgeon, you’re going to need some certification and training. But for many roles, you don’t need a license, a professional degree, or even permission. You can simply start.

For instance, if you want to be a graphic designer, you don’t need an MFA. If you’ve got some chops in design and you’ve done some work for family and friends, don’t wait to “get a job” to get more experience. It’s time to start offering your skills to others—and actually get paid for it!

Create an account on Fiverr.com, an online marketplace offering tasks and services for as little as five dollars, or put a post on Craigslist.

Offer to create brochures, logos, or other designs at an entry-level rate to build your portfolio and get experience working with clients (which is often much harder than the actual design!). See what parts of the business you like and which you don’t, and make some money at the same time.

It won’t take six months or even six weeks to figure out if you’re happy doing this kind of work. The more you learn, the more you can refine your goals and expectations—and then you can adjust future micro-experiments accordingly.

2. Create an “Experiment” in Your Current Position

You don’t need to quit your job to test out new responsibilities. Instead, look to how and where you can add value where you already are. Volunteer for an interdepartmental team, ask if you can take a class in grant writing, or propose to your boss that you tackle the network upgrade.

Hi Tracy,

As we prepare to move into the new office, I know there will be a need for coordination around the various tasks involved with relocating, including facilities, IS, customer service, and HR—a responsibility that would typically fall to you, potentially adding a lot to your workload. As I indicated in my performance review last month, my goal is to move into a project manager role at the company.

I’d like to volunteer to serve as project manager for this move, under your supervision.

Not only will this let you focus on higher-level strategy during a critical business season, it’ll also give me an opportunity to put to practical use some of the skills I’ve been working to refine on the job and in the project management classes I’ve taken at SCC over the past year.

Would you be open to discussing this? I have some specific ideas as to how I can incorporate this into my current workload without hiring additional staff or neglecting my to-dos.

Thanks so much,
Kyle

When you conduct these in-house experiments, you get the best of both worlds: You keep your steady paycheck and you get to spread your wings. All it takes is a little creative thinking and a commitment to keeping up with your regular assignments.

If your boss gives you the thumbs-down, you’ll have planted the seed that you’re interested in growth opportunities—and that’s never a bad thing.