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.
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,
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.
3. Become a (Pro-bono) Consultant
Although I’m a big proponent for getting paid what you’re worth, the truth is that sometimes you’ll need to (or choose to) work for low or no pay while you prove your value. But when you think beyond simple dollars for hours, you can see how these kinds of micro-experiments can pay off big.
One of my clients, Michael, is a pro at this. For family reasons, he relocates more often than the average person, and he’s become adept at the “remote” job search.
One key element of his approach is reaching out to potential employers, not as a job seeker, but as an expert looking to share knowledge in his field: green engineering. When he gets in touch with people in the industry, he does so from a position of authority.
What would be “informational interviews” actually become mini-consulting sessions where he provides his expertise. He gets to test the waters, seeing if the company's a good fit—all without working there for three months.
You might be thinking, “Well, Michael’s an engineer—of course this worked for him!” Don’t be so quick to dismiss the idea.
Identify a new or little-understood aspect of your field (all industries have them), and educate yourself to expert status. Maybe it’s how the renegotiation of trade deals is going to impact your industry, or how to master the art of presenting via webinar. Find something others will care about, and offer your expertise, no strings attached.
Let go of the idea that your experiments need to be huge and lengthy. Instead, take small steps. Take frequent steps. Get immediate feedback, and then adjust accordingly. While you may never meet “perfection,” this method will get you a heck of a lot closer, a lot faster, than traditional approaches.
Want to know how to get hired for what you’re best at? Check out The Ultimate Guide to Using Your Strengths to Get Hired.
Here at The Muse, we love introducing you to people who can boost your career. We are working with this contributor on an affiliate basis (meaning we earn a little money when you choose to use their services), but rest assured that we don't just work with anyone. When it comes to articles like this, we chose to work with this coach not because he wanted a Muse byline, but because his advice was truly awesome. Here’s to finding the career of your dreams!
Photo of woman working on exciting project courtesy of gpointstudio/Getty Images.
Scott Anthony Barlow is the Founder and CEO of Happen to Your Career. His team produces two of the Top 5 “Career Change” podcasts on iTunes: What Fits You? and the Happen to Your Career Podcast. He gets way excited about careers, coffee, and Parkour (not necessarily in that order). With over 2000 interviews under his belt as a former HR professional, Scott’s gift is quickly getting to the core of what is holding career-changers back and helping others find their unique Signature Strengths! To figure out what fulfilling work looks like for you, check out his Figure it Out Guide.More from this Author