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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Everything You Need to Know About Online Classes (if You Want to Boost Your Career)

It’s something you’ve probably heard a decent amount: “You should take an online class,” “That’s what online classes are for,” “Online courses are a great resource.”

But what exactly are you getting yourself into by enrolling? Why exactly is it a useful tool? Is it even worth it?

Trust me, you’re not the only one with these questions. That’s why I spoke to real, live people who’ve taken classes before to get the real scoop on what they entail. And what I learned is that they’re more than just worthwhile—they can be complete game changers.

But let’s back up and start at the beginning:

What Kinds of Classes Are There?

There’s an online class for everything. Seriously, you can take courses on understanding how dogs think, mastering meditation, or even how to become a vegetarian (in case you don’t know what that means).

But there’s also so many others that are relevant enough to put on your resume (unless, of course, you actually work in those fields). Some sites offer courses in every genre, while others focus on specific skill sets such as software education; or only feature classes from real universities. You can browse full-time and part-time courses, long videos and short clips, and interactive projects and web conversations. Some cost money or charge you monthly, but a lot are free.

Overwhelmed? Don’t worry—we’ve already curated the best classes for your career right here on The Muse. We have courses on job searching, finding your passion, building your brand, negotiating an offer, and even ones on marketing, social media, copywriting, public speaking, and programming—all taught by experts and coming from the best online education websites out there. You’re welcome.

There Are So Many Options, How Do I Choose One?

I don’t think you can go wrong in making your decision. In fact, you could very easily realize that a class you’re taking isn’t what you expected. That’s OK—you don’t have to finish it (this isn’t high school).

But with that being said, if you’re spending money and time, you want to put it toward something worthwhile. So, check out reviews by previous students, ask colleagues for recommendations, and read the course descriptions, some of which will have introductory videos available. These are great indicators of whether or not you can connect to the class and the teacher.

Who Even Takes Them?

Anyone and everyone—recent graduates, career changers, job seekers, managers, CEOs. The bottom line is that everyone has something he or she needs to work on, whether it’s a skill, a side gig, a personal attribute, or a bad habit.

Can I Manage One on Top of a Full-Time Job and Social Life?

The short answer is yes, yes you can. Your day is what you make it, and if this is important enough to you, you’ll make time for it.

Account Executive Kimberly McNally’s currently getting her masters in technology management, on top of her position here at The Muse, and the beauty of taking her courses online is that she didn’t have to quit her day job to do it. But, she states, “You have to be able to make sacrifices. You shouldn’t let areas of your life get altered by it, but of course you’ll have less time to socialize.” Figuring out how to separate school and work takes willpower and drive. She advises that you take a look at your current schedule and see whether or not you can manage your time effectively before you even sign up.

But you also have the choice of how much time you want to spend on it—there’s so much flexibility! You can enroll in a full certification program like McNally, or, if you don’t think you’ll have the energy to log in daily, choosing to take individual courses an hour or two a week can be just as effective (without taking up all your free time).

Can I Use Them to Help My Job Search?

Several people I spoke with told me they definitely helped them connect with their interviewer, and for some, it even landed them the job. As part of his interview process, Muse Content Manager James Mayr met with a member of the engineering team, and because he had taken coding classes, he was able to carry on a great conversation—despite being here for a completely different role. Similarly, Joanne Chevalier, a full-stack engineer, interviewed at The Muse after moving from France, and by providing examples from her online classes, she was able to prove her qualifications to transition from back-end to full-stack.

And Jimmy Marsanico, a data scientist, used skills listed in job descriptions as an indicator that maybe he should study up and take a course—just in case that was the make-or-break factor: “After grad school, I took a course in Pandas (which is a tool used in Python-coding for data analysis) to help during my interview process, including my interview here!  It wasn’t something that I used right away at work, nor in my interviews, yet so many job requirements had mentioned it—which is what made me decide to take it in the first place.”

Overall, it can only help your job search. When Muse Career Coach Evangelia Leclaire meets with clients who believe they are underqualified for a role, “I tell my clients to not let what you lack limit you from going after what you want.”

And online courses are a great start: “Future employers value continuing education and professional development. By enrolling in a relevant course and positioning it within the education section of the resume and in future interviews, you’re demonstrating that you take initiative to improve professionally. Employers love hiring people who are resourceful and who take action to stay ahead of the curve and gain a competitive edge,” states Leclaire.

The thing is, just saying “I took so and so course” won’t show you’re qualified. It’s the stuff you learned and created in that class that matter—so focus on that in your resume, cover letter, and interview.

And speaking of that…

How Do I List the Classes on My Resume?

You’ve taken a class and want to show it off to potential employers—great! But where does it go? And how specific should you get when talking about it?

It definitely depends on the kinds of classes you took and the jobs you’re applying for. (Read: tailor your resume!) Laurie Pickard, founder of No-Pay MBA, suggests that you “keep the list of courses short, and confine them to a single, small area, such as a “Professional Training” section under your work history.”

Also, you don’t need to bother listing introduction courses unless they’re separate from your current role—taking an “Introduction to Python” course will undermine your credibility if your current position is Senior Developer.

How Do They Come Into Play When I’m Switching Careers?

You know what you’re missing when you’re looking to make a career change—a skill on your resume, a skill in real life, knowledge on a particular topic. Online courses could (at least partially) fill that gap—especially since you’re usually only short a few requirements.

But even more so what classes are good at is helping you figure out if you even want to make the change. Or, where you want to go next. You might discover after taking one writing course that journalism isn’t really for you. Or, you might take a social media class, and then another, and then your excitement for it grows and all you want to do is work in marketing. Awesome—now you know you’re ready.

Can They Help Me in My Current Job?

Editor-in-Chief Adrian Granzella Larssen has a great story on how one experience continues to influence her career. One of the online courses she took was a beauty writing class, and an assignment was to write an article about tweezing your eyebrows without using the words “tweeze” or “eyebrows” more than once. Even today she uses this tactic in anything she writes—being aware of word repetition to craft stronger writing pieces.

It’s like high school—your teacher says one thing and it just happens to stick with you for years and years. Learning online’s no different, and the best part is you can pick up any new lesson anytime you want.

So if you have some free time, if you want to improve the quality of your work, or if you want to better understand how to use your company’s resources, it might be worth signing up.

In short, online classes are pretty darn useful. They won’t guarantee you a job, and they won’t instantly get you that promotion or raise—but if those are your goals, they’re an awesome way to get started on accomplishing that.

Photo of woman typing courtesy of Morsa Images/Getty Images.

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