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Advice / Career Paths / Career Change

How to Get Experience in a New Field Without Starting at the Bottom

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One of the most common questions I get asked by job seekers is: How can I transition into a new field when I don’t have any experience in it?

It’s a great question—and a frustrating situation. You know you have the transferrable skills, the drive, and the ambition to do the new job you’re seeking, but it’s hard to compete with others who’ve done exactly what’s required in the position’s description for years.

Yes, it’s true that most hiring managers don’t want to take a chance on someone who might be able to do the job. They want to have proof that you can start delivering on day one. But it’s also true that in today’s world, you don’t have to get that experience at a full-time, 9-to-5 job.

Sure, it can take time, above and beyond your day job. It takes effort (learning a new skill isn’t easy!). In some cases, like if you’re going back to school, it’ll take money. These aren’t negligible factors. But there are options, and if you’re truly committed to making a move, those sacrifices will likely pay off in the long run.

This week, I chatted with Hillary Kerr and Katherine Power, founders of Clique Media Group and co-authors of the just-released The Career Code: Must-Know Rules for a Strategic, Stylish, and Self-Made Career, and their advice is the same advice I often give: Make your own experience. As Kerr writes in the book: “I’ve hired a number of people who didn’t have the exact experience I was looking for. These people were able to show their passion for the job through a blog or portfolio. When someone who works full-time dedicates serious after-office hours to creating a blog or doing freelance work in their field of choice, I know that they truly know what they want to do.”

OK, so how might this apply to you? Here are some of those ways you, too, can make your own experience.

1. Take on an Internship

And yes, even though you are no longer a 20-year-old college student. Many companies offer part-time, remote internships, and if you’re able to complete the work on your own time, you can do this on top of your current job. (One of our editorial interns at The Muse is a full-time reporting and evaluations manager—you can read all about her experience here.)

If you’re looking to make a dramatic pivot, you can also look into residency programs or apprenticeships—they’re typically full-time work, but they can be great ways to kick off that full-time experience you need for your new role.

2. Start a Blog

This exercise is particularly useful if you want to be a writer—many publications care less about the employers that are on your resume than they do about the quality of your writing, so having an online hub that shows it off is incredibly valuable. Proof: This woman was turned down for a copywriting job at her own company, until she started her own blog and showed she had the chops.

Even if you’re not gunning for a writing job, penning compelling thoughts about your industry of choice can go a long way in showing, not just telling, that you’re committed to the role even without traditional experience.

3. … Or Something Else

Not a writer? There are plenty of other media on which you can share thoughts on your desired career—think podcasting, launching a YouTube video series, hosting a regular industry-related meetup, even creating Snapchat stories!

4. Volunteer for a Cause You Care About

If you’re interested in moving into marketing, social media, event planning, or fundraising, look for opportunities at nonprofits through sites like VolunteerMatch. Cash-strapped organizations don’t always have the resources to fulfill these duties through full-time paid roles, so they look to volunteers to help out. Meaning: They’re less concerned with the experience on your resume, more concerned that you’re interested, willing, and committed.

In addition to nonprofits, look for opportunities at professional groups, alumni associations, or even…

5. Volunteer for a For-profit Company

Turns out, this approach applies to more than the nonprofit world. Here’s a story I came across on LinkedIn about a history major who landed a full-time job with a real estate executive without experience:

As she was talking to the executive, who seemed overwhelmingly busy, a light bulb went off. “You seem incredibly stretched right now," she observed and then asked the $64,000 question. "What would you do to grow your business if you had an extra day in your week?” He paused and said he’d do a market research study for the young urban rental market. She offered to do that for free and was able to communicate quickly how her analysis and writing skills developed for her thesis would give her the ability to execute the project. He took her up on her offer and paid her $10 an hour for her work. After a few weeks, she presented her findings. The real estate executive was blown away by the quality of her report, the clarity of her thinking, and the creativity with which she packaged her analysis. She was offered and has now accepted an entry-level job as a market researcher in the firm.

6. Ask to Help Out on a New Project at Work

Don’t want to get caught working for another company? Look for ways to get experience at your own. Of course, you need to make sure you’re getting your own work done, but you may find departments or projects that are more than happy to have extra hands, especially if they’re new, have more business than usual, or are understaffed in some way.

7. Head to the Classroom

There are plenty of options besides going back to school full-time (though, that’s certainly an option), whether it’s part-time professional education, an intensive bootcamp, or online classes. The learning aspect is obviously great, but what’s really key is the hands-on projects you’ll complete as part of the coursework. Do your homework before you go, asking current and former students how the experience has been, what types of projects they’ve gotten to work on, and how it’s helped them professionally. Ideally, you want a course that’ll give you something to show at the end of it (so you can put it on your resume—here’s how.)

8. Do the Work Before You Apply

Employers want to know you can do the job—so show them. Kerr and Power shared several stories of people who had applied without traditional experience, but with samples of the type of work they’d do if hired. Another example: When told by a hiring manager she didn’t have enough experience for a copywriting position, this job seeker responded with a list of sample taglines. The employer loved them—and that lack of experience didn’t matter so much anymore. She was hired.

In short, when it comes to gaining that required experience to land your dream job, try thinking outside the cubicle. That, plus some networking and learning how to position your transferrable skills, can be exactly what it takes to put you on the right path.