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So many career changers come to me feeling completely helpless.

They think they have an either/or decision to make: “Either I stay in my current career or go back to school to retrain for something better.”

When neither option is appealing, the tendency is to just give up.

But what if I told you that not only are there many jobs that don’t require a degree, but it’s completely possible to get hired without one, even in those that do?

Today I’m sharing an inspirational story from one of my No Regrets clients.  She shares how she landed a job as a librarian (definitely a job that normally does require a degree) and thrived in that career without one for 22 years.

These are her own words.  I’ve only edited them for length and clarity.

Her lessons apply to nearly every profession outside of becoming a doctor or lawyer.  It’s a good reminder that all you really need is passion, the right mind-set, and a belief that your value doesn’t depend on a piece of paper.

A true story: faking it until it’s real

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like you are really ready for primetime in whatever your dream job is.

It may be that you don’t have a lot of experience or maybe you don’t have the certification or in my case I didn’t have my MLS degree (necessary to be a “real” librarian). But for the first 22 years of my professional career as a librarian I held 4 librarian positions without my MLS graduate degree.

How did that happen?

First of all, when I discovered librarianship might be my ideal profession I had just completed my BA in Elementary Education. To get a graduate degree meant I would have to move to another state because there are only a few schools (all out of state) that offered accredited degrees. And it would mean going deeply into debt.

Fortunately, I had two things going for me:

  • I had a year of part time experience at the local public library as the lowliest of all library employees – a shelver (boring!). It kept me solvent while I completed my BA degree.
  • I was totally and passionately excited about librarianship. I wanted to know everything and do everything. I wanted to be a reference librarian and find answers for everyone who asked one.

So how did that help me out? When I’m excited about something I share–with anyone and everyone. I ask questions of others who are in my ideal job. And bless my boss at the library (where I shelved hundreds of books a week) – she listened to me.

She offered me low level librarian tasks that didn’t usually get offered to shelvers. Even if I wasn’t sure I was really ready for the challenges (did I know enough?) I never said no. I always said “yes” and “thank you” and worked till the wee hours prepping for whatever opportunity she offered.

Eventually she suggested I apply for a new position they were creating at the library. I did apply (again – faking it and making it up during the interview) and my first professional job was mine. I was the new Bookmobile Driver and LIBRARIAN!! Score!

Advice that travels

My next position was the result of a move for my husband’s job. My first act, once I got settled, was to check out the library and call for an informational interview/appointment with the Director. I wanted to introduce myself and talk about their bookmoblie service.

Of course you know I really wanted a job but I didn’t actually say that. The director called me within the month and asked if I wanted to work part time at the checkout desk. Not a professional position but once my foot was in the door I made sure to do everything they wanted, ask questions and offer to do more. Soon I served as back up for the reference librarian (it was a small library, everyone wore several hats) and offered the chance to assist with collection development and help the library foundation raise money for a new library addition.

Eight years later we moved again to another state. I won’t go through all the details but the common thread is that I once again visited the Library and called the Director for a informational “meet and greet” interview. Within a month I had a part time position which turned into a professional position that same year. I was offered the choice of running the children’s department because of my elementary ed degree or be a reference librarian, which is where I had the most “on the job” experience.

I started in the children’s position because it allowed me to learn new professional skills. Three years later I applied for a reference position in the same system because the reference manager had a lot of expertise that I could learn from. Once in that position I was trained in a variety of speciality areas without having to take a single class – just by expressing my interest and enthusiasm in learning new skills. Ultimately, I was able to make project proposals that benefited the library, allowed me to use the skills I learned on the job, and shape my position to focus on the areas I loved the most.

How to stand out (without a degree)

Here are the key elements that stand out as I faked it until I was a “real” librarian with the piece of paper that said I had an MLS degree – 22 years after I started working professionally in libraries:

Don’t wait for the perfect position. Get your foot in the door.

  1. Don’t wait for an actual job opening. Ask for an informational interview as a means to make yourself known to the people who can give you a job you want.
  2. Always assume there is a lot to learn and set out to learn from everyone you work with. Faking it doesn’t mean acting like a “know it all.”
  3. Learn your job but also learn as many aspects OUTSIDE your job so you become indispensable to the organization. One of my strengths is that I have worked in almost all departments and with all ages in a public library so I am very flexible when it comes to finding a position. And nothing was “beneath” me. I can fix the copier or answer complex reference questions. It doesn’t mean I don’t have a work preference but see #1 – don’t always wait for the perfect position – it may morph into the position you will love. And if you have your foot in the door you may be able to influence the creation of your ideal job.
  4. Lastly – the world is small – always leave on good terms whenever possible. After I got my MLS and became a “real librarian” with the piece of paper, I was hired for my “perfect” job by the very first library I ever worked for – as the bookmobile driven and librarian.
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12 Responses to Do You Need to Go Back to School for Your Dream Career?

  1. Love this story, Jen. Many common threads with my own story. When I first started work as a contractor technical writer at Microsoft (almost 20 years ago), I had some writing experience, but of course no experience with their tools or processes and not on the scale of MS products. I was a wreck for the interview and decided I would “control” the interview by having a long list of questions for them. Questions that demonstrated knowledge and experience with the tools and processes I had used, and I was hoping for lots of overlaps. It worked! I easily got the job, without the exact credentials and training, and for the next 5.5 years as a contractor I ALWAYS said “Of course I can do that!” whenever asked. Even if I had no idea at all how to do it, I made sure I had figured out at least how to start by the time I was actually doing the task. When I quit MS and started my own sewing business, I wondered about getting “credentialed” as a sewing teacher, but really didn’t want to take the time or spend the money. I just started. It is true that my first few students did not get the same experience my students of today get, but they DID learn about sewing. Sometimes, just starting is the key, and being open to learning more, trying more, and saying YES.

    • Great story, Maris. It’s funny how credential centric our society has become. I wonder with the astronomical costs of education, combined with the Recession, if that will start to change. Not to mention the free material that is starting to become available through Kahn Academy and universities like MIT. In many senses, it’s the person who commits to learning without the structure of a degree program who is more impressive, since initiative and persistence are actually better markers of success.

    • On
    • December 11, 2012 at 1:44 pm
    • Luis
    • Said...

    That’s awesome.

    Now what I say may be or may not be so related:
    After one degree and a master, I often question myself seriously about the practicality of it all. I’ve studied so many things and now I use so little of what I spent years studying… and on top of that, I need to learn so many new things in my current job!
    I seriously wonder if it all makes sense: studying for so many years to enter a job where you’ll use a 1% of everything that you learned. And devoting so much time and effort to complete assignments that are not useful to anyone, during probably your most mentally able years of your life.
    I often find that something stinks badly about all that. I feel that it all needs to be radically revamped…
    I hear people sometimes feeling disappointed, because they do not find a job after finishing their studies, although they feel entitled to that. And I think: “of course, what did you expect? After all, you have the exact same knowledge as those 30.000 people who just finished your very same degree this year”. Why do we have to take such a long route, and study for so many years, and struggle so much, to even have the chance to find our first job on this road that we choose? Maybe because it is a completely overcrowded road.
    Or maybe is our way of thinking which needs to be revamped…
    So, going back to the topic of the post: I think that official studies are overestimated, and become the default very fast as soon as somebody wants to increase their personal value. I appreciate reading how people like the one in the post -what’s her name actually? Lol- make their way without immediately feeling blocked because their lack of an apparently needed degree. Passion and doing things in a clever way can overcome any artificial barrier. That’s awesome.

    • I agree, Luis. The education system is not really preparing us for the world of work, and in many ways, was never really intended to do so. It is employers who are really to blame, in my opinion, for using degree programs as a screening tool instead of coming up with better methods of finding and training the right workers. This shift hasn’t worked out for employers or employees alike, if you ask me.

  2. Jen, Your point about returning to school in your “5 Career Change Myths” video is worth repeating: it’s a familiar easy way out, avoiding the hard work of exploring and *doing* the new career is some way. The librarian didn’t stall herself in that way; she created the opportunities for the role she wanted. Nice example.

    • Yep. School is familiar, and when making a big change, familiar feels sooo good. Until it doesn’t. I get lots of clients who are unhappy in their graduate programs because they jumped to school before doing a test-drive. You’re right, this isn’t just an example of getting around requirements, but really understanding a career before investing the time/money/energy in a degree. What’s great I guess is that she eventually did get that degree, but only when she felt it was necessary.

    • On
    • December 12, 2012 at 10:16 am
    • Amanda
    • Said...

    What a great post! I especially love that not only did your friend share her story but also shared some great advice!

    While I think all the advice is great I’ve always felt a little perplexed by the idea of an informational interview. What sorts of questions do you ask? How do you position yourself to both gain information and make yourself look desirable as a potential hire?

    Thanks so much!!

    • Amanda,

      Great questions. I think I’ll do a whole post on that topic, because I’m sure you’re not the only one who’s wondering that. In short, what I teach my clients to do is to create a list of desirable career attributes (along with a definition of success). The first goal of an informational interview when exploring career options is to get a quick sense of whether a particular career could meet your definition of success and your most important desired career attributes. Once you find a career you’re interested in pursuing, you work on getting information about how to position and market yourself for a career test-drive. I know that probably still doesn’t fully answer your question. Keep your eyes peeled for a longer post. Thanks for the idea!

  3. Um…retraining doesn’t necessarily mean degree. Just b/c the new career doesn’t need a degree does not mean no retraining out of your own pocket is required to get an in. Not sure where you got the data from though, even though you’re an experienced career change expert.

    • I agreeing that retraining doesn’t mean getting a degree, but I do think many people default to that option before exploring others. But I also think that we’re quick to assume what employers are going to require before testing that assumption. Read this post from Scott Young on the subject: http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/2012/12/05/interview-method/

  4. I love this post Jennifer! In my experience with midlife professionals making exciting career changes I’ve never seen the lack of a degree get in the way – when passion and purpose are clear.

    As you mention, this is critical.

    It’s when passion and purpose aren’t clear that I often see a different problem with going back to school – from this same “Either I stay in my current career or go back to school to retrain for something better” place.

    I call it “The Escape Plan.” This is going back to school or starting a business as a way AWAY from work that no longer fits, rather than TOWARD a clear and passionate calling. And it almost never works.

    Worse, it can be an expensive way to find out what you don’t want.

    There is no shame in doing this. We’ve all made similar mistakes, The problem is that we’re looking for a FIX of some sort. Waiting to find the next better thing before admitting the old path isn’t the way anymore. We’re stuck in our heads and either waiting for an answer, or jumping for an external solution.

    I think of this place as being “between-dreams,” when you know what we don’t want but don’t have the new direction or passion yet. You might have ideas, but no compelling and passionate clarity of purpose. It’s a natural part of the change process but very uncomfortable.

    Rather than waiting for an answer or leaping for an escape plan, usually what’s needed is a “Passion Quest” of some sort. An active process of stepping back to listen deeply to who we are now, what lights-us-up, and what we care deeply about.

    An active process, ideally with structure and support, to rediscover purpose and passion.

    And when we have those again everything gets easier. The obstacles become creative challenges. (New learning can be a satisfying part of this, yet not usually an obstacle.) And our old “making it happen” skills have a new compass to navigate by.

    How does this fit with your experience?

    • Yes, that fits exactly with my experience. As I mentioned to Pat, I have a lot of clients who either are still in grad school (and are miserable) or have just completed a degree they discovered they didn’t want (or a new career they don’t want). It’s heart-breaking.

      I definitely think that part of the problem is seeing a career as a destination: there’s a dream job and we just have to get there as quickly as possible. But in fact, I think we should be designing dream careers, that let us explore and grow and constantly dream. The problem with arriving is that the dream ends.