How to change careers, despite having a not-too-helpful degree

Guest post by medea
Career Path tarot reading by Etsy seller zennistar
Career Path tarot reading by Etsy seller zennistar

I was stuck for a while wondering why I ever chose the career I did… and then continued to work doing anything but that career. (There were no jobs for theater majors, who would’ve thunk?) But I was finally actually able to change careers, and change my path, despite having a not-too-helpful degree.

Here’s how I pulled it off. Maybe it’ll work for you too?

I got a lot of different jobs

I had no idea what career path I wanted to choose. I had no way to go back to school (even part-time was beyond my financial means). So I decided to get jobs that just paid the bills. I signed up for jobs that sounded interesting and gave me a living wage. I took jobs that included room and board and moving far away. I had jobs just because I needed to make ends meet. And I had jobs because I thought I might be good at them. And some of them SUCKED to the nth degree and had me crying before work and after.

I learned from all of them

I learned that I was not going to be my job… that I was not that kind of person. I learned what my skills were, what I liked to do, what I was good at, and what I sucked at doing. And I learned how to avoid being in a situations where I would need to do those things I suck at doing. I also used one theater skill throughout: fake it till you make it.

It turned out that I didn’t much care WHAT I was doing, just HOW

It began as “job that pays the bills.” Then I realized that I also needed to not be miserable while paying bills. I didn’t have to LOVE my job, but at least be able to function without crying. I discovered I’m actually an introvert and suck at office interaction and forced socializing. I found out that even if work was monotonous, if it was for a good cause, I was happy doing it. I learned that I did not want to be my own boss (it is WAY harder than it seems). But I wanted bosses who did not suck and who respect their employees.

Make a list of things you need and things you need to avoid

Through trial and error I came up with my own personal list of things that I want from a job, and things I will avoid like the plague. What helped me find my new career path (which makes me very happy) was to think what my bottom line was. Your list is most likely going to be quite different, and mine was different when I got started with it, I’ve added and modified it as the years have gone by.

My personal list of things to look for in a job looks like this now:

  1. Makes me feel that I am helping the world be a better place.
  2. Pays me enough to live well and be able to save up and travel.
  3. Is not all-consuming (I want time for me, and to not feel tied down or overly stressed).
  4. Does not require me to conform or be less myself.

In summary…

Don’t be afraid to branch out and find other stuff you’d like doing. Search for grants, fellowships or training programs that will hire you and train you. Figure out what you ARE looking for in a job and try to search in that direction.

Anyone else pull off changing careers? How did you do it?

Comments on How to change careers, despite having a not-too-helpful degree

  1. I relate to this so much right now! I have a Master’s degree in social work and had been working as an inpatient therapist before becoming a mom. Now that I’ve had time off with my kids I’ve realized my own mental health is important too, and there’s no way I can go back to conforming to a hospital work environment!

  2. I relate to this also. I went to law school. After graduation, I got a job with a small firm that was fine, but no real growth potential and I was practicing in an area of law that I didn’t want to do long term. After having my son, I just didn’t want to do the commute anymore for a job I didn’t love.

    Then I tried opening my own practice, which went reasonably well, but after a year, I knew it would still be a few more years before it was really successful, and I was not that happy being my own boss, and I was pregnant with my second child. All those things lead me to the decision to close the business, but I didn’t really want to do any other legal jobs.

    Now I’m working for my father-in-law doing office work in his HVAC business. Nothing legal about it, but it’s interesting, it’s local, it’s flexible, and it’s the right fit for me right now. I’m still not sure this will be my career, but it’s meeting all my needs right now – a paycheck, no commute, flexibility, etc.

    It drives my husband nuts that I don’t have a career path. He started working at his job when he was 16 and has worked his way up in the same organization to almost the top position. His career was basically an accident (it was supposed to be just a part time job while he was in school, and he didn’t go to college with the intent to continue there), but once he was on the path, it was clear and he constantly kept moving up. I feel like his security lets me try to figure out what I want to be doing, and I just don’t have a clear defined path of what I want to do.

    Also, my parents hadn’t started their careers at my age, and many women I admire started careers later in life or have moved around for years.

    • After 3 years in family law, I can say that there’s no better feeling than walking away from that emotional toxic waste dump. I now teach at a tiny career school, and while it can be mind-numbingly boring, it’s better than crying on my way home over the things people do to children they didn’t want, able to do nothing to fix the situation in a meaningful way.

  3. There’s a lot of pressure these days to go to college directly after high school and I think for many people that’s wrong because you don’t really know yet what you like doing and you might only have one financial chance to go to college. If you’re headed to college and you don’t know why, I advise waiting a couple years. Get a shitty entry level job in a field you think you might like and watch the more experienced people around you — do you like this type of work? No? Get another shitty job. If your parents will allow it, live at home and save money. Try to avoid getting your own place because that really marks the start of your adult life and once you taste that freedom, it’s hard to give it up and go back to school. ( Also Mom and Dad might not be keen to turn the exercise room back into your room when you’re 25. The parental bonds are much stronger at 18. Just sayin’. )
    I know this is not what an 18 year old wants to hear but your 30 year old self might thank you.

    • I did that.

      I was hired at a local TV station and stayed for 10yrs, but the station was sold & my department was downsized in 2009. I thought no big deal, I have a stable 10yr work history, good references, office skills, and real experience.

      The job market was so awful, that not having a college or a tech school degree was dentrimental to my search. I had many businesses cancel interviews with me, because I did not have a slip of paper from a school saying I had a degree. My resume was considered until that fact was revealed. (They would call and say you forgot to list which school you received your associates degree from, I would be honest & say I didn’t go on to college.)

      Just be aware that not taking the traditional road can be very frustrating at times, because many HR departments are not willing to take the chance on someone without a college education.

      I ended up working at a bookstore for 5 years until a better paying job was offered to me.

      Would I do it all over again? Yes I would.

      • You make a very valid point. I went to college (had not finished at that point) before I joined the Navy. When I got out I referenced that I had X amount of college credit, but had not finished my degree (at that point. Finally got my butt back to college while I had my GI Bill (before it expired)). I remember I had a person call me for an interview and how much he was impressed with my degree and how I was a veteran, blah, blah, blah. THEN he realized I had not finished (I think I had about 40 credits). Then he said he could not bring me in because I did not have a degree. There is such a push for degrees for jobs that really don’t even need an AA/AS, never mind a MA/MS that people like me at the time (and you and obviously others) have the work experience get shut out. Even companies that say they hire veterans (at least my experience) won’t hire them unless they have a BS/BA or higher. Trades are a good option. But since I am not familiar with how they work other than I know people went to Vo-Tech in HS for stuff like Car or Hair. I am not sure how trade schools work for HVAC or Plumbing, etc.

    • My father befriended a young man who, like him, had had to drop out of high school to make ends meet, but unlike him had done so at a time when degrees meant a whole lot more. He complained that he would be flipping burgers for the rest of his life. Well, it turned out the fellow did like cooking, just not burgers. So Dad told him to get the lowliest dishwashing job in the fanciest restaurant in town–just keep flipping burgers till the job opened, but they had high turnover, it wouldn’t take long. Next step, befriend the top chef. Do extras for him. Show an interest in what he did and how he did it. Come in a bit early or stay a bit late, whichever worked, to watch him cook, and ask questions. Chop his vegetables for him, do anything to help. So the young man did this, and became the chef’s pupil, and soon had a cooking position, and then a higher position, and so on, and climbed up the ranks till he became the top chef when the old guy retired! He’s making good money now and is very happy.

  4. This. So much this. I may as well have written this article (down to being a theatre major!) Are you a Pisces, too?

    It’s funny when you tell people at parties “Well, first I was a theatre major, then I worked as a non-profit fundraiser, then I did some Graphic design, now I’m working as a paralegal and am going to school for Tech.” I made some lifelong friendships through these jobs, even if the job itself sucked.

    I will say – don’t sell yourself short on your Theatre degree! All the world is a stage, right?

    • Last night I was offered a speaking gig at a major conference in a field I have only been in for 6 months, because apparently I am a better public speaker than anyone who actually knows what the eff they’re talking about. Thanks, improv classes that taught me to look like I know what I’m doing…

      • I knew a poet who got a low-paid clerical job in a law firm, and soon got promoted to a well-paid position pretty much invented just for her, because she was the only person in the whole building who knew how to word anything in a comprehensible way! They needed her to revise contracts into something people could actually read.

  5. I have no college degree, and used to take whatever minimum wage job I could scrabble for. Then Temping changed my life–I became a career temp for a number of years. I started on the same minimum-wage jobs, at first, but I could see all kinds of different industries and life became more interesting. Whenever one job sucked I could deal with it because it wouldn’t last forever. And I had ample opportunity to learn what I liked.

    But the best part was that I had constant opportunity to upgrade my skills. They’d often throw me into sink or swim situations and I found that I could swim in waters I never expected. The first time I got a secretarial gig I came in early to rifle the company files to find out spacing on letters and so forth, so I could do it like I had experience. (I learned that trick from Dad–he’d come into a new town, pick the lock of a factory where he wanted to apply for work on the night before, spend the night studying the machines, and in the morning interview say “Yeah, I know how to operate that!”–and by then he did!) I worked my way up from envelope-stuffer to Executive Assistant, and then made a sideways leap to a longterm gig as a medical transcriber.

    Tips on temping:

    1) Reliability counts for more than anything else. Fail to show up on time one time and they will never call you back.

    2) Sign on with multiple agencies simultaneously. This is standard practice. No single agency can keep you working often enough to put bread on the table. And every time you get a gig with one agency, notify all the others that you will not be available for X amount of time.

    3) If none of them have a gig for you, don’t take the day off. Go to the office with the best tutorials, or ones you haven’t done yet, and work on them. This not only upgrades your skills, but they see you upgrading your skills and feel good about you. Best of all, when an opening comes, you are right there and will get first shot at it.

    4) Go ahead and schedule yourself the occasional unpaid vacation, if you can afford it. But be sure and notify all of your agencies that you will not be available on those specified days. And never on days that you have already agreed to work!

    5) You’re paid to wear the uniform. Don’t express your zanier side until at least two weeks into a job, and only if you get a feel for the place as to how much of you they can handle. It’s okay, it’s just for hours, not a lifetime.

    6) You will get two kinds of jobs, mainly. 1) Companies in trouble that need extra hands, where you can do no wrong, and 2) Filling in for Ms. Indispensible while she’s out, where you can do no right. Learn from the former about how companies get in trouble in the first place–that’s useful info on a number of fronts. Learn from the latter to not take yourself so seriously that criticism makes you crumble–accept your temporary deficits as all part of the learning curve.

  6. I’m glad you mentioned using your theatrical skills to “fake it till you make it”. No learning is ever a waste of time, but one rarely applies it in the way that one originally expected. Knowing something about staging can help to fill a shop window or plan an event. The law student who didn’t want to do law learned how to persuade, how to research, and how to dig into the details for whatever’s needed. The Sociology student learned how people tick in groups, and that can apply to practically anything. For my part, though I didn’t get a degree, I threw myself into writing for my whole life long, and though it didn’t get me published, it gave me, at my fastest, a typing speed of 92 wpm. Always look for the off-label applications of your skills.

  7. Thank you for the refreshing article. I was talking with a friend this morning about how as we get older, you come to the realisation that your out of work life is what’s important. Work comes and goes. That’s not to say that I dont admire people that genuinely love and live for what they do, but I feel that view is promoted so strongly, and it doesn’t have to apply to everyone. I’ve done the same as the author, set some basic priorities in a job, and run with it.
    I find the more interesting career stories are the ones who took a less linear path through life!

    • I’ve been struggling with this as well since there’s such a push to have a “career” vs. a “job”. So ever since I graduated college in 2002 I’ve been convincing myself that the work I’ve been doing is “just a job” until I can “find my career”. I’ve been doing admin work along the way, and have moved up the ranks and now hold a nice, comfortable position for a great employer and an easy-going boss. However, I’ve still been having that internal battle over being content in my position and feeling no need to look elsewhere vs. feeling like I should be working harder at changing my path. There’s such a focus on “career development” that it’s almost not OK anymore to just say “I’m good where I am”.

      • My father always told me that learning trades was better than learning a career, because you could change trades at will quite easily to adapt to changes in your life, in your interests, or in the market. But if you went for a career, you could spend years and much financial investment in something that turned out all wrong for you, and feel stuck in it.

        He was a rover and an adventurer, and needed jobs that he could pick up for awhile to get what cash he needed to maintain himself and meet his obligations, and be able to lay them down honorably to go off onto the next adventurer. I think even he lost count of how many different trades he knew. He left every company better off for his passing through, with innovations in methods, or inventions–if working-class men got paid for patents instead of them going to the companies, we’d have been rich indeed! He died with no regrets. He wasn’t your typical live-in father, but I think I got more benefit from having this fascinating man popping in and out of my life with tales of his latest adventures and the life-lessons learned, than many get from men who father full-time.

        This seems like a ramble, but it comes back to one thing–you need to adapt your livelihood to who you are, not to whomever other people expect you to be. The world would have been an emptier place if my father had gone against his nature and settled in to one career. If you feel glad to be alive in your current job, you can contribute more of your loving self to those around you than if you gritted your teeth and went for something high-stress and unnatural for your nature.

        In a sense I followed Dad’s advice. I spent most of my working-life as a career-temp, learning different skills for many different kinds of offices. I currently work from home with my husband on everything from animated films to ghostwriting to researching markets for an airport safety equipment company to inkle-weaving belts and making fairy-doors. I’m not rich, but I’m happy.

  8. I recently changed paths as well. I have a Bachelor of science in law enforcement, with a conservation emphasis (so, to be something like a game warden or a park ranger), and got a job out of college as an animal control officer. Did that for 8 years….and in that time realized that I didn’t really want to be in law enforcement. Looked at job posting in a variety of fields for several months before seeing a listing for a teen/reference library assistant, and realized that I should go back to my nerdy bookish routes. Took several applications, but I eventually landed a job as a library assistant at a big library in the town where I live. The key seemed to be emphasizing in my cover letter that I really REALLY love libraries and I’m a total book nerd. Totally different field, but I love it! I went from investigating animal welfare cases to hot gluing paper wings to keys for a Harry Potter exhibit…..what’s not to love?

  9. I love this article. I have taken so many weird jobs! I’ve had 23 so far and I’m 31 years old. My resume is a mess if I list them all, so I have three versions: one if I want animal or conservation work, and one for medical admin. I have a qualification in vet nursing, a half completed biology degree, and just started an arts degree in english and philosophy. It’s showing up and trying hard that gets you a long way in jobs, and teaches you what you like and dislike. I am all for this! Action! Go forth! And pay attention to how you feel at the end of the day, cos mental health is not stainless steel.

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