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Can You Have Your Dream Job Without a College Degree?

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In a market where clients are used to measuring your worthiness based on a college degree, opportunities can feel slim for those without that traditional seal of approval. You know you’ve got the skills to master your dream job, but the description on job boards always has that pesky degree requirement that keeps you from applying. Without the paper to prove it, how can you show potential employers or clients that you’ve got what they’re looking for?

I work full-time at my dream job, and I didn’t finish college. Instead of earning a degree, I studied what I enjoyed and started working in my field when I was fed up with school. With a little hard work and curiosity, I was able to gain experience and skills that prepared me to do the work I love.

Here are some of the steps I took early on that now woo clients so effectively they don’t even bother to notice my level of education:

Work for free

Taking an internship is probably the most traditional way of developing credibility before seeking your first “real” job or clients. Plain old volunteering can be just as valuable. Both help you gain experience in the field, fill a resume, gain references and build a portfolio of work. You can build a resume that focuses on relevant work, downplaying the fact that you weren’t paid.

Be sure to take advantage of networking opportunities in internship or volunteering positions. When you do good work for someone for free, they’ll be eager to return the favor, so be nice and keep in touch with them. They’ll be the ones to recommend you for paid work or to vouch for your experience and skills to a potential (paying) employer.

Start a blog

If you approach it correctly, a blog is a brilliant way to create a position for yourself in your field.

The benefits are most obvious for writers: blog about what you want to write about professionally to show potential clients or employers your skills. For non-writing careers, a blog can help you establish expertise, find clients, connect with industry experts and back up the claims in your resume.

Talk about what you DO, not what you HOPE to do

The way you introduce yourself in your resume, your bio or in person can either distinguish you as a professional or quickly mark you as a newbie. Note this simple difference in language:

  • Don’t say, “I’m hoping to start a career in social media marketing.”
  • Tell them, “I help clients connect with their audiences and grow their influence through social media platforms.”

The difference in these statements is confidence in your abilities. The second one lends the illusion of experience, whether you have it or not, and shows a potential client or employer exactly what you can do for their company.

Take every opportunity to learn more

When I was first out of high school, I worked in retail and food service. I quickly surpassed older and more experienced coworkers to snatch up supervisor and management positions because I paid attention and understood the manager’s job even when I didn’t have to.

In any job, you can pick up the skills required for higher positions just by paying attention and asking questions. Do this without being asked, and take on a little extra work in exchange for the valuable lessons, and you can gain and show off competencies that your counterparts may be still toiling away in school to learn.

For the skeptics

Before you say, “Well, Dana, maybe your industry doesn’t require a degree,” let me clarify:

I’m a journalist. I compete with other writers who have degrees in a myriad of related fields. I have hired (and passed on) and supervised interns with master’s degrees in journalism, creative writing and more.

It’s not easy to start your career without the typical education, but it’s possible. A university path isn’t the best for everyone, and you should know you’re not doomed if you don’t cut it in college. Figure out the best way to forge an education that’s right for you, and use these tricks to prove to your industry that you’re ready to rock it.

Dana Sitar (@danasitar) really is a journalist. She writes for SF Weekly, Laughspin and SevenPonds, and she shares resources, tips and tools for writers in search of a path through DIY Writing.

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