Your Career: Get Experience

With so much competition in the job market these days, it’s important to do everything you can to set yourself apart. Assuming you have the education required for the position you’re going for, the next step is to gain relevant experience.

It can be a bit of a conundrum to look at job postings; everyone wants experienced workers, but you can’t get experience without getting a job — right? Not necessarily.

Opportunities exist beyond the workplace. If you’re still in school or recently graduated, you can look for internship opportunities. Some may be paid, but even if they aren’t, you’ll gain the experience necessary to put on your resume and get real-world application of your skills. Depending on where you intern, you may even be able to get a job after the internship is over. Or, at the very least, gain valuable contacts that can help you find another position.

If internships are not a viable option — or even if they are — you can also look into volunteering at non-profit organizations. Many smaller groups and organizations don’t have the funds to hire a professional. You can volunteer to do the job for a nominal fee, or even for free. They get the job done, and you gain experience. Regardless of what you need experience in, there is likely an organization who could use the help.

Another option is letting friends and family know you’re looking for experience. Perhaps someone knows a person who could hire you. Or perhaps a friend of member of your family could use help themselves. As with an organization, even if you’re not charging much, if anything, you’ll still gain that valuable experience you need.

Don’t underestimate going out on your own. Advertise your services in the local paper or online. Be upfront and honest about looking for experience. Many people are willing to take a chance if it’ll be a lot cheaper for them. It’s a win-win.

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Your Career: Educate Yourself

You’re likely bombarded on a regular basis with ads for colleges, citing that now is the best time to go back to school and earn your degree. The poor economy has sent schools out in droves, encouraging laid-off or underemployed workers to learn a new profession or skill set to get ahead in their chosen fields. And it’s true: education can give you a boost, whether it’s in your current field or a new one. But before you start applying to colleges, think about all your options first.

College Degrees
It’s a somewhat unfortunate fact that these days many employers won’t even look at your resume unless you’ve got a degree, regardless of what that degree is in. If you don’t have one, even if you’re qualified for the position, you may be passed over. To have the most options, you may want to consider biting the bullet and getting that degree. Research the field you’re looking to break into and see if a degree is a requirement. Even if a bachelor’s or associate’s degree isn’t required, some fields will require certification programs as a prerequisite for employment.

Keep in mind, however, that even if you do need to get a degree it probably doesn’t need to be from an Ivy League school to be an asset. Local schools are excellent options, as are accredited online universities. Evaluate your time and your finances and determine the best course of action for you. And don’t worry if you can’t afford to get that degree. If it’s important to you, there are many financial aid programs available. Or there may be other ways to break into that field.

Internships
In my opinion, hands-on experience is even more valuable than classroom learning. Training with someone who does what you want to do not only teaches you more about your chosen field; it looks great on a resume, too. It also has the benefit of really showing you if that job is something you truly want to do.

The downside is that a lot of internships and hands-on experiences don’t pay. But the education you get from them can be far more valuable than a paycheck. Contact local employers and organizations to see if it’s possible to intern with them. If that’s not a possibility, look into volunteer opportunities in your area. Again, they’re not paid, but you’ll have a great line on your resume and valuable hands-on experience that employers look for.

Continuing Education
If you already have a degree, or don’t need one in your chosen field, you can still benefit from education. Taking a class or two at a local college or online can make you an asset in your current and future positions. You gain valuable knowledge, and you show your employer that you’re serious about improving yourself (definitely a selling point when you’re looking for that promotion or raise!). Check with your employer — they may even offer reimbursement for education.

In addition to college courses, many towns offer continuing education programs that can teach you skills in life or your career. You can also participate in seminars on leadership, time management, and more. The more you learn, the better off you’ll be. Even if the course or seminar isn’t directly related to what you’re currently doing or what you hope to do in the future, you can still gain valuable skills. And don’t discount the valuable networking possibilities, as well. Courses and seminars can also be a great way to meet people in different fields — people who can be a foot in the door for future opportunities.

The bottom line is that knowledge is always an asset, whether it’s moving you forward in your current career or preparing you for a new one. Taking the time to build your skills can set you up for future success.

Your Career: Online Help

Whether you’re looking for ideas, applying for jobs, or looking for assistance with resumes, interview strategies and more, the internet is a valuable tool. As stated previously, there are many sites that can get you started if you’re looking for a little guidance regarding your career path. The help doesn’t stop there, though.

Job Search
When it comes to searching for jobs themselves, many sites will offer listings of available jobs, especially if it relates somewhat to the site’s content. The largest number of jobs, however, can usually be found on the larger, general job-posting sites. You can check out:

If you have a specific industry or area you want to work in, you can also search for industry-specific or location-specific sites that can offer more specialized search tools and resources.

General Information
In addition to job listings, the sites above offer additional resources, such as articles on resume writing and interview skills, that can provide information and guidance in your search. Other sites also offer information in these areas and more. Here are some to get you started:

Forums
Forums can be helpful, especially when it comes to specific questions or up-to-the-minute updates and information. You can search for forums regarding a specific topic or industry by heading to your favorite search engine and searching for forum: topic or industry. (Obviously replace “topic or industry” with the actual topic or industry you’re searching for!) Below are some general career forums to get you started:

Forums can also offer support and feedback in your career path and overall career goals. This is especially useful if you’re feeling isolated in your journey or feel that others around you don’t understand what you’re going through.

Other Resources
In addition to website and forums, there are other electronic tools that can offer help and inspiration. You can also check out podcasts, online magazines, apps and more. Search your favorite electronic device to get ideas.

Your Career: Finding Your Calling

With so much to cover in my initial category postings, I was only able to touch on each change or dilemma briefly. The intent of Wednesdays’ posts will be to elaborate on specific changes you may want to make, and how to move forward in them. I will offer general information and ideas to get you started or move you along, and each Wednesday will cover a different topic.
When it comes to taking charge of your career, if you find yourself a “jack of all trades, master of none,” or simply find yourself floundering, unsure of how to start, this post is for you.
Finding your niche, or “calling” can be a lot easier said than done. I know. It was my biggest hang-up when it came to changing careers. I didn’t want just another job. I wanted something that was meaningful to me, that I would enjoy, that I could see myself doing for years, that wouldn’t bore me. Definitely easier said than done!
Your criteria may be different. Perhaps you’re not as picky as I was (for your sake, I hope you aren’t!) and will have better luck finding something that “clicks” for you. Perhaps you have a few career paths that interest you and you’re just trying to narrow them down. Perhaps you’ve got some ideas floating around in your mind. Or perhaps you have no idea where to even start.
What’s Important to You?
Before even thinking about which career path to choose, you may want to take a few moments to think about what’s really important to you. What qualities are you looking for in a job? Are you looking for something with a consistent schedule, steady paycheck and great benefits? Are you looking for something that lets you think creatively, coming up with ideas that are “outside the box” on a regular basis? Do you want to work with people or independently? In a large corporation or mom-and-pop operation?
The questions are endless, but only you can really answer them. Only you will know what’s important to you, what will make you happy. If you relish working independently but find yourself in a job that requires you to be part of a team, would you be OK with that? If you need the security of a steady paycheck but find yourself drawn to a commission-only profession, how will you deal with that?
Taking the time to really evaluate these criteria, before you fall in love with a job that won’t work for you, will help ensure you find a career that is truly the best fit.
Getting Ideas
Once you know what’s important to you, it’s time to start exploring your options. Whether you have an idea of what you might want to do or not, getting a feel for what’s out there will help you be sure of your choice.
I found one interesting way to get ideas was to take personality tests. You answer a bunch of questions, and your answers are interpretted to give you an idea of which category your personality falls into. Included in the results are usually famous people who had your personality type and some career ideas that may appeal to you. Using these tests as a starting point may inspire you and lead you into a direction you hadn’t even considered. Below are some online tests to get you started.
There are other ways to brainstorm career ideas, too. Think about hobbies or interests you have and visit online job search sites, such as CareerBuilder or Monster. Type your hobby or interest in the keyword search box and see what comes up. The jobs don’t even have to be local; you’re just brainstorming here. Or you can do a Google search with your hobby or interest and “job” or “career” to see what comes up.
Another option is mind-mapping. Take a blank piece of paper. In the middle of the paper write a hobby, interest, or job characteristic that’s important to you. Circle it. Now draw a line from that circle and write a word that relates to it in some way. It can be a job idea or just another interest, job characteristic or random thought. Circle that, too. Continue to branch off the circles, both the original circles and the ones you create as you go. See where your mind takes you. You might be surprised at the chain of ideas!
Stay True to Yourself
While the ultimate choice for me ended up being “obvious” — and was in the back of my mind the whole time — I think part of the reason I didn’t pursue it earlier was because I knew it wasn’t an easy path. There would be no 9-5 job for me. There would be no guaranteed paycheck or benefits. I would have to constantly use my brain, my creativity, to push myself forward. And what about writer’s block?
But, honestly, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the “different” job — the difficult, challenging and thought-provoking job that didn’t fit the definition of “normal” — was the right one for me. I relished the challenge, and regular jobs bored me. The “normal” job had never been the best choice for me. And I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind. To find the job that’s truly right for you, you need to do some soul-searching. You need to think about what you enjoy doing, what challenges you, what gets you excited, what stirs your blood. It’s about bringing together what’s important to you and what’s interesting to you. Even if the path to get there won’t be easy, if it’s something that’s meaningful for you, the end result will be more than worth it.
For some of you, the path will be easier. The job you decide on will have a set training plan, a wide variety of jobs available, and excellent pay and benefits. Congrats if your calling falls into that category! But if what you’re thinking about doesn’t fall into that category, don’t try to make something else fit. Even if the path is a little rockier, the experience will be more meaningful for you if you stay true to yourself instead of convincing yourself that something else could be what you want to do.
It may take a while to discover the right career for you. You may have a few false starts. But stick with it. The process will lead you to the right choice.

Take Charge of Your Career Part 2

So what’s been holding you back? Why aren’t you in a career that brings you fulfillment?
No Experience
While not necessarily the easiest, this “problem” is certainly the most straightforward. And establishing a course of action to get there is just as straightforward. Research your dream job and find out what requirements you would need to get it. Then work on fulfilling those requirements.
If education is the hang-up, the good news is that the wide variety of educational and financial aid programs make it possible for just about anyone to get a degree. It may take a while, depending on your available time schedule and support system, but it’s possible. Think about what kind of program would work out best for you and do some research. We’ll discuss the time management and support system in a later post.
To get experience, try looking for internships or volunteer opportunities in the field that interests you. They likely won’t be paid, but they’ll give you a foot in the door and valuable life experience. Read all you can about the field and talk with others who’ve started and succeeded in that field. The internet can be a valuable resource when it comes to finding opportunities and individuals in a specific field. Join forums, participate in discussions and absorb as much information as you can. You never know who you’ll connect with, or what opportunities they may present.
Make a Career
If you have something you’re passionate about, there’s likely a way to turn it into a career. But the choices may not be very obvious. To get some ideas, do some internet searches with the topic you’re interested in and the word “jobs” or “career.” Or check out Careerbuilder.com and search for your interests as keywords. See what you come up with. Even if the jobs that come up don’t interest you, they may get your mind working in the right direction.
Other options are to write about your interest in a blog or for a magazine or look for or start a club or organization that focuses on your area of interest. Even if one of these options doesn’t turn into a career itself, it will give you the opportunity to network with others in the field, brainstorm with others who have similar interests and get you experience in the area you want to work in. You can also check out forums on related websites to get your mind working.
What Do I Do?
If your mind is thinking “aaahhh!!!!,” then you’re not alone. I had a lot of those moments. I did personality tests online, I browsed job postings, I read books — anything to try and come up with “the perfect job.” It wasn’t easy. And even now that I’ve decided which direction I’m heading in, there’s no guarantee I’ll love it forever. But I can always change, and I think that’s important to remember. I read somewhere that the average person has 3 or 4 careers in his or her lifetime. Not jobs, careers. So you’re not locked into one thing for the rest of your life. If something sounds interesting, give it a shot. If you like it, put more time and money and effort into it. If it’s not your thing, search elsewhere.
Now I’m not condoning job hopping. That won’t really help you. But if you find something that sounds good, read a little about it, search job postings, and talk to others in the field. If it still sounds like something you’d be interested in, pursue it. If not, look elsewhere. As with the above courses of action, you may want to try getting some education or experience in the field before jumping in to a job. Doing that will definitely help pad your resume and make you stand out. Even better, it’ll give you an idea if you really want to do it for a living or if it’s better as a hobby.
To get started, think about things that interest you. What kinds of hobbies could you see yourself doing full-time? Is there something you love reading about, learning more about, seeing in action? What did you want to be when you grew up? Reconnecting with that part of yourself can give you a glimpse into your subconscious.
It may take a while. For me, the process took months. It got very frustrating, especially when I was applying for jobs and getting interviews and still not getting anywhere. I can look back at that time and realize it was all for the best, but that doesn’t mean it was easy. Just think how rewarding it will be when you do find something, though! Having a game plan can make you feel like you have at least some say in what’s going on. And that can be very empowering.
Whoo! It’s lots to think about. We spend a large portion of our lives participating in our chosen job or career, so it’s important to really think about what you want to do. If you’re happy with your profession, great! If not, know that you’re not alone and that your life isn’t over. There’s still time to turn things around and have a career that brings you personal satisfaction and fulfillment.
Next we talk about money…Are you ready?