How to Change Careers (Without Grad School or Student Loans)

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Ah, college. You fun, expensive, tedious monster. Some days I miss college, but most days I’m just happy it’s over. (I’m sure most people would have a similar sentiment.) But what can you do when you fall out of love with the job you got your degree for? Or better still, end up in a career path that isn't a match with your degree or interests?


Is it possible to change careers without going back to school when you're closer to 40 than 20…. and still come out ahead?


Yes, you can. I'm proof. But first, let's talk about career changes in general. They're more common than you think. 


How Many Times Does the Average Person Change Careers?


During a person’s working life, it is quite common for them to change careers.

  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Baby Boomers (those born between 1957-1964) had changed an average of 11.7 jobs between the working ages of 18-52. 
  • The BLS also notes that between 35-44 years of age 36% of people changed jobs in less than a year and 75% in fewer than 5 years. 
  • CNN Money estimates that an average of four job changes before the age of 32 is quite common as people start to figure out what they really want out of work and life. 
  • As far as Gen Xers go, those who graduated from college from 1986 to 1990 averaged around 2 job changes in their first 10 years out of college with the most prominent job hoppers working in industries like media, entertainment, government jobs, and non-profit organizations.

What we can take from this is that people are not barred from changing career paths later in life and in fact, plenty of people do so. 


How Many People Do a Career Change at 30?


The University of Phoenix ran a study and found that nearly 3/4ths of workers want a career change in their 30s due to loss of interest in their current field or being sick of stagnant wages.

Most people at this point wish for a more profitable venture. But of these people, almost 40% of them are unsure as to what to pursue. 

A lot of them think “why change?” when they already have a steady gig and are put off by the thought of having to learn something new and/or having to go back to school for qualifications in a new field. 

However, the reality is, you don’t have to completely start over from square one. You may already have a lot of the skills and experience needed to begin something new.


Think of it this way….in your 30’s you have at least 35 more years of working life to establish yourself in a new career field and continue towards that retirement. 


According to, some individuals still change careers after the age of 50 and end up leading happier and more productive lives. 

The TL:DR: The bottom line is if you want to make the change, then you WILL find a way. It is never too late, and you are never too old to make a positive change in your career.


Signs of Burnout at Work


When is making the decision to change careers beneficial? Any time you are experiencing any of the symptoms of burnout. These may seem benign, but they're actually a huge red flag! 

The types of symptoms can be attributed to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, feelings of ineffectiveness, and lack of accomplishment.


Signs of exhaustion can include: 


  • Chronic Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Forgetfulness / Impaired Concentration and Attention
  • Increased Rates of Illness
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Anger


Cynicism and Detachment:


  • Loss of Enjoyment at Work
  • Pessimism
  • Isolation
  • Detachment from Work Outcomes


Ineffectiveness and Lack of Accomplishment:


  • Feelings of Apathy and Hopelessness
  • Increased Irritability
  • Lack of Productivity and Poor Performance


If you are currently experiencing any of these at your current job, then looking at a career change might be a beneficial solution no matter your age or industry of work.


If you're uncertain of whether it's just burnout, your current employer, or a total career overhaul, consider investing in professional help and talking with a therapist to navigate your feelings and any subsequent changes. Therapy is way less expensive than making a career move you're uncertain about and (potentially) losing wages. No matter what career you choose, mental health is key. 


Costs keeping you away from seeking professional help? BetterHelp offers a variety of membership plans to meet your needs between $40-$70 each week. One month of unlimited is typically less than one traditional therapy visit and you can do it online and on your schedule. This could be especially great for those who are paying off debt and extra concerned with saving money. Don't go it alone! Get matched with a therapist online with BetterHelp.



I need a career change: How to do it without going back to school


I'm lucky that my blog led to a different career path than the one I was on,  but I worked really hard at learning how to blog before I earned a single dollar. So, with my own path in mind, here are the steps I took to go from actress to administrative assistant to a full-blown career in marketing as a content strategist, and finally a professional blogger. 

Below are the steps I used to successfully change careers in my 20's, without going back to school or losing any earning power. In fact, I was able to increase my income 5x from age 25 to 32. And it's still climbing!


Step #1 – Get clear on what you actually want to do for a living





If you know your current gig isn't working out for you but aren't sure of what comes next, my best advice is to do something small each day to attempt to figure out it out. Examples include:

  • Researching a career path on the internet that sounds interesting.
  • Taking a class that you've always wanted to take.
  • Starting a blog just to write to clarify your feelings or put it all out there.


The first step to making a career change is dabbling a bit in what you think you might want to do. You know, kick the tires before you commit. Because once you commit, that shit is hard work. So you better love it. Be gentle with yourself and take your time. This is your life's work you are trying to figure out. 



Step #2 – Become a Subject Matter Expert



Two years ago I found myself unemployed and used my free time to start the blog I always wanted to write but couldn't when I was working full time at a hedge fund. I got a subscription to Money magazine and took every webinar under the sun about social media. Over time, I got better and better. I'm lucky digital marketing is a field where you can gain practical experience that will replace formal education. 


Either way, if you want to make a career change without going back to school you're going to have to become an expert.


Going to school gives you the knowledge, but that isn't the only way to get where you want to go (unless of course, you want to become a doctor or lawyer or need some other type of post-professional degree.)


But there are other ways to  build and demonstrate your expertise:

  • Volunteering with an organization or business in your chosen field
  • Taking courses in the related subject matter
  • Writing. It's a great way to dispel thought leadership and build your portfolio. Articles are proof you know what you're talking about!
  • You'll also be able to get to know others in your field by reading their thought leadership.

Becoming a “subject matter expert” is going to beef up your resume. You'll be able to list places you've been published, courses you've taken, and your blog and additional related experience on your resume in the place where your formal education should be.



Step #3 – Leverage Online Resources


Well, since the internet is a place of boundless opportunity and knowledge, it’s only natural that there are a ton of online certificate programs for just about everything.

For example, if you want to work for an online blog or business that needs help with social media or search engine optimization, consider taking an SEO certificate class.

Via programs like Skillshare you can also take courses in:

  • Photography
  • Data science
  • Graphic design
  • Business


Even if you take a course just to try it…put it on your resume! Not only do certifications look good on your resume, but they also can help you negotiate better pay or really prove your worth to your current company.

Just make sure that you only take courses from trusted certificate programs – and always research before you pay for any class!


It's FREE to join Skillshare and now new users get 2 free months of premium access to all the courses available on the site. Click here to sign up for your free trial.


Step #4 – Network with Existing Contacts



Everyone says to “network.” Everyone, everyone, everyone. Admittedly, I hate networking, but if you're looking to make a career change, the key to the position that starts you on the new path probably lies with someone you already know.


Someone who can vouch for your character, your willingness to learn, and your work ethic: the three things that matter when you don't have a wealth of education or work experience to speak for you.


Network with new people to get where you want, but don't discount networking with your existing contacts as well.


Did anyone read Michelle Obama's book Becoming? In it, she struggled with finding her own career path. She didn't want to be a lawyer anymore, so she went around and interviewed people who did things she thought looked cool. And eventually, that led her to a new career in working for a non-profit. 

Anyway, I'm using this example to demonstrate how everyone – even the rich, successful, and famous – can change their minds about their career. 

Networking is a very real skill that can open up some very real opportunities. Humans are social animals and part of a great work environment is socialization. There’s a reason that “watercooler” talks are such a popular trope in TV and movies. Why am I mentioning this? Well, you want to work with people who you like and who support you, right? Making connections and friendships with people in industries that you potentially want to work in can come in super handy when it comes time for an interview.

A recommendation from someone who already works there is probably going to be more valuable to a recruiter than a recommendation from your old college roommate.

Current employees will also probably know more about the company than you. They’ll know about job opportunities or positions you may not realize are available.



Step #5 – Take a pay cut if you have to



Anyone can make a career change, but it is rare to shift careers completely and come in at the level and salary you were previously (unless you were entry-level before.)

When you make a career change, often you'll have to start over. This means starting from the bottom and working your way up, just as if you were right out of college.

Honestly, this is what keeps a lot of people in jobs they hate. And depending on your age and circumstances this may not be acceptable for you. Still, if you factor in the student loan/costs of school (whether traditional or online), a pay cut to change careers might be more economical.

If you forgo school, you'll have to make sacrifices, or perhaps pick up a “side hustle” to boost your income until it matches your old full-time pay. You may have to stay up late and take courses after your 9-5 gig or dip into savings while you get your business off the ground.

Making changes is not without risks or sacrifices. But without them, there's also no reward. In her book, “Becoming”, Michelle Obama even took a 50% to switch from her career as an attorney to a director of a non-profit. And look where she is now!



Step #6 – Emphasize What Makes You Unique



If you want to make the shift into doing something you love, you're going to have to be your own biggest cheerleader, brand advocate, and champion.

If you've followed my steps and figured out what it is you really want to do, you should be unafraid to promote the things you are doing to your friends, family, and network. It could be a great way to get discovered.


Don't be afraid to bring up your new passion in conversation with others or on potential job interviews. Even if the job is “just to pay the bills,” employers want passionate, hard-working people. You never know when the job could lead to something else, or who you could meet through that opportunity. 


When I moved back to Atlanta, the CEO of my former company really wanted passionate folks at his start-up. I was interviewing for the executive assistant position (so I could move out of my parent's house) and he asked me about my interests outside of work.


I had just started blogging a few months prior, so I proudly pulled up my blog and talked about my interest in finance and what I was learning about social media. He was so impressed he offered me a different job running that company's blog and social media accounts.


Step #7 – Tweak your resume for your dream career



Since many potential employers now accept applications online, your resume is possibly going to be the only thing that your potential employer knows about you before an interview. 

Suffice to say, you probably shouldn’t be using the same resume you made in your college capstone class. Follow these beginner’s tips for a quick update to the meat of your resume, but also make sure that you are tailoring your resume to each company! (This is the part where you can add in those courses you've taken!)


The TL:DR : I love this advice from The Muse that walks through how to tailor your resume for the job description. Sure, you'll end up writing a different resume for each job, but when you're trying to switch careers – it takes that level of detail and amount of work.


How do I change careers with no experience?


Start a Side Business or Small Side Hustle



Maybe instead of working for someone else, you want to start your own business. That’s awesome! I’ve always said that everyone should have a side hustle, and I’m lucky enough that what was once a side project has become my full-time job.

With that said, a side hustle can totally change your life. You can also leverage a side hustle to get a full-time job using your new skills. For example, maybe you're an administrative assistant with a blog, but now you have enough in-design experience making your own graphics to work full-time as a graphic designer. 

Everything is a learning experience, everything you learn outside of a classroom can be turned into a skill. 

Almost everyone has a skill or talent that they can use to make money.

But keep in mind that it’s not going to happen overnight. Grow your side hustle while still working that desk job to have some financial security. Then, when you’ve got a reliable stream of work and income, take the plunge into small business ownership!



Wrapping Up


It's possible to change careers without going back to school if you're willing to put in the work to make it happen.

TL:DR: Do the research for what you want to do, find out if you can swing it without going back to school, and then lean into making it happen. I'm rooting for you.
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    • Elizabeth Stapleton
    • November 16, 2016

    Awesome post! These are all great tips, but networking is definitely key, there is no faster way to find opportunities or realize that something might not be for you. Just talk to some people, it can be hard if you’re an introvert but it makes all the difference.

    1. Reply

      I admit I do not network the way I should because I am an introvert and a lot of networking events feel really forced and awkward but yes. It is SO necessary!

    • Giulia Lombardo
    • November 8, 2016

    interesting point of view in my hometown sometimes there is opportunity to addend free course to learn a new job but online courses, side hustle jobs helps a lot

    1. Reply

      Yes – if you can become a “master” of something on your own time, that goes a long way!

  1. Reply

    This was massively informative and inspirational! I am new to your blog and am really enjoying it so far! Thank you, Lauren!

  2. Reply

    Networking is key if you don’t have the educational background required for your new career. A certificate tells an employer that you probably have the skills. But networking and having conversations with these employers can and will do the same thing. But, as you say, you do need to be an expert and have the skills in the first place. I had a friend who did this and is now a director at a medium sized company with only a high school education. So its possible!

  3. Reply

    Starting a blog and establishing yourself in your desired career path online is also an invaluable way to learning more about the subject and growing as a professional in it. I love the new look, by the way!

  4. Reply

    Great post and I completely agree with what you say. I think that time and sacrifices are something that people have to contemplate when wanting to change careers.

    • Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life
    • July 24, 2014

    Absolutely. My degree and all of my professional work experience is in theatre, and people now call me a finance expert from two years of writing- and honestly only 6 months of professional writing. Like you said, the important things, character, work ethic, and a willingness to learn are keys to success in any career- so if you can master those, you’re good to go.

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