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How to Apply for a Job in a New Field When You Have No Traditional Experience

Posted by | April 30, 2016 | Scholarships_CareerTips

You’re poking around while job searching and there it is: the dream position.

But, before you can get too excited, you see the requirements. At first glance, based on your degree or work experience, this role looks out of reach. Before you give up, though, know that’s not always the end of the story.

A student from my Code School Capstone course recently found herself in a similar spot. She wanted to become a product manager at a tech company, but she’d spent her career to date at an art gallery. She asked me: “How can I possibly compete with computer science majors—or anyone else with practiced ‘hard skills’—I’m finishing up a product management class now, but still.”

My advice to her was to remember that the best product managers are well-rounded, and that’s true for most roles.

Listen, I understand that you don’t want to waste your time applying for a role you have no shot at. (Hiring managers don’t want to waste their time either.) However, there’s a difference between not being qualified and having strong transferable skills that you’re not even aware of.

Here’s how someone who wants to change careers can decipher between the two:

Step 1: Inventory Your Career “Raw Materials”

Few people appreciate the full scope of what they bring to the table. Get started by listing as many of your experiences, skills, accolades, and past wins as possible.

Go beyond standard resume blurbs like “fluent in SQL” or “graduate of FIT.” (Don’t self-censor; you can pare back later.) Ask yourself:

  • What good things would past supervisors and co-workers say about me? What about friends, mentors, or professors? Who else thinks I’m awesome—and why?
  • How have I contributed measurable results in the past?
  • How have I contributed beyond what’s easy to measure? Am I a natural leader? Have I served on a company culture committee? Have I won awards?
  • What have I accomplished that is generally seen as badass (even if it seems unrelated to the role)?
  • How have I failed spectacularly in the past? Count this as a win too, because a willingness to stick your neck out can be a win if positioned properly (this is especially true in tech).
  • What might my prospective company need based on its unique situation (maturity, industry, stated objectives, culture, employee demographics, competitors, trends) that I might be able to provide, even if it’s outside the official job description?
  • What degrees or certifications do I hold, including online courses?

This is going to be a long list, and that’s OK. I’m not suggesting you send this whole document, well, anywhere. It’s a jumping off point, and so you want the list to be as extensive as possible before you start cutting it down.

Pro tip: Try this exercise across at least two sittings to get the most out of it.

Step 2: Understand What the Very Best People in Your Desired Role Actually Do

To get the full story of what your dream role entails—and get a better sense of if you could actually do it—speak with friends (or friends of friends) who excel in positions similar to the one you want.

To get beyond the job description, ask a lot of questions. Some good ones include, “What do the very best people in this role do that the average ones don’t?” and “What’s required of this role that [company] wouldn’t actually say out loud?” Sniff for the unspoken (and potentially more important) requirements.

If you can demonstrate a better understanding of the role and company than other candidates, discrepancies in experience will matter less (within reason). I’d rather hire a comparatively less experienced person who really gets it than a more experienced candidate who doesn’t.

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