Changing career paths?
December 21, 2003 8:52 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to change career paths? [more inside]

Currently, I've been out of college a year and a half. My degree is in journalism- both print and broadcast. I have some background in the field but no interest in pursueing journalism- especially with the direction the field seems to be taking.

Experience wise, I'm sort of a jack of all trades, master of none. I know a wide arrange of things, but don't have much work experience in other areas besides retail.

Most of my actual work (7 years)experience is in retail, and I currently work at a bookstore (where I have worked for 1 1/2 years). Due to financial concerns, I'm not sure I can pay to return to school, and in order to go back, I'd need to pay off money I still owe my school (there's a hold on my records). I might be able to borrow the money from an understanding friend to pay the school back.

My dream is to write fiction, but I'd like a career that pays the bills and at least makes life comfortable. I've had thoughts of trying to work in publishing as a reader, but my location and current situation make that difficult.

I'm open to possibly teaching, but that would require more schooling- which I'm not sure is the best answer.

What would you do?
posted by drezdn to Work & Money (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
To change career paths, you must first have a career. Unless you have some management experience, seven years of retail hardly counts.

Either break into management where you work now, or learn enough about managing that you can get a manager's job somewhere else. Otherwise, you are looking at entry level no matter which way you turn.

Alternatively, stay where you are and start looking for freelance writing projects and build your own business.
posted by mischief at 9:08 PM on December 21, 2003 [1 favorite]

One of the awful kick in the balls truths about the real world is when you find out that people want you to get a degree just to prove that you could get one. Doesn't matter what it is.
posted by Stan Chin at 9:11 PM on December 21, 2003

Response by poster: Otherwise, you are looking at entry level no matter which way you turn.

I would be fine with finding an entry level position job, but it seems like most jobs (in my area at least) require at least some experience...
posted by drezdn at 9:25 PM on December 21, 2003

Response by poster: I guess my question has multiple parts... Would it be worth it to go back to school when I have a degree? Are there good ways to break into a field you have no experience in? Etc...
posted by drezdn at 9:34 PM on December 21, 2003

"most jobs ... require at least some experience" : That's the Catch-22 in today's employment environment, and one of the primary reasons why you have to do the best with the job you already have. Learn your manager's job; those skills are highly transferable.

As for your degree, if you don't want to work in that field, it's not going to get you far. If you want to take some classes that will help you no matter what you end up doing, take some business/accounting classes.

... and oh yeah: Network! Network! Network! Whatever you have to do to talk to other people about job opportunities, do it. Talk to family, friends, people at the corner bar, in the grocery line, join professional organizations, volunteer work, continuing education...
posted by mischief at 9:37 PM on December 21, 2003 [1 favorite]

Have you considered going the corporate route - working in the press or PR office of a company, which might entail writing marketing copy or press releases?

As for this --

it seems like most jobs (in my area at least) require at least some experience...

Have you gleaned this from merely looking at job ads, or is this the constant refrain you've heard after sending 100 resumes to every concievable employer within a 25-mile radius of where you live? If you go by ads alone, of course you're going to feel out of your depth. Get in the door, talk to people, and prove you can learn something. You'll never know who is willing to give you a chance, so long as your expectations are reasonable.
posted by contessa at 9:39 PM on December 21, 2003

Personally, I think journalism is the best springboard for writing fiction. I may be biased, having been a features editor and writer at various publications for a dozen years, but I've seen countless co-workers get published (me...not yet). The day to day practice of writing and the way journalism gets you out in the world and lets you see things others don't get to see is great background for a writer.

Not sure what you mean by the direction the field is taking--with all the opportunities in online journalism, I think it's a better place to work now than it was when I started.

So if I were you, and I absolutely did not want to get a 40 hour a week journalism job, I would freelance write--fiction or nonfiction, essays, poetry, whatever's your specialty.
posted by GaelFC at 9:41 PM on December 21, 2003

Oh, one thing worth mentioning, which you probably already know -- clear your holds at school!!

Potential employers who show interest in you may want to see an official transcript (sent straight from the school) to see your coursework or at least verify you graduated. They won't be able to do this while your records are on ice and they are likely to not be very understanding about it, either.
posted by contessa at 9:50 PM on December 21, 2003

GaelFC, as a freelance writer I'm heartened to hear you think online journalism is making the field better, not bleaker. If only there were fewer freelance ads saying, "We can't pay, but writing for us will give you valuable exposure!"
posted by inksyndicate at 10:48 PM on December 21, 2003

Many of my recent-graduate friends have made early career changes, and they mostly did it by finding companies they wanted to work for and entering at the lowest possible point. One started temping for a non-profit, another started as a phone rep at a big insurance corporation, a third started as reception staff at a college admissions office. All are stunningly smart and hard workers, and all had been promoted up to levels more in keeping with their degree level (if not degree field) within a year. Similarly, I know film people working as Corp Comm professionals, and Fashion students doing corporate sales for IBM.

Point being, you have to a) Decide who you'd like to work for (even if it's just over the next few years), b) Be willing to spend some time in the trenches, and c) Distinguish yourself as a good employee. I'm am graduating with a Journalism degree in June, but attending a school with a Co-op program really showed me the alternate potential of my degree; the worst thing you can do is limit your own horizon.
posted by krisis at 3:06 AM on December 22, 2003 [1 favorite]

My dream is to write fiction

Hopefully you mean your dream is to make a living from writing fiction. Nothing is stopping you from writing fiction RIGHT NOW.

As to career changing, much will depend on what you want to change to. I changed careers and it took a part-time masters degree then a full time PhD, which is a lot of time/expense, but on the plus side is part of a very structured and clear career development path (though not exactly job secure). Other career paths will have different modes of entry, some will be accessible via voluntary work, some after some college courses, some with pure good luck but it is of course possible to make yourself 'luckier' by putting yourself in situations where good things might happen - the more people you interact with the more opportunity there is they will put you on to a good lead. Your first step should be figuring out what career you want, then the possible inroads to it. If its writing, then get writing and figure out how to make people start reading your stuff.
Good luck.
posted by biffa at 4:25 AM on December 22, 2003

Begin reading, clipping, and keeping a file of ads for your ideal job to learn how responsibilities and requirements vary. It will help you to have a roadmap of commonalities in that field so you can build in that direction. Besides the job you want today, always keep a goal of the job you want in 5 years so that you can keep working and building towards it.

Sometimes it might just take slanting your resume differently or you can find a way to gain related experience in your current job. Or it may require taking a class, doing volunteer work, learning a new skill, or taking a part time job in the field.

Network. Call practitioners with jobs like the one you aspire to and ask for an informational interview - tell them you want to make a career change, you are doing research about their field, and would appreciate a half hour of their time to learn how their career evolved, what the requirements of the field are, and what advice they would have. Very few people do this, but with persistence and the right attitude it can open doors. Over the years, I have had about a dozen people approach me like this, and I have always found the time to meet with a person willing to work that hard to get where they wanted to go. When you do get interviews, be sure to leave with names and contact info for other people in the field that they recommend you talk to. Send thank-you notes and keep the person informed when you make progress. Besides building a network, this process will help you to develop a real feel for the actual job in various environments, will help you learn the lingo of the job, will hone your interviewing skills, and in the rare case, may lead to a job. Hard work indeed, but it can be very helpful.

Join associations or organizations in the field you aspire to and attend meetings and seminars to learn and to network. Find any way that you can to gain experience through your current job even if it requires putting in some extra time.

Also, what krisis said - excellent advice.
posted by madamjujujive at 5:05 AM on December 22, 2003 [1 favorite]

Just to echo what's already been said, I guess, because I've been there/am going through it as a part-time grad student/fiction writer/computer programmer-by-day. Here are a few ideas:

1) Go to grad school for fiction writing (MFA). It sounds like this might be financially difficult. It would have been for me, too, when I graduated, but sometimes it's best to wait on these things to get the most out of them. This is at least one of the steps toward teaching fiction on the college level, if you want to do that (it's very competitive), but might not be the best path to actually becoming a better writer.

2) Get a job (see above advice). I sent out hundreds of resumes and was willing to relocate and ended up (despite horrible grades and an English degree, I had an interesting resume) working for a giant publisher in NYC. This was awful, so I ended up doing web development through self-study and night-classes, and am now a computer programmer. It was a lot easier to break into this career a few years ago, admittedly.

This was interesting to me for about three years. Now, it too is awful :) I'm eaily bored and looking at figuring out a way to switch careers myself.

Journalism seems like good advice, although my journalist friends with books tend to be more of the non-fiction variety, but those can be good too.

3) Regardless of what you do, write every day, as much as you can, and get other people to read your stuff and get their feedback. Don't be discouraged b/c the path to success can be long. Also, read as much as you possibly can, b/c no matter what people say about MFA programs, you will get a very good education by reading the best writers and not giving up on your own writing.
posted by drobot at 6:09 AM on December 22, 2003

I think your best bet, if you just want a job and not a vocation, is going into flackery. Journalism degrees are great for that and you can make far more money on the dark side than you can in a newsroom.
The other thing you should not forget is that it is simply staggering how many people out there (even well educated ones) cannot write clearly or effectively. Don't underestimate that skill.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:17 AM on December 22, 2003

If I'm reading correctly, it sounds like you're looking for suggestions for a career that will make you happy while you learn to write fiction well. I suggest getting into nonfiction, non-journalism media: reviews, feature stories, public or corporate relations, marketing and so forth. In any of them you'll learn loads about the English language (and, in p.r. and marketing, how to abuse it). You can get an entry-level job or an internship without your degree, and use some of your salary to pay off your school debt and re-enroll part time.

You may discover, too, that pursuits similar to writing are as fulfilling as your dream career. Like you, I wanted to write when I was getting my career started; I ended up doing Web page design for years and discovered along the way that I can be creative in many ways other than just writing. Now I have a career and a hobby instead of a job and a dream. Not a bad progression for me.

Best of luck. Whatever you do, don't quit writing.
posted by werty at 6:23 AM on December 22, 2003

Write, every day. Even if only 500 or 1,000 words, even if it's crap. Every day. Make it like brushing your teeth.

That, and think very carefully - sit down and write out the numbers - about what you would get out of going back to school and how much it would cost you. In the long run, many graduate programs - particularly the more general ones - simply are not worth the time and money.
posted by gottabefunky at 8:54 AM on December 22, 2003

I'd advise that you figure out what you want to do first. Do your research on it. Find out what jobs there are in that field. Find out what they pay, what the lifestyle will be like. Do some volunteer work in the field to find out if you would like the work and the environment. Talk to people in the industry. People usually love to give advice and talk about their own experiences. Even if you can only observe someone else doing the job for a day or two, that's better than just deciding you like the idea of doing a certain kind of work.

Then, once you know what you want to do, figure out how you can learn to do it. You may not need to go to school to do it. For instance, if you wanted to get web building skills you could probably learn the skills from books from the library, build your own site, and then point a potential employer to the site as proof of what you can do. There's also volunteer work, which provides contacts, experience, and references.

School is a huge investment in terms of both time and money, and everytime I hear someone say, "I'm thinking of changing careers and going back to school, but I don't know what I want to take," I want to groan and tell them they are holding the wrong end of the stick.
posted by orange swan at 10:50 AM on December 22, 2003

It's not what you know, it's who you know.

You need to find someone already in the business and get them to help you out in some sort of mentor role.

Trying to figure things out on your own ain't gunna cut it.

Choose a large number of people you like and write them an open, honest letter asking for their advice in how to get started. Most won't reply, but hopefully one or more will reach out to try and help you get started.
posted by Argyle at 10:55 AM on December 22, 2003 [1 favorite]

I was in such a similar boat as you after I graduated. I couldn't find any jobs in my field & wasn't even sure what I wanted to do anymore that could pay the bills.

I don't think going back to school is the solution. It is more important to get yourself financially grounded & get some real-world experience than to get another degree.

I would try temping (many temp agencies have temp-to-perm positions available) while looking for an entry level position. While the corporate world isn't always a fun time, there are a lot of opportunities to make a livable income, decent benefits, and possibly even have your loans paid off or further education taken care of. Lots of writers have to have a day job to pay the bills, and you just have to keep yourself motivated to keep on writing after work or before work.

Also, don't give up hope on finding an entry-level position. Don't narrow your search down to positions in which you have experience or education. There are basic skills that are needed in every industry - organization, communication, ability to learn new tasks easily, motivation, etc. You've at least got great written communication skills, and you can play up on those for a variety of positions in so many different fields.
posted by catfood at 11:19 AM on December 22, 2003

a third started as reception staff at a college admissions office
This is exactly how I got a start in a new career, after working for over a decade in the manufacturing field. The most important thing that I did was to forget about trying to work out what kind of company I wanted to work for - I sat down and wrote out a list of the kind of work that I wanted to do (task-specific rather than job description) and any other requirements I had (I wanted to work in a field where I would feel I was actually helping people in some way).

Once I had this list, I made a list of the kind of companies where these things might happen, then went through the Yellow Pages and wrote an application to every company (call the company and find out who is in charge of HR and address it to them, as well as finding out a bit about what the company does and work that into your application letter) that matched saying that I was looking for work and was prepared to start anywhere. I lucked out in that a company had an opening as a receptionist and they decided that a male receptionist would be a good idea because they had had some security concerns recently. Within a few years, I had moved up to a senior management position by dint of having the work and life experience that made me suitable, even though my previous work was in a totally unrelated field. Think generic skills rather than job-specific ones and slant your resume accordingly. The first page of my resume was a list of generic skills that I had developed over the years, with less emphasis on my actual work history.

The most important thing is to sit down and spend the time planning where you want to go, rather than looking at jobs in the paper - that can be a soul-destroying thing if you have not first mapped out your skills and thought about all the skills you have learned in your life so far (don't restrict your skills-base to work only).

Maybe it is different where you are but, in Australia, only around 40% of jobs are ever advertised as companies often have enough resumes on file from people who have contacted them to fill a position. Plan on being one of those people. A very important point is not to use a generic application - work on a basic template to start with, but change it as needed to try and appeal to the ego of the person who decides whether to file your resume in the square or round filing cabinet. Send original prints of your resume (max 2 pages), not poor photocopies and don't put it in a folder or try cute tricks like using brightly-coloured or different sized paper, as this just pisses people off.
posted by dg at 3:57 PM on December 22, 2003 [2 favorites]

Drink, travel, screw the career.

It sounds like I'm being flippant, but I'm not. I'm deadly serious. If you want to write, get the hell out of wherever you are, with as few possessions as possible, and hit the road. Wash dishes to make whiskey money. Whatever. Get out of America.

I'm open to possibly teaching

In a related vein, see my recent post in the question about 'how to make quick $$$$' about teaching in Korea. No edumacation (beyond your current degree) necessary. 80% or more of the westerners I know here who are under 30 are paying off student loans, most at a rate of $1000 a month or more. It also gets you overseas, where you can pick up some more experiences that will serve you as a writer in the future.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:08 PM on December 22, 2003

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