I don't have a college degree.
Moreover, when I was in school? I was a music major. Flute performance, to be exact. I am, actually, a professional band nerd.
To some of you, that's not a biggie. To others, you're sitting there going "but how on earth do you have a successful career in social media if you don't have a marketing degree or something?"
My career path went something like this.
I went to school, and while I was fortunate to have some of it paid for, I changed majors and didn't graduate in four years. And after my fifth year, I couldn't afford to continue (bartending is awesome but not quite lucrative enough for rent AND a college education). I loved music, passionately, and wanted to be in the industry but not necessarily on the stage.
I walked in the door at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and asked for a job. Any job. Entry level, unglamorous. I got a job as a development assistant in the fundraising department earning $17,000 a year. I worked hard, and I learned.
That took me through 7 years of professional fundraising roles, both in the arts and in social services. From there I was recruited by a former colleague to lead first client services, then marketing and communications at a design and architecture firm, and I did that for several years. Then I left and started my own online communications business, worked my tail off to make it work - I would have been willing to work part time at Target to pay the bills if I had to - and did. A bit more than a year later, I got hired by my then-client, Radian6.
I overcame the lack of a degree with hard work. It's that simple, and yet not.
In my first few jobs, people asked about the degree. I addressed that discussion by saying that I didn't complete my degree for financial reasons, but I could point to tangible professional results in the positions I'd had to date, and that I believed they illustrated my capabilities in a more practical way.
Some people listened, some didn't. The ones that didn't weren't the right culture for me. And after that, people stopped asking, because my work spoke for itself. Yes, I've heard the "degree is proof that you can finish something" mantra, but I don't buy it. Wouldn't you rather know I can finish a project for you that can help build the business?
I earned the role I have today because I have a track record of results, no matter what role I was in, and when I was an employee or a consultant. Period.
But enough about me...
I'm a bit of a heretic. I've always defied convention just a little bit, but it's demonstrated to me that in the career path I've walked, the degree wasn't the important part.
You can do this too.
And even if you have a degree, it IS possible to make it relevant to a new career, a new industry, a new role. It's about demonstrating how hard you can work, what results you've achieved (and what you learned when you missed the mark), and what you're willing to do to earn credibility and trust that goes beyond your education.
If you don't have a degree, or the "right" degree, you can very much still build a case for why you can do the job you want without it. That might require being willing to take a more junior role in order to earn your stripes. That might require meticulous attention to tracking the results of your projects, and illustrating how you've succeeded without it.
You might take volunteer or internship work (even as an established professional) in order to earn relevant experience in a new field. You might seek out a mentor in your desired field, and patiently spend your own personal time learning outside your current gig in order to build up a library of knowledge that can help you earn the gig.
The point is this: if you want to make something happen bad enough, you do what you have to do, and find ways around the obstacles instead of whining about their existence.
What will you do next?
I feel kind of odd writing a post that's so me-focused, but I'm hoping that you can take something away from this that's relevant to you. It is, after all, the perspective and experience I have. And folks ask about it so often that perhaps there's something in this story or experience that translates, gives you some ideas, or helps you see things through a new lens.
Do you have a similar story to share? Has your degree or college experience helped or hindered you, or have you overcome a challenge on that front? Are you proving your value through demonstrated results and practical examples?
I'd love to hear your stories.
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