How Can I Learn Skills For A New Field Without Going Back To College?

Leadership coach Lolly Daskal and cofounder of General Assembly Matthew O. Brimer tackle this week's question about how to break into graphic design without dropping thousands on a degree.

Some people know what they want to be when they grow up and stick with it for their entire lives, but for most of us the path to career contentment is a little (or a lot) more winding. This week's question tackles that tricky situation of itching for a career change when you are already saddled with college debt from a few false starts.

This reader question comes from M. Bradshaw and is answered by Leadership coach Lolly Daskal and cofounder of General Assembly Matthew O. Brimer:

I was not someone who always knew what she wanted to be "when she grew up." It's taken two unrelated degrees (and the accompanying student loan debt) to realize that I enjoy graphic and web design.

How can I put together my own education and curriculum to learn the skills I need to enter this field without going back to school? I can't afford a university degree and I'm unsure where to start on my own.

Thank you,
M. Bradshaw


Dear M.,

It’s certainly possible to add on a skill set and undertake a new career direction without going back to school. It may not be the usual path, but it’s not uncommon, either--especially in creative technical fields like web design, where there are plenty of professionals with homegrown skills and degrees in everything from philosophy to sculpture to economics.

You’ll need to focus not only on learning what you need to know but also on building your credibility with a portfolio of work. Networking at every level is critical. Here are some specific tips:

Find an expert in your field

Find someone who is a local leader in your field or whose work you admire. Offer to take him or her out for lunch or ask if they can spare the time for a brief call or meeting. Then make sure you are prepared--actually, make sure you are over prepared. Have questions ready and listen carefully. Be the student. Be curious and open. Repeat this process a few times, if needed. You may come away with a mentor or ally, but even if not you should have some good advice and direction.

Learn online for free or cheap

Open-source courses are becoming increasingly common online. Many colleges and universities offer free courses online through Coursera and other sites. Some have options to certify your participation. Lifehacker U is another good source, as are video tutorial sites like Lynda.com or Skillshare. Some are free and others carry a small cost, but you can add a significant amount of coursework to your resume without going back to college or adding to your debt.

Attend meetups and tweetups

Make networking an important part of your learning. Find professional organizations, people you know who are working in the field, or any local resource that can help you connect. Ask others what they are doing and how they are doing it. Solicit their suggestions for learning and gaining experience. Let them get to know you and see that your interest is serious.

Offer to help

If your finances and schedule permit, propose an internship with someone working in your field. Even if that’s not possible, offer to assist with special projects, errands, or support work. It will give you an inside view, and maybe a chance to begin using your skills and building a portfolio. Also let area nonprofits know that you’re willing to take on unpaid work in exchange for experience.

Create an inner circle

If you seem to have a good rapport with someone who’s working in your field, see if you can persuade them to become a mentor or a close advisor who can support you as you’re learning and becoming established.

Give it time

Learning a new skill and building the kind of credibility that gets you hired in a new field takes time, so don't get impatient. If it's a move you believe in, it's worth it. You can always start slow, right where you are. Even one small step in the right direction can make a big impact. Learning a new skill set can be extremely daunting, but if you can stay motivated and focused on the end goal, it’s within your reach. And most importantly, don't give up!


Dear M.,

I'm excited to hear that you've discovered design as your professional passion. Pursuing work you love is what so many people strive for but never find--but it sounds like you've found your craft and are now ready to dive in, which is great.

My mom is a graphic designer, and one of my first means of paying rent out of college was doing freelance web design, so I can certainly attest to the joys of working in that field. A good designer has marketable skills that allow them autonomy and freedom in their career, with the ability to work on independent projects or jump in full-time to a company working on products or services they care about.

Luckily for you, there are now a ton of educational resources and pathways to learn web design and hone your skills, available both online and offline, without the requirement of pursuing a traditional college degree. When hiring a designer, most employers today care about your portfolio over your resume, your creative talent over your GPA, and your ability to produce great work over the name brand of the school you attended.

To get started as a professional web or graphic designer, go through this list of "required reading" for designers by the incredibly talented Robert Lenne, head of design at Artsy. Artsy is an NYC-based startup that is revolutionizing the art world right now, and Robert's recommendations are top-notch.

To spark your creative side and give you new ways to think about innovation, I'd recommend reading Stephen Johnson's book Where Good Ideas Come From. Stephen has some great perspectives on inspiration and how invention, good design, and serendipity all come to together to move the world forward.

I also love and highly recommend Helvetica, an independent feature-length documentary that hit the scene a few years ago. It's a fantastic overview of typography, graphic design, and global visual culture--a must-watch for every budding designer.

Be sure to spend some serious time on the crowdsourced learning site Quora, and read through this post on what you need to know to become a user interface designer, as well as this one on the best resources for learning web and UX design.

Of course, here at General Assembly, the education company I started, we're always thinking about alternative ways for people to achieve professional skills and pursue new opportunities in technology, design, and business. We have a ton of great online classes about product design and user experience design that might be up your alley--feel free to check them out here.

And last, have fun perusing the designer site Dribbble on a regular basis--you'll get tons of design inspiration, and it's a great community to be a part of once you start producing and sharing your work.

Hope that helps get you started. Best of luck in your new path!


If you have a dilemma you’d like our panel of experts to answer, send your questions to AskFC@fastcompany.com or Tweet us a question using #AskFC.

[Image: Flickr user VFS Digital Design]

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5 Comments

  • Great advice from both experts...

    There are those who believe that spending a small fortune on higher education is a must for anyone wanting a career. Which is, exactly, what is wrong with America's work mentality. We've become a nation afraid of getting our hands dirty by embarking on professions that only include a suit and good haircut.

    There is nothing shameful about trades that require training, not education.

    Don't get me wrong: I firmly believe education is a wonderful thing...but is suggesting that education is the only solution a good thing?

    I like Lolly's suggestion: "If you seem to have a good rapport with someone who’s working in your field, see if you can persuade them to become a mentor or a close advisor who can support you as you’re learning and becoming established."

  • It strikes me that the very first thing you might consider is not putting walls up, or creating 'thou shalt not' list of what you will and will not do. Maintaining that type of attitude will tend to exude from your pores during discussions with decision makers in the field(s) you seek, obviating some potentially juicy chances!

    After three decades in industry, I found my calling to teach at the vocational level. The roadblock? A Master's Degree. Heck, at age 55, the last thing I wanted to do was get involved in school (and debt...) again . But I really did want to teach, so at age 57, I walked across the stage, and will begin teaching in two months.

    Was that my desired path? Nope, but it was the required path after consulting with dozens of folks in the same employ. I have read on my own tons of methods books, supplementary texts and I write technical blogs extensively, to keep up the research.

  • I am so surprised that M. Bradshaw doesn't think that spending $200K on education will get a good return for her.

    Our culture, society and education system here has set the bar that college is the minimum bar for any students. However, we compete with countries like Germany, where you get paid to go to college, vocational school, or any alternatives. And they have paid apprenticeships.

    Boeing recently got rid of "Draftsman" in its design process and replaced them with engineers. Many believe that problems occurred due to this change since the engineers didn't require as much supervision. This backfired since the process of red-lining eliminated many more mistakes. Hence the Dreamliner problems and delays.

    M. Bradshaw, in addition to the two responses above, check you local community colleges and demonstrate your work to get the portfolio built-up. Also, be reallly clear about your strengths such as coding, copyrighting, graphics, mechanics, etc. good luck.

  • "However, we compete with countries like Germany, where you get paid to go to college, vocational school, or any alternatives..." Could you please explain that sentence? I'm aware that tuition fees are not as high here(in Germany) as they are in the US, but I am not aware of any possibilities of getting paid for going to university or similar. On the contrary: it seems to be a lot easier to receive scholarships for whatever reasons in the US. Yes, there are paid apprenticeships. But basically, that's because in most cases apprentices are nothing more than cheap work force.