5 Steps to Working in a Field You Didn’t Study

Picture this: you’ve spent the last four years of your life poring over textbooks, pulling all-nighters to finish essays, and sitting nerve-wracking exams in overcrowded halls. Your student debts are lurking in the corner of your bank statement, gathering interest each quarter. You’ve even found your first grey hair in the ordeal.
All of this, only to determine your degree doesn’t exactly translate to the stable career path you’ve been hoping for.
How could you have predicted that a major in philosophy would yield precisely zero search results on a career site? Or that in practice, your passion for cutting-edge technology means answering your colleagues’ mind-numbing Excel questions for hours on end?
Nothing has worked out the way you’d imagined. A degree was supposed to be the answer to everything, and instead, it has created a whole new range of questions — and at the base of them all, the terrifying possibility that the last four years of your life were a waste of time.
It’s a story straight out of the nightmare realm. And yet, it’s the situation faced by half of UK graduates every year.
It’s the situation I faced last year when I decided to pursue a career in marketing with my English Literature degree (yes, with a minor in philosophy). I’d always had an interest in blogging and social media marketing, so marketing was a natural choice.
As marketing is a very popular college major, I knew the competition would be steep, but I didn’t lose hope. With a little extra work, some pivoting, and a dozen rounds of resume revisions later, I ended up choosing between several marketing-related job offers.
Because no matter what your major was, your options span much wider.

Your possibilities extend beyond your college major

Here’s the thing: it is possible, and very common in fact, to find a job in a field you didn’t study. That’s because, despite what you were taught, your degree does not determine the rest of your working life — it simply lays the foundations for your skills and expertise. If you’ve developed a keen interest in a particular field, and you’re willing to put in some effort, you can make your way there.
At the beginning of your career, nobody is expecting you to be a specialist. Most hiring managers are simply looking for candidates who are the right fit for the role and the team. That means candidates who can be taught and trained, who don’t need hand-holding, who have a grasp of the industry but aren’t already set in their ways. Ideal candidates have a proven track record of being willing to learn.
We all come from different walks of life. Data shows that the average person changes career paths 5–7 times in their lifetime. Chances are, this is not the last time you’re thinking of changing lanes — and it’s better to start on the right path now, rather than in twenty years.
The first stepping stone to any career path is a huge leap, and taking your chances in an industry you didn’t study can be overwhelming and disheartening. But with a solid strategy, some perspective shifts, and a willingness to learn about your desired industry, you can position yourself as the ideal candidate — even if it doesn’t seem like it on paper right now.

Step 1: Research your dream career path

Before you dive into job hunting, you need to know the industry you’re looking to get into. And I mean really know it inside out. Whether you want to end up working in marketing, accounting or law, you need to know what’s involved — and not just be in it for the money.
Once you’ve decided on the industry you want to get into, ask these questions:
  • What does the typical career path look like? How about a typical day on the job?
  • What kind of hard and soft skills do you need to have to succeed in this career?
  • Are there any steps you should take before jumping in? Do you need an internship, traineeship, placement, or volunteer work?
A great place to start looking for these answers is The Balance Careers portal.
Once you’ve done preliminary research, get specific. Follow industry-leading blogs and sign up to relevant newsletters. Set Google Alerts for important industry updates. Follow the companies you’d love to work for on LinkedIn.
The bottom line? Get passionate about the field. After all, this could be the distinguishing factor between you and a hundred applicants with the ‘right’ degree.

Step 2: Play to your strengths

You’ll never end up working in a field you didn’t study if you don’t believe that you’ve got what it takes. This mindset shift is crucial to positioning yourself alongside more qualified candidates.
Instead of focusing on everything you lack (aka despairing about your choice of college major), try to see how your field of study can put you in a position of strength. By owning your background, you can eventually become an expert in a niche field and cultivate a stronger personal brand — not to mention a fun, diverse addition to a homogenous team.
Think about all the skills you’ve acquired along the way, whether in college, extracurriculars, volunteering, or work experience. Even if some skills might not directly apply to your chosen career path, there are many universal skills that can work to your advantage.
For example, my arts major taught me more than just literary critique and writing skills. It equipped me with complex problem-solving skills, thorough independent research techniques, an ability to look at things from a wide range of perspectives, and a sharp eye for critical analysis. Put this list alongside the soft skills needed to succeed in marketing, and you have a near-exact match.
Make a list of all the hard and soft skills you’ve developed over the years, and find a way to reframe them as your greatest strengths. You already know what you’re best at. You know the areas in which you outshine your peers. Make use of these strengths because they will become your competitive advantage.

Step Three: Brush up on necessary hard skills

If you’re starting from scratch in a new industry, you might feel discouraged by all the qualifications you think you should have already, such as your education, work experience, relevant certifications, and professional memberships.
Though this may be overwhelming, don’t lose sight of how far you’ve come already. You already have qualifications, so the best course of action is to build on them rather than replace them. One thing that can help you shift your skillset in the right direction is an online course.
While looking for a marketing job after my arts degree, I took a free 40-hour digital marketing course on Google Digital Garage. Because I put in extra effort to learn and upskill, I stood out from the crowd of applicants and got a digital marketing job without a marketing degree.
The world has never been more open to learning and development, both online and offline. There are a vast number of resources out there that can help you gain the qualifications you need. Many of them come with certificates or accreditations, which will help you prove your credentials on your resume or LinkedIn profile. I’ve written a post outlining free courses you can take to upskill.
It should be noted that certain disciplines do require further education, be it through a Master’s degree or a conversion course. These courses often accept applicants from a wide range of backgrounds. Researching your chosen field will help you determine whether this is a necessary step to consider.

Step Four: Perfect your resume and cover letter

When a recruiter takes a look at your job application, they should immediately spot your potential as a candidate — regardless of your college major.
If you want to be an ideal candidate in a field you didn’t study, you’ve got to shine in areas outside of your education. Unless you already have some work experience in your desired field, the best way to do this is through the skills section of your resume and the cover letter. Both of these should play to your strengths and reinforce the qualities that an ideal candidate in your chosen field should have.
You can take inspiration from job listings here. For example, if you’re after an entry job in marketing, look at some of the currently listed positions in your area. What exactly are they looking for?
In terms of hard skills, this might be content marketing, paid advertising, experience with CMS systems like WordPress or Squarespace, or social media management experience. You can build these skills through online courses or trial and error.
Soft skills are a little more nuanced, but this is where your background can take the spotlight. For a marketing applicant, these could be analytical or critical thinking, oral and written communication, sales or negotiation skills, teamwork, and organization. Again, play to your strengths here, and pay attention to the skills listed in job adverts.
Especially for cross-disciplinary job candidates, it’s vital to tailor your resume and cover letter each time you apply for a job. That’s because every recruiter has a slightly different set of priorities, and they’ll make those clear in the listing. Some value relevant work experience, demonstrated leadership or teamwork, while others will focus on practical skills like software knowledge.
By positioning yourself as a passionate, industry-savvy, well-rounded candidate who is willing to upskill and learn on the job, you are highlighting your greatest strengths and increasing your chances of getting hired.

Step Five: Expand your existing network

Opportunities often come from the most unexpected places. Unless you make it known that you are looking for a job in your dream industry, many of these opportunities could pass you by.
First, take a look at your existing network — people you’ve worked or studied with in the past, your university’s alumni service, or recruiters you already know. Could any of these people offer you advice or point you in the right direction when it comes to the job hunt? Maybe there’s an opportunity for a lateral transition from one department to another in a past workplace? Reach out, or post on LinkedIn about your intention to break into your field of choice.
Secondly, consider looking for a mentor — somebody who has walked a similar career path and can help guide your efforts. Reach out on LinkedIn and ask for some pointers about getting started in their industry. If they agree to help, be polite and respect their time — after all, they’re offering you invaluable insights.
Making connections with industry insiders not only increases your visibility and improves your chances of getting hired, but it also helps you picture the career path that lies ahead of you.

Breaking into a brand new industry may seem intimidating and even impossible at first, but it’s a realistic and achievable goal in most cases.
At the end of the day, most hiring managers and recruiters know that a diverse workplace is an interesting one. Applicants who arrive via a road less traveled are highly motivated, open to change, and ready to learn — and these are the qualities that make great employees, teammates, and leaders.
There’s comfort in knowing that with a little hard work, extra learning and reaching out to the right people, you can use your background as an advantage rather than a detriment.