Proving your value if you're self-taught
Imagine: you’re an administrative assistant, and you want to apply for a job that requires project management skills. You don’t have formal training in this field, but you’ve studied books on project management and you have some experience. In fact, you even managed two successful fund raising campaigns for a local charity. But now you’re wondering how to prove your value to a prospective employer—especially since you’ll be up against plenty of candidates with diplomas or degrees related to project management.
Though most people have some form of formal certification in their fields, there are many who’ve acquired additional technical skills, soft skills, or both by means of self-study, practice, or extracurricular activities. However, when it comes to applying for jobs, qualifying for promotions, and determining salary, questions can arise when you’re self-taught. In short, proving your value in regard to self-taught and experience-based skills is something many candidates struggle with. The following tips will help you translate your self-taught skills and knowledge into quantifiable achievements and specific qualities you can list on your résumé to advance your career.
Determine your level of expertise in comparison to others. In order to know what types of positions you qualify for and what salary you can realistically expect, you need to know how you measure up against others in the job market. It’s easy to underestimate yourself and end up in a job that’s less challenging than you want, but there’s also the danger of overestimating yourself and experiencing a frustrating job search.
To effectively gauge your level of expertise, make a list of your skills, as well as the amount and type of experience you have, then perform a search for jobs with requirements that correspond with your skills and experience. For example, you’re a self-taught programmer with knowledge of three computer languages who’s worked on five large-scale projects over the course of three years. Do a job search on the programming languages you know. Next, sift through those jobs to find examples of positions that require three years of experience on large projects. Then determine what the job title(s) are and what the average salary range is.
Provide proof of your skills. Self-taught knowledge needs to be applied in order to be a marketable skill. And without formal education in the field, the quality of your work needs to be good—preferably excellent—in order for you to stand out. List your experience, and highlight those projects or achievements that best showcase your capabilities. Make sure to concisely describe the challenges you faced and how your used your skills to overcome them and achieve good results. Be prepared to elaborate in an in-person interview, because employers want to you to communicate in a clear and informed manner about your area of expertise. Using the example from the introduction, if you learned the principles of management through self-study and applied them in your capacity as fundraiser coordinator at your local charity, provide a summary of your responsibilities and what you achieved in terms of the amount of funds raised, streamlining of the fundraising process, etc.
The same goes for skills you acquired on the job. Make sure that for every skill you list on your résumé, you can provide evidence of having used that skill in order to achieve something measurable. If you’re lean on experience, spend time acquiring some before applying to jobs. See if there are ways to apply your skills in your current job, or as a freelancer, or in extracurricular activities such as at a sports organization or as a volunteer.
Build strong references. Because you’ve applied your self-taught skills either at work or in other projects, you probably know a number of people who can testify to your expertise. Remember, since you don’t hold any formal qualifications, you’ll need to stand out all the more, which involves not only demonstrating outstanding work, but also providing glowing references. Approach people who can testify very positively about your skills. For example, if you’re a self-taught web designer and have been designing sites for local businesses on the weekends, ask the clients who were the most satisfied if you can list them as references. Or if you gained experience managing cross-departmental projects in your current position, ask those colleagues who benefited most from your leadership to speak on your behalf.
Emphasize your soft skills. People who are self-taught generally have a number of things in common: they possess the ability to learn new things; they’re disciplined; and they know how to manage their time. These soft skills are oftentimes just as important to employers as technical skills, so be sure to list them on your résumé. With competing candidates holding formal qualifications, your soft skills might be just what set you apart from the crowd.
Knowing where you stand in the job market is crucial to advancing your career. Invest some time in quantifying your skills and your experience, and you’ll be better equipped to show prospective employers how you can add value to their organizations.