How Do I Change Careers Without Investing in an Expensive Degree?

This evening, I spent a couple hours with a college friend who works at a large nameless corporation doing some sort of circuit engineering crap. She desperately wanted to get out, had some idea of what she would like to do instead, but didn’t know the way.

I looked back and examined the paths of my countless other friends who have changed careers over the years:

amazon logoSpecimen A was in my lab group and got his PhD from Stanford in Electrical Engineering. Upon graduation, he went to work at Intel designing circuits. Years later, he realized that his new, younger, less-educated girlfriend with a computer science degree was earning far more than him. He spent several months teaching himself to program, applied for various software positions, and landed an entry-level position as a software developer. He now makes a salary similar to that of his girlfriend, with room for career advancement if he plays his cards right.

apple-logoSpecimen H was also in my lab, also got his PhD in EE, and also went to Intel upon graduation. After realizing that circuit design is a dying discipline, he applied for various software positions. Ill-prepared, he was turned down. He got a job at a large company that does both hardware and software, and is angling to eventually move to a software group.

rebuild the dreamSpecimen J graduated with a PhD in robotics from a university in Europe. Uninspired by his career prospects, he left to volunteer for a cause that he was passionate about. He spent a couple years working for a related nonprofit and built up a valuable network. Leveraging this network, he eventually obtained a grant to start his own company to benefit this cause.

mumford brewingSpecimen P was a technician in a biology lab and wanted a managerial role. He went to USC and graduated with an MBA, but couldn’t find a job. Desperately unemployed, he ended up starting his own company while already $100k in debt from business school. I asked him whether he thought business school was worth it, and he said that it was worth it in that it pushed him to hit rock bottom, at which point he was inspired to start his own business.

bloomreach logoSpecimen W graduated with a PhD in EE from Stanford. Having been published in a prominent scientific journal, he was on his way to a career as a research physicist. However, those last months at Stanford squeezed the life out of him, so he instead took a year off to learn a completely different discipline. He took online courses in computer science and then got a job as a data scientist for a small software company.

Berkeley_Law_LogoSpecimen W2 was in my Stanford lab, obtained her PhD in EE, and went to work at Intel. A year later, she applied to law school and quit her job. She is now a patent attorney. (Is that really less dreadful than working at Intel?)

barnacleSpecimen E (hey that’s me!) was a circuit design cog at Intel, just like everyone else who graduated in EE from Stanford. She quietly took online programming courses when her manager wasn’t looking. Then she quit her job and went to write code for a friend’s startup. Because she didn’t really know what she was doing, she agreed to be paid only minimum wage. When E learned all that she could from that job, she left and started Barnacle.


Through these case studies, one might conclude that Intel is a terrible place to work. It’s not; my sample is just a little biased.

Unless you truly want a job that explicitly requires an advanced degree (doctor/lawyer/accountant etc), the education itself can be obtained for free.

An advanced degree is only valuable for the connections you make while earning the degree. A degree from a top-tier school will open doors in any field. BUT, if you are good enough to get into a top-tier school, you likely already have the resourcefulness to open your own damn doors.

If you can’t get into a top university but still want to change careers, set aside the time and money you would spend on furthering your education, and use it to either fund your own business or fund yourself. Working for free is an excellent way to gain valuable work experience with no prior qualifications. Everyone wants a free employee. 500 years ago, this was called an apprenticeship.

You can't fire me if I'm working for free.

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