University of Wisconsin–Madison

How to get experience in your field if you can’t get hired

Gain job experience UW-Madison Career Corner

“Experience necessary.” 

This common phrase can strike fear in the hearts of job seekers, creating a classic conundrum for recent college graduates and midlife career changers alike: You need experience for the job you want, but you can’t get the job you want without experience.

Fortunately, there are myriad ways to crack this chicken-and-egg scenario if you’re willing to make some sacrifices, get creative and put in the effort. Here are seven tips for getting experience in your desired field:

  1. Volunteer. Volunteering provides not only related experience, but a real flavor for what to expect from the work environment. Try to volunteer in a position that’s related as closely as possible to your desired job.
  2. April McHugh UW-Madison career counselor
    Career Counselor April McHugh: Help potential employers translate the experience you do have to the job you want.

    Intern. Internships aren’t just for students! Let employers know you’re willing to take less money in exchange for gained experience. But don’t discount this opportunity—or be surprised—if it comes without pay.

  3. Build skills. Use any opportunity to build skills, from temp jobs and limited-term employment to stand-alone gigs. If you’re hoping to land a career in IT, for example, a few freelance projects can help you gain valuable experience and connections.
  4. Be willing to start over. An entry-level position can be a particularly hard pill to swallow if you’re changing careers later in life and are used to a higher salary. Accept that it may be your best shot at getting the experience you need—and a foot in the door.  
  5. Connect the dots. Help employers understand how the experience you do have is related to the job you want. For example, if you’re moving from a career in business to social work, talk about your people skills and resourcefulness. Consult job descriptions, O*NET Online and the Occupational Outlook Handbook to determine what skills are needed for the job you want, then translate those to the skills you already have. 
  6. Take any job. If you don’t currently have a job, try to find a position that’s similar to what you want to do. Want to get into education? Any position where you’re teaching, leading, or doing group work will help you gain some needed experience.
  7. Network. Target employers in your field by requesting informational interviews. Ask what hard and soft skills they look for in a candidate and gather their ideas for how you might gain experience. Connect with those in the industry via professional organizations, conferences, meetups or LinkedIn for insight into how to build your skills.

Getting experience in your field if you can’t get hired all comes down to setting realistic expectations. If you’re willing to make some temporary sacrifices to get the experience you need, you’ll be on your way to a fulfilling new career. 

April McHugh is a senior career counselor in UW–Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies. Contact her at april.mchugh@wisc.edu.