Fake it til you make it? How to survive when your degree doesn’t match your field

I rarely post personal advice here but this came to me today when I realized how collaborative my job really is and how different my background is from those around me. I want to get my BA and recently earned Master’s Degree framed and put up in my office. (woo-hoo go me!) I look around and see that many of my coworkers have theirs posted as well, BA in Engineering, MA in Chemistry or some other physical science. My background is in Sociology and Public Administration. Working in public works, I collaborate with engineers all the time…along with service technicians, mechanics, call dispatchers and construction workers. When I first started I was a bit intimidated by the lingo and the incredibly technical nature of the job. This could be the same for people working in the finance field or even teaching. The thing is, you don’t have to feel like a fish out of water! This short piece is about How I navigate working in a field that does not match my background.

  1. Be Well-read: include industry magazine and/or blog posts in your daily online reading. You will really impress those engineers when you know the name of a particular tool and can properly identify things. And it will make it much easier to follow along in meetings. Another tip is to borrow books and industry standards from your co-workers. Studying shouldn’t stop at the end of your 30-60-90 day plan, it should be continuous. (ex: I work for a water utility so when asked to communicate the standards for water quality to our customers, I had to learn what those standards are) 
  2. Get out of the office: As an administrative officer, I work 99% of my day at my desk or in meetings. Outside of training, I rarely get the chance to go out in the field and observe how things work. If you work in an industry which involves both office and field staff, make sure you go on a ride-along or do some job shadowing in another area at least once a quarter. This will allow you to become more familiar with the jargon and will put some perspective on what you do at your desk all day. (ensure you and front-line staff are communicating the same messages to customers)
  3. Pursue a Certification: So what if you went to a Liberal Arts college? You successfully landed a role in a business/organization with a slightly different focus. Kudos for merging your talents and skills to fit in their service delivery. One thing that might push you over the edge for a promotion is to complete a certification in the field. If you notice that your company’s turnover rate for a particular position is increasing, it may be beneficial to get a quick certification in that role. It will do more than make you useful if needed, it will also heighten your chances of advancing without needing to get a formal degree. Many organizations offer education reimbursement for certifications as well. (ex: I am thinking of pursuing a certification in applied earth science or sustainability to boost my understanding and qualification for doing work in water conservation)
  4. Listen: I cannot stress how important it is to listen for a full 6 months before making any suggestions or even questioning the status quo. I’m not saying you should not speak up when asked or if you have a question, I would just advise people to listen to the jargon before jumping in. This goes for any job but more specifically a job in which there may be a learning curve.
  5. Deliver: Show them why they hired you! With all of these tips in hand, after a while, you won’t really be faking it at all!

Share some of your stories in the comments below. I know I’m not the only one experiencing this.



Christine E.

Categories: Career & Business

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