Let’s say you hate your job and secretly dream of becoming a Nutritionist, Graphic Designer, or Public Health advocate, but you have no idea whether you’ll actually like the new career. You think you will, but how can you be sure until you try it?
People often advise to start by taking a few prerequisites in the new subject, but lets face it, undergrad courses cost upwards of $1,500 — not a small commitment.
A better way to test out your dream field is by taking non-credit college courses (also called Continuing Education classes) or free online courses because they’re quick, lasting a few weeks, and cost much less — $150-$700 or even free — than undergraduate courses. You also don’t have to apply; you just sign up.
IMPORTANT: Non-credit college classes will not count as prerequisites toward your master’s program because … well, they aren’t worth any credits! You also won’t receive a grade.
The main purpose of taking a non-credit course is so that you can “try out” your dream field before deciding to change careers. You may want to see if you like learning the material and find it easy to comprehend, learn software you’d be using daily if you switched fields, or gain the skills the new career requires. Bottom line: As long as the course will teach you the new subject or skill to the level you’re happy with, it’s worth taking. At best, you’ll add a valuable skill to your resume. At worst, you’ll realize you hate the new field before quitting your job — saving you time, money, and constant agonizing.
Clarity is the main goal here, and it matters little what specific course or online tutorial you take to get there.
When Non-Credit Courses Are Best
To see if you enjoy learning the new subject before changing careers, and at a lower cost and time commitment than undergrad courses. Maybe a Master’s of Public Health (M.P.H.) sounds interesting, but you aren’t sure how engaging the material will really be. Why not try a free, online non-credit class, “Epidemiology: The Basic Science of Public Health,” via Coursera.org to see if you like it? Or see if you can keep up with a free edx.org Principles of Economics class before deciding whether to go for that MBA. Not all non-credit courses are free, but it may be worth, say, spending $635 on a non-credit Interior Design course at NYU to decide if your love for re-arranging your friends’ rooms warrants quitting your stable job to pursue an M.S. in Interior Design.
Jobs in your new field require a skill that you don’t have. Perhaps you’d like to get into Public Relations, but job openings list “Skills required: SEO and Web Analytics,” and you think, Crap, I don’t know either of those! That’s fine. You can take non-credit courses through Mediabistro.com and in a few weeks, add SEO and Web Analytics to the “Skills” section of your resume.
To learn the software you’d have to use daily if you switched careers. For instance, if you’re thinking of Graphic Design, you can try a 3-week Intro to Adobe Illustrator non-credit class at your community college for $150-$500. By next month, you’ll know whether you enjoy using the application enough to decide whether it’s worth your time and money to move forward with prerequisites the M.A. in Graphic Design requires.
To create a Portfolio to submit to your master’s program. All creative-oriented master’s programs (ex: design, art, MFA programs, etc.) require proof of your ability in a Portfolio — often, with 20-odd pieces of proof of your work — which I am sure as a career changer, you don’t have. Non-credit courses are a great way to create the designs, magazine articles, or short stories you’d need to submit to the master’s program. You may also have to take prereqs, but non-credit courses are a great way to gauge whether you have the talent to move forward.
Where to Take Continuing Ed Courses
Here are some examples of non-credit Continuing Education courses, which may also be called Professional Development or Career Advancement courses. Notice they do not mention the word credits, are short (a few weeks), and cost much less than regular undergraduate courses.
Best to try out a class to see if you enjoy learning the new subject material or learn a marketable skill.
- Coursera.org – FREE online non-credit courses in just about every subject offered by top universities, including Stanford, Princeton, Penn State, University of North Carolina, Michigan, Duke, Georgia Tech, and more.
- edX.org – FREE online courses in just about every subject offered by MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, etc.
- MITOpenCourseware – FREE “web-based publication of virtually all MIT course content … open and available to the world.”
- Udemy.com – “a marketplace for online courses” with over 8,000 courses that start at $19 and go to $500.
Best to create pieces for your portfolio or learn new professional skills to add to your resume.
- Mediabistro.com Online Courses for communications professionals. If you want to switch careers to get a master’s degree in Public Relations, Journalism, Advertising, Marketing, MFA in Creative Writing, etc., you’ll need to build a portfolio and learn related skills. Here are some examples (these change often, so you may not find these exact courses):
- Boot Camp for Journalists -Produce a full portfolio of news and magazine articles – 8 sessions, $550
- Public Relations: Build Your Portfolio – Master the key documents you need to succeed in your PR career – 4 sessions, $385
- Copywriting: Creative Ad Writing – Build an advertising portfolio and get work – 8 sessions, $550
- Short Story Writing – Learn the fundamentals of fiction and get your work published – 6 sessions, $470
- Zurb.com University – online Product Design courses and workshops
Best if you prefer in-person instruction or hands-on help from a professor.
Community colleges offer tons of inexpensive non-credit courses and workshops. Simply Google your local community college with the words “non-credit courses” or “continuing education” and you’ll find dozens of courses that are inexpensive ($120-$150) and short (a few weeks).
Best to learn computer applications online or on-campus, learn a skill to add to your resume, or try out a class to decide if you enjoy learning about the new field.
- New York University (NYU)’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies (NYC) Noncredit courses both on campus and online
- Penn State University (State College, PA) Outreach & Online Education
- University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, ND) Online & Distance Education
- University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) (Philadelphia) Continuing Education & Personal Development both on campus and online
*Only a small list of examples — most universities offer non-credit continuing education courses online or on campus.
Best to try out a class to see if your hobby is worth turning into a career or create art or design pieces for your portfolio.
- Academy of Art University (San Francisco) Continuing Art Education Courses *offered on campus or online
- Fashion Institute of Technology (NYC) Non-credit courses (ex: Fashion Styling, Image Consulting, etc.) which cost $120-$350 *on campus only
- School of the Art Institute of Chicago Non-credit courses *on campus only
- TISCH School of the Arts, New York University (NYC) Non-credit courses *on campus only