Kick-starting your career
3 ways to invest in yourself

By Melanie C. Simons, CFP™, a Senior Director of Wealth Management who leads a team providing financial planning for TIAA clients

In challenging times like these people often ask, "Should I go back to school to switch careers?" It can become a very expensive proposition that may not pay off.

Take it from me—I've been there. In the wake of the financial crisis in 2009, I enrolled in a certification program in financial planning. There were a lot of different paths in financial services that I could have pursued, but planning was my primary preference, because it was clear how many people wanted and needed more advice and professional partnership. So I chose to devote time and energy to expanding my skills in ways that could help me and help others.

Whatever your career stage right now–entry-level, experienced, back on the market--here are three powerful, affordable ideas:

1. Capitalize on your experience

With the job market in flux, it's natural to question your career path. Maybe you're even thinking about switching gears entirely, starting with a degree in a new field. It's a bold choice that comes with risk: The expense, and possible six-figure debt, you would take on by going back to school—with no guarantee that it will pay off when you graduate.

You might not have another $150,000 to spend on a master's degree—but can find a way to invest $5,000, maybe partly with a company stipend. In that case, considering a specialized certificate vs. a degree can be a really smart way to deepen your expertise in your chosen field. Prominent universities like Harvard, Cornell and Georgetown offer certificate programs that typically meet online, outside of regular business hours, and charge a fraction of the cost of a professional degree that might take years to earn. Plus, your current employer may help cover the cost. Be sure to check out your benefits to see if that's the case.

Even if you think you'll need to find a new job, you could consider playing to your strengths with a career pivot rather than starting from scratch in a different field. Take the skills you have and do something different, rather than identifying a completely new set of skills you'd have to develop. Capitalizing on what you already have is going to be a much safer, smarter move. You may even find this route to be more fulfilling than leaving behind everything you've built to this point.

Is there a corner of your current field that seems poised to expand as the economy recovers? If so, what tools or experience could you sharpen or enhance to make you a more viable candidate? The benefits of staying in your wheelhouse far outweigh walking away, including experience and professional connections.

If you work in higher education, for example, consider using this time to develop public speaking skills so you can take your expertise to a wider audience as a guest speaker virtually today, or on the road after the pandemic is over. That could be really valuable. A lot of our clients increase their income through consulting, so some small-business or entrepreneurial skillset building or classwork could be helpful. And many are writers by nature, so finding ways to build your skills around writing for different types of media could make sense as well.

2. Get creative with how you learn

There's still no doubt that strengthening your professional education is one of the best ways to build your aptitude while also building a like-minded network in your field.

One of the silver linings right now is the expansion of options for tapping into learning opportunities at a reduced rate, or even for free. Many programs that previously may have charged hundreds of dollars in registration fees and required travel plus time away from home are now going virtual with lower costs for participation. There are so many more resources online today for self-development than there were even just a few months ago.

Personally, I'm a big fan of podcasts, which are free. There are so many great ones focused on career from business schools and consulting firms. The series developed by The Harvard Business Review is one of my favorites (recent episodes include "Adjusting to Remote Work during the Coronavirus Crisis" and "Working Parents, Let Go of the Idea of Balance").

It may seem tough right now to carve out time for professional development on top of your day job. I have been working from home for months with a preschooler and no childcare, so I understand. You just have make the choice to make your career and your future a priority and designate time when you can, whether it's naptime, TV time or after bedtime for your kids. This time will be incredibly valuable for you to focus on honing your own skills that could drive your career and your family's financial success.

3. Set up a "mentee circle"

Identifying a professional mentor or a sponsor in today's environment can be really tough while so many people are working remotely—and staying close with a mentor is tougher virtually than it is in person.

To get the most out of your mentoring experience, consider setting up a "mentee circle" with a handful of peers in the same situation. A group of my friends and I did this, almost accidentally. We're in different parts of the country doing the same job, and we started catching up at the end of the week socially. Then we started sharing what we're learning from our own mentors—the different aspects of guidance we're getting, and started setting goals as a group. Now we capture coaching and guidance that we absorb individually and then share among group, magnifying the impact of our mentorships in ways that help us all to benefit.

These ideas may just be the starting point. However you invest in yourself—whether it's through a lower-tuition online professional certification, carving out time alone to learn without distractions, or listening to books or workshops and then discussing them with friends--this is a great time to position yourself for the future.

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This material is for informational or educational purposes only and does not constitute fiduciary investment advice under ERISA, a securities recommendation under all securities laws, or an insurance product recommendation under state insurance laws or regulations. This material does not take into account any specific objectives or circumstances of any particular investor, or suggest any specific course of action. Investment decisions should be made based on the investor's own objectives and circumstances.