Knowing how to build a professional development plan is a crucial skill for anyone looking take control of their own career. Just as important, be your own best friend by learning how to make them on the cheap.
Pick your head up
When you’re in the middle of midterms, it can be easy to daydream about the day when you finally have a full-time job and you don’t have to spend your days surrounded by stacks of books in the library. However, spoiler alert: you’ll never really be done learning in your career.
Sure, career-learning looks a lot different than cramming for a multiple choice exam, which is why they call it “professional development” and not midterms, but trust me: graduation is only the beginning of your real education.
Professional development is going to happen whether you plan for it or not, but one of the best ways to accelerate your career (and your earnings!) is to plan for it. That can take a lot of different forms, but there’s one constant: in almost every case, your professional development plan isn’t going to be entirely free.
Worth it? Definitely. Your boss, colleagues and industry will sit up and take notice that you’re someone who is serious about their professional growth and career path. But free? Nah.
One exception to the “It’s Not Free” rule
Ok, not to backtrack immediately, but there is an exception to the it’s-not-free rule: if you work in a regulated profession, for a large employer, there’s a good chance that your workplace will cover any mandatory professional development you need to do. Think accountants, lawyers, doctors, engineers and such.
Those professionals need to complete a certain number of training hours every year to be allowed to work in their field and maintain any certifications they have. When they work for big companies, those companies tend to pay for that training.
However, they likely won’t cover everything, so even if you’re an accountant at a big firm, let’s get to the good stuff.
Building an effective DIY professional development plan
Before you can even worry about making sure your professional development plan isn’t going to ruin your budget, you need to make sure you’re planning on learning the right things for your industry and your current position. (Your plan might be cheap af, but if you’re learning to make balloon animals for your career as a writer, you’re probably wasting something more valuable: your time.)
To build a plan that will help score you your next big promotion, raise or job, make sure to look at…
- What tasks do you do at your current role that could be improved or expanded? You can figure this out by taking a look at your day to day, asking people at work or even by asking people in similar roles at other companies. Let’s say you sometimes help make videos at work – would brushing up on your lighting and editing skills make the videos shine?
- What kinds of skills seem to be widely valued in your industry? If everyone, from the interns to the CEO, spends their day living and breathing Excel spreadsheets, you’re probably going to be well-served by becoming the go-to Excel expert. Try to find those evergreen skills by browsing job posting, observing the work environment and asking people with more experience than you.
- What experience and training will you need to score your dream job? This one is hands-down the most fun to do. Go find a dream job posting that someone’s hiring for right now – the kind of role you’d kill to have in ten years – and break it down. What steps and experience will you need to hit every bullet point on their job posting? There’s your development plan.
… Without breaking the bank
Now that you’ve got a rough plan in place, it’s time to figure out how you’re going to achieve it. This is where the money stuff comes in, because there is no shortage of people who will charge you an arm and a leg for all manner of training classes, conferences and coaching. It’s easy to charge a lot for things that are valuable, and advancing in your career? Hella valuable.
You don’t need to drain your emergency fund to attend the premier conference in your industry just yet, though. First, take a look at your plan.
If you have concrete skills you want to learn, try Googling “free online course + your skill” or even just “online course + your skill.” There’s a lot you can learn from the comfort of your couch, and there are awesome free options out there.
If you’re thinking of more abstract concepts, like “improve my management skills,” the library is your new best friend. Go get a card and stock up as many free books as you can handle (and don’t forget to return them on time).
Lastly, if there are paid training opportunities you think really are worth the money, try talking to your boss about different options to have your work cover some (or all!) of the cost. They benefit by getting a leveled-up employee, and you get a great perk. This kind of approach is also useful in salary negotiations – if there’s “nothing they can do right now” to increase your paycheck, try asking if they can cover your training, or offer you paid time off to pursue it.
The bonus round: Getting feedback on your plan
No matter what you want to learn, consider building your development plan as a bonus free networking activity.
If there are people you admire in your industry, it can’t hurt to reach out to them with a quick email asking for specific help or advice. No, you can’t ask them to build your development plan for you, but asking if they can recommend two books they consider must-reads for people in your industry? Golden.
They’ll feel flattered to be asked, and happy that they could help out an up-and-comer in only a few minutes. Talk about leaving a positive impression in the minds of people who might be in a position to hire you someday!
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