Job Search Question of the Day: Do You Let Rules Stop You?

Now I don’t mean to encourage out and out revolt among job seekers. Orderliness in systems and in job search can be very useful. BUT, that said, there may be times when stepping outside of the rules – or at least presumed rules – can be a smart move to get your career going in a new direction…or in any direction at all.

Here’s my own “rule-breaking” career transition story:

After receiving an MBA in finance, I spent some years working in banking and corporate  financial reporting. Believe me when I tell you I was bored out of my gourd. (Oh…I guess you do believe me.)

After doing my best to make the most out of monotony, I eventually decided I was tired of jobs I only felt so-so about – although I admit the lovely benefits made them a lot harder to give up. But benefits and windowed-offices aside, off I went to find work I truly cared about. Since I had an interest in housing policy and homelessness, despite having zero background in that field, I was determined to find a job there.  So nice not to know things are impossible!

How volunteering helped in my career transition

As part of my transition, I volunteered for a non-profit that provided housing and services for homeless people. I did this not only because it felt good working with an organization I cared about, but also because it helped bridge the gap and show potential employers my commitment to a new direction.

While I was volunteering, I heard about a housing policy analyst job for the City of New York.  (Often putting yourself in a new world of people and ideas opens you up to a new jobs grapevine.)

Did I have the skills as advertised? No. A very big loud “no”.

A short primer in transferable skills

But without even knowing terms like transferable skills, I carefully built my resume and cover letter to highlight what I’ve done in a way that clearly shows I have the skills for the new job. Analysis. Finance. Writing ability. Problem solving. Determination. For example, I took a project I worked on in an earlier banking job and made sure the way I presented those skills in my resume and cover letter showed I had  similar skills to what a policy analyst needed. I didn’t lie. I just framed my old skills in a way that spoke the language of this new job I wanted.

Now so far, that’s not exactly about rules – other than daring to go where you at first glance don’t fit.   So far my story is mostly about finding a way to grab their attention enough to at least get them to consider you.

When rules are only rules in our heads

So where did I really dare to go beyond the rules? The job specifically said they wanted a Ph.D.  This was a government agency with an educational requirement that wasn’t listed as merely preferred but “required”.  One would expect that to be insurmountable (and in many cases it may be). And yet, believing I could do the job (even without specific quantifiable evidence) and also creating my application package in a way that I thought had a good chance of shining through, I applied anyway. And I got called for an interview.  Wuhoo! And after several more interviews, I actually got the job offer. I was kind of blown away, but it taught me a terrific lesson about not letting mere words and my own preconceptions of rules stop me from trying. (Just so you know…at the same time another offer came along and I wound up taking that instead. But that’s a whole other loooong story.)

I can almost see recruiters rolling their eyes at how people might extrapolate from this story that it’s ok to apply to just any job. Trust me…it’s not. You’ll be wasting your time and theirs by shooting random resume arrows at any old job target.

What I hope you remember about being “qualified” for a job

But back to my main point…please think twice before assuming you are NOT going to be picked for an interview just because you’re missing one or two things listed in the description. Or because you never specifically performed the required duties. If you have a majority of the basic underlying skills and think you can make a really good case for yourself – even if a missing requirement is staring you in the face – take a chance. Give it your best shot. Don’t be intimidated by specific tasks you’ve never done if other things you’ve done are comparable –  and if you can clearly show your transferable skills.

While overly cautious self-minimization is not specific to women, women especially often take themselves out of the running by thinking specific been-there-done-that qualifications rather than thinking transferable skills. This is true in the workplace as well as in job search and career positioning. Just because you’ve never done it, don’t think you can’t. Ask yourself whether you’ve done something similar and can tell your story in a way that gets others to buy in. This is one of the most important skills you’ll ever need to help promote yourself for the rest of your career!

Don’t forget the power of acquiring new skills & information

Additional training as well as some targeted volunteer and/or consulting experience can also help you get there. Some in-depth research including informational interviews might be useful too, especially when figuring out how to best re-frame your story.  Even just adding one or two of those elements  can sometimes help jump start your career transition. (Well…that plus dogged determination.) You don’t have to have already done something to be successful in that role…but you do need to make sure you aren’t jumping into the deep end without at least some knowledge of what you’ll need to do when you get there!

Remember…this is YOUR job and YOUR career. Are you going to stand by on the sidelines just wishing you had what it takes, or are you going to decide to look past some of the “rules” to where you want to see yourself?

Have you ever stepped beyond the “rules” to get a great job? Do you think there are certain job search or career-related rules that should never be broken?


And when it comes to the question of whether your resume will actually get selected even if you don’t quite match every single requirement (apart from company policy), it could all depend on…

Who the Heck is Screening Your Resume?


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. I love the idea of not interpreting “required skills and background” as set-in-stone. Viewing the job description as the employer’s “wish list” for the idea candidate is probably a much healthier approach.

    If the job looks appealing to you and you believe you can do it well, then apply!!!

  2. anyone changing careers needs to think in term of ‘transferable’ skills and how they can sell themselves into a new position/career.

    That said, it is difficult to get whoever is screening resumes to notice. they are in the business of eliminate first, qualify second. You will need to do more than just send in a resume and cover letter to get noticed. Your best chance is gettting directly to the hiring manager and avoiding HR. (Sorry HR)

  3. Hi Ronnie Ann! I have experience in this arena but with a slight tweak – during my previous, “fire at all reasonable targets” job search, I responded to an ad for a position that I was technically qualified for (right masters degree – regional planning) but didn’t have exactly the focus of experience – economic – they were looking for.

    I put my best (more design/physical planning) foot forward with my submission and reasoned that while it wouldn’t be my dream job, I could make a case for myself in an interview and also do the job, while moving to my desired city and seeing where life took me from there.

    They didn’t call me, but what they DID do was forward my resume and work samples to another (design firm more appropriate for my skills) consultant/frequent business partner of theirs, who were vaguely thinking of hiring another designer but hadn’t advertised anything yet. THEY called me and eventually hired me. All of this was in a city where no one knew me from Adam.

    Sometimes the best networking is the networking other people do – most professional communities are smaller than most people realize, so this would be a case in which it never hurts to put yourself out there for people to notice!

  4. Marsha Shirley says:

    May I be blunt? The truth is rules don’t carry much weight in the workforce or life in general. The driving force is attitude. Rules only serve as a reality check.

  5. Just got back from the Bay Area and my comments overfloweth 😉 , so please excuse short but sincere gratitude for the discussion DC Jobs, Dianna, Amy and Marsha.

    And Amy…I LOVE that story. I will share it with others for inspiration. (May even post separately on it.) Indeed…sometimes the best networking occurs AFTER we started the process.

    Thanks everyone!

    ~ Ronnie Ann

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