How To Start A Career in an Industry You Have No Formal Training In

Many of us go to college thinking we know exactly what we want to do with our lives while others enter schools in hopes to find out what career paths to choose.

For as long as I can remember I have always loved advertising. My mom always said when I was a kid I used to pay attention to the commercials more than TV shows. As a result of this, I entered Howard University declaring advertising as my major. I thought I was going to be making Superbowl commercials and TRUTH anti-smoking PSAs, but after one Intro to Journalism class my sophomore year I found what I really wanted to do. I found my passion.

Many of my editorial assignments involved interviewing local police, doctors, and professors on campus for various stories. I absolutely loved doing research and finding out the details of a person’s career and using all of this information to tell a unique story. I started appreciating the art of interviewing people and I knew that this was something I had to develop a skill for. I got a gig (unpaid of course because I had very little work to show) at a small hip-hop website doing phone interviews with some up-and-coming artists. I didn’t care about the nonexistent pay because I was getting something that was worth more than money (at the time), valuable experience. I had a chance to take the principles and skills that I developed with my professor and apply them directly to my work that would be published online.

Fast forward a couple of months and my desire to interview my favorite artists began to rise. I wanted to start capturing these moments on video instead of transcribing phone interviews. I began interviewing local DC rappers (Wale and Tabi Bonney who were very underground at that time) and both videos got some pretty good pickup across the hip-hop blogosphere. I was glad to be in a position to showcase new talent to the world but I was still a rookie in my interview technique. After a few more underground artist interviews with poor sound quality and horrible editing I wanted to really test the waters and see if I could interview somebody HUGE.

That somebody ended up being the founder of Def Jam Records and the man behind the RUN DMC, Phat Farm and, Russell Simmons.

It was after that interview that I realized I wanted to make a career shift. There was only one problem, I had no formal training! All I knew was that what I was doing was incredibly cool and it would be amazing to make a living out of it (the untemplater way of thinking, right?). I had no idea about how I was going to get there but I knew I wanted this to be my job description: “Travel the world interviewing people and hosting a show that reaches millions”. Just a tad bit different from an account management position at an ad agency.

Where do I start? How do I learn more? Am I doing this right? Should I change my major? These were all of the questions running through my mind before I decided to take a leap of faith. It took months of meeting with mentors, personal decision making, and learning as much about entertainment journalism and editing videos on Final Cut as I possibly could, before officially restructuring the career path I was on.

Jumping into something new is never easy, especially without any knowledge or training. Here are a few tips on making that career transition a smoother one.

Talk to people that are doing what you want to do

There is no better advice on doing something than from someone who is actually doing it. Take these people out to lunch, get some insight on the mistakes that they made, etc. If you are serious about your goals and what you want to accomplish, people will see that. You might even develop a mentor-mentee type of relationship with someone who is where you want to be.

Research, research, and then do more research

There is no doubt that every single industry is changing rapidly nowadays. The good thing is we have this thing called the internet that allows us to stay up to the minute on just about anything. To really jump into a new career path you need to know as much as you can about it. Time to start getting that Google reader filled up with industry related RSS feeds.

Intern and work (for free) in the field you want to be in

This may be the most important thing to do. The easiest way to blast off into that new career path that you didn’t go to school for, or didn’t previously work in, is to just start doing it! I saw Seth Godin speak a few weeks ago and a young lady asked him for advice on starting her own advertising agency. He told her to do it on the weekends (maybe even Sunday only) for small business clients who could use some free help. No matter how big or how small the work, the sooner you can begin something in your new field, the sooner you can start building your portfolio/resume and moving to the next level.

The steps to getting started in new field are all ongoing, and as I like to say, the grind never stops. I am not hosting a TV show just yet but in two years I have interviewed some of the biggest names in music, traveled to France to cover the Cannes Film Festival, and have had my work seen millions of times across the web, all with no formal training.

The truth is, a lot of people didn’t major in whatever field their awesome career is in, these are the same people that believe that anything is possible.

What is it that you are dying to do but have not had the formal training for? If you have made that step in starting something new, leave a comment to shed some light on your journey.

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Jabari is a media personality who hosts an online show, interviewing today's artists in the music industry. While he is not doing that he is shooting short films for the web, and while he is not doing that, he is at the Capitol/Virgin records office helping create the coolest social media campaigns for artists on the label.

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  1. says

    I have recently been revisiting a dream career that I’ve had for some time. It’s one that I seem to have made up, a combination of at least three others. As such, it’s terrifying. What if I can’t make it work? What if I can?

    Recently I’ve been more and more fed up with my jobs, and am in need of a change. I need to pursue a passion in my work. Thanks for the example and the encouragement! I can find some mentors, learn from them, and piece together their lessons to create the career I want, as I get out there and start doing it.

    • Jabari Johnson says

      What’s up Matthew, I think the fear of not knowing what the outcome is going to be is something we all go through. The thing is, there is no time to worry about that. Your going to try and fail at a number of things but you are also going to succeed at plenty. Keep pushing and create the career that you want man!

  2. says

    Awesome article Jabari!! I graduated from Howard University. I am currently doing the suggestions you provided so at least I know I am on the right track. Congratulations on fulfillfing your passion and being able to conduct interviews with some very interesting people. I would love to chit chat sometime.

  3. says

    Yo Jabari – awesome insight man. I really never knew your background before reading this. Makes what you are doing that much more important.

    The one thing to get out of this is to just do it. If you waited for a paid gig, you’d still be waiting. Instead you are making things happen and living that Untemplater lifestyle.

  4. Tyler Tervooren says

    These are great tactics to use in a career change, but whatever you want to change to, I think the most important thing to do is to just start DOING it. Everybody sucks when they first start at anything and getting over that is the most important part. You just start doing…and you suck…until one day, finally, you don’t suck anymore. And that’s when it all happens.

  5. Krystle Miller says

    Great article!

    I really appreciate you responding to people’s comments. And since you seem to be offering personalized advice I’d like to ask you a question…

    How did you manage to get in contact with people in the industry? I’m always nervous to hit up a stranger, plus I have no idea what to say. How did you get people to actually respond?

    Thanks in advance!


    Ps. I checked out your YouTube page and you have some amazing interviews on there. I especially loved the Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj ones. Keep up the good work!

    • Jabari Johnson says

      Thanks Krystle! I think it depends on who you are trying to get in contact with. If you can get a referral from somebody before contacting a person that is always better than a cold call or an email. If not you just have to go for it, the worst they can do is ignore you and if that happens, as Jay-Z says, “on to the next one”.

  6. says

    “The truth is, a lot of people didn’t major in whatever field their awesome career is in, these are the same people that believe that anything is possible.”

    This is great to me. :) I’m finishing up what I call my “useless business degree,” because it’s totally irrelevant to anything I ever want to do with my life. A degree in HR management? Yeah, not needed for a career as a writer & photographer, but I’m not gonna let my degree define what I need to do to get paid in my life.

    Part of me wants to quit school anyhow, even with a year left for the degree… Because, well, why have it? I suppose I will end up sticking it out, it just makes me wonder if people like Steve Jobs had the same, “No, don’t quit! It’s bad! You’ll regret it!!” sort of talk like I had when I voiced my desire. Then again, he wasn’t almost done like I am… Just sucks when I feel like I’m wasting the time I could spend trying to develop my skills related to my passion when I’m slogging away at what I feel is expected of me now. (Funny enough, the only person who supported my desire to quit was my mother… She’s always told me to do whatever I feel I need to when I feel I need to do it.)

    • Jabari Johnson says

      Hey Meg,

      I think since you only have one more year left you should grind it out (unless a HUGE opportunity comes about that forces you to leave). I don’t know about you but completing college was a huge achievement that I wanted to do for me, I will never forget the day I walked down the isle and those four years flashed in my memory and I was able to say, “Damn, I did it!”. You can develop all of your skills while in college and what helped me get through my classes that I wasn’t too interested in was finding anything that I could apply to my career. If you dig deep and use your imagination there is definitely something, even in HR management haha. I checked out CarsxGirl too, very cool site.

    • Jabari Johnson says

      Hey man,

      So basically I help the digital marketing team come up with strategies for our artists across social media. I also create a lot of video content for our artists that we put on the web that is more entertainment based.

  7. Mandy says

    Hi Jabari,

    I’m trying to write a job descrition of what I do for an indie artist I’m working for. I’m stuck on the title because I’m doing som much in different areas. I’m raising awareness and distribution both physical and digital, I’m booking venues for live shows, researching and marketing. This might be a stupid question, but I am just starting out, what do you think my title should be? Media Consultant? Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

  8. Jabari Johnson says


    Well you are doing a lot. The raising awareness sounds like PR, the distribution sounds like indie label work, the booking sounds like an agent or a manager, and the research and marketing sounds like brand strategy. Hmmm, are you a one woman record label? LOL, but seriously that is the type of team indie artists need have to have nowadays, people who can do a little bit of everything. Consultant, assistant, etc. those are all titles but what is really important is the work that you can show. People wont care about your title if your work is stellar so I think your fine with either of those.

  9. Marvin says

    I graduated in 2003 with an IT degree and was unable to get a job in the IT field, everyone wanted years and years of experience. I had actually given up after a few

    years. I took a course @ morphobyte; courses are online and convenient; a lot of interaction. Now I work with them on a part-time basis; the best part

    of that is that they continue to teach me. Even if I was not working for them I would still be able to call and get help.

    This has taught me to NEVER give up on your dreams and that everything happens for a reason, so use every opportunity that comes your way as a lesson in life. The sky is the limit.

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