11 Strategies for Low-Cost Professional Development

11 Strategies for Low-Cost Professional Development

Monique wrote in with a good question that quickly grew far beyond the boundaries of the reader mailbag (as good questions often do):

What do you do as an independent writer/content creator for professional growth? And how do you do it inexpensively?

First of all, it’s worth noting that, because of the niche that my writing tends to occupy, a lot of my professional development overlaps with personal development. This is somewhat true in every field, but it is stronger for someone who (tries to) work professionally on things that have personal impact.

Here are the big things I do myself for professional development.

I read, constantly. I’m pretty much always reading a book on personal finance or some aspect of personal growth. I read books about money, books about time management, books about investing, books about philosophy, books about psychology, books about writing, and so on. I try to read them deeply, too; I take notes on what I read and try to come up with ways to start using the things I learn about as soon as possible.

I listen to podcasts and audiobooks whenever I’m driving anywhere alone or when I’m walking or exercising. This is just an extension of the reading strategy, mentioned above.

I have a list of longer-term career goals that I’m working toward, and I put some effort most days toward achieving at least one of them. I have a few really big ideas for what I want to do in the future, so I take time each day to work toward those things. Those ideas stretch me beyond what my normal day-to-day efforts are like. Sometimes, those long-term ideas don’t pan out, but I’m always glad I worked toward them because I virtually always see some benefit for having put in the effort.

I talk to other people who do similar things. I know two people locally who are freelance writers and I communicate with them quite often, meeting them for coffee on occasion and pinging them online on what seems like several times a day. They’ve gone from being acquaintances to professional associates to friends over the course of the last several years. I also communicate online with other people who are freelance writers who work from home. In all of those cases, we are constantly swapping ideas and strategies.

Those are strategies I use pretty much every day in my current role as a self-employed writer. However, in my previous role as a research assistant, I used quite a few additional strategies that worked well in the environment of a large organization, which I’ll get into in a moment. Professional development and growth has always been important to me.

Here’s the catch, though: a lot of professional development and growth strategies are expensive. It’s not cheap to go to conferences and conventions. It’s not cheap to constantly buy books. It’s not cheap to attend seminars. It’s not cheap to work toward a college degree in your spare time.

The reality is that cost is an extremely important factor in making professional growth and development decisions, especially early in a career where income may be lower and expenses such as student loans and expensive rent are draining away what little money you do have.

So, what avenues does one have for professional development and professional growth when money is tight? Here are 11 strategies I used, both in my early career when I worked in a more traditional environment and money was very tight and today when I work independently at home and I choose to be very mindful of my dollars.

Set some longer-term career goals so that you can see what you’re working toward. Spend some time to evaluate where exactly you want to go in your career. Are you on a career path you’re happy with? If you are, where do you want to be in five years or 10 years, and what can you do to start going there? If you’re not on a career path you’re happy with, what’s your path to get to where you want to be and how can you leverage your current opportunities to help you get there?

Those are questions you should be asking yourself frequently. Not every single day, mind you, but frequently enough that your plan changes based on what kind of progress you’re making and how your actual life and goals are changing over time.

I tend to do it about once every three months – I sit down for a thorough professional and personal assessment of my life and think about what I want to achieve in the next three months, the next year, the next several years, and the rest of my life. Doing that kind of deep, reflective thinking virtually always points me toward setting really meaningful goals that I’m excited to work toward, and that provides the motivation for me to actually do the extra steps I need to do in personal and professional development.

In other words, professional and personal development is much easier to do when you’re motivated, and thinking about your future and setting goals you’re excited about is a powerful motivator that costs you nothing more than a few hours every few months.

Request professional feedback at work and use that feedback as a checklist to improve. If you have any sort of employer, whether it’s an actual boss in your office environment or someone you’re contracted to work for, it never hurts to ask that person for honest feedback on your performance. What do you do well? What do you do not so well?

(Remember, when you’re asking those questions, you’re asking for a mix of positive and negative feedback, so you should expect that kind of feedback with the understanding that the person giving that feedback is not trying to be cruel. They’re trying to be helpful.)

Take that feedback and use it. Don’t dwell too much on the positive stuff – just use it as a reminder that you’re probably in a solid place. Instead, focus on the criticisms. What things can you take from those criticisms to improve your performance without undermining the things you’re already good at?

Those items, along with the deep thinking about your future career, should give you lots of pointers toward areas where you should be working on your professional development. Now, how do you actually do that work?

Make a daily commitment to reading (and taking notes) on material related to your field and to better professional performance. This should be a standard part of professional development in almost any career path. There are always areas in which you can be improving, and there’s a very good chance that there are books and/or papers out there that can help you improve in those areas.

Make a daily commitment to reading something related to the areas where you want to improve. Read an article in a respected publication. Read a chapter or a section of a book. Whatever it is, read it slowly, reflect on what you’re learning, and stop and look up terms and phrases and ideas you don’t know as you go so you’re not lost.

Keep a notebook near you so that if you read something interesting that you can take action on or something that merits further thought or something you’d like to come back to, you can quickly write it down. When you’re done reading, write down a sentence or two (or more, if you feel it’s necessary) summarizing what you read and what the important parts were. If you have some specific things you can take away and use, write them down as well.

The cost here is minimal, since you can get almost unlimited books from your local library and the cost of a pen and a simple notebook is trivial.

If you prefer listening, find high-quality podcasts and course lectures related to your field, listen to them, and make note of the key ideas. Reading is incredibly useful because of the convenience of taking notes, but sometimes you’re in a position where sitting down with a book isn’t convenient. Maybe you’re exercising, or you’re driving somewhere.

In those cases, make an effort to listen to things that are meaningful to your professional development: podcasts related to your field, audiobooks related to your field, and so on.

It can be difficult to take notes when doing this. Whenever I hear something noteworthy, I usually stop the audiobook or podcast and use the voice recording app on my phone to take a verbal note, and then I copy them down later in my notebook. It works well for me.

Again, this has very little cost. You likely already have a smartphone, which likely has a free podcast discovery and listening app on there. You just need to find podcasts related to the areas you want to develop. Your local library likely offers audiobooks, both digitally and in physical format, which you can transfer to your phone and listen at your leisure.

Form or join a professional learning community, locally or online. Some people find it particularly effective to learn material together, through discussion and face-to-face interaction. One way to facilitate that is to join a professional learning community, one dedicated to professional growth in the area or areas you’re interested in.

Once you’ve identified some areas in which you want to develop professionally, look for some groups that you might be able to join that are focused on those areas. You can look online for Facebook groups to participate in, for example; if you’re looking for offline groups, I suggest taking a look at the offerings at meetup.com.

What if you can’t find such a group? Consider starting one yourself. Look for a small number of people that you know professionally that might be interested and just start a small group where you meet up either face-to-face or online to talk about professional development ideas. Perhaps you could facilitate a “book club” where you all read the same book and talk about the different takeaways you had, or maybe you could take turns leading a discussion on a particular topic. Just find something that you’re comfortable with that others would find useful and engaging.

Put those new ideas you’re learning into practice as often as you can, as soon as you can. When you’re reading and listening to material related to professional or personal development, you’re going to be bombarded with ideas. While it’s great to have those ideas in your head, the magic happens when you actually use those ideas in some productive fashion.

If you’ve followed the above two strategies, you’ve probably dotted down some specific actions you can take in order to improve your professional performance. Make a point of actually carrying out those actions – transform something you’ve noted into something you’re doing.

For example, if you’re learning about a new programming methodology, try to use that methodology on a small project at work. If you’re learning about techniques for effective communicating, put them to work during a meeting or during water cooler talk at work.

If you’re not taking those ideas and transforming them into action, you’re just reading and not growing.

Use new skills and ideas to build things in your spare time that you’ll actually use. You don’t have to limit the use of your new skills and ideas to the workplace, either. Don’t be afraid to look outside of your primary employment to find ways to utilize the professional skills and ideas that you’re learning.

Perhaps you can use your newfound communication skills within the service of a community group. Maybe you can use your web development skills in the service of a civic festival. Perhaps you can use IT skills to help out a local nonprofit.

The advantage of this approach is that it allows you to cultivate skills that you might not be able to directly use at work. You’re solving new problems in new ways, and there’s often less of a drawback if you don’t produce perfect results (due to using and refining new skills).

Join a professional organization related to your career path and try to get maximum value from the benefits. Many professional organizations provide great opportunities for professional growth. They offer publications and other resources that make it easy for you to continue to grow within your field.

The only catch, of course, is that many professional organizations can be pretty expensive. Many professional organizations have a rather significant annual cost in order to be a member, though that membership does afford access to publications, resources, meetings, and other tools.

One way to reduce that cost is to look into membership through your workplace. Perhaps your workplace offers a group discount, or even subsidizes the membership of employees.

Another avenue to examine is whether or not the discounts that you might get from professional organization membership might provide enough savings for you to justify the cost of membership.

In either case, if you can find a low-cost avenue for participation in a professional organization, do so.

Of course, if you are a member, it’s well worth it to make sure you’re taking advantage of the benefits. Make sure you’re receiving and reviewing the publications, taking advantage of online resources, participating in forums, going to conferences and other meetings when you can, and simply squeezing every ounce of value from your membership.

Evaluate what workplace resources are available to you in terms of furthering your education or earning new certifications. Many workplaces offer at least some tools for the professional development of their employees. This might take the form of a stipend for additional education, groups within the workplace geared toward professional development, cheap or free memberships in professional groups, cheap or free admissions and travel to professional meetings, and so on.

Take the time to talk to your supervisor as well as to the human resources department about the availability of any such resources and then take advantage of them. If your workplace subsidizes your participation in professional meetings, then participate in those meetings. If they subsidize further education, then grab that additional education. If they’ll pay for a certification, get that certification.

The thing to remember is that it’s up to you to take advantage of these things. They’re generally not laid out there like a buffet – you usually have to seek out benefits like this, because they’re usually benefits intended for the type of top performers who would seek them out.

It never hurts to ask!

Intentionally choose challenging projects at work as they will push you to learn more and build more skills. As you’re building all of these skills and professional relationships and new ideas, it’s useful to make sure that you’re applying them in the workplace. While you may find ways to apply some of them in your day to day activities, one of the prime ways to ensure that you’re really using your new skills is to put yourself out there for projects that really tap into the new skills and ideas that you’ve been building.

Not only will these new projects provide a great way to show off your increased capabilities at work, they also become a way for you to really hone new skills and make them natural.

For example, if you’ve been working on your public speaking and presentation skills, you should look for opportunities at work to speak to groups and present what your employer is doing. If you’ve been working on your social skills, you should seek out opportunities to represent your organization at larger meetings. If you’ve learned a particular new skill that’s related to your career, look for projects that will put that skill directly to work.

Choices like this will force you to really use those new skills, which can be intimidating. However, the rewards are tremendous – it’s taking risks and digging into new projects like these that help set you up for the type of career advancement you might be dreaming of.

Keep track of the skills you’ve built and applied as well as the things you’ve achieved as a result of those new skills. As you’re building these skills and finding new ways to apply them, make sure you’re keeping track of them.

The easiest way to do this is to make sure that you’re keeping your resume updated. I recommend making this a part of your three month professional review, discussed earlier in this article. As part of that review, go through your resume and ask yourself whether there are significant new projects and new skills that can be added to each section of the resume.

Do you have a new certification? Add it. Have you taken significant coursework? Add it. Have you added a significant new skill? Add it.

Doing this ensures that your resume continues to look good to people who may be interested in hiring you.

If you think you’ve done enough, you haven’t – never stop growing. Professional development isn’t just something you do every once in a while when someone suggests that you do it. It is a key component of growing in value in your professional career. It is a key to achieving the big things you want from your career – raises, promotions, and even career changes as they’re warranted.

Never, ever stop growing and developing, personally or professionally. The more you grow, the more valuable you become as a person and as an employee, and that value will be rewarded.

Good luck!

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