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Unlocking doors: 5 ways to gain work experience when you don’t have any


This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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Jessica Roper, MBA, Director of Career Services

Jessica Roper, MBA, Director of Career Services

At a glance

  • Some jobs, particularly when an individual is changing careers or entering a specialized field, require work experience, even when the positions are entry level.
  • Taking on internships and knowledge-enhancing projects in your current job are two ways to gain transferable skills if you’re looking to change careers or enter a new industry.
  • Other ways to gain work experience outside of a 9-to-5 role include joining associations, volunteering and networking.
  • University of Phoenix is committed to preparing students for their careers. Learn more about available career services!

This article was updated on December 1, 2023.

Putting the cart before the horse?

Everyone knows that work experience is a must for mid-level and advanced jobs. But some entry-level jobs? As it turns out, yes. In a paradoxical twist of job-market fate, even entry-level jobs can require work experience.

This can be frustrating enough on its own, but the chicken-and-egg question also applies to experienced workers who may be changing careers. For them, getting the right education is only part of the equation. They also have to figure out how to get the right experience when they’re technically just starting out.

There is good news, though. With the right strategies, gaining valuable work experience is within everyone’s reach. Here’s how.

More than 100 degrees and certificate options, 90% of which are in growing fields.  

1. Embrace the power of professional associations

Ready to uncover a secret weapon for gaining work experience and expanding your professional network? Professional associations.

These vibrant communities of like-minded professionals offer numerous opportunities. You can, for example, attend events, workshops and seminars. You can dive into committee work, and share your insights while learning from others in your chosen field. These actions demonstrate your dedication, passion and thirst for knowledge, while forging connections that could benefit you down the road.

Professional associations are essentially a gateway to industry events, insider knowledge and connections. All of these experiences essentially fast-track your work experience.

Practical strategy

Finding the right professional organization is key. Check with your college’s student services or career development center for guidance on professional groups affiliated with the school. Career advisors may also be able to offer tailored recommendations.

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2. Unleash the power of volunteer work

Volunteer work is more than just a noble endeavor. It’s a powerful stepping stone to gaining work experience.

The trick is to find volunteer opportunities that align with your career interests. At the right nonprofit organization or community initiative, you can acquire practical experience, enhance your resumé and demonstrate your commitment to growth, all in exchange for your time and expertise.

Volunteer work also lets you make a positive impact on your community while gaining real-world experience employers value. This is essentially a triple win: You give your time to a worthy cause, you gain experience that could enhance your career, and your prospective employer benefits from your practical knowledge.

Practical strategy

Reach out to faculty, academic departments or clubs related to your field of interest. Ask about volunteer initiatives, research projects and community service opportunities to see if there’s a good fit. You can also attend career fairs, networking events and webinars to discover programs and organizations seeking student volunteers.

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3. Seek internship opportunities

Internships can bridge the gap between academia and the professional world. These experiences allow you to apply theoretical knowledge, learn industry-specific skills and find seasoned mentors.

Treat internships as valuable learning experiences, and find opportunities to showcase your abilities and dedication. Internships are an immersive learning journey that allow you to gain firsthand industry knowledge and establish a professional track record. Embrace the challenges and seize every chance to demonstrate your skills, adaptability and commitment.

Practical strategy

To find an internship, research companies in your field, visit their websites and reach out to their HR departments. Update your LinkedIn® profile to indicate you are “Open to Work,” and leverage your personal network for referrals.

4. Seek new projects within your current role

Sometimes, gaining work experience can be as simple as taking on new projects or responsibilities. And you don’t necessarily have to change jobs to do it. Your current role can be a platform for gaining diversified work experience.

Tell your manager about your career aspirations and collaborate to find tasks or projects that align with your desired field. Since you’ll be taking on additional work, make sure each project enables you to develop transferable skills.

Spearheading initiatives or collaborating with colleagues from different departments not only expands your skill set, but it also demonstrates initiative, versatility and a desire to learn and grow.

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Practical strategy

Keep an eye on internal communications, network with colleagues and attend department events to discover opportunities. Be proactive and show enthusiasm while scouting for projects.

Alternatively, ask your manager or a colleague if they’d be willing to mentor you!

5. Network, network, network

Networking holds the key to expanding your professional horizons and gaining work experience. But don’t just attend industry events and career expos. Seek out authentic professional relationships within your field by forging connections, discussing meaningful topics and staying in touch.

Relationships lead to all sorts of opportunities, from new jobs to mentorship. And it can happen anywhere, even online. LinkedIn and other industry-specific forums serve as virtual gateways to knowledge and opportunities.

Remember, the power of networking lies in your willingness to actively participate.

Practical strategy

All networking starts with a conversation. Genuine connections are built through active participation and a willingness to contribute and receive unique insights and experiences.

You already have connections through work or faculty members. Reach out and ask questions. People love to share about their career journeys, so start by asking about how they got to where they are.

The right mindset

In the end, gaining work experience is not just about checking boxes on a resumé. It’s about the personal growth, confidence and resilience you develop along the way. So, embrace the lifelong learning mindset, and seek opportunities where you can both share and learn. It just might be the experience you use to land your next role.

Career resources at University of Phoenix

Don’t embark on your career journey alone! University of Phoenix equips its students and graduates with the following resources to help them on their professional paths.

  • Career Services for Life®: Available to UOPX students and graduates, this offering comprises complimentary career coaching, including guidance on how to build a personal brand and write a resumé.
  • Free career resources: Browse a range of downloadable guides and templates to help you optimize your LinkedIn® profile, get ready for a job interview and write a resumé and cover letter.
  • Career With Confidence™ newsletter: Get career insights every week via UOPX’s LinkedIn newsletter.
Kara Dennison


Kara Dennison is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), an executive career and leadership coach and a Forbes contributor. She’s the CEO of Optimized Career Solutions. Her dream job is helping high achievers and leaders live authentic lives, starting with their careers. When she’s not writing for University of Phoenix or coaching high achievers and leaders, you can find her hanging out with her husband and two black cats or swinging in the hammock out back in her small, remote town in Tennessee.


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