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“Back to school” season started a few weeks ago, but the students among us are already buckling down to their books as the real work of the semester kicks in and midterm exams loom. If you are not a matriculated student, you might be feeling a little left out of the learning frenzy.

Just because you are not pursuing a degree doesn’t mean you have to forgo learning or sharpening your professional skills. For those of us contending with student loan debt, pursuing low-cost classes and resources might just be the perfect way for you to grow in your career without breaking the bank.

We share a few basic strategies to find professional opportunities with an affordable price tag below.

Join a professional organization

Any profession you can think of, from fundraisers, teachers, graphic designers, marketers, professors, and photographers, all have professional organizations they can join that offer networking opportunities, local and national events that promote professional development, and websites full of resources. For example, The Young Nonprofit Professionals Network supports emerging nonprofit leaders and has chapters all over the country. AIGA, the professional association for design, offers local chapters, job listings and student groups.

Go to a conference

Not all conferences are expensive affairs held at fancy hotels in faraway cities. Many regional and local networks offer full or half-day conferences focused around a particular topic or theme that is relevant to your field.

For example, when I was a Museum Educator I belonged to the New York City Museum Educators Roundtable (NYCMER), which held monthly workshops and an annual conference. Utilize your network to see if there are any upcoming conferences that relate to your work or mission area. If something piques your interest but is on the pricier side, find out if you can apply for a grant or fee waiver to attend.

Think local

Your neighborhood public library, community college, Chamber of Commerce, Business Improvement District, Y, or arts council may offer professional development classes and networking opportunities you never knew existed. I’m always looking to see what the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries have on offer. It’s exciting to see what free resources are out there!


Volunteering is a great way to share skills you already have, apply them to a new field, or try your hand at something new while giving back to the community. A great place to start looking for volunteer opportunities is, of course, Idealist. Other organizations like Catchafire connect professionals with nonprofits that need a specific skillset —like design, accounting, marketing, etc—to help complete a project.

Hop online

The Internet has opened up how knowledge can be shared, from allowing free and on-demand courses to be taught from the comfort of one's home to connecting working professionals across the world. For a do-it-yourself approach to professional development, hop online to find the resources that can get you where you want to go. is a “community marketplace for classes” that offers practical courses taught by working professionals. You can search classes by location or sign-up for online courses that include an in-person workshop component. You can also offer to lead sections yourself. Examples of class topics range from digital strategy and sustainable business development to building happiness at work. Local classes give you an opportunity to meet creative, professional, and curious people from a variety of fields.

Coursera collaborates with 275+ leading universities and companies to help individuals and organizations access flexible and affordable learning opportunities. With the option to gain degrees and certificates or simply refresh your skillset in a certain area, Coursera is a great way to step back into a classroom-like atmosphere.

Pursuing professional development opportunities doesn't have to be stressful or expensive. Get started with one of our suggestions above to refresh your perspective and bring brand new ideas to your current position. Who knows, you may become inspired enough to chart a whole new career path in the time it takes you to boot up your computer.


Find out how to ask your employer to fund your professional development and pursue one of these five professional development trainings, no matter your career stage.

Eleanor C. Whitney profile image

Eleanor C. Whitney

Eleanor C. Whitney is a writer, arts administrator and musician living in Brooklyn, New York. She currently is a Program Officer at the New York Foundation for the Arts and is the author of the forthcoming book Grow: How to Take Your Do It Yourself Project and Passion to the Next Level and Quit Your Job, which will be released in the spring of 2013 on Cantankerous Titles.

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