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29-year-old ex-bartender landed $100,000 ‘dream job' without a degree by ignoring this common career advice

Photo: Hannah Maruyama

Hannah Maruyama says she wouldn't be nearly as happy — or successful — at work as she is now if she followed any of the career advice she was given in her teens and 20s.

Teachers told her she "wouldn't get far" without going to college and getting a bachelor's degree. Friends warned her against switching jobs too often. 

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Maruyama enrolled part-time at Georgia Southern University in Savannah as a high school junior at the encouragement of one of her teachers but left after a couple of semesters to avoid student debt.

For a while, she thought her career options without a college degree would be limited to low-wage jobs or becoming an entrepreneur.

Throughout her 20s Maruyama worked as a lifeguard, bartender and even a deckhand on a dolphin-watching boat, never earning more than $30,000 a year.

Now on the cusp of turning 30, Maruyama is making $100,000 working in AI without a bachelor's degree. She works remotely from Houston, where she lives with her husband Ryan. 

The 29-year-old says she landed her "dream job" as the head of operations at Neo License, a startup that builds AI software, in 2021 by ignoring one common piece of career advice: don't apply for a job if you meet almost none of the requirements. 

The benefits of taking calculated risks in your job search

Maruyama decided to pursue a career in tech four years ago after losing her customer service job to pandemic lockdowns. 

Finding a remote job felt like a "safe bet," she recalls, and most of the remote listings she saw online were for tech roles including web designers, product managers and software engineers.

She took an online course to become a Salesforce certified administrator in April 2020 and, three months later, landed her first tech job as a remote Salesforce developer at a business management consulting firm. 

Most of the jobs Maruyama applied for did not require a bachelor's degree but required several years of experience and a laundry list of technical skills needed to fulfill the job's responsibilities. 

Maruyama says she largely ignored the requirements of the jobs she applied for. "I targeted jobs that I didn't qualify for on paper because those were the jobs that I was excited about and felt like I could grow the most in," she explains. 

Of course, you can't skip all of a job's requirements. Degree requirements might be flexible — especially as more companies get rid of them — but if a job is hiring for a specific technical skill or certification, a hiring manager will likely bring it up in the interview. 

She applied the same approach to her most recent job search in 2021. "If you want to move ahead in your career, you want to reach for something higher than where you are and challenge yourself," she says. "Discomfort can be a catalyst for growth."

For each of those reach jobs, "I would note in my application or during the interview that I'll learn anything I need to as quickly as I can," Maruyama adds. "I think the exact phrase I used was, 'I'm a shiny new penny!'"

Being confident and having a proactive attitude, she says, helped her land the operations role at NeoLicense — even though she didn't check off most of the boxes on the job description.

"If you don't have what they're looking for, show them you've done the research and have a plan to obtain that skill, whether it's taking an online course, getting a certification or shadowing someone who has that skill on the job," Maruyama says. "Most employers just want to see that you're motivated and willing to learn."

Want to land your dream job in 2024? Take CNBC's new online course How to Ace Your Job Interview to learn what hiring managers are really looking for, body language techniques, what to say and not to say, and the best way to talk about pay. Use discount code NEWGRAD to get 50% off from 5/1/24 to 6/30/24.

Plus, sign up for CNBC Make It's newsletter to get tips and tricks for success at work, with money and in life.

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