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I'm job hunting again. When I find a tempting position, one that looks great in every way except it requires some skill "ABC" I'm not familiar with, I get a book or find online tutorials, and study it. A few days later another tempting position comes to my attention, and it requires know-how with "DEF". I'm rusty on it, so I switch to studying that. This continues, and I soon find myself with a long list of "Things to study: ABC, DEF, GHI, ..."

None of these are simple topics taking an hour of reading or a simple how-to, but whole technologies, areas of science, deep abstract techniques which take practice, exploration, making toy projects, involvement on forums, etc. (Simple things that do take only a small effort, fine, I just go ahead and do.) Maybe a full week or two of intense effort could get me to the point of hire-ready competence, more likely a month or two since I still have to job hunt and deal with life.

If I had a talented fortune teller to tell me which job I'll actually be hired for, suppose it turns out to be the DEF-needing job, I could study only DEF and ignore ABC, GHI, and the rest.

How to decide which topics to study with minimal wasted effort? Especially how to know when to stick with something I'm already studying vs. switching when a new interesting position comes to my attention?

Additional: To be clear, I'm not talking about "study" as in college, but activities of skill-building and it's more active, building demos, working with others on pet projects etc than it is book learning or practice quizzes. There is time, money, equipment invested in some cases, so it's important to decide wisely.

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If I could, I'd add tags "job-hunt" and "study" or something better. – DarenW Sep 20 '12 at 0:22
Might I ask what field? The kinds of skillsets and aptitudes you learn as a history graduate are vastly different than as a mechanical engineer or software developer. – Muz Sep 20 '12 at 8:18
If a job is a good match except for one specific thing, what makes you believe they wouldn't consider you in the first place? You simply cannot know everything an arbitrary set of employers will list on their resume--come on. Pick things that are the most-general, most-applicable, most-interesting to you. Apply for the jobs anyway if you want. You have to be able to let things go. – Dave Newton Sep 20 '12 at 22:08
up vote 11 down vote accepted

After recently going through the job application process, and starting as a graduate consultant in a technical company, I can empathise a great deal with your situation.

Here are some general tips I use to optimise the time I have to learn new things:

  1. Understand the purpose behind why you are required to learn something? If you are going to be doing something day in and day out as a career, its probably going to require a little more than 2 weeks training. Is it a requirement, or a nice to have? Find out the purpose of the job, and you'll have a better understanding of what knowledge you need and how much of it. Which leads to:

  2. Start with high level, broadly applicable concepts, then methodologies, then capabilities, then skills. e.g. Systems Thinking > Data Management > Database Administration > SQL OR Transportation > Engines > Mechanical Engineering > CAD Modelling. You will generally find that having those high level concepts will help your understanding of the more specific and tangible skills, and will help give purpose to what your studying. Also due to its breadth, it will help you find out what you are interested in, and has less chance of being redundant due to its wide applicability. General concepts like systems thinking, root cause analysis, SEEI, and other structured thinking approaches are always useful

  3. Make a goal and stick to it. Sadly being a generalist is hard to market and execute in a world of divide and specialise. Discover what you like and what you are good at, set yourself a goal (get a degree, finish a project, etc), and once you have mastered something, move to something else. Think sport: If your the best at your sport; fame, riches and glory await. If you try to be quite good at a lot of sports, you'll be exhausted and unknown. Sad but true. Once you have developed skills, then you can look at diversifying

  4. Stay positive, stay hungry, ask for help, take risks

Good luck!

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Do you know how you learn best: Visual, auditory, or kinesthetic? Could you find a way to build a list of resources to help give you the basics so that whether it is technology A, B, or C, you are following a similar method in all cases?

Another side to this is to know which technologies are similar to what you already know and thus may be able to apply what you know from one world to another. For example, if someone is a native English speaker, there can be substantial differences between learning French which uses the same alphabet though with a few new accents and languages with a different alphabet like Russian or Arabic.

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