Dib dib dib: on being career prepared

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Cub-scoutI’ve been delivering a few workshops to PhD graduates recently, where I chat to the participants about different approaches to career planning. Some people like the rational approach, where you carefully assess who you are and what you want, before researching the labour market to see what kinds of jobs you can do. Other people like the ‘planned happenstance’ approach, whereby chance events and encounters direct their career thinking (this is based in chaos theory).

Now, the rational planning approach has a lot to recommend it: it appeals to researchers because it involves a lot of research; it helps you get to know yourself (I think self-awareness is the foundation of all good career decision-making); and it makes you feel as though you are actually doing something about your career, instead of waiting around or putting it off. The downsides, of course, are that you can wrap it around yourself like a cosy blanket and never move away from your lists and your computer, because there is always a bit more research you can do. Fatally, though, I think that the rational approach can be a bit diagnostic – you get your list of what you know about yourself and what you know about the job market, and expect it to ‘diagnose’ you with the one perfect career that matches all of your criteria. And when it doesn’t? Well, that’s where doing a bit more research comes in, so back to the computer you go to try one more personaility test…

See, cosy isn’t it? I know lots of people who end up on the diagnostic merry-go-round, thinking that if they just check Prospects again, or do just one more career quiz, the answer will come to them. And it means that you can get away with never actually putting yourself out there, taking a chance on asking to meet someone to find out more about their job, or even (gasp!), putting in an application and seeing where it takes you.

Of course, planned happenstance has its problems too. This approach means be ready to seize opportunities when they present themselves, but you can end up waiting for things to happen instead of taking the initiative yourself. I think there’s a greater risk with this approach that you lose sight of what you really want from your career, because you just go with the flow of what’s happening around you.

I realised yesterday that pretty much everyone I know has got their job through some combination of the two approaches. When I career-changed, I did a lot of rational planning to work out that I liked giving advice and support and wanted to teach at a university, but without being a researcher. Tootling around the university’s redeployee’s register one day, I noticed a maternity cover post in the Careers Service, and the rest is history. I never had a plan to be a Careers Adviser, but here I am.

So, I was on my way back from the medical school yesterday, and wondered what to do when I’m training people on career development. I don’t like the pitfalls and inflexibilities of rational planning, or the “well, it’s out of my hands” temptations of planned happenstance. I also don’t really know anyone that has actually had a clear career plan, other than medics, and not everyone is a planner. It got me thinking that, as Careers Adviser, it’s perhaps not very helpful for me to talk to people about the importance of career planning any more!

I then started wondering about the notion of career preparedness as an alternative to career planning. Naturally, this made me think of the Scouts, with their motto “always be prepared” (it’s a tenuous link between career planning and cub scouts, but I think it works!). I looked up their motto when I got back to the office and, to paraphrase, it means:

Knowing the right thing to do at the right moment, and having the willingness to do it.

To which I would also add:

Knowing the right thing to do at the right moment, and having the right tools and the willingness to do it.

After all, what self-respecting Scout leaves the house without a Swiss army knife, a compass and a bit of string in their pocket?

I haven’t thought it all through yet, but it seemed to me that the notion of being ‘career prepared’ means that you have thought about who you are and what you want from your career, so that you know the right thing to do when the opportunity presents itself. It means that you have been proactive at doing things that will help you get to where you want to be; have been accumulating experiences that will make you more employable (your compass and your string); and are open to opportunities when you see them (being willing). So it’s more flexible than career planning (because you have a more open attitude), and more proactive than planned happenstance so that you’re less likely to be swept off course by chance and find yourself drifting away from the things that are important to you.

For a researcher, this might mean that you know that you are passionate about your subject and want to do more. You might want a career in academia, so you start gathering together your specific tools – your publications and poster presentations – but also prepare for the unexpected by engaging in broader development opportunities, like community outreach or talking to practitioners at conferences as well as the profs.

As  say, it was just a little thought that popped into my head yesterday when I was having a walk, so I haven’t thought it all through yet, but I would be interested to know what you think. Does being career prepared seem more sensible than making a career plan? Does it better capture the different ways that people think about their careers? Or am I just talking a load of old drivel?

Thoughts, critique and ideas most welcome!

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