We are all aspiring professionals seeking that awesome and exciting career. But what does it mean to have a career? Are we thinking about it in the right way?

I see my career as a fair ground ride – at times a carousel with its inevitable ups and downs, but also at times a roller-coaster ride with unexpected turns and maybe even complete changes in direction.

Carousel – Image Source: pixabay.com

What is a career?

When we are leaving college or university we think of that “dream job”, what career will I have? We’ll enter our first job, which might be a short-term contract and we have to leave, or we might take the decision that it isn’t for us. Therefore, isn’t it more sensible to think of a career not as that perfect, dreamy route to retirement 40 years hence, but that roller-coaster ride where we need to stay alert to negotiate it?

Perhaps a career is a linked set of adventures!!!

I can illustrate the point by thinking about my own career – a hotch-potch of roles. I started out in medical research in a hospital, entered the pet food manufacturing industry, then academia for 15 years, and this year, back to the tea industry. Some of the changes were out of my control. The hospital work was a 2 year contract, at other times left to relocate or because I didn’t like the job or the environment.

How has it worked for me?

My adventures have resulted from me grasping opportunities rather than following a set plan.  I think I’m incredibly adaptable to different environments, I love new challenges (and the more challenging the better), and I seek out positive and inspirational people that I want to work with. The downside is having to keep starting again, but so far I haven’t taken a step down the salary ladder.

So maybe we need to think differently.

I think here is where we may have a problem. Colleges and Universities always talk about ‘skills’. This skill. That skill….University degrees and courses are ‘validated’, that is, quality assured by a panel of people, and part of this is reviewing a checklist of skills – literacy, numeracy, transferable and other. My gripe with this is institutions are turning out students that broadly look the same. Employers tell us that graduates quite often aren’t meeting their needs.

What colleges and universities should be celebrating and enhancing are YOUR DIFFERENCES – this is what will make you unique to an employer. Have a think. What are your talents, motivations and values? What is your sense of humour? How do you express yourself artistically or through sports?

In my last two interviews I was asked about how my values align with that of the company. I was unprepared!

Look further than your careers fair.

Careers fairs are either good or bad in my book depending on the dedication of the staff running them. At their worst, you may get a distorted impression of what jobs are out there and things that interest you may be under-represented.

Ask yourself – does your university careers fair reflect all the potential employers in your city or area? Or are there other companies out there, including small ones like social enterprises? I’m not an expert in this area but a 2017 government report highlighted nearly half a million social enterprises in the UK.

See the report here

This work was done to help define what a social enterprise is, and generally they are organisations with a social purpose, that might put back some profit to the wider benefit of society, who operate with clear ethical values.  So being small, they might not readily appear on jobs searches, but I’m sure there are many of them out there that could offer really exciting and worthwhile career opportunities, and they will be well worth investigating. You could approach one offering to collaborate as part of a project? What about writing and asking for a summer internship?

Are we preparing for interviews in the correct way?

I’m not sure I’ve ever been taught how to really keep a decent record of my experiences and talents. Digital tools like LinkedIn are great for capturing who you are and what you’ve done and are becoming the ‘new CV’. I’m a big fan of blogging where you can be more creative with photographs and media. Having all of your experiences / qualifications and attributes to hand is essential for that job application where you’ll then go on to map what you offer to what the role demands. Highlighter pens are a must for this task. You take the job description – highlight the main points and then tailor your application to those points right?

But is this enough? I’ve seen real changes in selection processes in recent years. The use of personality and performance questionnaires are becoming more common which you’ll be invited to complete before the interview. These are quite terrifying I think, but you can do some research on the company supplying the tests and find some mock questions online. On one occasion I paid for temporary access to their online training so that I could practice the questions.

I’ve also experienced a complete contrast where a company requests you write a covering piece about yourself expecting you to be personable and creative. Some companies today are looking for the ‘right person’ first, and may ask about your knowledge much later on. So be prepared for a mad variety of selection processes. The best advice I can give is to be honest and be yourself.

Your portfolio of You!

So what does a portfolio of ‘you’ look like? Yes, keep records of your qualifications and achievements, and do express them as ‘skills’. But what more do you offer? What type of a person will you need to be to jump onto and succeed at the career carousel?

Dr Vivien Rolfe (Writing in a personal capacity) is the Head of Herbal Research at Pukka Herbs and an experienced academic and scientist. She is also internationally recognised as a key expert in Open Education Learning and Resources and has authored many peer reviewed journals and has spoken at many conferences worldwide.  

Many thanks to Dr Rolfe for her contribution to the APH. At APH we are keen to enable the career development of early career professionals worldwide and welcome our readers to send us articles on their experiences or advice for other professionals or students. You can find other career related articles on the hub or visit our career resources pages for more.

  1. Identify and Articulate your skills on your CV (APH Special – click here)
  2. Successful Transition from PhD to Industry by Dr Monika Stuczen (click here for article)
  3. Does International Relocation mean starting your career all over? by Lola Adekanye (click here for article)
  4. How I got my first Graduate Role by Zohra Ashim (Click here for article)
  5. Graduate Employment: The Things you never get told (Click here)

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