Taking control of your career

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By Neil Harris

Few of us will do the same job for more than ten years. Time moves on. Technology changes. Organisations grow and shrink. Occupations go through difficult times- who would have thought, two years ago that nurses would have trouble finding employment in the UK? Yet it has happened.

If you stay in what appears to be the same role you will probably change the job to develop your skills in one way or another. A teacher might take on responsibility for something different, teach another subject or organise a school activity. A university academic might become the director of a master's course, responsible for safety in their department or admissions tutor. The job has changed and new skills are brought into play.

We start our careers with a certain set of skills and knowledge and add to it as we progress. Skills not used for some time are discarded and forgotten. People who speak foreign languages get rusty if they don't use them. Learn to play a musical instrument and your proficiency will decrease if you don't practice.

Those skills demanded of us in our current situation develop. As we move from job to job we acquire a different set of skills, those necessary for success in what we are doing. When the time is ripe we can use those skills to move in a fresh direction. The most employable are those who develop the range and depth of their skills. This is what gives us most control over our career.

Role models

Examining the careers of role models illustrates these principles. Both Albert Einstein and Condoleezza Rice had a range of jobs during their careers. The skills they developed in their early experiences were added to in later life.

Albert Einstein Condoleezza Rice
  • Physics graduate
  • Patent Officer
  • Scientist
  • Author
  • Lecturer
  • Professor and Head of Department
  • Cotton Farmer's daughter and Concert pianist
  • Politics graduate
  • Researcher in International Affairs
  • University Provost
  • Author & public speaker
  • Company DirectorNational Security Adviser
  • Secretary of State

Condoleezza Rice started life as a cotton farmer's daughter and probably gained some understanding of how the business operated. By 19 she was an accomplished pianist. Studying politics at university she began to develop her analytical, writing and presenting skills. As a researcher in Eastern European affairs she learned the talents of investigation and analysis while liaising with people in the countries on which her studies were focused. Her communication skills have been honed and polished as a lecturer and writer of numerous books. As Director of the Institute for International Studies her management skills inevitably increased leading to directorships on several company boards including Chevron. No doubt her skills in diplomacy began to develop when researching Eastern Europe but were increased further as a company director. She was a university provost for six years.

Her political life started as an intern in the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs and eventually developed as National Security Adviser to the President. Now, having reached the dizzy heights of Secretary of State, she is well placed to negotiate with leading figures of around the world. There is a chance she could go on to be the first female President of the USA.

Many who enter an academic or research career consider management skills unimportant. Yet they are essential as our careers progress. Both Albert Einstein and Condoleeza Rice were required to lead teams of researchers, no doubt apply for funding, and recruit others to join the team. You can add networking to the skills of leadership, negotiating, communication, analysing and the rest.

That's how it works so what can you do to optimise your own career progression? Our ten good habits point the way.

Ten Good habits

  1. Review your career every two years. What have you learnt? If you stay another two years what more will you learn and how will you develop as a person? Are you just going round the same annual cycle of events or making progress?
  2. Keep your skills up to date. Especially in I.T. Technology is changing fast and without continual learning your skills can soon become redundant. In every other field of research and teaching, knowledge and fashions change.
  3. Network! Keep an address book or database of contacts. At conferences and seminars mingle with strangers. Don't keep to the same group or only talk to your current friends.
  4. Think laterally about where your skills can be applied. Many only think of career progression in straight promotions. Opportunities will be missed if you think of your career in that narrow way. A researcher, for example, may consider themselves to be an expert in a tiny area of work but neglect to appreciate that they are developing project management, presenting and writing skills.
  5. Read the news. Stay abreast of developments, not only in your specialist subject area but also in your general knowledge surrounding it.
  6. Consider your qualifications. Are they up to date? With the advent of the Higher Education Academy, for example, do you need to take action to keep them up to date?
  7. Be ready to apply when you see a good opportunity. They may be rare so be sure not to miss your ideal job when it's advertised. Keep your CV up to date. Make sure that your contacts know what you are seeking and keep you informed
  8. Be clear about your criteria. Are you really prepared to move house? Leave friends? Apply for something outside your comfort zone? Change career? Compare the consequences of each new course of action. What are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats attached to each opportunity?
  9. Use experiences outside work to develop your skills. You might get involved with a professional body, take on voluntary work, teach in your spare time, organise events and develop a different range of skills.
  10. If a different job takes your fancy, talk to someone who does it. How did they achieve it? What do they most enjoy/ dislike about it? Are there regular vacancies in that profession? What opportunities are there for career progression? Most people are happy to talk about what they do.

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