The secret of career success?

Some big questions on a lot of people’s minds:

What do you need to do to stand out over all the other graduates and postgraduates looking for jobs?

How can you improve your chances of being the one to move into an interesting, challenging career, shortly after graduating?

Well, we wondered that too. Everyone’s talking about “graduate employability”, but it’s a bit of a vague term, and frankly, most graduates are “employable” – but how long before you become employed, and employed as what?

What have we done about it?

We’ve worked with Robertson Cooper (a business psychology consultancy led by Profs Ivan Robertson and Cary Cooper) to find out what makes the difference between those graduates who make a swift and smooth move into a great job on graduation, and those who struggle or take longer to get there. (You can find out how we went about this further down.)

The work’s continuing but we’re excited about the results so far, and if you talk to one of the careers consultants, chances are it won’t be long before they whip out a picture, a bit like this:


So, what makes the difference?

The key differences were seen in 5 behaviours. Those who were successful in getting a good job quickly tended to:

  • Explore – keep their options and their eyes open; stretch themselves by trying things ‘outside their comfort zone’; take every opportunity to gain lots of varied experiences;
  • Connect – build their network and maintain contacts (peers and social contacts as well as experienced professionals); use information from their contacts to research jobs and career paths;
  • Communicate – adapt their communication to different audiences; learn from others how to engage audiences; introduce themselves effectively; practise;
  • Reflect – recognise their own skills and can illustrate with examples; differentiate themselves from the competition;
  • Persevere – learn from setbacks and constantly adapt; start their job search early, learn from any knock-backs and approach the next opportunity positively.

Obviously, for some jobs you also need advanced synthetic organic chemistry experience, or an in-depth knowledge of SPSS – but we’ve all met people who have great specialist knowledge but who struggle to get a decent job.

Reasons I like this approach:

It doesn’t try to cover the whole of your career or define “employability”.
It’s practical, about getting a job after graduating – but to be honest, if you can do this for one job, I reckon it’s worth a try for future jobs.

It’s about behaviours.
These are “things you do” – and can probably learn to do, or do better, rather than personality traits, which you’re probably not going to be able to change.

It seems to be generic to a wide range of jobs.
Specialist knowledge and skills needed will vary from job to job. However, you still need to be able to reflect – to spot what you’re good at and find evidence which will convince employers – and to communicate what you can do and why that’s useful to an employer. These are both areas where graduates, and particularly specialist postgraduates, commonly struggle.

It highlights the importance of connecting, reflecting and persevering.
When most people think of careers, they think of “what job would I like”, “where are the job ads”, “how do I write a CV” and “how do I get through interviews” – which tend to fall under explore and communicate. These obviously are important, but this is the first time we’ve had such stark evidence that these other three behaviours make such a difference.

Reasons to be a bit more cautious:

It’s only based on undergraduates (so far).
I’d be surprised if postgraduates were particularly different, but the evidence so far comes from interviewing undergraduates. When we take it to the next stage, we can try and see if there are any significant differences for postgraduates.

It’s only based on graduates who were aiming to get into work.
We didn’t interview those who were aiming at postgraduate study or self-employment as a next step. However, again, when we take it to the next stage, we can see if these behaviours also differentiate between those who were successful in getting on to a postgraduate programme and those who struggled. We can also look at self-employment but our populations are likely to be small there, so that will probably take longer.

What happens next?

Robertson Cooper are developing a questionnaire for us to help our students understand how strong they are in each of these behaviours. When enough students and graduates have completed the questionnaire, we will also be able to let you know how you compare to others – in particular, how you compare to others who have been successful in getting into a good graduate job quickly.

Of course, the tough bit is devising a questionnaire which differentiates between those who do get into graduate jobs quickly and those who struggle, even if we do think we’ve got the right behaviours. (Really hope it doesn’t all unravel at that stage!)

“OK, once I’ve got the results of a questionnaire – then what?”

This is new, so new that we’re just starting to think of the implications of providing support to help you learn how to explore-connect-communicate-reflect-persevere, and what services and resources we should provide to help you put it all into practice. To be honest, a lot of what we offer fits neatly into supporting those behaviours, but we’ll work on how we can make it even easier for you.

If you’re a postgraduate, you’ve got a head start. If you’ve had a look at the new online postgrad resources I’ve written (“How to … careers guides” and “Careers for doctoral researchers“), you’ll spot that I’ve already written them based around explore-connect-communicate-reflect-persevere. (I was writing the resources just after we got the first look at the framework, so it seemed like a good idea to test it out – hope you don’t mind being guinea pigs/pioneers!)

Your views – very welcome

Expect to see a lot more on this in future, but I thought you’d like a preview of what’s to come. We’d love your comments on this – we’re “stress testing” this framework at every opportunity, talking to students and academics, finding where the holes might be, or how it might be used.

(For more on how the work has been developed, see below ↓ )

How this work has developed (for those interested in the background)

The work with Robertson Cooper is being led by Prof Ivan Robertson, Emeritus Professor of Work & Organisational Psychology at the University of Manchester.

Initially, they interviewed several careers consultants to gather examples of behaviours we have seen in successful and less successful graduates. They then conducted in-depth interviews with recent graduates who had made a quick transition into a range of jobs, including science, the creative industries, teaching (humanities), engineering and business. They also interviewed graduates who had struggled to get into the kinds of jobs they wanted. Most of these were working, but in more “transitional” roles and internships.

By teasing out examples of what these two groups had done during their degrees, Robertson Cooper produced a competency framework, to describe the positive behaviours (those which led to success) and negative behaviours (those which led into those transitional roles or unemployment), from which emerged the 5 groups of behaviours in the model above.

This framework has been refined with focus groups of graduates and careers consultants, and a questionnaire is now in development, and under initial testing. Watch this space…

2 responses to “The secret of career success?”

  1. Quick comment. Fascinating Elizabeth, will follow with interest. I like “persevere”. The AGCAS/AGR Graduate Success project results resonate with this (not yet published). I think the current challenging job market makes this kind of analysis really useful for graduate job-hunters. Interesting to include “reflect” – I think it’s something which people find so hard, but so useful.

    1. Elizabeth (Postgrad blog) Avatar
      Elizabeth (Postgrad blog)

      Hi Fiona

      It has been really fascinating to see this emerging, particularly working with an academic with an international reputation, a clear business sense and a strong focus on what we’re trying to achieve, rather than allowing the project to drift off into more nebulous definitions of “employability”.

      We’ve also consciously approached this from a student/graduate perspective – what works for them – rather than the common “what do employers want?” approach, which just seems to generate an impossibly long list of skills, without really getting to “what makes a difference between the best and the rest”. Interestingly, some employers we’ve spoken to have been very interested in the framework, and quickly spotted that the behaviours we’ve unpicked seem to be the ones they really look out for, not only at recruitment, but also expect to see during a graduate development programme.

      One issue might be that I suspect this model may appeal to careers advisers more than students initially, but when I’ve used it face-to-face with individuals or groups of students, they’ve really taken to it. One big challenge for us is to figure out what we should be doing to provide practical support for the “reflect” and “persevere” behaviours – need to avoid the “keep calm and carry on” sort of platitudes! We’ve always touched on reflecting and persevering, particularly in individual appointments, but it’s taken me into new territory trying to write about them (in the new postgrad web resources).

      Look forward to seeing what AGCAS/AGR come up with and seeing how they fit together.


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