The Associate

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A particular high point of my holiday reading was picking up John Grisham’s The Associate. Those of you who haven’t read Grisham will no doubt be sneering into your lattes, but us Grisham fans know that you’re missing out.

 

However the point of this post is not really to make the case for Grisham. I’m sure that international best seller John Grisham isn’t waiting for an endorsement from a no readership careers blog to save his career. I’m actually writing about The Associate because it is essentially a novel about graduate recruitment, work-life balance and career and therefore might be of some interest to the readers of this blog and even potentially to their clients.

 

The book is about Kyle McAvoy a Yale high flyer who is about to graduate from Law school. He is considering career options and swinging between taking a corporate law job and a low paid community position. However he gets pulled aside by some shadowy figures who have evidence that can implicate him (unfairly) in a rape committed some years earlier. They put pressure on McAvoy to take the corporate job where they intend to use him for corporate espionage.

 

One of the reasons why this book was so interesting to me is that it is using the idea of career as its principle emotional hook. The reader feels very strongly that Kyle should have the right to make choices about his career and not be pushed into doing something that he doesn’t want to do. The corporate job he takes is enormously well remunerated and highly desirable. However, for him to lose the career choice provokes a moral reaction in us.

 

Career choice, at least in our culture, has the status of moral right. We shouldn’t be forced to do what we don’t want to do. This is perhaps one of the reasons why guidance professionals are so frequently under fire. If they get it wrong they have violated someone, pushing them down the wrong path. Guidance deals in important stuff and the suspicion that professionals might misadvise perhaps underpins lots of the criticism that the profession comes in for.

 

Anyway, back to The Associate. Once Kyle takes up his position as a graduate recruit in a large corporate law firm (an associate) we get a well realised portrayal of the reality of graduate recruitment. Thankfully I’ve never been graduate recruited but I have see friend go through a mill that looks very like what Grisham portrays. Long hours, total focus on the job and a social life that is squeezed around the edges of work and ultimately just blends into the job. Grisham has his associates sleeping at the office, working 20 hour days and above all doing jobs that are incredibly tedious.

 

If you are in the business of advising graduates get the ones who plan to go into the top flight graduate recruitment schemes to read The Associate. It realises the pressure, the tedium, the moral dubiousness and the bloated nature of large corporations extremely well. Grisham’s first love is small town law and so you have to read his critique of the corporates with a recognition of his bias, but none the less this is an entertaining and interesting read.

 

Does anyone out there recommend that clients watch particular films or read particular books in order to learn about potential careers?      

 

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A narrative approach to career counselling

I’ve been thinking about the use of narrative in careers work a bit recently so I did a bit of trawling and came across “Where to from here? A narrative approach to career counselling” by Paul Gibson.


Gibson argues that narrative has two features which he calls temporality (what happens next?) and causality (why did this happen?). He argues that a narratives plot links these two elements together. He goes on to argue that people who are skilled in the construction of narrative are more likely to be resilient in their career and able to work through periods of hardship by placing the present within a broader narrative.

 

Gibson sets up narrative based approaches in opposition to matching based approaches. Whereas conventional career matching found a “right answer” and placed you in the hole where you fitted best, narrative based approaches are more contingent acknowledging your story so far and inviting you to explore where the story goes next. It is in the telling and retelling of stories that meaning is made and so it is possible to argue that the “right” career decision only becomes so when you frame a story in which you use narrative to construct that meaning. A psychometric test can’t “prove” that you were always meant to be an artists, but your anecdote about how your mum found you with a paintbrush in your hand at six weeks might nail your career decisions as the right one. However, this is not a fact but rather a process of narrative in which elements are selected and presented to tell particularly stories.

 

As Gibson says “narratives not only portray identity, but they also fashion identity”. We speak and write ourselves into being far more and far more powerfully than we employ scientific tools to discover our attitudes and preferences. Interestingly Gibson goes on to explore what the typical career narrative is. It “is not a plot of detection” he suggests but rather “a plot of quest”.

 

This is because quest combines action with insight and personal change: quest is about the making of character through action, rather than the uncovering of what is already there, through detection.

 

Given this the work of the careers worker is to find the quest in what has happened so far and to help to find the quest in what might happen in the future. To put it another way in our day to day life we are often too busy to see the patterns and to notice the progress that has been made. The careers worker therefore has a job to do in helping the individual to unlock their narrative and to bring their career story into being. This is not to say that the careers worker is the master meaning maker who can tell the persons story for them, rather they can be suggesting patterns and narrative structures that might fit and also suggesting possible next steps.

 

Crucial to this narrative approach is an understanding of the idea of identity. What role is the individual playing and what roles are others playing in their stories. How does the interaction between different players in the narrative determine the nature of the narrative? Does the individual need to shift or realign their identity in order to take part in the story they wish to inhabit?

 

Gibson’s article then goes on to examine a detailed case study – which is well worth a read.

 

So how do these ideas work with the practice of those of you who are directly involved in giving careers advice?

Careers in theory: An interview with David Winter

AiCD:  Introduce yourself

I’m David Winter. I’ve been a Careers Adviser with The Careers Group, University of London, since 1994. My professional life has a distinct multiple personality disorder. At the moment I split my time between Queen Mary Careers Service (where I do the usual HE careers stuff with students and work on a couple of employability projects) and our C2 Consultancy Division (where I do income-generating careers-related coaching and training with a variety of individuals and organisations).

 

 

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AiCD:  Tell us about your blog.

Careers – in Theory is a collection of musings on various bits of theory, research and thinking in relation to guidance and coaching practice. I like to describe myself as a conceptual Robin Hood, breaking and entering the dusty corridors of academia, stealing shiny treasures, and sharing them with the impoverished masses. (I’m also quite big on self-delusion.)

 

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ACiD:  What technology do you use?

I use WordPress.com for the blog; it has enough things I can tinker with to satisfy my geeky control freakery. I also over-use Twitter. I was encouraged to use it by Aminder Nijjar who thought it would be a good way to publicise my blog. I was very sceptical but have eventually found it to be quite useful in a number of ways. I inconsistently use CiteULike for storing academic references and have recently started using Delicious for remembering interesting links. I use Google Reader for browsing a ridiculous number of RSS feeds.

 

My current geek delight is an HTC Desire Android smartphone.

 

 

AiCD:  Why did you set it up?

There were a number of reasons:

 

  • I’ve always been interested in reading about new research and theories, especially as I run a fair amount of training on the subject. I would often come across stuff, get quite excited about it and then completely forget about it after a few days. The blog was an attempt to capture some of these interesting ideas and to get me to think about them in a slightly less superficial way.
  • I do think that part of being a competent guidance/coaching professional involves keeping up to date with new thinking and constant reflecting on what we think we know already. The blog helps me to do this for myself and I hope it works for other people too. I try to engage other people in the process by encouraging them to write about their own experiences of using career theory in practice. I like guest posts (hint, hint).
  • I think there is a bit of a divide between the academics who work on career-related research and the practitioners who work with people on a day-to-day basis. I think both disciplines would be enriched by more interaction with the other. This is my attempt to bridge that gap in some way.
  • Although I’ve occasionally been told I’m quite good at writing, it’s always a task I will put off because I find it a struggle – I think too much about what I’m writing. (As an example, I’ve edited this last sentence at least three times!) I thought that this would be a good experiment to see if I could be more disciplined and possibly more fluid in my writing. Still awaiting results on both of those!
  • If I’m being completely and utterly honest, there’s also an attempt at self-promotion
    in the blog too. I’d like to be known as someone who has interesting things to say about careers theory (slightly weird ambition, I admit). I’ve learned a few interesting things about using social media as a networking tool that I’m already feeding back into my sessions with clients.

 

AiCD: You are clearly very well read and also find the time to write and argue about careers. Most practitioners swear blind to me that this kind of professional development is just impossible given all of the other demands on their time. How do you make it work?

Partly, I’m such a geek that I use some of my own time for this.

 

Partly, I do a fair amount of travelling between consultancy engagements, so I get some time to read and think.

 

Partly, I just do a lot of juggling and fitting things in when I can

 

Partly, it’s because I can speed read and touch type

 

AiCD:  What sort of things do you write about? 

I try to mix it up a bit. I will cover:

  • classic career theories and models of practice (maybe with a bit of a twist),
  • new developments in career theory that many practitioners who haven’t looked at theory since their training may not have come across,
  • interesting research in psychology, sociology and economics that could impact on client work in some way
  • applying theory in practice,
  • reflective practice methods and theories,
  • my own bizarre approach to theories and models

 

Basically, anything I can get away with

 

AiCD:  How often do you update?

I started off doing two posts a week just to get the thing off the ground. That was too much. I now aim for one post a week but I don’t beat myself up if I miss a week. Another reason I like guest posts is that it gives me a week off!

 

AiCD: Who do you think reads it?

Mostly other career professionals, coaches, educationalists – that’s who it’s aimed at. I’d like to get more researchers in the field reading it and commenting/contributing.

 

AiCD: Given that most of your audience are other professionals (and not your normal clients) how do you convince your management that this is a good use of your time?

 

We take CPD quite seriously at The Careers Group and we do quite a lot of internal training, especially as we often recruit people without existing qualifications or experience in careers work.

 

Also some of our clients are other career professionals; we open up our professional development training to careers staff in other organisations. We’ve been involved in helping organisations set up in-house careers services and provided training and consultancy to other careers-related organisations. The blog is one way of letting these people know that we think quite deeply about how to do our job well.

 

In addition, many of our ‘customers’ are actually the academics, whose support we have to win in order to get better access to the students. I think some academics see careers work as not theoretically grounded or rigorous. The blog is a way to say to them, ‘Look, we are just as serious about our field as you are about yours.’

 

AiCD: What is it about you that makes you think people should pay attention to what you blog about?

About me? Probably not much, except that I’m making an effort to ask some interesting questions and I’m enthusiastic. I think that people should pay attention because this stuff can be potentially useful for careers practitioners who want to continually improve what they deliver. Once you prize them from the clutches of often inaccessible academic writing, some of these ideas are fascinating.

 

AiCD: Did you qualify through the usual Qualification in Careers Guidance route?

 

I did the AGCAS/Reading (now AGCAS/Warwick) qualification which is specifically targeted at HE careers work. However, I started as a trainee (mumble mumble years ago) with no experience or qualification.

 

AiCD: What have been the best things about blogging so far?

My own learning has accelerated. I’ve been forced to think about things more deeply and to link ideas together. I’ve been able to use snippets of what I have discovered in my one-to-one and group work sessions with clients. It can add quite a bit of authoritative gravitas to quote from recent research to illustrate a point you’re making.

 

Another thing I love is when people comment. I enjoy discussing these things. I really don’t know everything, a lot of my knowledge is still quite superficial, and it’s great to learn from other people. Besides, I like a good argument now and again.

 

AiCD: What are the downsides?

As other bloggers have said, you look at the world differently. Everything you read or hear about goes through a ‘Could I blog about this?’ filter. It’s quite scary.

 

Also, it takes time and it’s still a struggle to write.

 

AiCD: Do you think blogging will ever replace conventional careers advice/education?

No, it fulfils a completely different function. I’ve tried various methods of delivering services over the years and, for me, none of them provide the depth of impact you can have being in the same room as an individual or group. It’s all about responding to the immediate and allowing creative solutions to emerge from the dynamics of an interaction (wow that sounded quite impressive didn’t it!). It’s about nuance, complexity and individuality, for which you need as many sensory inputs as you can get.

 

When I work live with people, I can see how they are responding as I interact with them, and so hone my approach as I go along to increase my effectiveness. Even the best social media is a bit too sequential for that to happen easily.

 

I think that cost cutting pressures may drive us in that direction, but we need to be aware of what we are losing if we go down that route.

 

AiCD: On the whole I agree with what you are saying, but I can’t get away from the idea that people will read something on the internet who would never show up for a careers interview. Are careers blogs actually a way to deliver careers type services or are they better seen as a
tool for the reflective practioner to develop their own practice?

Is that a question or a statement of faith?

 

I agree that there are people out there who would never come for a careers interview or a group workshop — I’m one of them. So, yes there should be stuff out there that could inspire them too, but it would have to be pretty hot to bring about the radical change in thinking that has sometimes happened in some of the face-to-face sessions with clients.

 

I suspect that blogs may be too haphazard to be effective, they rely on someone coming across the right article at the right time. Something a bit more structured where you’re not just relying on today’s thought and you forget what happened yesterday might be better, especially if it kept the interactivity of a blog. Maybe something like an updated version of our sort_it tools (http://www.careers.lon.ac.uk/sortit) with the ability to comment, discuss and share.

 

AiCD: As a follow up from that do any of your ordinary clients ever read your blog and say “actually that theory really fits where I am right now”?

Not from the blog so far. This has happened when I have included theory stuff in one-to-one or group sessions. This most commonly occurs with Planned Happenstance. It seems to chime with people’s real experiences – that’s one of the reasons I like it so much.

 

AiCD: What blogs do you read?

I subscribe to over 100 feeds in Google Reader, but I’m trying to be ruthless and cut that down. Linked to the careers world, the ones I look at most frequently are:

 

Non-careers blogs that I frequently peruse include:

 

AiCD: Any final words?

Yes, please edit this to make me look interesting.

The Careers Market(s)

Here are some thoughts on the careers market. I’d appreciate any feedback that anyone can give me as to whether this is making any sort of sense.

 

Careers is a complex field which encompasses a large amount of life, learning and work. One way to conceptualise the field is to see careers as a market within which a number of actors are operating. Each actor pursues their own needs, interests and concerns and through a series of transactions the market as a whole reaches some kind of accommodation. The purpose of this discussion is to establish some key terms that may be useful in examining this market and how it operates.

 

If an individual is seeking employment we describe them as interacting with the labour market. They may ask the question “what work can I do?” while employers correspondingly ask “who can I get?” in their search for the appropriate human capital to fill the post.

 

Closely allied to the labour market is the learning market. In this market individuals ask “what qualifications do I need?” and “where should I study”. Learning providers vie to attract these individuals either to offer them courses in exchange for money or to access public money of various kinds.

 

Taken together the labour market and the learning market might be said to comprise the careers market. In this sense the careers market comprises of all of the opportunities that an individual might pursue within their career and all of the employers, learning providers and other organisations who are providing these opportunities. Even for an individual with relatively little career capital to spend this is likely to be a bewildering market to enter. Without some help and tools to manage their interactions with the market they are vulnerable to being misled and may subsequently make bad choices.

 

However, individuals are not left alone to sift through the market information as they make their decisions with the careers market. Rather they are able to access a wide range of support, advice and information. This career helping market is also complex and involves those who are looking for help choosing between services which offer different amounts of interaction, impartiality, independence, cost and expertise. Actors in the career helping market include conventional public sector careers services and their close relations private sector careers coaches, but it might also include a plethora of information sources, recruitment sites and consultancies, education and training initiatives and mentoring schemes as well as the social and professional networks of the individuals seeking help.

 

If it is economically important for individuals skills and potential to be best utilised then the functioning of the careers market is of critical public concern. If the careers market functions well individuals will engage positively in the economy, finding opportunities that fulfil them and developing skills that enable them to take advantage of market opportunities. Conversely if the careers market functions badly individual aspiration will be stymied and human capital will not be applied to the sections of the economy in which it is most valuable.

 

One approach to this problem might be to argue that if the careers market is indeed a market why not leave it to the ‘invisible hand’ to resolve what is best applied where. Whatever your opinion about the likelihood of free market economics to deliver the best result for all concerned we are dealing here with something that is a long way from a free market. The government is a major employer in the labour market, it funds a large percentage of the learning market and also provides a key segment of the career helping market through the provision of professional IAG services such as Connexions and Next Step.

 

If the invisible hand is being guided it is important to think about the direction in which it is being guided. The intervention of government and the wider public sector shapes the careers market but does not fully determine its nature or outcomes. There is therefore room for further thought about how the public sector relates to the other players in the market (from employers to careers coaches) and how it uses the policy levers at its disposal (funding, regulation, legislation, recommendation etc) to further shape the market.

 

In the current environment of policy change and challenges to public sector spending it is important to be clear about what public money is buying and why. I believe that thinking about public sector in terms of its role in shaping a market as well as in delivering a services is a useful contribution to this discussion.

 

Am I right?

 

Future Spark: An interview with Kirsty Price a new careers blogger

This is the second of the new series of interviews that I’m doing with careers bloggers. Any other careers bloggers out there who want to be interviewed should get in touch.

 

AiCD:  Introduce yourself 

I’m Kirsty Price and I am currently about to enter my final year of undergraduate study at the University of Aberdeen. I study Politics and International Relations. I started my own online retail business at the age of 19. This made me realise that for a living, what i really wanted to do was to make a positive impact on young peoples lives by helping them discover, plan, create and achieve their dream careers and businesses.  

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AiCD:  Tell us about your blog. 

My blog is called Future Spark (http://future-spark.blogspot.com/). It contains a mix of postings related to Youth Career Coaching, advice, guidance, job searching, entrepreneurship and personal development. I only started it recently so it is still a relatively small blog!

 

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ACiD:  What technology do you use? 

  I use blogger as my blogging platform. I almost always update my blog from my laptop at home.

  

AiCD:  Why did you set it up? 

I set up my blog to aid my own personal and professional development and also to help inform others, mainly parents and youths themselves. I aim to set up Future Spark as a youth career coaching business after university so this blog seemed like a natural progression on the way to achieving that goal.

 

AiCD:  What sort of things do you write about?  

Usually whatever pops into my head that is relevant! I have a little notebook where I write everything down that I think I could possibly write a post about. I keep it by my bedside as it is often while I am drifting off to sleep that I always come up with most of my ideas! Most of my posts are related to career information, education and guidance aimed at people aged 11-24 and their parents. Originally I had a blog related to careers in general, aimed at anyone who wanted to read it. Later on I realised there was a real lack of people writing about careers aimed at a young audience so I thought I would give it a go and write a more dedicated blog!

  

AiCD: Your blog is focused on young people. How do you manage dealing with the diversity of young people? An 11 year old is different from someone who left school at 16 and different again from a new graduate. 

I wanted to try to appeal to a small audience without making my audience too small, so the content has to be quite diverse. In terms of 11-14 year olds, the things I blog about which relates to them is more geared towards a parental audience. I don’t think much 11-15 year olds would find my blog very appealing. Maybe I should create an independent blog or series of posts for 11-15 year olds themselves – that is an idea there! For those aged 16-18 I write content related to subject choices, school, university, the transition from school to college/university, alternatives to university and so on. For students and graduates, I write more about employability, personal branding, internships and more in-depth careers information. I hope that there is something on my blog valuable for everyone interested in youths and careers, whether they be youthful or not!

 

AiCD:  How often do you update?

In all honesty not as often as I would like to, due to being in the early stages of writing my dissertation which is my main priority until February 2011. I try to put something out there at least once a week though as I think this the most realistic and achievable goal for me right now.

 

AiCD: Who do you think reads it?

I am not sure if anyone reads it at all! It is a relatively new blog so I assume only a small number of my twitter followers check it out, as well as some close friends.

AiCD: What is it about you that makes you think people should pay attention to what you blog about?

This is a tough one! I think that maybe because I am only 20 the message I have to give out is possibly more in tune with what youths actually think, question and wonder about careers themselves and hopefully this may be what they are looking for in terms of a blog about careers which suits them. I think they might be able to relate to my blog better than a blog aimed at seasoned professionals.  

 

AiCD: What have been the best things about blogging so far?

I love it! It is such a release for me. I am the type of person who keeps their opinions to themselves unless asked they are for unfortunately, but as I am getting older I am recognising the need to speak up and be heard and not just hide in the background. I feel most comfortable speaking out and voicing my opinions through my blog. The idea that I might also be helping someone is a great feeling as well!

 

AiCD: What are the downsides?

I haven’t really encountered any downsides yet. However I am sometimes hesitant about posting because of the idea that people will think that I am not qualified to give such advice because I am so young and have no experience besides my own personal experience as of yet.
 

AiCD: Do you think blogging will ever replace conventional careers advice/education?

No, but I do think conventional careers advice and education needs a shake-up. I totally agree with you when you say that blogging should be a mainstream part of every careers advisors practice. Careers advice and
education needs to move into the 21st century more, especially if it is to engage and inspire young people. In a way I am trying to do this through my blog.

AiCD: What blogs do you read?

I read so many careers blogs it would be so hard to list them all! I usually read the blogs of people in the career world that I follow on twitter. Some of my favourites include this blog, as well as Dan Schawbel’s Student Branding Blog (http://studentbranding.com/) and Nicole Crimaldi’s Ms. Career Girl Blog (http://www.mscareergirl.com/).
 

AiCD: Any final words?

I would like to thank you for interviewing me! It has been a great experience as it has allowed me to reflect on my blogging experience and given me more inspiration and enthusiasm to carry on blogging in the hope that I will inspire others.

 

Be careful what you don???t wish for

Like everyone else in the pubic sector I’m scared. Things are tight, the cuts are coming, jobs will be lost, pensions will be cut, an enormous hell beast will be summoned by George Osbourne to come forth from the ground and gobble up unsuspecting civil servants at will. In short, things are bad! We’ve all bought into this idea on some level.

 

What worries me however is that most of this changing context is still rhetorical (at least at the moment). While there are some people who have lost their jobs already, for most of us it is a sense of impending dread about what might happen. I’ve already started to try and plan for the worst and have got involved in discussion in both HE and the careers sector about how we can best weather the storm. This is not to say that I don’t believe that bad things are likely to happen to the public sector, but I am starting to worry that this is being presented as an inevitable force that we have no control over.

 

I wanted to suggest some possibilities and ask people to think about how they would behave differently if any of these were true.

 

  1. What if the government are just talking up the public spending cuts to make it easier for them to sell much less severe cuts as if they were actually good news?
  2. What if the cuts are actually the wrong response to the deficit and succeed only in pulling a section of the labour force out of work, landing them on benefits and causing a knock-on consumer downturn that pushes the whole economy back into recession?
  3. What if all this talk about the deficit and austerity is actually a smokescreen to allow governments to engage in an ideologically driven process to rebalance the economy in favour of the private sector?
  4. What if the opportunity to make cuts is being used in public sector organisations an arbitrary way to settle old scores by individuals up and down the management chain?
  5. What if the bits of the public sector that get cut most severely are those bits where nobody makes much of a fuss?
  6. What if the media are whipping up panic about a crisis because it makes better story than one about a long slow economic recovery?
  7. What if…

 

I’m not an economist so I’m really not sure what the best thing to do is here. I can’t help but think that massive public sector cuts probably isn’t it, but I would say that wouldn’t I. I’m also not necessarily against change in the public sector or a more “big society” conception of civil society as a way forward from a statist public sector. However, I like to feel I know what is being done and why. At the moment I feel a sense of panic and impending doom is underpinning too many decisions in the public sector without a clear sense of what is going to happen and why.

 

Is there any space in which to challenge the “everything must go” atmosphere. Maybe, maybe not. I guess as ever in a democracy it comes down to us to decide what we are going to do about it.

 

 

 

 

Religion and Belief in Higher Education

I’m currently working on a project about religion and belief in higher education. One of the most interesting aspects of the project is the willingness of the funder (ECU) to publish all of our interim reports to them so that stakeholders can see how the project is going. This kind of openness is how I think that research should be done.

 

Anyway our first interim report is now available.

 

Religion and Belief in Higher Education: The experiences of staff and students: A summary of the key issues raised during the project stakeholder meeting.

 

If you are interested in the project, it should provide you with some initial ideas about some of the issues that are emerging.