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What should one expect from a careers consultation?
Now Playing: What should one expect from a careers consultation?
The group discusses what expertise they, as careers advisers, do and don’t have. They talk about researching career options, and the links between PhD research skills and career exploration.


Helen: Catherine, I often feel that when I'm seeing PhD students that they come to me with an expectation that I'm almost like a key holder to a body of specific knowledge and I can sort of signpost them in the direction and offer that insider view of that particular career or sector. Is that something that you experience?

Catherine: Students would love us to tell them, I think, exactly what it's like to be an HR executive or a publishing agent or something. And I feel very resistant to doing that because I think it is the sort of thing that people need to find out for themselves and its through exploring a career that you develop your commitment to it and decide whether it's the right thing or not for you to do. And so I must admit I try and hold back from giving my partial view; a little bit of understanding and what I can do is help students find that information for themselves. And so a PhD student knows how to research, knows how to find things out, knows how to use their critical judgement about that material that they're finding, and I think what I would like to see myself doing is giving them the motivation and the resources to do that efficiently, effectively. Some good websites, some good key contacts, good people to talk to, you know, some approaches to take rather than handing over, you know, filling up the ‘empty vessel’ with a bit of knowledge about a particular career area.  

Helen: Because I think the sort of signposting aspect of what we do is often underestimated really in terms of its importance because it is about facilitating access, not just to information, but also to people, to contacts, to moving forward. And I, like you, very much resist the notion that I'm going to provide the insider view or a discreet body of knowledge about particular sectors or occupations (a) because I don't feel that is particularly my role and I don't have it, because my sort of skills lie within guidance practice. And (b) because I think it is really important that we do encourage students to take that responsibility.  

Catherine: It links back to what we were saying about students evolving their career over a long period of time; it’s not just going to be this once that you make that decision but to know how you can then engage in the future when the careers service isn't there as the support and the resource that's easy to tap into at this stage. But when you are doing it really on your own in the future that you can still use those resources. And it can be fun; finding about careers can be fascinating – especially if the pressure isn't on you to choose today and to start a job on Monday. You know, if you have given yourself enough time to find out, to do the exploring. And I think it is about building a commitment. It is a bit like the first stage of your PhD project; of deciding what it is the question is and using the resources around… you know, you build your commitment to it during that phase and I think that is one of the values of giving yourself time at the beginning of career orientation to build your commitment to something.  

Helen: And I think you’re absolutely right – I think the sort of inherent research skills that PhD students have mean they are actually much better equipped to doing this sort of exploratory research into careers than most students  

Catherine: Yeah  

Helen: Which I think puts them at an advantage although they might not always acknowledge that  

Catherine: Yes   

Phil: I suppose in answer to the question: ‘is a careers advisor an expert?’ I would be inclined to say ‘yes they are’, but they are not experts in the particular career area that you want to necessarily go into. But they do have trained expertise in career counselling and career education and so on and it’s how they use that in the guidance interaction or education interaction. But, rather like teachers, who might also see us as professional experts in some way, I suppose a good illustration could be the idea of writing an essay; you wouldn't necessarily expect your lecturer to give you the answer to an essay. And similarly you can't really expect a careers advisor to give you an answer to your career or tell you what to do. They're there to help you research and refine your thinking and that's how they can be used as a resource.  

Helen: I think, from a development point, it could bring the sort of techniques to sort of help them reflect and explore because often students that we see haven't really engaged with that idea before. And it comes as a revelation that they can think about what they have to offer and it can sometimes feel quite self-indulgent to take a step back and think ‘I'm actually just going to consider what it is I want, what I can do, what I can contribute and how that can be meaningful in the labour market’ rather than simply rushing.  

Catherine: But it is well worth investing in isn’t it? Because we do see students who make the wrong snap decision and six months later have left that trainee accountancy scheme, have, you know, had a false start in something. And so spending some time – perhaps continuing in – in what had been a part-time job or a low level job for a period of time might feel like failure at the time, but actually it's quite sensible in terms of the longer term progression, because you don't want too many false starts; you can't test out too many things at sort of permanent position level before it looks a bit odd on your CV and you have to do some quite serious re-jigging of your past.  

Helen: Absolutely, and I think one of the issues is for PhD students is they don't give themselves permission, or don't simply have the time, to engage in that during the research process itself. It feels like it hits crisis point once they complete and they are sort of vivered and they maybe give themselves a couple of months to start thinking seriously about career planning. Whereas, if you think about undergraduates, we’re prepping them from day one, and they’ve had three years to really sort of engage with the notion of career development and career understanding and exploration. And so PhD students really need to give themselves that time I think.  

Catherine: And part of it is like rebuilding confidence because some PhD students describe their experiences as having been, you know, closed into that library. Whereas other skills to do with engaging with people or going out and finding and making contacts and networking and talking to people about other things other than their research has sort of…   Helen: And so sort of feeling confident in other domains I think, and then it starts to diminish  

Catherine: Yes it might do mightn’t it  

Helen: Yeah  

Catherine: I’m a great fan of career research interviews; going out and meeting people and talking to them about their jobs  

Helen: Absolutely  

Catherine: And talking to them about their jobs and then perhaps going and doing a day of shadowing and perhaps a bit of work experience and nearly every student I talk to says that they don't have time to do that during that PhD I haven't met many who can fit it in.  

Helen: But I think, even if you could just take the odd afternoon here and there, I think it is something that you could reconcile your PhD with, doing some career prepping  

Catherine: Have you met many students who have managed to do the two together?  

Helen: I haven't but I'm not sure how far that is because they don't necessarily always have the time. I think sometimes the inclination isn't there, perhaps as well because there is this tendency I think to sort of defer and think ‘I will park that; I will compartmentalise career related issues and worry about that once I've completed.’  

Catherine: Yes   

Helen: But actually that's potentially time lost in terms of making good connections that could assist at the end of the PhD.

Catherine: Yes