Posted by: Gillian | October 26, 2009

Careers and education – shedding the baggage

Do I take a general degree to maximise my career options?  Do I try and update my existing degree or do I change direction?  Will a PhD make me unemployable? Finding answers to these questions takes time and knowing where to begin can be hard.  Tomorrow, I’ll post a possible approach but today’s subject is the preparation – examining the baggage of past experience and deciding what is still useful.

Education and career choices are intertwined over a lifetime so it is not surprising that most people find making the ‘right’ choice difficult.  In addition, adults often have a mental list of job-related and education labels that get dusted off and applied as filters in the choice-making process without much thought as to whether or not they are appropriate.  A four-part MBTI label remembered from a job interview, a manager’s Belbin descriptor of you aged 21 (‘Oh, you’re a Team-worker’) and a business card that says ‘Java programmer’, plus a file of school and work certificates and a host of memories about previous formal learning experiences – when faced with a decision about your future it simplifies matters to use those as a fixed base, to accept them as current reality.  The danger is that you build a future on a view of you that is, at best, out of date.  Here are some examples taken from real life to get you thinking.  (I’ve changed the names.)

  • Elaine told me in an email she had done the MBTI when being interviewed for a job and she was P, not J – so perceptive not judgemental – and this meant she would never get into a top-flight MBA programme.  Quite apart from the fact that this indicated a poor understanding of the MBTI itself, did this mean she had survived five years as a divisional marketing director on perception alone?  The evidence suggested otherwise.  MBTI and similar ‘type indicators’  are just that, indicators.  They have internal relativities, results may be debated, context will affect specific instances of behaviour and you need expert help to interpret the results.  If your profile has been reduced to four letters of the alphabet with no recent explanation or discussion, you might want to consider just how useful it is to hang on to the label.
  • Hamid came to me with ten years’ experience and a reference that  stated he was a  ‘Belbin completer-finisher’.   Belbin’s team roles theory is better known in the UK than the US and, while it can be useful, it has limitations.  Hamid had been working with a mostly inexperienced team in a procedurally complex environment so, while the younger ones ran round ‘doing’, he tidied up the mess and sorted out the paperwork.  He hated it.  Out of that team and into one where he could use his experience to be a resource investigator, he was far happier.
  • Emil said he was an accountant and indeed had a degree in accountancy but no current professional accountancy institution membership.  He did have three years’ experience in public sector operations management.  Being an operations manager with accountancy skills rather than an accountant with no recent experience completely changed the type of course for which he searched.
  • Grant was ‘no good at education’ so the company requirement that he get a degree if he were to be promoted was producing near-panic.  True, he had left school as soon as he could, and with a not-very-glorious collection of exam results, but since then he had passed one or two exams every year – for 14 years.  The problem was not so much ‘no good at education’ but the wrong sort of education.

Other examples welcome!  Tomorrow, I’ll look at the search stage.


  1. I think you’re right that people can often use out-of-date, incomplete and inaccurate self-concepts when contemplating career transitions. People do tend to filter out evidence that contradicts their existing image of themselves.

    Behind this filtering is the assumption that personality is a fixed and stable thing in adulthood. However, there is increasing evidence that people’s personalities and identities are more mutable and context dependent. (See Multiplicity by Rita Carter.)

    An interesting approach to career transitions is put forward by Herminia Ibarra. She proposes that changing career involves creating new identities through a process of testing and learning.


  2. I agree with Herminia Ibarra who writes “To make a true break with the past, we need to see ourselves in a new light”.

    I moved from a career in teaching straight into one in publishing. The catalyst for me was a colleague who spotted the need for a complete revamp of my CV. Through close interrogation, he helped me to reveal the complexities of my work and the transferable skills which I had not recognised. With a reworked CV, I found myself with a new identity which could readily be understood outside the rarified education world. I recognised myself in the CV but it was strange to perceive my professionalism in this new way. All that I did in my work was there before me, but laid out and presented from a completely different perspective.

    I went on to have psychometric testing and a full career analysis which coincided with a job offer as Managing Editor in a major publishing project.
    The psychometric test results provided evidence that I had chosen to leap in the right direction. And, interestingly, I was able to continue working in learning and education, both close to my heart.

    Now, working in the commercial world of learning, I still adhere to my strong belief about the value of a good learning experience. It mattered for the kids I taught and the teachers I trained and it still matters to me as a learning author and editor.

    Taking a big leap in one’s career is full of risk but staying put and being miserable isn’t the answer. We spend a huge number of hours at work and I believe our careers should reflect our values in some way. As Barack Obama writes in “The Audacity of Hope”, “I am answerable mainly to the steady gaze of my own conscience.”

    • Hi Sheila,
      Thanks for your comment. The concept of transferable skills is vital but they can be so hard to see in ourselves – getting someone else to give you a hand in seeing seeing them (um, hands can see? – you know what I mean) is, as you said, really useful.
      Keep writing – there’s a lot in common.

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