Thing 15: Career planning

This blog is brought to you by Yvonne Gaut and Rana Marrington, who provide careers guidance for researchers at University of Otago and University of Surrey, respectively.

Kaleidoscope Career Planning

Kaleidoscope pattern
Candyland Kaleidoscope, Yvonne Gaut

At different ends of the world, the UK and New Zealand, our situations are diametrically opposed as we write. One is in Spring as a long lockdown starts to be lifted, while the other is moving into Autumn after a Summer able to socialise and travel freely at home, and about to open up with Australia. Our situations may be different but discussing career exploration and planning we find we share similar approaches.

As we wait to evaluate the longer-term impact of the pandemic on the labour market and future work practices, it seems an appropriate time to pause and compare notes. This year connecting online to discuss ideas for this article seemed less of a novelty than a familiar way to comfortably connect despite physical boundaries. Here we share some of the ideas we discussed relating to career exploration. We hope you will take advantage of the opportunity to discuss ideas in your pod around career planning, international perspectives on the labour market, both academic and beyond, and individual experiences as a way of exploring new perspectives to inform personal career development. There are some great digital tools to help promote career thinking, but in our experience, they complement but are no substitute for constructive careers conversations.

For those of us who have been restricted to home and local surroundings, unable to travel, experience has narrowed day to day as we go about our work. For some of us this may not be a new experience; research careers can be precarious. For others, however, it may be the first time to feel a dramatic loss of agency over professional development and career management.

Whether planning a change of direction or seeking further development in a current role, primary considerations when planning may be specialist skills and knowledge, but inevitably other factors are at play. Decisions are influenced by circumstances, our education, our social milieu, our location, our community and recently, with BLM and BIPOC issues having been spotlighted by the George Floyd protests, the significance of the colour of our skin and our ethnic backgrounds has been highlighted. Social realities of inequity and inequality are difficult to ignore. For example, in New Zealand, Māori women are claiming compensation from the crown as part of the Mana Wāhine Kaupapa Inquiry, for the loss of mana (cultivation or possession of energy and power) through being excluded from colonial decision-making, claiming it has caused ongoing systemic discrimination, deprivation and inequities. The recent publication in the UK of the Report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities has intensified the debate about racism at the centre of British institutions. It is not all figured out yet but raises questions about how it affects us, either personally or as a prompt to challenge systems of social repression when they play out in our lives or those around us.

Last year we wrote about Chaos Theory acknowledging how the unexpected can impact on career, demanding that we adapt and innovate, review plans, and pivot to take advantage of chance opportunities in order to flourish in uncertain times. This year with heightened awareness of how global issues impact on our day to day lives, it seems appropriate to highlight the Systems Theory Framework for Career Development[i], a holistic approach to understanding contextual issues impacting on career development and the individual. Illustrated here it focuses on how opportunities are subject to interconnected influences, personal, cultural, sociological, political and economic, how choices are intrinsically linked to factors beyond individual control. Understanding context, however, enables us to clarify where we do have agency. Viewed from a constructivist perspective, it reminds us that we can be the creators of our own futures, that although context and chance may limit us in some respects, through understanding where we do have control we can find the agency to navigate external influences. We create our own career stories through reflection. What we are thinking or discussing helps us to understand influences which in turn affects our choices and helps us to navigate them more effectively.

Navigating a complex landscape of economic and sociological displacement can be challenging. Described as liminality the state of being betwixt and between can be confusing and uncomfortable. This year loss and grief may have unsettled some of us emotionally. The planned for future might not be what we imagined. Inevitably we may have to accept that the future we envisaged will have to be different. And yet …there is a real opportunity here to re-evaluate, to consciously sit with uncertainty and take time to enjoy reviewing and exploring options.

 A bee in a flower
Photo Jonathan Reeve

Self-reflection to increase self-awareness is at the core of who we are and what we can achieve. How do you feel about different aspects of self? We all have blind spots. Is there a way of reducing the blind spot, and do you want to? What hidden potential have you? Would you like to try something new to release that potential? If you are confident that you know yourself well, is there anything further you would like to do to consolidate strengths? The value of reflection is useful to help propel us forward, like the backward thrust before we throw an object.

Personal values can provide a touchstone, a sense of emotional stability and direction. Recent events may have caused us to re-examine what is fundamentally important and what we want to prioritise in the future. Is the potential for social impact important in our work? Sustainability? Technical innovation? Do we want to spend more time with family or friends? Do we need to earn more money? Do we enjoy working on our own or do we want more social interaction? These are familiar questions when reflecting on the place of work in our lives, not necessarily voluntarily but out of necessity, as we navigate day to day challenges in relation to work and relationships. At this point it may be helpful to engage with a careers questionnaire designed to systematically ask questions and analyse responses in relation to values, interests, and skills to generate career ideas for review. See below for a guide to the Prospects Career Planner.

If you want to explore how your values sit in relation to broader social and economic themes the UN Sustainable Development Goals and World Economic Forum Platforms may be worth reviewing.

This returns us to the idea of discussing our ideas with others. Sharing insights and connecting with others can be empowering, providing new perspectives to explore. Careers conversations are an opportunity to find out what other people have done in similar situations. What precedents are there? If you could change or create your own job what would it be? Play with these ideas on your own and with others. In New Zealand, for example, rites of passage are often facilitated through preliminary advice from elders of the community who provide support in uncertain times. Who could you turn to for different perspectives? Your supervisor? A fellow researcher? A careers adviser? Does your university have mentoring schemes, links with alumni? We hope you enjoy your discussions and are inspired to experiment with some new approaches to career planning.

In case you were wondering regarding the labour market, we are observing increased demand for digital skills, more online assessments and interviews, and remote working for many of us is here to stay…

Kaleidoscopic image
Kaleidoscope butterflies, Yvonne Gaut

Using the Prospects Planner

Visit where the Job Match beta quiz can help you explore your fit with different roles in the workplace and reflect on the types of tasks that you enjoy. The value of the exercise is as much about contemplating the questions as in any resulting career ideas.

The 10-minute questionnaire is self-explanatory.

  • Empty your mind of any preconceived associations with specific jobs when answering the questions. Answer them honestly for what they are.

  • Once complete, your main interest type will be identified. If you scroll down the page, you will see a list of other near match interest types.

  • If results seem inappropriate, you may want to review your answers.

  • When you view your interest type, you can read a definition and then scroll down the page to explore related careers.

If you find this exercise interesting, you may wish to continue to the accompanying Career Planner. This takes longer to complete but once set up you can revisit to review answers quickly at any stage. The questionnaire comes in four parts: first steps; skills; motivations; desires. These are recognised elements of career decision planning although it does not take personal circumstances into account and only provides a starting point for the investigation of options related to your specific professional skills. (If you review your answers do not forget to save any changes by clicking on the tab at the end of the page).

View from an airplane
Sun on the horizon, Yvonne Gaut

Here are some institution-specific resources you might want to explore. We'd also love to hear about your career plans and dreams on the forum!

University of Otago

Online career guidance appointment bookings and career and employment events

Surrey University

PGRs can access impartial and confidential individual careers coaching here:

ECRs please email to request an appointment.

University of Cambridge

[i] Development of a Systems Theory of Career Development: A Brief Overview - Mary McMahon, Wendy Patton, 1995 (

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