Posts Tagged ‘careers advice’

Mental Health and the Benefits System

Andrea sits down in front of her careers adviser, John, clearly very agitated.  She rushes to get her words out.  “I’ve just come from the Job Centre, and they say I’ve got to have a CV.  Can we get it done today?”

“Yes, we could work on a CV,” the adviser replies.  “But it sounds like it’s the Job Centre that wants this CV.  What do you want?”

Andrea insists that she must have the CV today, otherwise her benefit will be cut. It’s clear that this is the only reason for the CV, and the threat of having her money cut is uppermost on her mind.  She’s typical of many clients referred by the Job Centre.

John has met Andrea before, and when they met a month ago, Andrea had told him that she was on medication for depression and anxiety and had been on Incapacity Benefit for a few years, but had recently been switched back to Job Seekers Allowance, as a result of a medical assessment. Her GP, however, doesn’t think she is ready to work yet.

When they last met, they talked about Andrea’s ideas for the future.  She was once a Care Assistant, but she said “I can’t go back to that work.  Because I just don’t care and it’s not fair on the older people for me to be in that job.  I need to do something else.  Something practical with my hands, so I don’t have to talk to people all the time.”

John offers to ring up the Job Centre and negotiate a more sensible deadline for the CV, and Andrea immediately relaxes.  After some haggling on the phone, it is agreed that the Job Centre will give Andrea more time to create the CV, provided she spends time with the Careers Adviser on “preparation”.

With the immediate threat of being left without money tackled, Andrea is now able to tell John what has happened since they last met.  Her sister-in-law told her that there were jobs going in a local meat-packing factory.  “I really thought about it, ” says Andrea, “but then I got so worried, I had to take more medication, and just go off for a walk.  I was gone all day. My husband knows me, he knew I was getting worse and he wanted me to go back to the GP.  I don’t know why thinking about that job set me off, but it did.  I didn’t feel right for a couple of weeks.  I think my sister-in-law thinks I’m just lazy.”

They talk about the reasons she wants to work – to be busy, to have more money, to get back to a normal life, to be out of the house.  They also talk about the reasons that she doesn’t feel ready.  She can’t face crowds of people.  Some days, she can’t get out of bed in the morning.  She lacks energy.  She has panic attacks when things feel out of control.  “It seemed like a good job for me, just what I wanted, but it just felt like too big a step.”

Andrea and John spend some time thinking about “small steps”.  Andrea comes up with the idea of an exercise class, a craft class at the adult education centre and ringing her friend to go to a nearly town for a shopping trip on the bus.  John suggests voluntary work – maybe in a charity shop to get used to being around people and having a regularly place to be each week.  Eventually Andrea creates an action plan that includes calling into the adult education centre and a local charity shop.   They agree to meet again in a few weeks to review progress and do the dreaded CV.

Andrea looks anxious as soon as the CV is mentioned.  “A CV isn’t just for getting a job,” John reassures her.  “We can use it as a way to think about all your experiences and what you can do.”

This is real career guidance.  Professional careers advisers work from a Code of Ethics, and putting the client’s needs first is at the heart of this.  A professionally qualified careers adviser will explore the deeper issues that prevent people from achieving their goals, rather than focus immediately on job applications.

Professional career guidance, however, is being cut back all over the UK, and replaced by “job search advice” or “employment support”, offered by staff who are often trained only to a very basic level, and who often work in a very target-driven environment – if they don’t get clients into jobs quickly, their organisations won’t fulfil  the targets in their contract and they will be out of a job.  Some of them are on temporary contracts or have performance-related pay, so the can’t afford not to get their clients into work quickly.

You can’t really blame these advisers for pushing their clients to get back into work quickly, but it’s often a very inappropriate approach for clients with mental health problems, who may need to take many small steps towards being “job-ready”.  The process of getting back to work has to proceed at a pace appropriate to the client – it can’t be rushed. Many clients with mental health problems do want to get back to work, but they recognise that they need support (perhaps part-time or flexible hours, a reduced workload or social support), and many employers would rather just employ someone else.  A paid job is often a very the long-term goal.

Clients who are pushed back into work before they are ready, without appropriate support, may find that they can’t actually perform the job at the speed and standard expected, they may feel socially isolated and often find that their condition is exacerbated by the pressure to “keep up”.  Their attendance at work may be poor, especially if they don’t get appropriate support from their employer.  They are unlikely to hold down the job, so the cycle begins again – they are back in the benefit system with even lower levels of confidence.

How The People You Hang Out With Can Make You Happy (Or Not)

There is a theory which I have heard more than one life coach put forward that goes like this: you should hang out with people who are richer and more successful than you are, so that the attitudes and habits that have made them rich and/or successful will rub off on you.   Hanging out with these people will create a healthy amount of dissatisfaction with your life and therefore motivate you to set goals and achieve great things.  Mixing with people who have achieved the things that you want to achieve will motivate you to achieve more.

On the other hand, psychologists researching the field of “happiness” are finding that the more we compare ourselves to others (particularly others who are richer, more successful or “better” in some way), the less likely we are to be happy.  The more we read about the rich and famous, the more advertising we watch that shows us all the things we could have, the more we mix with people who have more material wealth than we have, the less content we feel with our lot.

When I worked in South London, the majority of my clients were either on benefits or were asylum seekers.  Many couldn’t even afford to pay the bus fare to college or to buy a sandwich in the canteen at lunchtime.  I talked to them every day about their lives, and when I went home in my old car to my small flat, I felt rich.  I had plenty.  But when I took a year off on maternity leave, I started spending my days with a group of new mums I had met in antenatal classes.  They all seemed to be investment bankers, lawyers or media types, and they worried about parking their smart cars outside my flat.  I suddenly started to feel that what I had wasn’t good enough, and I didn’t like the feeling.  I can’t say it inspired me to be more ambitious – it just introduced a low level of discontent into my life.  It made me realise that, pleasant as they were, they weren’t the people I wanted to hang out with every day.

Now I’ve done what most people do, and surrounded myself with friends on a similar level of income.  I feel quite content again, and rich in the things that matter – health, family, job satisfaction and friendships.  People like to have friends with a similar income level because it’s comfortable.  You don’t have to be embarrassed about not being able to afford an expensive night out and you don’t have to hide your wealth for fear of embarrassing your friends.

We have also got rid of the television in our house.  We still watch programmes on DVDs and on the iPlayer, but we no longer have advertising pumped daily into our house.  And what a difference it makes!  It’s subtle, but I find myself wanting much less.  My children, when asked, couldn’t even think of things they wanted for Christmas (apart from an invisibility potion that really works – not easy to procure!)

I try not to make comparasions with others at all, because thinking about who has the better house, car, holiday, job or children doesn’t lead to warm and friendly feelings.  It just leads into a way of thinking that marks out some people as better or worse than others (and there will always be others better than you).  If I catch myself making comparisons, I will stop myself.  But I can’t say I never do it at all.  Maybe a few Buddhist monks manage it, but most of us make comparasions, whether we are aware of them or not.  And it’s the subconscious comparasions that are very hard to challenge because we don’t even notice we are making them.

Societies where there is greater inequality tend to be less happy, because people are comparing themselves to the very rich.  And the interesting thing is that even the richer people in unequal societies are less happy – after all, there is always someone richer than you, and the values in unequal societies promote the acquisition of wealth rather than the sharing of it.

So if we really do want to be happy, maybe we should be choosing jobs and activities that bring us into contact with people who have less than we do.  Voluntary work is one way of doing this.  Interestingly, the research on happiness also shows that altruistic acts increase our happiness levels too.  We should also be avoiding careers that will have us mixing with with those who are richer and more successful than we are (unless we can develop the strength of character to avoid getting into negative thought patterns and comparasions).

Of course, if we think that wealth and success are more important than happiness, then we should do the opposite!  Bring on the social climbers, and let them get on with it.

There is a pervasive narrative in society that we should all achieve and succeed to the best of our ability, and in the process earn as much money as we can, but really, it’s time to think a bit harder about what we value.  Most of us say we want to be happy, but we don’t always choose things that will make us happy.  Many people will choose a job that pays more money rather than a jobs that offers flexitime or shorter hours.  Many people relentlessly chase promotions without thinking about whether it will actually bring happiness.

I’ve had a few clients who have given up (or thought about giving up) well paid jobs, to do something they enjoy more but pays less.  They worry about whether they are doing the right thing.  They probably are.  But they still worry that they won’t be happy with less money than they are used to or less money than their friends have.   It’s a brave decision to make.

Having made that decision, they may find that they are really enjoying the new job, but struggling to get used to the new income level (although this often isn’t as difficult as they anticipate).  If it is a struggle, they could help themselves by cultivating friendships with people on a similar income level, making time to meet and talk to people with much less money than they have and limiting the time they spend with those who have more money than they do.

Top Ten CV Blunders

When I say, “My Top Ten CV Blunders”, I don’t mean the obvious blunders – the phone number missing, the spelling mistake, the dates that just don’t add up.

I mean those blunders that make your CV OK – OK enough for your friends to say it looks good, OK enough for you to feel confident as you put hndreds of them in the post, OK enough to make it into a that big pile of CVs that are the long-list for the job of your dreams.  But the problem is, it’s just OK. And it is going to end up in a pile of a 100 CVs, which are all mostly OK.

It’s so totally just OK that the bored HR Assistant will drift off as he reads it, get to the end, remember nothing about it, put it in the “no” pile and move on.   HE will go on reading that long-list, that pile of over 100 CVs that are mostly just OK.  And most of those OK CVs will end up in the bin.

Because if you are applying for advertised jobs, you are competing against 100s of other applicants.  Your CV needs to be more than OK, it needs to be stand-out fantastic!  And these are the hidden blunders that you might not even know you are committing:

1. Failing to link the CV to the job description. If the job description asks for experience with spreadsheets, experience of interviewing people, experience of managing a diary and experience of report writing, then this is what should be in the first half page of your CV – all these skills, with examples of how you have used them.

2. Writing about your employers and your job description, rather than what you actually brought to the job role and your  achievements in the job. Anybody can work for an interesting employer with an interesting job description, but describing what was in the job description doesn’t tell the reader if you were any good at it.  Most people fail to extract the maximum impact from their achievements when they write their CV.  Graduates, for example, often fail to make the links between the skills they developed (maybe through writing a dissertation or carrying out practical work) and the jobs they are applying for.  And many people describe themselves using really weak action words like “assisted with, helped, sorted out, reviewed, completed, collated, inputted, talked to” when surely they should be using more dynamic words like “responsible for, organised, re-designed, led, managed, co-ordinated, marketed, researched, analysed, interviewed, consulted” instead (don’t be afraid to use these words – everyone else will be!)

3. Hiding the best bits on the back page of the CV. The employer will read the first half page of your CV with full attention, but if the first half page doesn’t grab them, they may never make it to the second page.  Use a CV format that allows you to put your best achievements in the first half page.  This might be a profile (a few lines about what you have to offer), an Achievements section or a Skills section.

4. Not putting your name and the page number as a footer on every page of the CV. It’s really easy for pages of a CV to get mixed up, and having a footer means that if this happens, the hapless work experience student doing the photocopying will be able to reunite the pages of your CV rather than hide them in the recycling box.

5. CVs that are too long. Remember that poor HR Assistant with 100 CVs to read…  A CV should not be more than 2 pages long (unless you are an academic or techie geek with a lot of research/projects to list).  Anything that happened more than ten years ago can be summarised.  You don’t need to repeat your skills when describing each job you have done – once you are back a few years, only list skills that are relevant and that you haven’t used in more recent jobs.

6. CVs that are full of tiny font and dense text – it’s not very inviting to read, especially if you are that bored HR Assistant. Use headings, font size 12, Arial, and leave plenty of white space between the sections and columns.

7. Writing Curriculum Vitae at the top of the CV, and then emailing your CV with the file titled “CV”. What if everyone else did this too?  That HR Assistant would have a folder full of files titled CV.  Use your name and the job title as the file name, and put your name at the top of the CV.

8. Putting lots of irrelevant personal information on the CV. You don’t need to put your date of birth, your ethnic origin, your photo (unless you are an actor), your marital status, your health problems, your age, your sexuality, the number of children you have, where you were born, your wedding date or when you plan to have children.  All of these things are potential reasons why an employer might discriminate against you, so don’t give them the opportunity.  However, if you have spent time outside the UK, you should state that you are a British Citizen or that you have the right to work in the UK.

9. Failing to use key words in an electronic CV. If you have been asked to send your CV electronically, the company may well do an initial search electronically, with the computer simply looking for key words from the job description or person specification.  If you don’t use these key words, you won’t make it past the first sift.  Some naughty jobhunters even type loads of potential key words in white text in all the blank bits of the CV just to increase their chances (although I wouldn’t recommend this strategy, as an employer may not feel kindly disposed towards you if they spot it).

10.  Dodgy email addresses, like CeriLovesSex@virgin.net or VampireVanessa@btinternet.net  Keep it professional!  And while you are at it, keep your answer machine message professional too.  And google your name to see what comes up (25% of employers will do this, you know!)

Help! Job Interivews Just Make Me Go To Pieces…

Q.  I get really nervous in job interviews, and I just go to pieces.  My mind goes blank, my voice shakes and I just can’t think straight.  Consequently, I never get the job, even though I feel I’m well qualified for the jobs I’m applying for (and I am getting interviews).  Help!

A. Job interview nerves are very common, and you need some strategies to get them under control.  Many people hate job interviews, and few people look forward to them without any nerves at all.  However, a little adreneline can be a good thing, prompting you to prepare properly, think fast and rise to the occasion.  Your task it to get your anxiety levels down to the level where they are working for you, rather than against you.

What sort of conversation do you have in your head about job interviews?  Chances are, it goes along the lines of “I’ll never get the job, I’ll make a fool of myself, I can’t do it, I’m going to mess it up.” Well, it’s time to change that, because this sort of negative talk just puts you in a very unresourceful frame of mind.  It’s the perfect excuse for messing up.

You need to replace this negative conversation with something more like “I’m well qualified for this job, they must think I can do it because they’ve invited me for an interview, I’m just going to go in there and do my best, and I’ll show them all the skills I’ve got and why I could do the job really well.” It’s not enough to say this to yourself once, you have to say it consistently until you believe it.  Whenever you catch yourself thinking negative thoughts, replace them with positive statements.  Put reminders to yourself around – post -it notes on the mirror, an elastic band on your wrist, so you do this consistently.  This way, you can use your “self-talk” to put yourself in a more positive state of mind.

The other key thing is to prepare really well.  Read all the information you are given and research the company to get background information.  Think about why you want to work for this company, and what you could contribute.  Look at the key skills and experiences that the employer is looking for, and think about how you can demonstrate that you have these attributes.  Finally, think of three key reasons why you are the best person for the job, so you can be absolutely sure to weave these three things into your answers.

Practice talking about your skills and experience with a friend or in front of the mirror, so you are actually saying it out loud.  As you practice, pretend to be a more confident version of yourself, who doesn’t suffer any interview nerves.  Then try recording your answers and play them back to yourself until you do sound like this more confident version of yourself. It’s really important to say things out loud so they become real to you.  The more often you practice, the more likely it is that an answer will come to you even if your mind is a bit blank.

Put some care and attention into how you dress on the day.  You should dress a little smarter than you would actually dress for the job (so smart casual for a nursery nurse, suit for an office job).  You want to feel smart, but comfortable, and if you do, it will add to your confidence levels.  A good haircut and a new suit that fits you really well might earn their keep.

Practice relaxation exercises in the run up to the interview.  Try deep breathing – slow and deep breaths will calm your body down and reduce the physical feelings of anxiety (the shaky voice, the butterflies in the stomach).  Sit in a quiet place, and breath long and slow for a few minutes a day until you get used to this way of calming yourself.  Another relaxation exercise is to lie comfortably (perhaps on your back) and then tense and relax each part of your body in turn.  Then lie quietly for five minutes, with your body fully relaxed (remember the muscles in your face!).  There are also many relaxation and self-hypnosis CDs that you can relax to.

On the day, you can use deep breathing as you travel and while you wait to be called in for the interview, and this will reduce your physical feeling of anxiety.  You could also do a full body relaxation before you leave the house.

Once in the interview, smile and greet the interviewer/panel.  Remember they are only human too. Some people say you should imagine the interview panel naked, but I wouldn’t recommend that – too likely to lead to a fit of the giggles, and no good at all if the panel are unexpectedly attractive!  But it is worth remembering that the panel may be as nervous as you are, if they don’t have much experience of interviewing, and you should think about how to put them at ease.

If your mind does go blank, it’s absolutely fine to ask for a question to be repeated (better than answering the wrong question).  If your voice is a bit shaky, stop and take a deep breath, then start again.  Remember to speak slowly.  It may not be the end of the world if you do confess to being a little nervous, as a good interviewer will try to put you at ease.  Afterall, almost everyone gets nervous about job interviews, so you are only being honest.

You might also think about doing a course or getting some one-to-one help, particularly if anxiety or a lack of confidence impact on other areas of your life:

  • Yoga, tai chi and mediation – all would help with reducing general anxiety levels and increasing your sense of calmness and wellbeing
  • Drama or public speaking – would help with confidence in making presentations and appearing confident in interviews
  • Hypnosis or Neuro-Linguistic Programming – would help you train your mind into a more positive and resourceful state
  • Careers advice – to help with preparing for tough questions and perhaps practicing in a “mock interview”

Good luck with this!  Remember, you are getting interviews, so you do have the skills and experience to do the jobs you are applying for.  An employer wouldn’t bother to interview you unless this was the case.

 

emotional intelligence in career guidance

The concept of Emotional Intelligence first entered the public consciousness with Daniel Goleman’s journalistic account of the research that neuro-psychologists were doing to identify a new kind of “intelligence” that seemed to be a better predictor of success in life than the traditional IQ.  Emotional Intelligence can be broadly defined as the ability to be aware of emotions (both your own and other people’s) to control them so as to manage your relationships with others and your own emotional life well.

A little thought soon leads one to the conclusion that Emotional Intelligence is a key part of successfully navigating our career decisions and working life.  Emotional Intelligence gives us the skills to aim high, to put our plans into action and to be successful in education, training and the workplace.

The ability to regulate our own emotions is essential in the workplace.  Without some self-control, we would soon end up in conflict with others. Many Careers Advisers will have seen clients who cannot sustain a job or training place because they always end up having a row with the boss or with colleagues.  Those who have the ability to put themselves in a positive, cheerful mood are better team players and find it easier to stay motivated at work.

Many people suffer from “job interview nerves”  or worry about going into new and unfamiliar situations.  Being able to manage our own anxiety so that it does not prove an insurmountable barrier is another very useful skill.

Managing emotions is also key in managing larger transitions successfully – leaving school, redundancy, promotions and retirement.  Although these transitions inevitably trigger feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, those who are more emotionally skilled may move through these negative emotions more quickly and suffer less, managing the transition with greater ease.

The best career plan in the world isn’t much help if we don’t have the motivation to follow it through.  We can all think of people who are “stuck” in unfulfilling  jobs because they lack the motivation to do anything about it.  Motivation is also a key issue in working with many young people and unemployed adults who have lost the motivation to seek work or more fulfilling activities.

The ability to defer gratification (do something unpleasant now in order to achieve something better in the future) is necessary when we choose to study at a higher level or take on an apprenticeship, and delay the day when we can enjoy a higher standard of living.  Those who are able to delay gratification are also more likely to apply themselves to study rather than give in to the temptations of surfing the net!

Hope and resilience give people the ability to bounce back from the inevitable setbacks when things don’t work out the way we planned.  Those who are optimistic and hopeful tend to try harder and persist in the face of barriers and difficulties, rather than giving up at the first hurdle.

Self-efficacy (our belief in our ability to be successful in a given task) plays a key role in career decision-making.  We are more likely to set ourselves goals and apply ourselves to tasks that we have high self-efficacy beliefs for, which leads to a positive cycle of increasing skill and success, followed by growing interest.   We are all more likely to choose careers in areas where we feel more self-efficacious.  There is a potentially negative cycle here too, where someone may have poor self-efficacy beliefs for a particular task, and therefore does not set goals or develop themselves in that direction (for example, girls may get into this negative cycle if they lack confidence with maths and science, despite having high ability).

Emotional Intelligence is so key to career success, and the good news is that there is a lot Careers Advisers can do to help clients develop their emotional intelligence:

  • Tactics to manage anxiety about job interviews or new situations
  • Tactics to manage anger in the workplace
  • Challenging negative self-efficacy beliefs
  • Helping clients recognise the value of deferred gratification
  • Recognising the role of intuition in career decision-making
  • Giving support to clients to increase resilience, confidence and hope
  • Using role models to increase self-efficacy

I recently ran a workshop with Careers Advisers exploring these skills and tactics, and was really pleased to find that within days many of them could give examples of how they were already weaving these ideas into their guidance interviews.  Simply paying more attention to the role of emotions in making transitions immediately gives more depth to the work with the client and enables the adviser to give support and help the client build confidence and motivation.  The advisers also found it very useful to pay more attention to the sources of self-efficacy beliefs – relevant experiences, encouragement or lack of encouragement from others, role-models amongst friends and family (or lack of role-models) and to use this to challenge inaccurate beliefs about the client’s abilities.

The Advisers were particularly interested in the concept of differing intelligences – for example, most Careers Advisers are rather Word Smart (good at verbal and written communication), Self Smart (self-aware)  and People Smart (good at managing relationships), but a lot of our clients are more Body Smart (good with their hands), Picture Smart (good with images), Sound Smart (good with music and sound), Nature Smart (good with plants and animals) or Logic Smart (good at maths and logical problems).

The traditional careers interviews is very Word Smart (lots of talking and a written action plan at the end) and also People Smart (two people relating to each other).  It doesn’t necessarily suit every client’s preferred learning style.

Some of the best careers work caters to the client’s own learning style.  For example, taking young people out around the shops with their CVs is more Body Smart than writing CVs in the careers centre.  Using more diagrams and pictures is Picture Smart.  Helping young people write a rap song about their skills is Sound Smart.   A lot of Labour Market Information is Logic Smart (as are lists of Pros and Cons).  Once you start to use your imagination, the possibilities are endless.

If we want good outcomes for clients (as opposed to knocking out large numbers of interviews with good written plans), we need to be more creative and not be afraid to enter the world of the emotions, to help our clients develop the motivation and the emotional skills to put their plans into action.

The Decisive Moment

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book by Jonah Lehrer, “The Decisive Moment”, which I would recommend to anyone who is interested in how people make decisions or wants to make better decisions (about anything from shopping to playing poker to career planning).

“The Decisive Moment” summarises all the latest research from neuroscientists, who can now track which parts of the brain are being used in different types of decisions, and mixes this with really interesting anecdotes about good and bad decisions made, taken from sports, gambling, airlines, firefighting, shopping and financial planning.

It’s clear from the evidence that he presents that there is an important place in good decision-making for both intuitive “gut feelings”  and the more  rational decision-making processes, and they work best when used together.

Our intuitive responses to situations and decisions are based on the analysis made by the unconscious mind, which can compute thousands of factors, consider all our previous relevant experience and learning and put it all together, communicating this to the conscious mind with an emotional “gut feeling”, which we can then choose to follow or ignore.  This unconscious mind is an amazing thing, and we ignore it at our peril!

However, it is vulnerable to making certain kinds of mistakes and is easily taken in by clever advertising or sales techniques.  It favours instant gratification over long-term benefits.  It also looks for evidence to support beliefs already held, rather than being open to the unfamiliar.  It’s also rather “loss averse” so when a decision is framed in terms of loss (e.g. the money you will lose if you buy something) it tends to avoid the loss.  Intuitive decision-making works best when the decision-maker has a lot of relevant experience for the unconscious mind to draw on.

We can either act immediately on our intuitive feelings, or we can choose to stop and use the conscious, rational part of our mind (the prefrontal cortex) to analyse them further, looking at the pros and cons of the decision.  The rational part of our mind is very good at logical and mathematical decisions, and is less vulnerable to being taken in by advertising or pressure from others.  However, unlike the unconscious mind, which can analyse unlimited factors, the conscious mind can only look at a limited number of factors (about seven), so is less able to deal with very complex decisions.  It also finds it harder to put a value on how important certain factors are (for example, in buying a house, the conscious mind might not know which was of more value – a short commute or an extra bathroom).  Using the rational brain for complex decisions can lead to poorer decision-making.

So what is the best way to make really complex decisions?  Lehrer suggests that we should first do some work with the rational bits of our brain – listing all the options, listing the important factors, researching the options, gathering all the relevant information, doing the maths.  Then we should go on holiday, or do a relaxing activity that allows the conscious mind to forget about the decision, and let it “marinate” in the unconscious mind, so that an intuitive feeling can come to the surface.

Lehrer doesn’t mention any career decisions in his book, but there is clearly lots of relevance for career planning.  Most career decisions are very complex.  Choosing a university involves choosing the right course (both interesting, realistic and leading to the right career), choosing a good environment and making financial decisions.  Changing jobs involves a new job role, new colleagues, a new journey to work, changes in pay and conditions.  These are certainly complex decisions that the rational part of the brain would find difficult to accomplish alone.  To make these decisions, we need to make good use of our intuitive feelings and let the unconscious mind to a lot of the work for us.

However, that is not to say that we should unquestioningly go with our gut feeling, because intuitive feelings can lead us astray.  If intuitive feelings tend to prioritize short-term gratification over the long-term, we should be aware of this.  For example, if you are sixteen and you are offered the choice between a job in fast food place, paying the minimum wage, and an apprenticehsip with a mechanic leading to a qualification, but only paying a training allowance, you may  intuitively favour the instant gratification of the job and the better money.

The intuitive mind is also “loss averse” and if taking on a new job role or going to college is framed in terms of loosing friends, the intuitive mind may not go for it, preferring to keep the security of existing friends rather than leaping into the unknown.  Lehrer doesn’t talk much about peer pressure, but I am guessing (from his descriptions of how we respond to sales and advertising) that peer pressure may influence intuitive feelings about a decision, and again, this is something we should be wary of.

Lehrer suggests that if we want to get better at decision-making, we need spend more time analysing the decisions that make, so we can become better at knowing when to trust our intuitions and when not to.

A key part of a careers interview is often looking at past career decisions made, to see what can be learnt from them.  Were they made on the basis of gut feeling?  Was it a logical, pros and cons analysis?  Or did the client just “go with the flow” or follow advice from others.  If previous decisions haven’t worked out too well, the careers adviser may ask the client what they would do differently next time.  Typical answers include finding out more about a course or subject before choosing it, or paying less attention to what friends say, which suggests that some poor career decisions (particularly from younger people who have less experience to draw on) are based on using gut feeling without enough rational analysis and research to draw on.

However, many adult clients are very satisfied with “gut feeling” career decisions, perhaps because they do have more life experience to draw on and use.  The most common flaw that adults seem to find in their previous decisions is too much “going with the flow” rather than taking control of things.  This may be because the intuitive mind favours the instant gratification of the familiar rather than plunging into the unknown.

Another aspect of the book which I found interesting is the research into how the intuitive mind handles complex tasks well, when the performer is very experienced ~(Lehrer uses the example of an opera singer) – and when that experienced performer starts to think more consciously about what they are doing the performance goes down hill.  Inexperienced performers, however, do better when they use their conscious mind.

This got me to thinking about the training of Careers Advisers, and why it is that when experienced Careers Advisers start to analysis what they do in Careers Interviews, they often do less well than when they just get on with it.  In contrast, trainee Careers Advisers (and Careers Advisers learning new skills) do need to use the rational, conscious part of the their brain to introduce the skills and tactics they are taught, because they are not embedded in the unconscious mind.  It’s a bit like driving a car – once you start thinking about parallel parking, you just can’t do it any more!

I found this book really thought-provoking and it got me to thinking about all sorts of decisions I have made – from moving house and changing jobs to the more trivial shopping choices.  It should be required reading for Careers Advisers and anyone who is interested in making better decisions.

I wonder if anyone has done similar research specifically on career decision making (if they haven’t, then it would be really interesting area for further research).

Pressure of University Clearing

As a Careers Adviser in Further Education, I would look forward to Clearing day with a mixture of trepidation and excitment.  It’s one of the busiest days of the FE Careers Adviser’s calendar and a day of high drama: tears, triumphs, hugs and quick decisions to be made.

The day would start with groups of students hanging around, waiting for someone to come to the noticeboard with the list of obscure codes and letters that would prove to be life changing.  As the notice went up, a group of students would cluster around, pushing for a better view.  We would watch from the windows of the advice centre, as students hugged and congratulated each other, phoned parents and celebrated.  And a trickle of disappointed students would appear at the door.  Before long, the trickle would swell, and we would have twenty or thirty students consoling each other in the waiting area.

Our task was quickly assess their situation, and put them to work on the clearing process.  If they had only just missed their place by one grade, the first task was to ring the university they had applied to.  Many of them would still secure a place with this one phonecall, and could quickly be despatched with a smile on their face.

The rest were put to work, hunting through the newspapers and the UCAS website for courses that they were interested in.  We sat by the students as they checked prospectuses, phoned universities and put their case to admissions tutors.  As each one found a place, the rest would hug and cheer them.  By the end of the day, most had secured some tentative offers, and were reassured that they would still be going to university.  There would be a few who were considering the alternatives.  Job well done, we thought.

Later, I worked as a University Careers Adviser and saw for myself the results of these hasty decisions.  It was all too common for students to feel that they were on the wrong course.  It was only now that they were realising how much Maths was involved in that Business Studies course.  Or how their Psychology course wasn’t recognised by the appropriate professional body.  Or that there wasn’t any practical work in their Media course.  All things they could have found out before they accepted their university place, but didn’t.

Many (but by no means all) of these decisions were made in the rush of the clearing process.  The pressure to just “get a place” makes it hard for students to coolly assess the offer, check the course content and visit the university to see for themselves.  They may not think to ask about drop-out rates, career destinations or student satisfaction ratings.

This week, thousands of students will go through a very similar process in clearing.  The process hasn’t changed all that much.  The most radical difference is that now, students can receive all this information online.  The noticeboard is obsolete.  Many students will receive the news of whether thay have a place at university in the privacy of their bedrooms.  It does give them the chance to absorb the shock of not getting a place before they face the world.  It saves that awkward moment between friends, where one recieves three grade As, and the other receives 3 grade Es and they don’t know what to say to each other.

But with this privacy comes isolation. There are no friends on hand to give a hug and console.  There is no group of disappointed students, in it together, and giving mutual support.  Teachers and Careers Advisers are not on hand to calmly guide the student.  Parents may be as disappointed and confused as the student themselves.

The pressure has only increased to secure a university place, as many school and college leavers fear there will be no jobs for them to go to.  The pressure to get a university place sorted before facing the world will lead to many students accepting places on Any Old Studies at University of the Back Of Beyond, just so they can say they have it sorted when they finally see their friends.  And yet it will be harder than ever to do this, as the number of university applicants has increased and funding for additional university places has been cut.

It’s a brave decision to step out of the clearing process, and make the decision to have some time out and re-apply.  No-one wants to be left behind as friends go off to university.  No-one wants to have to tell the world that they failed to get a university place.  But maybe this is better (and braver) than spending three years (and a lot of money) on the wrong course.

There are lots of things that can be done with this time out:

  • Getting relevant work expereince, whether in a paid job, an internship or just a few days of unpaid work shadowing, can give  something to talk about and write about in applications.  It’s essential for many careers – Media and Law, for example – and can give a UCAS application the edge.
  • Voluntary work, either at home or abroad, is looked upon very positively by universities, and can give the chance to develop new skills, confidence in dealing with people, going to new places and operating in a different culture.  Helping others with their problems and issues is a really effective way to take your attention away from your own problems.
  • There may be apprenticeships available in your area that would provide an alternative route into the career you are interested in, as well as additional qualifications
  • To some extend, any work is useful, even if it just convinces you to work hard at university because you never want to work in a chicken factory again.
  • Some people will choose to re-sit A-Levels, and this can open up a wider range of courses.  However, it should be remembered that some of the more competitive univerisities don’t look so positively on re-sits, unless there is a good reason for not doing well the first time.
  • Gaining new skills though practical courses, such as IT, Business, Care, Construction, Art or Mechanics might open up new doors or give new ideas

If you do find yourself (or your children) in Clearing, please don’t sit alone in your bedroom trying to figure it all out!  Go into your school, college, Careers Service or Connexions and get some professional help.  Don’t make your decisions in a rush without thinking it through.