A qualified success?

A few concepts that I blogged about have been floating round in my head for a while. A recent discussion with a client made them come together.

She was talking about how her educational background in Africa had given her a particular mindset about career success. She explained that in her home country, passing a relevant professional examination pretty much guaranteed an appropriate job. When she came to the UK, it was a great shock to her that just having good qualifications was not enough. She had been surprised at the emphasis placed on demonstrating acceptable personal qualities and the importance of networking. It had taken her quite a while to overcome this mindset, and even now her initial reaction when faced with a career challenge was to think about what training she could obtain.

She was quite surprised when I told her that it wasn’t just people from outside the UK that suffered from this blinkered attitude to employability and career success.

‘You want to live like common people?’

There’s an interesting study (Greenbank & Hepworth, 2008; Greenbank, 2009) which looks at the career decision making of working-class UK university students. Obviously, this study lacks some robustness because the responses of working class students were not compared to those of students from other social groups. However, it tries to test out some common explanations for why students from poorer backgrounds are not as successful in their careers as their middle-class counterparts:

  1. Poorer students have to work during their courses and so do not engage with skill-developing extra-curricular activities, they are also limited geographically because of financial constraints (lack of economic capital)
  2. Poorer students have more limited social networks and so do not have access to the quality of information and breadth of role models that more affluent students do (habitus and social capital as well as community interaction)
  3. Students from working class background are said to place more value on direct experience, informal sources of information and less rational approaches to decision making. They are also assumed to be less ambitious, optimistic and future oriented.

Through conducting in-depth interviews with working class students, they discovered that although there was a certain amount of truth in assumptions 2 and 3, assumption 1 was not supported. It wasn’t because of financial constraints that working class students didn’t engage with extra-curricular activities; they didn’t see the point.

The students failed to participate in non-paid extra-curricular activities because they were unaware that graduate employers valued this type of experience. Furthermore, the students concentrated on achieving a ‘good degree’ to the exclusion of other activities because they believed this was pivotal to success in the graduate labour market.

The researchers also discovered that the geographical restriction was driven more by a psychological preference for staying close to family and friends rather than for financial reasons.

I wonder if the blinkered view of qualifications and the desire to rely on familiar contacts are linked? If you’re the first person from your social group to go to university, it’s like travelling to a foreign country. You don’t know what rules apply. If you have no available evidence from your experience that networking and transferable skills will get you a job, you will focus on something more concrete. If you are not confident about building relationships in new environments, you will be tempted to stick with the people and environs you know.

I don’t think that this is restricted to just working class students or people who come from different cultures. Perhaps it is linked to your inherited worldview, but it could just as well be to do with your personality.

‘But still you’ll never get it right’

This failure to recognise the importance of the social element of careers doesn’t just affect entry into the job market. In an earlier post, I described a study which found that graduates who thought about career success in terms of ‘achievement’ and ‘competence’ were less likely to be successful than those who construed it in terms of ‘social behaviour’ and ‘flexibility’.

It seems that once you start with the assumption that concrete qualifications and achievements are the route to career success, you carry on making the same mistake.

Do we help with our employability programmes? If we focus on teaching people how to write a good CV and perform well in an interview, then aren’t we just reinforcing the mistaken obsession with concrete means? Aren’t we entrenching rather than changing a potentially damaging mindset?

‘She had a thirst for knowledge’

Back to my client. She recognised that if she didn’t have a new way of thinking to replace her old mindset, she would keep reverting to her old ways. I fell back on the five virtues of Planned Happenstance but with a twist:

  • Curiosity – be interested in people and what makes them tick
  • Persistence – be prepared to give people several chances to see your potential
  • Flexibility – be ready to change your mind about people
  • Optimism – be determined to learn something from everyone you meet
  • Risk-taking – if you don’t ask, you’ll never know if that person might have said yes.

‘I had to start it somewhere’

Please comment because ‘everybody hates a tourist’.


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  1. #1 by Ghislaine Dell on 20 July 2010 - 11:22

    Ohhhh, now that song is going round and round in my head (even without clicking the link!!!)
    It’s amazing how comforting the familiar is (who else resorts to the comfort blanket of Prospects Planner?!). When I lived abroad it was so hard to mix with locals not stay with the sizeable crowd of expats. And it can be a similar leap of faith for people who have studied something for several years to think that they can move completely away from it and not lose their sense of identity. My colleague who coaches works with her clients to imagine this entrenched attitude as another person completely. So how can we work with students to ‘unblinker’ themselves when they don’t realise they are blinkered? One thing I’m going to try this year is getting alumni back to talk about their career pathways – so it’s a little more relevant to them than me saying exactly the same thing. And also they realise that the ideal we talk to them about of career planning is just that – most of the alumni I have had come back have not had ‘a plan’ – things have ‘happened’ to them – albeit they were looking out for opportunities. So maybe we could focus more on the Planned Happenstance and rely less on the methodical approach? And possibly it would be OK to take smaller steps if a big one is too scary – although maybe the ‘we want it and we want it now’ generation might not think that was enough?
    Anyway, enough rambling.
    PS I grew up by the seaside and didn’t (well not all the time) hate tourists – they paid my wages!!!

    • #2 by David Winter on 29 July 2010 - 10:25

      Hi Ghislaine

      You’re right it is hard to break away from the familiar especially when things are uncertain.

      I’m a big fan of Planned Happenstance, because whenever I talk about it, lots of people identify with it. It seems to be one of the theories that you can bring out in public quite easily and people really get it. In fact, one of my colleagues is writing a post about how she used it explicitly in a networking session.

      Another approach that I’m going to be talking about in some training I’m running tomorrow will be the Test and Learn model of Hermina Ibarra. Which is also about taking small steps to explore new identities and create new social networks.

  2. #3 by Gillian on 20 July 2010 - 11:47

    I agree that rounded academic+social skills are important and also agree with Ghislaine that ‘happenstance’ is a really useful career tool if “happenstance career” is not an oxymoron. (Own career has more than a touch of happenstance in it!) There is, however, also the modern qualifications race that weighs most heavily on those who feel disadvantaged by geography, caste, national history, language, class, school…. How many PG Certificates, for example, are created to help people distinguish themselves from ‘all the other BA-grad applicants’?

    • #4 by David Winter on 29 July 2010 - 10:36

      Hi Gillian

      I agree with you about the qualifications race.

      If ‘everyone’s a graduate nowadays’ how do you distinguish yourself from the crowd. I think the government and the universities are partly to blame for pushing the message that ‘having a degree will guarantee you a good job’.

      I also think that employers are guilty of sending mixed messages. The more they insist on an up-front entry barrier of a 2:1, the more it gives the impression that your academic credentials are what counts. However, many of them distain postgraduate study, saying that it doesn’t make you more employable, but they don’t say this quite so loudly.

      Somehow we need to get the message across that students can distinguish themselves from all the others by developing attributes that are known to correlate with career success: communication, emotional intelligence, flexibility, etc.

  1. American or British degree? « Gillian’s Learning and Qualifications Blog

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