Think of your career as a mountain: here’s how to plan your first steps
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Whether it’s holidays, meals, or your career, if you truly don’t mind where you go, what you eat, or what job you do, then there is no need to plan. However, you probably do have some idea of what you might want to do in your career, even it is not yet specific or fully formed. And it’s OK at this stage to know roughly which career mountain range to climb, even if you haven’t placed a flag at the top of one particular peak.
You just need to think about how to identify the mountain, work out the routes to the peak, and plan some first steps to reach base camp. Without a plan, there’s a good chance you’ll start climbing somewhere you don’t enjoy, or in an area that has no meaning for you.
That should be your first clue in thinking about where to direct your career plans: what activities will give your job (and life) meaning and purpose? There’s no right or wrong answer to this, and what your friends or family think is not relevant; your purpose may be to entertain people with music or art, to restore habitat, to translate literature, to heal the sick, discover cures for diseases, or one of many other objectives.
A career is a long game — maybe 40 or more years — and it’s unlikely you’ll be doing the same thing for all that time. So don’t worry that defining your purpose now will lock you in to the same job or role forever; just consider what is right for you now, given what you know now, your skills and experiences, and what is going on in the world. In 10 or 15 years, technology and the environment will have changed, and new opportunities will appear. After all, just consider what’s changed in the past 10-15 years.
Given that the world can feel a rather uncertain place, and arguably more changeable than it was for your teachers and parents, you may wonder how anyone can possibly make useful plans. Some guiding principles can help. While robots and artificial intelligence are gradually taking on more tasks, people are still needed to generate creative new ideas, to persuade, care for, and inspire other people. And people hire people: even if the job application process involves a robot or automatic assessment at some point, in the end a person will make the final decision.
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Consider how an employer will decide who to recruit. They’ll pay you for what you can do for them, what responsibilities you’ll take on, and what you’ll achieve. They also, being people, want to enjoy working with you as part of the team. So that’s three things that recruiters are asking: can you demonstrate that you take responsibility, achieve things, and will be good to work with?
It’s likely that you can already show these three points; the exact subject or activity is not important. For example, you might be the secretary of a school or student club, or an active member of a sports team or a music or drama group — or perhaps a volunteer for a charity.
For most jobs, you’ll also need a “ticket” to play, in the form of good quality, recognised qualifications, such as an apprenticeship, college degree and/or professional exam.
Once you have an initial idea for which mountain to climb, what do you do next?
Find out which specific existing jobs would get you to base camp. For each job, what will it take to land it? Find out what qualifications, experience, skills and interests they seek by reading job advertisements and talking to people. Think about how much risk you’ll be happy to take: do you aim high, following the most difficult path, or feel better playing it safe?
Information interviews can be a powerful technique; they give you a chance to learn about an industry and practise talking about your interests. You can find people to interview by asking teachers, parents, friends and on LinkedIn. Ask the people you meet to recommend one or two more contacts you should speak to, so you build your network and learn more.
For any sort of interview or job application, the secrets of success are to prepare well and to think about your audience. Everything you write or tell them must answer their questions and be relevant to the subject. Before an interview, list all the questions that might come up and spend some time planning what you’d answer.
Don’t be afraid to seek out help, including from parents and teachers, when preparing applications. While the world of work and recruitment has probably changed since they were your age, they do know you well and can help review plans, challenge assumptions and perhaps provide some introductions.
Remember, it’s your career, and your flag at the top of the mountain — but advice from your supporters can often help identify easier routes or avoid hazards along the way.
The writer is director of the University of Oxford’s careers service and has a fortnightly FT column answering readers’ career questions.