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Festive career lessons from Home Alone

SophiaDonaldson14 December 2018

 

How many times have I seen Home Alone? I couldn’t tell you for sure. But I know the number is big because it’s a blooming Christmas classic. When I first watched it I was but a stupid little child, so I thought the key themes of the film were about not taking your family for granted, good triumphing over evil, Christmas miracles etc. etc. etc. But last weekend I watched it through the wisened (wrinkly) eyes of a UCL Careers Consultant, and I was finally able to discern its true meaning. And as luck would have it, it’s actually all about careers. Below are the top three career messages I took away from this festive favourite. They contain spoilers…but come on, who hasn’t seen Home Alone?!

 

1. Build a brand

When Harry and Marv get their comeuppance at the hands of Kevin, they pay not only for breaking and entering the house in which they were found, but also for all the previous houses they’ve burgled. This is because they have a calling card, an MO, a brand: they are the Wet Bandits.

So ok, if you’re committing crimes, maybe a brand isn’t such a sensible idea. But when you’re looking for a job, having an MO can be very attractive to employers. It tells them who you are, and what you can contribute. So what brand are you building? If an employer googles you or peruses your LinkedIn page, what picture will they get? Is it clear enough? In your application documents and on LinkedIn, make sure you mention all of your interesting projects and achievements, and even include links to relevant work, like presentations you’ve given, code you’ve created, blogs you’ve written (hopefully about subjects that reflect your brand) etc. Then you too may be as recognisable to an employer as a Wet Bandit is to the cops.

 

2. Get organised

Kate and Peter McCallister seem like nice enough people with a very lovely house, but they certainly wouldn’t win the award for Best Parents Of The ‘90s. Their problem boiled down to a lack of organisation. They woke up late, took their eyes off the ball, and ended up flying to Paris without their youngest son. Oops.

Just like Kate and Peter, jobhunters often learn the hard way that it’s good to be organised. Well, not quite like Kate and Peter. They rarely inadvertently abandon their children. But instead they find themselves in a pickle when they’re called to interview for a job they have little recollection of applying for, and the job advert has now disappeared. What’s more, they’ve sent off so many applications they’re not sure exactly what they said in this particular one. They then have a decision to make: ask for the job advert to be sent over, thereby admitting their disorganised approach to the employer, or face an interview underprepared. Awkward.

So don’t learn the hard way. Learn the easy way: from this blog about Home Alone. When you’re in jobhunting mode, keep clear records – maybe even in a spreadsheet – of where you’ve applied. And save every job advert, person specification, and application, ready for when you’re called to impress in person.

 

3. Make time for fun – it may even help your career

Home Alone’s Kevin knows how to enjoy himself. He plays with BB guns, seesaws, and Micro Machines, and he watches gangster movies. He does these things because they’re fun, but they also turn out to be pretty handy when he has two burglars to tackle.

At UCL Careers, we may be guilty of making you think your career plans should motivate every choice you make. Actually, that’s not really how life works. Often you have to put yourself out there, do what you enjoy, and work out how that might be useful in your career later down the line. This is exactly what a UCL PhD-turned Life Sciences Consultant told us when we interviewed him a few months ago. He loves theatre, so he got involved in writing show reviews. When applying for Consultant roles, he used this as evidence of his written communication skills: he can put together accessible and persuasive writing about a show, even with the limitation that he couldn’t reveal the plot to his readers. And clearly it worked – he got the job! His advice is “Although to some degree you should cover the bases, do what you enjoy, and figure out how to tell the story in your CV along the way”. Great message….even if it was obviously nicked from Home Alone.

 

 

 

Careers Advice from Baz Luhrmann’s Wear Sunscreen

SophiaDonaldson31 August 2018

Remember that weirdly amazing song by Baz Luhrmann, Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen), that was pretty much just a guy reading the words to an essay by Pulitzer-Prize-winning Mary Schmich? It reached number 1 and Gold status here in the UK. But more importantly it formed the basis of how I live my life. If I’m ever unsure about a decision, I consult Wear Sunscreen, and within it I usually find my answer. For it covers all of life’s important arenas: Health (“Be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone”), Love (“Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts, don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours”), and Beauty (“Do NOT read beauty magazines they will only make you feel ugly”).

But of course the advice I want to discuss in this post relates to careers. And there’s lots of it. Here are four sets of key lyrics from the song, and how I see them relating to the careers of researchers I work with:

1) “Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh nevermind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they have faded. But trust me, in 20 years you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked.”

We can all argue about where the cut-off for “youth” lies (I will always argue it’s located a few years older than me), but this lyric applies not only to the young. It’s about perspective. It describes how it’s tough in any one moment to see how much opportunity you have and how blooming great you really are. This can be especially true of the researchers I work with who have career worries. Sometimes it can be helpful to try to step out of the moment you’re in. What would Future You say when looking back at you now? What would Past You, with all their hopes and dreams, but also their doubts and uncertainty, think about what you’ve now achieved?

I’ve had two conversations in the last month that recalled these lyrics for me. First, I was working with a client discussing her desire to work overseas. She said it was something she’d always wanted to do, but the perfect time to have worked overseas would have been five years ago, and it’s way too late for her now. I asked why she hadn’t moved overseas five years ago. She replied it was because Past Her had thought it was way too late for her back then too. Hmmmmmmm. I wonder what Future Her might think?

The second conversation was with a PhD graduate who’d left academia. I was interviewing him for a careers case study blog (like these). His advice to current academics was to ignore the inner voice that criticizes you for leaving things too late – it’s a fruitless distraction. Sure, we advise starting your career thinking as early as possible. But for any one person, now is as early as possible. No matter how long you’ve been in academia before you start considering how to strategically get ahead in the field; or no matter how “late” you’ve left it before you start considering non-academic options, you’re currently the youngest you will ever be, and now is the soonest you can ever take action. Just ask your Future Self, and they’ll tell you how much potential and opportunity you have.

2) “Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself.”

There’s plenty of evidence to show comparing yourself to others impacts your emotional wellbeing. But that evidence is a little complex, and how these comparisons affect you seems to depend on your own self-esteem and personality, and on whom you’re comparing yourself with.

From a careers perspective, sometimes comparisons can be helpful. They can reassure you that other people experience similar difficulties, uncertainties, and insecurities as you (they do!). And when looking at LinkedIn and The UCL Alumni Online Community at jobs “people like you” have, comparisons can provide career ideas and inspiration, and can motivate you to work hard and develop new skills.

But a vital part of the comparison process is self-awareness. Awareness of your own strengths, interests, and values. If you know and accept your own career motivations, then you can focus on running your own race, and avoid falling into the trap of feeling jealous of those bound to take different paths to you, because they want completely different things out of life. Our “How Will I Know What I’ll Like?” researcher workshop can help raise your self-awareness (check out our Careers Consultant workshop schedule to see when the next one is, and to sign up), and in preparation we ask you to complete a Jobmi.com strengths questionnaire, so why not start that now?

3) “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40 year olds I know still don’t.”

Speaking of not comparing yourself to others, everyone is different. Some people know exactly what they want to do with their lives and they’re happy doing it forever. That’s great, and if that’s you, come and see us for an appointment if you need help getting there. But studies like thisthis, and this tell us that’s not true of everyone, and in fact, changing careers, sometimes multiple times, is pretty normal. So don’t put so much pressure on yourself to find the single one right thing. And try to see not being fixed on one route as an exciting prospect. If you view yourself as someone who may have multiple careers, then you can be more experimental, trying things you wouldn’t ordinarily try. And with retirement ages creeping upwards, you’re likely to be working for longer than previous generations. With all that time to work, why not actually aspire to try multiple careers? You never know, you may even enjoy one of them enough to stick with it forever.

4) “Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance, so are everybody else’s.”

For me, this lyric evokes Dr Jim Bright and Dr Robert G. L. Pryor’s Chaos Theory of Careers. Yes. That’s right. There’s a chaos theory of careers. A butterfly flaps its wings in Japan and you become a Senior Portfolio Developer at The Wellcome Trust. This theory not only concedes that most people don’t have firm long-term career plans, but actually questions the value of having such plans in the first place. Given that seemingly small chance events can have a gigantic influence over the course of our careers, this theory says it’s far better to focus on smaller shorter-term goals and actions, and to be curious, self-aware, and open to new opportunities.

(On that note, do you even know what a Senior Portfolio Developer at The Wellcome Trust does? Why not take this opportunity to be curious and google it? We’ve given you a helping hand by speaking to one and writing about it here.)

Careers advice from the (dystopian) future

SophiaDonaldson22 January 2018

[SPOILER ALERT: As well as invaluable nuggets of careers advice, this post reveals endings]

Have you watched series 4 of Black Mirror yet? I have, and I’m loving the feeling of healthy paranoia each new instalment brings; I’m now keeping my DNA away from my boss (sorry Calum), and assuming my Mum’s spying on me through my own eyes (sorry Mum).

Many admire how Charlie Brooker uses each episode to explore possible unanticipated consequences of technological advances. But what I find most impressive is the way he subtly weaves career lessons into the show. So subtly in fact you may have missed them. To help you out, here are my top three career insights from the current series:

1) The job you want now may not exist in 10 years

“When I grow up I want to be an Arkangel Remover or a Memory Collector”. Sounds kind of silly, right? Partly because I have (apparently) been a grown-up for some time. But mostly because such futuristic jobs don’t exist outside Black Mirror episodes.

But the statement sounds only a tad sillier than if I’d said “When I grow up I want to be a Social Media Strategist or a Big Data Analyst” back when I was an actual child (or even, for the former at least, when I was at university). Those jobs only exist in the futuristic, humungous-data-filled, internet-based world of work we currently inhabit.

Google “The future of work” and you’ll find ~91,600,000 hits predicting the road ahead. These prophecies tell us technology will eliminate some roles, but new opportunities will be created to replace them. What should you do in response? Reading a few of the “future of work” google results might be a good idea. But they’re just educated guesses. The best plan is to plan loosely. Be flexible. Be open. Be aware. Keep acquiring new skills and learning how to sell them to employers. So when the changes come, you’ll be ready.

2) Your emotional side could be the key to success

Episode 1’s Robert Daly was pretty smart. I don’t know what university he attended, but he may even have been smart enough to make it to UCL. He was so smart that he learned to code, partnered with a business-minded friend, and created a global virtual reality gaming company called Callister.

But Robert Daly relied only on his IQ (intelligence quotient) and neglected his EQ (emotional quotient, commonly referred to as emotional intelligence). And of course we can all guess exactly how that turned out: Robert inevitably found himself pilfering his colleagues’ DNA and imprisoning virtual copies of them inside his own sick personal computer game where he enjoyed playing God before they eventually trapped his consciousness inside said game presumably leaving Robert’s real-world self to spend the rest of his days in a coma. Obv.

…Ok. Sure. That was probably more the inevitable consequence of Daly being an evil psychopathic megalomaniac than of him neglecting his EQ. But EQ, which is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others, is nevertheless important to success. Studies show those with higher EQ scores perform better in the workplace and earn more. Luckily EQ can be improved, and there are plenty of articles explaining how. So while you’re honing your knowledge and technical skills, it might be worth improving your emotional side too.

3) Following your heart can uncover new worlds

How do we know this is reality? Like, real reality? You know what I mean, man? Like, am I actually me? Or am I simply a digital version of me in one of thousands of simulations run to find the real me a suitable love match?

In episode three we follow Amy and Frank as they allow a dating app to dictate their lives, and finally to select a ‘perfect match’ with whom they will spend forever. Amy and Frank think the system sucks, so they rebel, and in doing so they reveal a different world with different rules, where they can be together.

This sort of paradigm shift can happen in careers too. Perhaps those around you have gently (or strongly) encouraged you down a certain study and/or career path? And perhaps now you’re on it, and you socialise with lots of other people on the same path, it feels like the only possible reality?

If you’re loving your current reality, good for you. Keep at it. But if, like Amy, your gut’s telling you something isn’t quite right, you too can rebel! We all have multiple possible future selves, and there are whole other career worlds out there to be explored if you care to look. If you think you’re in this situation, book an appointment to chat to a careers consultant about investigating your options.

 

 

 

Stranger Careers Advice

SophiaDonaldson27 November 2017

What did you get up to this weekend? I stayed in and binge-watched series 2 of Stranger Things. I know, I know, I’m a little behind. I could pretend the delay was due to my active social life or (more believably) because I had The Defenders and Transparent to get through first. But the truth is I was terrified it wouldn’t live up to series 1. I simply couldn’t bear to see Eleven et al. in a sub-par storyline. So imagine my delight when I found that not only is series 2 just as good as the first, but it’s also choc-a-block with useful careers messages – Totally Tubular! Here are three careers tips I took from the upside-down world of Hawkins:

1) Speaking the same language helps

“The demogorgon”, “the shadow monster”, “demodogs”, “true sight”…these are terms Eleven, Mike and the gang use to navigate the scary and weird world in which they find themselves. Without these words it would be far trickier to make sense of and communicate what’s happening around them.

Compared to the academic setting, new jobs and sectors can also feel like scary weird worlds. And if you don’t speak the language – something employers might describe as showing “commercial awareness” – they’ll be even more foreign. So before you attend a careers event and network with employers, and certainly before you make applications, try to learn a little of their language. The best way to do this is by reading relevant industry publications; the blogs, magazines and journals those working in your chosen field are reading. They’ll tell you what’s going on in a strange other world, and the correct terms to describe it.

2) There are many ways to bring something to a team

[Warning: this tip contains spoilers. Soz.]

The Stranger Things kids are a motley crew, yet they’ve managed to save eachother, Hawkins, and presumably the entire world twice. Mike’s the leader, and Eleven’s contribution is obvious, sure. But what about the rest of them? Will keeps getting lost or infected, Lucas reveals the group’s secrets, and Dustin hides a demodog. Yet they all help in their own way. Without Will, the evil-root-tunnel-thingies would never have been found. Without Lucas bringing Max on board, they never would have reached those evil-root-tunnel-thingies. And without Dustin’s bond to a demodog, they’d never have made it out of the evil-root-tunnel-thingies alive.

These sorts of teamworking skills (minus the evil-root-tunnel-thingies) are attractive to most employers. So even if you’re a Dustin or a Lucas and you don’t take up the obvious leader or ideas-generator role, you have something to add. If you find it difficult to identify and communicate your contribution to a team, check out Belbin’s team roles for details of the less prominent but still vital roles people can play.

3) Skills can be transferred

Eleven’s telepathic skills were ideally suited to her first (enforced) career in espionage. But does that mean she can’t do anything else? No sir-ee, she didn’t let herself be pigeon-holed. She recognised her transferrable skills and carried them into a variety of settings, including anti-bullying campaigns, demogorgon elimination consultancy, and an internship at a vigilante start-up.

Just like Eleven, you’ll have developed a bunch of skills throughout your PhD and post-doctoral experiences that will also be useful in other settings. It’s important to recognise what these skills are so you can speak confidently about them. It could be the research or writing skills you picked up along the way, the project management and organisational skills you used to plan your PhD and fit it around other areas of your life, the teaching skills you used to supervise students, or the communication skills you used to present your work at conferences. If you spot a skill you enjoy using, seek out further opportunities to develop it through your academic work and departmental responsibilities, or through internships and extracurricular activities. This will convince an employer it truly is a strength you can bring to their organisation.