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How to plan your career from your first days at university

When I first left uni and took up a place on a graduate scheme I was encouraged to write a career plan to help me get off to a flying start. My love of stationery - coloured pens are still catnip to me - meant that what I produced was neatly laid out and attractive to the eye. Through some gentle nudges from the HR team, it even covered most of the points you might expect to find in a career plan.


I thought it was awesome.

In fact, I thought it was job done. Proceed directly to go, collect £200. Career mapping done.

Unfortunately life doesn’t always pan out the way you want, and before the ink had really dried on my multicoloured masterpiece, my employer had gone bust, and I was back to the drawing board. What had seemed like a simple case of moving from A to B as quickly as possible became a whole load more complicated. More options, but less certainty, taught me the importance of flexible career planning, and my career map today is somewhat different. But still as brightly coloured.

Here’s what I wish I had known when I started out.


Think broadly

If you're just setting out on your career then keeping an open mind about what the future will bring is essential. In fact, with people changing jobs on average every two years, and career pivots becoming the new normal, it’s important at any stage in your career.

Start your career planning by thinking broadly about where you want to head, where you might be in ten or fifteen years. You should be doing this while you're still in uni if you can. You don’t need granular details about where you will be in your forties, but it is helpful at this stage to consider what you're passionate about, and what your hobbies and interests are. These may evolve and develop over time but are unlikely to disappear.

But don’t stop there. You also need to think of the environments, businesses and teams you respond well to. Do you like edgy, high paced work, do you need to have a big team to bounce ideas off, or does the thought of a cubicle fill you with horror?


Write it down

Whatever you choose as your overarching aim, write it down. As they say - if you don’t know where you are going, then any road will take you there.

Writing down your goals is the single most important thing you can do to make them happen. And if that makes you nervous, then don't be. Nobody but yourself will hold you to the things you set out at this stage, so you can change your plans at any point.

Start long term. If you can have a clearly articulated long term career aim then that is ideal, but for many this dim and distant future seems too far off to fully describe. If you can not nail a single long term goal then choose something else that is meaningful for you, such as ‘I will never be bored at work’ or ‘I will continue creating’.

You then should set out a medium term goal, which can be an aim for the next five years and several short term goals which should be actionable in the next year. Make sure these push you out of your comfort zone. Add in some personal goals on the same document so you can sense check how they tie in with your work aims.


Check in annually (at least)

If your career plan is dusty, then you’re not doing it right. As I learned in my early career, circumstances can dictate that you need to rethink, and complacency really is not a virtue.

Even if you are making steady progress, map your achievements and milestones annually, and review what you have enjoyed, disliked, what you now need and want from your work life. These things change over time and as our preferences and personal circumstances develop.

Which is lucky, because if we were all stuck with the careers we selected as kids, there would be a huge surplus of train drivers, not enough chartered surveyors to go round, and I would be the world's worst trapeze artist.


Ask for help

Wherever you’re going, you can’t get there alone. Figure out what help you might need to send you on your way - and don't wait to graduate, make the connections you need right now if you can.

Do you need a mentor? Can your university alumni association support you to build your network, or do you know people working in the area you aspire to who can offer insight and support? Is there an industry association who could help you learn more about your chosen field? If you loved your internship, can you use that connection to find a full time position now or in the future? You're never on your own.


Gather transferrable skills

Your career plan will be strongest if it is flexible, and key to career flexibility is grabbing all the transferrable skills you can.

Reflect back on your experience so far, internships and volunteer work, student conferences and competitions. You've been gathering transferrable skills through your uni experience. Think now about any qualifications or experiences you could add to keep current. Study abroad if you can, to get cultural exposure at the same time. Continuing professional development is what stops us becoming dinosaurs, but this does not have to be further book learning - think about opportunities to take on interesting projects and volunteer work as well.

Keep watching how the career field you are in has changed and keep one eye to the horizon for future developments. Make sure you know what careers are in demand. With the pace of change we all experience at work, if you’re not moving forward, you’re probably falling behind.

This is what I would tell my twenty year old self now: Plan your career to be flexible. Be open to opportunities as they arise. Grab transferrable skills when you can, and you’ll be attractive to employers in the future as well as now. Expect things to shift around you, keep looking to the horizon, and make sure your career plan never gets dusty.

And if you don’t believe me, try the words of someone way smarter:

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”  Albert Einstein

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