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Thinking points for career bliss Jack Bailey

Graduates and more experienced job-seekers alike need to be aware, willing and able to ensure they find the most fulfilling career path, says Jack Bailey

Thinking points for career bliss

My CV was once described by a head-hunter as “interesting”. Although I’m not sure that was meant as a compliment, I can hold my hands up to having been an opportunist and a little fortunate. After completing my PhD in optoelectronics at University College London (UCL), I was walking past the offices of a small computational fluid-dynamics consultancy in London, when I decided to go in and find out a bit more about what they did. They offered me a job as a project engineer and I worked with them for clients including NASA. I’ve since made rather too frequent use of the phrase “it’s not rocket science – I know, because I was a rocket scientist”.

Admittedly that was a rather serendipitous introduction to the world of work, but it wasn’t such an unusual first career move for a graduate physicist. But then followed a more unusual stream of roles: aviation-operations research analyst; KPMG Consulting first as a process analyst, then a mergers and acquisitions adviser and an implementation programme director for large IT systems. I have been a chief people officer for an international media and advertising giant; a professional leadership coach; a director at the BBC; and a director of human resources and organizational change in the civil service. Along the way I studied drama; designed, coded and sold iOS apps in popular psychology; earned money as a guitarist in an indie band; and as a semi-professional – and most definitely only semi-talented – artist.

Today, I am a coach and interim manager, and an adviser to government on diversity and inclusivity; though I can see myself taking on another permanent job soon. Perhaps my most ironic role has been as a consultant and graduate/staff course designer and lecturer at UCL in learning and facilitation, psychology and winning funding bids.

Looking back at that list, I find it hard to believe that I followed this meandering path. I left mainstream physics quite early and there is every indication that many physics graduates do the same, and this means being prepared for a different world. With that in mind, I want to share three key concepts – to be aware, willing and able – which I now understand but wish I had taken the time to delve into while I was completing my university studies.

First is the importance of awareness. There are many types of awareness, and foremost is self-awareness. I coach some very senior people in science and also in business, and I marvel at how little many of them understand about their own skills and personalities before making career decisions. Moreover, evaluation tools for skills such as verbal and numerical reasoning, spatial resolution (and recruitment simulations based on these) are frequently used in hiring so it’s a good idea to evaluate your aptitudes before you even write a job application.

Awareness of the job market is also important, and it is sensible to form a view on whether career opportunities in a given sector are likely to increase or decrease in the medium to long term. Establishing relationships with a few well-chosen recruitment consultants or market analysts at the start of a career can help – after all they are the experts, it’s their job. They see lots of people and have long memories – and your initiative will keep you in their minds for future opportunities. I’ve had two major roles come out of the blue from headhunters I’d made contact with years previously.

Using psychometrics – the objective measurements of mental and psychological abilities – can be invaluable in raising self-awareness, but they come with caveats and need balanced interpretation. The psychologist Carl Jung postulated that the brain has a dominant preference to perceive information in one of two ways (“sensing” or “intuition”) and to make decisions in one of two ways (“thinking” or “feeling”). Personality type psychometrics can illuminate personal preferences toward these mental functions and provide insights into whether, for example, a theoretical or practical choice of career (or indeed final-year physics project or PhD thesis) might suit a person better. Having the desire theoretically to conceptualize the Higgs boson is one thing, and being drawn to carrying out experiments to find it is quite another, which is why different physicists pursued those two goals. The same principle applies to pursuing careers.

The second concept is the importance of being truly motivated to do what you do – not just doing it because you need a job, but because it is something you will find personally fulfilling as a completely willing participant. There’s extrinsic motivation (to avoid punishment or earn a reward) and there’s intrinsic motivation (enjoying an activity for its own sake) – and the latter is more powerful. It’s the type of motivation that will get you out of bed in the morning without need for an alarm clock or the fear of an exam deadline.

Research carried out by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in the 1980s and 1990s found that there are three main drivers of intrinsic motivation: increasing one’s ability in an area where one has an interest; having an appropriate degree of control about what one does; and being given the opportunity to genuinely relate to the people with whom one works. In addition, everyone has their own specific intrinsic motivators: things a person finds enjoyable, or important beliefs such as moral, ethical or political views.

Examining the opportunities for all your personal intrinsic motivators in a particular career or organization will lead to a more fulfilling career path and so can help you before you initiate job applications. Making career choices that align with your motivators will go a long way to ensuring you are on the right path for you. On the other hand, a negative correlation between a career choice and your intrinsic motivators could see you professionally unfulfilled and back on the job market sooner than you might like.

The third concept – and the one on which most people focus their efforts to the exclusion of the first two – is the importance of knowing your abilities, or what you need to be good at in a particular job. Ability includes so-called “soft” skills (sometimes not soft at all) relating to teamwork and personal interactions. Ask yourself what transferable skills you have from your education and life so far. If you are lacking in the abilities or skills you need, find out how you can develop them. Last, but not least, you need the ability to present yourself to a potential employer in a way that they will find attractive enough to interview and employ you. This means writing a standout CV and developing your interview skills – but these are topics for another day.

Jack Bailey is a human resources and organizational development director, interim consultant and a leadership and career coach, e-mail His app for those seeking career change is MyTypeOfJob by Personality Express.

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