Theorising online discussion forums for career

It’s been a lengthy hiatus since I last posted but I’m happy to report I still work within HE careers and I’m very pleased to be doing so!  So what have I been up to?

During the last year I’ve been involved in a HECSU-funded research project exploring the utility of online discussion forums for distance learners.  The report is finished (not yet published but I’ll post further when it is).  Whilst waiting I wanted to share details of a workshop I delivered at the recent AGCAS annual conference 2019 (look out for the hashtag #AGACASAC19 on Twitter).

I came up with the snazzilly titled “Bumping online discussion forums (ODFs) in a social media age – How ODFs can extend the reach and impact of careers support” which you can view and download from the AGCAS website (Workshop Session A2).  There is of course lots of other brilliant material to peruse whilst you’re there.

I’ve been involved with forums in one description or another for well over 20 years.  In the report I make the point that:

“the wider educational and social benefits of student participation in ODFs are well established however the literature review revealed there is a paucity of research in connecting student participation in ODFs for specific career learning and career development purposes”.

In the workshop I focused on three ways (so not exhaustive as the report will show) we can theorise how ODFs could be useful for our career.  Here goes.

Identity construction: Identity can emerge through discoursal construction in social contexts through the act of writing and reading. (LaPointe, 2010; Lengelle & Meijers, 2014).

Career learning: Our learning in particular moves us all from tacit knowledge, action and experiences through a process of career construction recognising our language serves as the tool of our story creation and meaning making (Savickas, 2005)

Community Support: Some of the most influential factors in career choice relate to events which occur in the context of our ‘community interaction’ between the individual and the social groups of which we are members. (Law, 2009)

Once the report is published and available for free download I’ll post more thoughts about my research.  Do let me know your thoughts!



LaPointe, K. (2010). Narrating career, positioning identity: Career identity as a narrative practice. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 77, 19.

Law, B. (2009) Community-interaction and its importance for contemporary careers-work. [Online]. Available at

Lengelle, R. and Meijers, F. (2014) ‘Narrative identity: writing the self in career learning’, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 52–72 [Online]. DOI: 10.1080/03069885.2013.816837.

Savickas, M. L. (2005). The theory and practice of career construction. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Career development and counselling: Putting theory and research to work (pp. 42–70). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Daring to fail

I recently had a short article published in Phoenix (Oct 2017 edition) which is the AGCAS journal, produced three times a year.  The theme this time around was student well-being but in my article I offer the view that to enable us to support students to cope with change and develop resilience we need to first consider how we approach challenges and failures in our own roles (I’ve had a few!).

So do take a look at the range of contributions in what is, as ever,  a brilliant read and feel free to let me know your thoughts.


Feeling conflicted in your career? Maybe there’s more strength in this than you think.

We’ve all felt emotionally confused right? A common trend for my own conflicted moments is what serial TV blockbuster to watch. Particularly when I have what seems like a minuscule window of opportunity when the kids are in bed and my melatonin levels haven’t gone off the scale. The problem is choice. For this reason I am always behind the curve in viewing the latest multi-season boxset extravaganza. Lost was lost on me and I’ll probably start watching Jack Bauer 24 years after the first episode aired. I naively mistook Game of Thrones as some sort of British historical drama and I wrongly thought the Walking Dead would never take off with the lead being the bloke off Teachers with a dodgy American accent. My most recent boxset binge, Vikings (please no spoilers), has been no exception to my late arrival but a recent episode got me thinking on how much work we do in careers with people feeling conflicted. I appreciate this isn’t just isolated to my line of work but there’s no doubt there is a lot of this feeling around and it’s usually not welcomed. In fact some see and hope our job is to help provide the cure!

So let me give you some background on why a particular episode resonated with my work as a Careers Adviser. The series focuses on Ragnar Lothbrok and his clan doing, well, what Vikings did back then (but with the added panache of a big TV budget). Following a raid he meets and eventually forms a close bond and friendship with a priest called Athelstan (after a let’s say a rocky start to their friendship). Now Athelstan was obviously a religious man but his experiences with the Vikings and introduction to the Norse gods made him question the legitimacy of his own beliefs and faith. Athelstan often wrestled with this and ultimately* (*spoiler alert) this led to his untimely death. Grieving the demise of the one man he could trust Ragnar spoke out poignantly to the priest as he buried the body in a secluded but beautiful spot.

“You’re a brave man, Athelstan. I always respected you for that. You taught me so much. You saw yourself as weak and conflicted, but to me, you were fearless because you dared to question”.

As I watched this I thought “wow” as it felt so very true and yet somehow I hadn’t actually ever put that into words before . A challenge to the general orthodoxy that feeling conflicted is somehow a default position of weakness. In my work I see examples of this internal conflict with scenarios such as;

“I’ve achieved a senior position in my current role but don’t enjoy it but to give it up would feel such a waste. It just took so long to get here”

“I’d love to be working as X but it seems such a risk to do this. I’d have much to gain and much to lose”

“I’ve got so many ideas of what I could be, what if I make the wrong choice – why can’t I just be satisfied?”

This got me curious into what causes this internal conflict so I got down to some reading and found this article. In it psychologists suggest the mind consists of multiple states that may to a varying degree be in conflict with one another e.g. memory and emotion.  So the brain operates a democratic process due to this “modularity” as no processing centre holds the keys to decision making.  Perhaps this goes some way to explain why we often feel conflicted. What’s interesting to me is that the timing of events and decisions plays a part as well as the article then goes on to explain;

“The divided decision model indicates that the ultimate determinant of a person’s choice is not her simple preference. Rather, people may have a variety of contradictory preferences that become dominant at different points because of their timing”.

This also leads me to another psychological concept called cognitive dissonance explained in detail here. The term is used to describe the feelings of discomfort we feel that result from holding two conflicting beliefs. For example, taking action when internally we know this to be wrong. Where this relates to careers work is that our lives necessitate the need to make decisions and these decisions are fertile ground for creating cognitive dissonance. This is why;

“making a decision cuts off the possibility that you can enjoy the advantages of the unchosen alternative, yet it assures you that you must accept the disadvantages of the chosen alternative”.

I’d imagine this is a statement many of us can relate to which makes it seem like there is an element of the inevitability of the human condition rather than a question of indifference or strength of mind.  Yet there’s even more of this self-talk trickery we can also identify with, the phenomenon of imposter syndrome.  That internal voice that you’re not good enough and somewhere along the line you’ll be found out (I get this feeling when I write but if you’ve made it this far perhaps I shouldn’t worry so much).

So where am I going with all of this? Listening to and exploring those inner voices and not explaining them away shows you are questioning the programming we often operate as a defence mechanism. Becoming more self-aware should be seen as a great strength as being conscious opens the door to personal growth and professional development.

As Ragnor would say “you were fearless because you dared to question”. We need to take the time to do more of this.  What do you think?


Time for internal debate should be seen as a strength even though we often seek clarity

Developing digital literacy through change – is transliteracy the answer?

Digital literacy I hear you say it’s everywhere! It is certainly a topic I hear much more frequently now than I ever used in my current role as a Career Consultant in higher education. As a term it feels ubiquitous but strangely also feels  like we’re all talking about it but sometimes with differing meanings and purposes – (do you ever get that feeling about “employability” as well?).   For example, for some of the students I work with they initially take the term to mean just using social media platforms or in some cases very specific software.  To help us understand some of the problems with becoming digitally literate it’s useful to think of our environment and starting points.

Some of you may have heard of Prensky who coined the terms digital ‘natives’ or ‘immigrants (settlers)’ as a way of distinguishing between those born into the digital age club and those amongst us (myself included) who get in via their analogue ticket (R.O.A.R).


If you’re not digitally native you’re not coming in!

Ironically, there’s a certain paradox here in the settlers very often being tasked to aid the natives in their digital development!  Maybe there’s more going on here than meets the eye and we need to extend our view of what it means to operate in 2017 and indeed prepare for the future – I’ll come back to this later on. But coming back to Prensky the terms suggest two ends diametrically opposed and the assumption  – to use the same analogy – that both clubs have strict entrance policies and play different music – Daft Punk versus Blondie perhaps!

But at what point given the widely accepted pace that technological developments occur do those lines become blurred and the demands placed on  natives and settlers to keep pace remain equal for all concerned even if our start points are different? Now, within education (and I know I’m generalising a lot here) is it also feels like the issue dealt with in a couple of ways:

  • Staff should do more to embed digital literacy and promote its use but may not feel equipped – this could be both in capability and time.
  • Throwing an increasing supply of sophisticated technology at the problem to somehow generate capability. e.g Sign up for LinkedIn and you’ll network your way to a job.

So what is the way forward?  Without pretending to have the precise answers I believe a solid starting point is dealing with our own understanding of what is “digital literacy”. I loved reading this article 20 ways of thinking about digital literacy in higher education. Without trying to show favoursitism these are the four ideals that stood out for me.

  1. Literacy is not static.
  2. HEIs need to help legitimise digital practices without trying to own them.
  3. Engage students in this debate and ensure that they too have ownership of this agenda.

However, one statement connected with me more than the others that I think helps bridge the divide between Presky’s ‘native’ and ‘settler’ debate and allow us all entry into a club that values our diversity and capabilities.

Digital literacy as an important part of transliteracy.  It is the literacy of convergence, unifying literacies past and present across different platforms, media and cultures.

This suggests we all have a contribution to make in being able to support our own and each others digital literacy development but also acceptance of where we have all come from and who we want to be both now and in the future.  What is comforting about transliteracy is that it includes and values other measures of what it means to navigate the 21st century life. It isn’t tied to a particular concept or piece of technology and it has space for the relationship we have with technology that at times feels just like a inevitable dystopian future of job losses.

There’s a great short video about developing transliteracy from Jeremy Brueck that gets you to consider what a lifestyle in a transliterate world means.


But as digital literacy remains so visible amongst us I’ve also produced a short presentation that explores some of the prevailing concepts and capabilities that helps us understand its relationship to employability.




The Graduate Market 2016 -creating App(eal) with students


Rather belatedly this year I’ve got round to reading The Graduate Market 2016 produced by High Fliers.  If you want to compare this years report to previous years, I wrote similar pieces in 2015 and 2014.  If you have an interest in graduate recruitment it’s well worth a read with the research focus being the Times top 100 graduate employers.  I’m not going to summarise the report as the executive summary does a fine job of that already but rather  focus on an area that holds interest for me and my role working with higher education students; that of graduate vacancies.


Unfilled vacancies  – so what lies beneath? The report notes:

A noticeable rise in the number of graduates turning down or reneging on job offers that they had previously accepted meant that over 1,000 graduate positions were left unfilled last year, reducing the graduate intake at almost a third of the UK’s leading employers.

Reasons given for this included graduates becoming pickier, having increased choice due to  a more buoyant job market, last minute changes in targets and harder to fill specialist vacancies.

Missing for me within the rationale is still recruiters over reliance and focus on Russell Group universities.  I can understand and appreciate the argument of a limited resource and recruitment and marketing budget but the average number of universities targeted by employers is twenty with six of those probably appearing in most recruiters cross hairs.

It seems strange to me how given the immense talent that exists in all universities some employers – and by no means do I mean all in the top 100 – may do well to rethink their current  strategy and engage with a wider field of talent.  Now there is open interpretation by what “engage” may actually mean for employers.  For some this might be brand ambassadors in target universities and for others it may mean working more closely in curriculum.  In fairness employers aren’t ruling out applications from elsewhere subject to entry requirements but we know in a labour market that is congested with competing choices and large numbers of potential applicants diversity won’t just appear by accident.

 This led me to read with interest an article in the Telegraph  on a new app called Debut which promotes itself as “the world’s first mobile student and graduate careers platform”.  The basic premise is that undergraduates download the app and can then play employer sponsored games to get fast tracked to interview.

Now this reminds me of an up to date version of the MI6 recruitment strategy of posing almost unsolvable puzzles in newspaper ads to get an interview with them.  I do find this an intriguing approach as part of the marketing blurb on the website talks about trying to “disrupt”the graduate jobs market.  With the app being free and easily accessible to download on your device it could certainly have mass market reach.  It claims to flip graduate recruitment with the employer approaching the employee – although I’m pretty sure LinkedIn had that function nailed a long time ago.  This is all based on the profile the student completes and performance in the employer endorsed games I mentioned earlier.  There were 41 employers on board at launch so I’d be interested to see what the take up is like a year down the line – both for employers and students.  One side effect of the disruption they talk about may be students playing these games in lectures.  We shall see….


At least in my mind part of this strategy seems just like a new tactic in the employers arsenal of trying to attract and select the best applicants.  I say arsenal as that appears to be in line with graduate recruiters vocabulary of weaponised lexicon. Let me explain! I’ve heard  the term “tag & bag” used to describe an employers attempts to get applicants selected and onboarded to their graduate scheme and “weapons of mass rejection” used to describe applicant tracking systems.  It just goes to show that with employability there is no silver bullet – no pun intended.

Social mobility and graduate earnings IFS report

I’ve just been perusing the recently released and lengthily titled report from the IFS  How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background.  It’s interesting because it uses a big data approach tracking the student cohorts between 1998–2011.   For the record the published research from the IFS used anonymised tax data from HMRC and student loan records for 260,000 students up to ten years after graduation.

For a shorter summary the Guardian have also ran a piece based on the report “Richer students have higher graduate income, study finds”.

My own particular interest stems from two related angles.  Firstly I graduated from a post 92 university in 2001 so therefore would have been included in this data set and secondly as a careers practitioner with an interest and view on social mobility.

In many respects the report summary and article are depressing reads. Although there are a couple of exceptions with regards to graduate v non-graduate earnings and the rise in student numbers.

I’ve included a brief snapshot taken from the summary report:

Differences in earnings by parental income

“Graduates from richer family backgrounds earn significantly more after graduation than other graduates, even after completing similar degrees from similar universities. The average gap in earnings at the median between students from higher-income households and the rest was £8,000 (£5,300) a year for males (females), ten years after graduation”.

“Even after taking account of subject studied and the characteristics of the institution of study, the average student from a higher-income background still earned about 10% more than the other students at the median”.

If we were left in any doubt about the impact of family background has on future earnings we do not need to look far:

“the 10% highest-earning male (female) graduates from richer backgrounds earned about 20% (14%) more than the 10% highest earners from more modest backgrounds even after taking account of subject and the characteristics of the university attended”.

There was also the release of data concerning the impact of the subject studied on future earnings.  Perhaps no surprises in the gap in earnings of say medicine v the arts but from a careers guidance perspective stark figures on the impact of subject choice.  Further down the road you also wonder how sustainable the current policy on fees and repayment will be.  The governments own figures estimate 60% of students will never repay their loans.  To give this some context  a recent graduate with a healthy starting salary of £40k will not repay their loan after 30 years – and that is assuming 3% inflation & graduate earnings growing at inflation + 2% per year.  I’ve said for a while that student debt is effectively a graduate tax with slim hope of full repayment for most.

Gender gap

Gender pay gap issues are also exposed:

“For graduates with incomes greater than £8,000, the median income for male graduates was £30,000 compared to the female median of £27,000”.


Although government policy over the last 15 years  has done much to widen participation and access to higher education the same cannot be said of its legacy for social mobility.  Your family background, gender, what university you went to and what subject you studied all play major parts in your future career.  Structural issues in our society still persist and given the lack of diversity in both central and local government top jobs you wonder whether the will to challenge the status quo exists in any meaningful way.

Given the nature and power of careers work to impact positively on social mobility you have to question whether policy has again improved or stripped the profession’s ability to make the impact we know it can make (think Connexions and the post code lottery for careers guidance for young people  that we have at the moment).

Finally, for those of you familiar with Bill Law’s community interaction theory I thought it worth highlighting a key point concerning the power of influence has on all of us.

“Career management, then, becomes a matter, not so much of what you know concerning decisions and transitions, but of who you pay attention to among the people you know”.


Hello. It’s me….

I was pointed in the direction of this video by a colleague and I have to say he has come up trumps this time.  I was skeptical at first as I’m not an Adele aficionado but this parody hit home.  I’m not going to throw in too much of a spoiler but it’s a satirical look at one graduate’s attempt to secure work – just in case you were wondering what is it doing on my humble blog.

Now, this does throw up one question.  Is it really that tough  a market for graduates at the moment?  Reading  Charlie Ball’s (HESCU) blog post The 2016 graduate market in the UK then no it’s not doom and gloom.  Rumour has it grads aren’t all rolling in the deep and that skills shortages in many sectors leave many graduates in a strong position.  The AGR Winter Survey 2015 also backs the trend in vacancy growth but with the caveat of skills shortages leaving some roles unfilled.

But I think there’s some truth in the video.  I don’t know if it’s just me but I’ve seen more and more stories doing the rounds on social media of motivated graduates outside train stations and the like with placards seeking work.  Fortunately many seem to have a happy ending but lets not underestimate the sheer volume of work and emotional energy it takes to keep applying for roles following rejections.

I’ve also  heard firsthand stories from many graduates of the frustration at a lack of etiquette from employers following interviews in not getting back to them – even for feedback (in fact I’ve experienced this myself on a few occasions which I’ve always thought as unprofessional at best).

If you’re a recruiter then  pick up the phone and as Adele might say “Hello, it’s me”……..


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