Class of 2018: Can you really plan your career?


This piece was written for Class of 2018 Month by Lisa Carr, a Careers Consultant at the University of Leeds Careers Centre.

We are taught from an early age that successful careers are the result of planning. Parents and teachers ask us what we want to be when we grow up. Employers ask us about our 10 year career ambitions in interviews.

Yet in this fast-changing age of the gig economy, portfolio careers, and an increasingly AI-driven and globalised world, how realistic is it for anyone to really plan their career?

Should you even try?

The answer is yes – and no.

The traditional approach to career planning is analyse-and-implement. You work out your motivations and interests (using something like prospects planner), find out which jobs match, and then apply to an advertised vacancy. This approach still works well if you like planning ahead, want to commit to a long term career path and are applying for sectors which recruit well in advance, such as banking, teaching or law.

But not everyone wants to commit to a long-term career path. Often, you don’t know what you like doing until you are actually doing it anyway. In real life, most people’s careers unfold rather than being actively planned.

The route into graduate jobs is more likely to be via work experience and networking, (especially if you want to work in areas like marketing, charities or start-ups). So, being in the right place at the right time may count for more in today’s job market than any strategic planning. In fact, there’s even a theory for this – Careers Happenstance¹.


So should you just wait for fate to take its course and for luck to strike?

Fortunately, there is a lot you can do to prepare for and help create your next career opportunity in an unpredictable world. Here are our top tips for success:

  • Don’t worry about planning your career for the next 10 or 20 years. Just concentrate on the next year or so. As long as you’re doing something you enjoy, which builds your skills and could open doors later on – you have successfully started your career.
  • Reflect on what type of activities, environment and challenges most interest you. Consider your core values. You can get help here or try This will enable you to spot a great opportunity when it comes along.
  • Try stuff out. This will help you decide what you want in a job and will develop key skills and contacts. Consider a Leeds Internship this summer or even volunteering.
  • Reflect on your strengths and achievements. A clear message will help you pitch for the best opportunities. Get tips on developing your LinkedIn profile here.
  • Identify at least a rough list of interesting sectors so you can focus your efforts, whilst keeping an eye out for unexpected opportunities (check out these job profiles  for ideas). You have a finite amount of time to research careers, network and job-hunt so make it count.
  • Ensure you are in the right pond when employers come to fish. Browse the right websites, attend the right employer and networking events, sign up to the right recruitment agencies and use the right words in your online profiles to attract recruiters.
  • Reach out to contacts in interesting job roles or companies to build your network proactively and explore career options. Tap into the Leeds Network or check out Leeds alumni on LinkedIn.
  • Keep your LinkedIn Profile and CV up to date in case of unexpected opportunities. If you meet a contact at work or at a networking event, chances are they will look you up on LinkedIn straight away. Get feedback on your CV or LinkedIn Profile from the Careers Centre in person or via email.

Don’t just leave it to chance

To get the best start to your career, make sure to:

  • Be proactive in building your skills and networks.
  • Clarify what is important to you.
  • Keep an open mind about unexpected opportunities.

The Careers Service is here to help, so if you’d like to chat about career ideas or get some professional feedback on your applications let us know. We can keep supporting you after you graduate, including throughout the summer!

¹ Careers Happenstance theory is based on J.D. Krumboltz’s The Happenstance Learning Theory (2009). See also Jim Bright’s Chaos Theory of Careers Learning (video).

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Filed under Advice, Class of 2018, Develop your employability, Job Market

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