Explore your skills and interests

  • Pocket mirrors - Metta Klarskov Larsen (GSM&J, 2007)

We talked to Elspeth Farrar, director of the Imperial College Careers Service, to get her expert perspective on how to identify your skills and interests – because it's crucial to think about who you are and what you want from your working life before you start looking for a job or setting up your own practice.

Many job skills are vital, not only as an employee but also if you're going to be self-employed or running your own business. You still need what we call 'soft skills', things like being organised, negotiation skills and managing your time. You're going to need these whether you're an employee or, say, a self-employed designer/maker. You will need these skills to make a successful business out of what you're doing. 

Looking at your skills is about working through what your interests are and what your motivations are. What do you like doing and what do you not like doing? Also drilling down into the details: OK, you're good in one skill area, but how would that relate to a working environment? Thinking this through will help you with your career choice and also help with job applications.

Approximately 50% of graduate jobs don't specify a degree discipline – for these jobs it is not really important what your degree background is, it's more about who you are as an individual and what skills you've got. But, for you to be able to narrow down those choices, you've got to have thought through how you would prefer to be working and in what kind of environment. Once you've considered some basic fundamentals, it's easier to begin to filter through what's out there.

One of the biggest mistakes is to fail to consider who you are and what's important to you before you start to look at what jobs are out there. I always use the analogy of shoes: in order to find the perfect pair of shoes for you, you have to know first what size feet you've got. If you haven't thought through some of the basics, for instance then it will be difficult to filter the opportunities to suit you. Consider what might motivate and drive you in terms of reward – is money important to you? What about hours of work, freedom, autonomy, creativity? 

There are questions around how you want to interact with the working environment. So, for instance, how do you want to interact with other people? Do you like to work on your own or as part of a team? Do you want to be informing people, educating people, training people, persuading people? There are many different work situations in which you could be interacting with people so it is a good idea to think this through first. And, similarly, what kind of environment do you want to work in? Do you want to be based in an office, or have more variety? 

When we work with students to help them with their career choices, we also look at the actual tasks you'd like to do in your work. Do you like things to be clear-cut and defined, or do you prefer an open-ended situation? How much autonomy do you want over the way you do your work and the structure of it? These are just some of the different aspects that someone should think through in order to begin to work out how they're going to best fit with a job.  

It doesn't mean everybody's going to end up with the perfect job – you have to be realistic and you will probably have to make compromises. But you should think about what you're going to feel comfortable doing and what you're going to enjoy. People look for enjoyment and satisfaction in their work – but when things are a bit tougher economically, there has to be a compromise. That doesn't mean to say you shouldn't think about the goal you're aiming for. I think it's better to at least aspire for a goal, and then if that becomes too difficult, you can consider a Plan B.

Thinking through your career goal and your skills is also important in the application process. Employers will want to see clear evidence of your skills at application and interview stage. Thinking of evidence also helps you to consider your strengths more realistically. It's all too easy to say you've got fantastic communication skills, but try to think more analytically and think how you can prove it. Can you give an example of something you have done or a scenario you have been in that would show someone you have used good communication skills? Anyone can go round saying they're good at things, but what have you actually done that proves the point? I try to get students to drill down into their experiences to find good examples of using skills. This also makes students re-analyse their skills and consider what they are genuinely good at and what they might need to develop further. It encourages them to be more honest with themselves.