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Reflection is essentially a process for learning from past experiences and using them to try to ensure future success. It is often used to try to improve teaching in Higher Education - lecturers are encouraged to reflect on their practice in order to deconstruct and try to understand teaching successes and failures. However, reflection can also be useful in helping people to understand other experiences.

Reflection is often thought of as just 'thinking about' a situation or experience, but there are processes that can help reflection to be more productive and move from 'thinking about' in vague terms, to actually supporting greater insight or change.

Reflection to plan career development

reflection cycle

This type of reflective cycle helps to ensure that you begin with a goal or aim in mind and align your subsequent actions to that aim. In terms of helping to plan your career development, you might begin with a large aim (eg to get an academic job), then come up with some strategies for achieving it. Once you actually start applying, you should begin to get some sense of the outcome or level of success (are you getting short-listed or interviewed?) and you can use that evidence of success (and preferably some feedback) to help you to plan how to proceed as go forward. For instance, if you are regularly being invited for interview, but never seem to get the job, it is certainly worth reflecting on whether some interview practice, greater preparation for dealing with difficult questions, or techniques for managing nerves might be helpful career development steps. Some researchers keep their notes in a reflective journal (either on paper or on-line), while others use Web 2.0 to keep a reflective blog (and maybe share their insights with others while simultaneously raising their profile), and others don't bother to keep notes at all.

Reflection can be quite difficult - especially when efforts are rewarded with failure or rejection (when you don't get the job or your article is rejected), but those are the times when reflecting on what went well, what went badly and how you could do things differently next time is likely to be of the greatest benefit.

Reflection to plan career aims

If you're uncertain about what career might be right for you, you can also use reflective questions to gain some clarity. Rather than focussing on what your potential career options might be, reflective questions can help to identify priorities and uncover what you really enjoy doing. They can, therefore, confirm that academia really is where you want to be, or help you to begin to think about what else you might really want from your career.

Some questions that you might want to spend some time reflecting on are:

What are your priorities? 

These might include: the need to remain in Manchester due to family commitments, the need for a permanent post, a desire to stay in the Higher Education sector because of the culture and/or benefits, a need to earn more money, a dislike of teaching or a preference for a role where you can function relatively independently. What are you willing to sacrifice and what is non-negotiable?

What do you enjoy doing, and what are you good at? 

Do you enjoy writing research papers? Do you prefer data analysis or data collection? Do you like working with people, or would you prefer to work with data? Do you enjoy a 9-5 routine with your weekends and evenings to yourself, or do you prefer a more flexible schedule?

What do you like about your current job, and what would you prefer less of? 

What is the balance between the parts of the job that you like and those parts that you don’t enjoy? Are there other jobs that would allow you to get more of the bits that you enjoy and fewer of the parts that you don’t? Would another step along your current trajectory increase or decrease the elements of the job that you dislike?

Where do you want to be (personally and professionally) in 5 or 10 years' time? 

Do you want to have a family? Do you want to be settled in one location and/or close to your partner or family? If you want to remain in academia, do you want to be working in a research-intensive or teaching-focussed institution?

If you imagine your ideal working day, what would it look like? 

What time would you begin work? How long would your commute be (and how would you travel)? How many hours would you work? Would it be in your own office, or with others in a team/group? Would you spend your time indoors or outside, reading or writing, teaching or researching, sitting at a computer, doing the same thing all day or doing a wide range of different things? Would you have a lunch-hour and, if so, what would you do with it? What would you do after work - go straight home, go to the theatre, out for dinner, to a lecture, or work late? How would you want to feel at the end of the day - tired, as if you have made a difference or achieved something, that you have been challenged, that your day was easy and satisfying, that you have helped others?

These questions are designed to try to help you to get back to basics in thinking about what you want from your career, and how that might fit into your life more broadly. Once you have had chance to reflect on your values and priorities, it may be easier to see if your aspirations are likely to be met within academia or not. Becoming a successful academic is not easy, but it is not impossible - however, if you aren't really sure if it's for you, the commitment required can be very difficult to sustain.