Finding the right narrative for your career

  • Up Brightly (detail) by John Loker (RCA 1963)

Fuel editor Hannah Black reports back on career consultant John Lees’ FuelRCA seminars on how to find work that you love

The job market in art and design fields has been challenging in recent years, but you can find work that you enjoy and that is right for you if you approach building your career in the right way. At a workshop with John Lees, small groups of RCA students and alumni discussed different aspects of career development.

A lot of people assume that applying for a job is like buying something online. But it’s a work of persuasion and communication.

A CV is a deal closer, rather than a door opener. It’s probably not what will get you into the room. Don’t think of it as a major part of the job search process, but rather as one of many opportunities to present your story: what you’ve achieved in the past, what you are up to now, and what steps you would like to make next.

The story you tell about yourself when you’re trying to land a job – not just in your CV, but in interviews, meetings, portfolios and emails – should be coherent and clear. It should show why the role you are interested in makes sense as a next step in the narrative you tell about yourself.

This story can take many forms. For some people, the story might be a direct, linear narrative where each step clearly progresses from the one before it. But many people have complicated career paths, or juggle different kinds of work. In this case it might take a bit more effort to construct a story about where you are going and why.

You will also probably have to tailor your story to different jobs, emphasizing different skills and experiences depending on what you hope the outcome will be.

In the context of a CV or any other contact with a potential employer, it’s a good idea to think about what somebody would find interesting, rather than using bland phrases like “team player”. To tell stories in a CV, spell out in bullet points where you used a skill, a change you made, or how you developed an idea.

It can be an arduous task making your own website, but remember that there will be stuff about you online no matter what you do, and you might as well take some control over it. You can control your online presence by building and maintaining a website, curating your social media presence in such a way that it attracts potential employers while also helping you keep in touch with friends. You should also consider having a LinkedIn profile, which is a useful way for potential clients and employers to get a sense of your skills.

Those skills could be manifold, especially if you’ve studied different subjects or worked in a number of different industries. Even if you’re focused on just one area, there are still likely to be thousands of jobs that you could potentially go into – so how do you choose? Some of you will already have a clear idea of what kind of work would suit you. For those who don’t, there are two benchmarks: what you enjoy, and who you are able to connect with.

The latter might include friends and acquaintances working in the field you want to go into, or people who they can introduce you to, or alumni of the RCA who might be willing to speak to you, or people you meet at parties, or whoever. If the word “networking” makes you feel a bit sick, replace it with a term that feels lighter: John Lees suggested thinking of networking as “finding wonderful people to have coffee with,” or simply as meeting new people. In the worlds of art and design, work and social life are often folded together, so you are already probably part of professional networks just by virtue of your friendship groups and their extended circles. Alumni RCA can be a great starting point for RCA students.

To make the best of the connections you find through this kind of networking, don’t just tell people you’re job hunting, tell them exactly what you’re looking for. This will mean they are more likely to remember. In the arts, often only very junior positions are advertised, and recruitment tends to happen through word of mouth and social media. Every so often, ask yourself this important question: Who else should I be talking to?

When you meet people who might be able to help you find the job or opportunity you want, it can be daunting to talk to them. While you’re studying here or if you’ve recently graduated, you can open with that, as a way to get people to take note of you. Use the opportunity of communicating with someone in a field you are interested in to ask questions like, “How did you get into this?” Have a short summary of what you’re interested in prepared so you can respond to questions about yourself in an engaging way.

If you tend to be negative about your achievements, try to tune out some of this psychic noise. When you work on your career narratives – your CV, portfolio, or planning what to say – focus on how you feel about yourself on a good day, not your fears about yourself.

Whatever you have done in the past and are working on now, you will have acquired skills that will help you in the next phase of your life. Go for what you want, within reason, and always look for other people who can help you.

More about John Lees

John Lees is one of the UK’s best-known career strategists. He is the author of the best-selling careers guide How To Get A Job You’ll Love and the forthcoming book The Interview Expert. 

As a career coach, John specialises in helping people make difficult career decisions – difficult either because they don’t know what to do next, or because there are barriers in the way of success.

He has a regular careers column in People Management and writes regularly for The Times and The Guardian, among other publications. He has also made appearances on TV and radio to discuss the world of work.

Buy John Lees' books here