Failure as a career development tool

How to encourage students to actively examine their ‘failures’ as a useful learning tool when considering their future career options


24 Apr 2023
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University of Exeter

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We have all felt we have failed at points, by not achieving the outcome we had hoped and planned for. This may have been failure to speak to the one person in the room we really wanted to, not getting the dream job we applied for or not securing a promotion, and it probably felt demoralising.

But for the next opportunity, we should have reflected on what happened, practised key aspects and had a particular goal we wanted to achieve in mind.

By failing, we learn more about ourselves and more about what we want, and through this process, develop the skills to cope better next time.

This is why we should support students to “fail safely” in their employability and career development thinking. This means they feel able to test ideas, make decisions and move forward.

Different careers support for different students

Some students are very comfortable with the idea of risk-taking and failure. These students are likely to be entrepreneurial and are worth pointing in the direction of your student start-up team to get the support they need to develop any ideas and launch their enterprises.

Some students know exactly what they want to do for their career and are committed and passionate about getting there. Despite this clarity, it isn’t always straightforward. Students will face many rejections as they apply for placement and graduate roles – in applications, psychometric tests, assessment centres or interviews – and this can be disheartening, especially for those who aren’t used to failing. According to the London School of Economics, on average, there are 91 applications for every graduate role, which means many will experience failure in the recruitment process.

We should encourage these students and early career graduates to think about what it means to fail well. Each stage of the recruitment process is a learning opportunity. To not pass the application stage is not to say the student failed, but rather it’s a chance to think about what they might do differently next time.

Recruiters do not often provide feedback, so it’s down to the applicant to carry out uncomfortable self-reflection; did they tailor their application form well enough? Did they evidence how they met the essential criteria? Did they accidentally submit a cover letter written for a different organisation?

As higher education careers practitioners, we can support this reflection, in the form of one-to-one meetings or group workshops. Increasingly, we find ourselves sharing examples of our own failure, letting participants in a workshop know they aren’t alone, and asking what they think we could have done differently. This spares introspection in a group setting and starts to provide the tools to fail safely in the future.

Other students may have little, if any, idea of what they want to do, and so the process of understanding their strengths, values and motivations is an important starting point. Introduce students to the theory of planned happenstance, that “things will happen” whether they like them or not, so they can prepare to take up the opportunities these “things happening” will bring. This will help students look for opportunities in the unexpected and do things that fit their natural interests and strengths.

Careers education presents an exciting space to fail. We can help students test career ideas by encouraging them to develop skills, gain work experience and join clubs and societies to test leadership roles.

At the University of Exeter, we provide a wide range of opportunities for students to do this, for students at any stage of their career thinking. Effective initiatives include:

  • Grand Challenges gives undergraduate students a week to work on “wicked problems” in interdisciplinary groups. The challenges, such as Future Food, Social Inequality, Mental Health and Climate Change, align with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and students work with world-leading academics to address these issues. They are encouraged to try new ideas, take risks, adopt playful experimentation and accept that they may fail to achieve their objectives. Students create original solutions, with outputs including apps, videos, books, social media campaigns and games. These are presented to fellow students, academics and external contributors, with the best selected for a showcase at the end of the week. If it doesn’t go to plan, then no matter, because the learning from the week is the key goal.
  • Green Consultants gives students an opportunity to undertake technical and professional training, to deliver an on-campus project related to our net zero agenda and to complete an internship with an external employer. Since September 2021, more than 330 students have engaged with the training and more than 200 have completed it. To not complete the training is not failure; we are less interested in this than how useful it is to inform the students’ thinking.

Learning from failure without judgement is important for students to develop and secure graduate roles in which they will thrive. In the workplace, good enough rather than perfection is often sufficient, which can be a change in mindset for some, and graduates need to understand how to move on from failure quickly and effectively.

If you reflect on and learn from failure, it can make you more resilient, adaptable, empathetic and better able to solve problems. These are useful skills for the workplace.

Dawn Lees is student employability and development manager, and Rachel Sloan is employability and careers consultant (skills) at the University of Exeter.

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