Do many of us nowadays have work histories that resemble an immaculate CV, a document which aims to illustrate a single-minded acceleration up the chosen career path, with no embarrassing gaps? Presumably these would be the same people whose lives mirror those sun-drenched cradle-to-serene- retirement insurance advertisements. Real people, says Ruth Hawthorn, have chequered careers, punctuated by false starts, time out and dramatic changes of direction, and her own is no exception.
One of the problems with careers guidance, she says, is that it is often "based on the assumption that career choice is an entirely rational process: the person weighs up all the options and then a trained adviser helps them make an informed choice, a choice for life". For some of us this may be true, she says, but most people get their ideas about work from "a huge range of influences, notably the media. My own career bears this out".
At school (Downe House) she had no idea what she wanted to do later, and hints that she disliked constantly being asked. "People who have clear images of their future role are the lucky ones; for those who don't it is important to postpone choice as long as possible. Adults always ask children 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' and you feel you have to have an answer, otherwise you feel a fool." The answer you give can become a fixed idea, she says, and you can become trapped by an inappropriate choice made too young.
Having resisted these pressures, Ruth, now aged 51, took a degree in philosophy and economics at Cambridge. A stint in educational publishing afterwards sparked off a sense of the importance of education, and a PGCE and two years in an Essex secondary school came next, which turned out to be "much harder than I expected". An MA in sociology was followed by an eight-year career break spent looking after her two children, returning to work for the Cambridgeshire Community Education Service where she started an educational guidance service for adults. Her work for the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling, where she is currently the senior fellow, has involved various applied research and development projects, including one looking at careers guidance across the European Union.
"Almost all the work we do at NICEC is about trying to help schools make the best use of the resources there are, making suggestions to training and enterprise councils and schools about how provision could be improved." Therefore, she says, she is particularly excited about the opportunity that The TES research fellowship at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, has provided to "stand back from this work and look at how people make career choices. Perhaps this will provide an insight into how we can adjust careers guidance".
Without wishing to make guesses about the results of her research before it has begun, she nevertheless suspects that the influence of the media on the way young people view certain jobs is potent. On the one hand the media is used for "sensible" careers advice: videos, TV programmes and radio phone-ins, and on the other, drama, soap operas and advertisements are setting up and recycling a plethora of stereotypes about what it is like to be a doctor, a vet or a milkman.
Or, indeed, a teacher. Ruth Hawthorn said she had not seen the recent Channel 4 drama Hearts and Minds, whose picture of a school from hell with a staff to match must have tempted even the most sanguine of PGCE students to throw in the towel, but she agreed that most screen teachers present a far from glamorous and often anachronistic image of the profession.
"People are picking up these stereotypes about what certain jobs are like and the lifestyles associated with them from a huge range of sources, often programmes or adverts which are put out with a completely different purpose in mind. They may derive from accurate information, or from what it was like to do that job 20 or 30 years ago. Given how powerful these images are, it is important to explore them so that we can equip young people to look at them critically and rationally."
She will also study a group of older people who have changed career, and suspects that the influence of unrealistic stereotypes here will prove less strong. The issue for them, she says, whether they are women returning after child rearing or men forced into job changes through redundancy, is helping to convince employers that a "gap" on the CV is not a void. "People need someone to say 'you can present this positively'; it's not only a matter of convincing employers, but of seeing it that way yourself."