Developing students’ career resilience – a university wide approach?

A leaf cutter ant carrying a huge leaf in his mouth while zipping along the edge of a sidewalk in the Soberania National Forest in Panama. Shallow depth of depth with selective focus on ant and leaf. The speed that the ant was traveling, the limited field of depth and the extremely small size of the subject made this a very gratifying image to capture.
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In this post, Helen Stringer, assistant director of the Careers Service, reveals findings from a project investigating how resilience is being experienced by students…

We secured funding from AMOSSHE (Student Services Organisation) to conduct a small scale research project designed to surface students’ attitudes to resilience, their perceptions of challenge and failure, and how well equipped they felt to transition from university to employment. Impetus for the project emerged from several key factors:

  • A perception that (some) students struggle to navigate the demands of a highly competitive and globalized job market;
  • Recent research from HECSU – the Graduate Resilience Project – indicating high levels of workplace attrition for graduates at the 6-12 month point;
  • Recognition that students are often urged “to be more resilient” without signaling how to achieve this;
  • A concern that university structures and processes may create and perpetuate a protective environment that cushions students from risk and failure, impeding the development of resilience.

The first phase of the primary research involved a series of focus groups held with students (drawn largely from Edinburgh College of Art), supplemented by contextual interviews with relevant professionals and key university staff. These in-depth interviews were to reveal attitudes to resilience, the culture across the university and in the workplace, and to explore whether systemic change is required to foster greater resilience amongst students.

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We designed a workshop based on the findings of the focus groups and ran a version with student volunteers, who completed pre- and post-workshop questionnaires, intended to measure any shift in attitudes which had occurred as a result of the workshop. The trial workshop comprised the following elements:

  • ‘CVs of failure’ – adapted from idea conceived by Stefan (2010) and Haushofer (2016);
  • Mind-mapping ‘My Support Network’, including both formal and informal sources of help;
  • Discussion of scenarios designed around common student experiences of failure (predominantly in a careers context), to re-frame negative or entrenched thinking.
  • Goal setting exercise with short, medium and longer term aims to foster a greater sense of agency and purpose.

Students responded well to the workshop: they viewed the potential impact of setbacks as more positive, and felt more encouraged to engage in goal-setting and career planning. We have further developed the materials and added new resources to create a resilience repository for colleagues to adapt and adopt in their practice. Walker et al (2006) have demonstrated that it is both possible and desirable to design learning experiences that foster resilience, and certainly the post-workshop responses indicated a positive shift amongst the student participants. Resilience themed workshops can seemingly stimulate thinking and initiate small, incremental changes in attitude, but we need to issue a word of caution: a single intervention is unlikely to instigate real change in attitude or approach. It is clear from close analysis of the focus groups and staff interviews that a collective, institutional wide response is necessary if we are to truly develop resilient behaviours in our students.

The ECA students were comfortable sharing their experiences of failure, but felt this was at odds with the prevailing culture – a view echoed in the staff interviews. The University of Edinburgh strongly identifies as an institution that encourages, celebrates and exemplifies success, which confers many positives for staff and students alike. However, an exclusive focus on success narratives can be alienating and limiting, particularly when coupled with assessment structures that limit opportunity for ‘safe’ experimentation – and risk of failure.

Although it would be unwise to draw firm conclusions from such a small sample size, the ECA students exhibited high levels of resilience and maturity, with many attributing this to early – and recurrent – exposure to failure, risk and critique. This is further elucidated in Jared Taylor’s recent blog for Teaching Matters, which suggests there is useful learning to draw from the creative disciplines. A complete exposition of research findings – and associated recommendations for the wider university – can be found in the full report, ‘Enhancing students’ career resilience’.


Haushofer, J (2016): ‘CV of Failures’. Available at /Johannes_Haushofer_CV_of_Failures.pdf [Last accessed: 18/12/17].

Stefan, M (2010): ‘A CV of Failures’. Nature. 468. Available at [Last accessed 18/12/17]

Walker, C, Gleaves, A and Grey, J (2006): ‘Can Students within Higher Education Learn to be Resilient and, Educationally Speaking, Does it Matter?’ Educational Studies. 32(3): 251–264.

Helen Stringer

Helen Stringer is Assistant Director of the Careers Service, and has a remit for developing academic partnerships. Helen also manages a team of careers consultants, and worked with Dr Lynsey Russell-Watts – careers consultant for ECA – on the career resilience project.

Lynsey Russell-Watts

Lynsey Russell-Watts is a Careers Consultant in the University of Edinburgh Careers Service, with a focus on Edinburgh College of Art students. Before retraining as a careers adviser, Lynsey was Lecturer in French at the University of Nottingham.


  1. Hi
    I was close friends with Lynsey at secondary school and lost touch after I got married back in her Cambridge days.

    I’d love to reconnect with her and would be grateful if my details could be passed on to her.

    • Hi Kerry. Thanks for your message. I’m sorry – i tried to contact Lynsey but it seems she no longer works at The University of Edinburgh. I hope you find her through another means! Best, Jenny

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