Throughout our professional lives, we ask ourselves many questions: When and how will I get my dream job? Will I be as successful as I hope to be? Why haven’t I been promoted? Is my job secure? Although it may seem that only a fortune teller can provide answers, this isn’t actually the case.                             

I recently took an online class on strategic thinking, and it struck me that we’re probably asking the wrong questions. Rather than focusing on big, abstract ideas, we should be thinking about specifics that we can control. Below are some factors to consider when you are attempting to predict your career future. 

What are the goals of my institution, and how does my work contribute to them?

Demonstrating that you understand the long-term vision of your organization increases your job security and chances of promotion. For example, my university is currently making strategic changes. I need to be aware of where the organization is headed and figure out how my work fits into our new goals. If I can demonstrate this awareness to my department head, then I become a more integral part of the future of the organization.

What are the trends in the sector that I work in, and is my organization keeping up?

It is important to be aware of the state of your field, and how your organization is doing in the current environment. Are there new opportunities that you can take advantage of, or areas that your department could improve upon? You should be honest with yourself if you don’t like what you see. If your area of research is shrinking and funding is scarce, is this really where you want to be?

Am I prepared to adapt to change?

Consider the example of digital cameras: They completely changed the way we take pictures, and now almost no one uses film cameras. Could something similar happen to me? My expertise is in numerical modeling methods. Before the advent of commercial software, modeling was the domain of experts. Today, this is not the case—people don’t always need extensive training or experience with modeling methods to simulate devices. What does that indicate for my future? How should I deal with this change and ensure that my skills remain relevant?

Why me?

Even for a position for which my expertise will be very useful, I have to make the case for myself. Why pick me? Amongst the many applicants for this position, what makes me special?

These questions still require a lot of thought, but with some research, it is possible to come up with concrete answers that will help keep your career on track.

There are a number of tools that can help guide your thinking. The website mindtools has a very good collection of helpful resources (some of my favorites are the TOWS matrix, Core Competence Analysis, USP analysis and Scenario Analysis). There is also some fascinating reading to be found in The Economist and the Harvard Business Review.

I guess this means some homework for me—and maybe for you too!

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com