Skip to main content

Early Career Learning

TLRP resources

Developing identities: nurses, engineers and accountants

One task facing newly qualified professionals is how to integrate several different kinds of knowledge, gained from education and work, into their ways of working.

Professionals often find that the most important workplace tasks and problems require the integrated use of several different kinds of knowledge, and this can be particularly challenging for those just 'starting out' in their careers.

Eraut (2004) highlights some of the problems involved in discussing the use of knowledge at work:

  • Only knowledge acquired in formal educational settings is easily brought to mind, articulated and discussed;
  • Tacit, personal knowledge and the skills essential for work performance tend to be taken for granted and omitted from accounts;
  • Often the most important workplace tasks and problems require an integrated use of several different kinds of knowledge, and the integration of those components is itself a tacit process.

"These constraints affect people's awareness of learning and their ability to recognise and articulate their personal knowledge and understanding which enables them to think and perform at work. Therefore the more researchers are able to ground conversations with informants in the actuality of daily working life (tasks, relationships, situational understandings, implicit theories etc), the greater the chance of eliciting information about the full range of what is being learned, how it is learnt, and the factors which affect learning, especially the informal learning of key skills such as team working (Miller et al. 2001)" (Eraut, 2003, p.2).

The study by Eraut and colleagues is into the learning of graduates working in nursing, engineering and accountancy in the first few years after graduation (Eraut, 2003).

Trainee accountants:

The trainee accountants have 3 year contracts that include both training for professional examinations and a work-based induction into the profession through a tightly structured apprenticeship system whose special features are:

  • immediate allocation of real tasks, which gradually increase in size and complexity; this steep learning curve develops their confidence
  • working for at least half their time on clients’ premises on relatively short assignments (generally 2 days to 2 weeks) with tight timetables
  • the need to admit ignorance and continue to ask questions; the shy would not survive
  • receiving most support from trainees 1 or 2 years ahead of them, who remember their own early period and are receptive to "ignorant" questions
  • engagement in work which is scaffolded by the structure of the working files, access to the previous year’s audit, pre-prepared protocols and tests
  • that frame their work and specify their sampling procedure, and working alongside more experienced colleagues
  • developing greater understanding of audit processes and products while working on individual tasks that contribute to them.

Several of these features can be seen in the two case studies of accountancy trainees. These also show the importance of teamwork, relationships with clients and time management in a context where information is continuously being sought and checked, with procedural decisions being made at frequent intervals within a relatively clearly defined framework of tasks" (Eraut, 2003, pp 3-4).

Newly qualified graduate nurses

"The nurses have already qualified but still have a difficult transition, caused by their sudden assumption of a great deal of responsibility and immersion into a highly demanding, pressurised environment with a very high workload. Critical features of this transition are:

  • learning to manage their time, to prioritise the numerous demands upon them, and to recognise when patients need urgent attention
  • being given immediate responsibility before the above has been achieved
  • learning how to handle a whole range of challenging communication tasks and relationships with doctors, colleagues, other professionals, patients and relatives
  • taking responsibility for the administration of drugs according to a wide range of schedules and using several different methods, while still attending to the needs of a considerable number of patients
  • coping with shifts when they may have very little support
  • learning a range of new procedures with varying levels of help
  • peripheral learning is limited by the urgent demands on their attention, often limited contact with other members of their peer group, varying levels of support from more experienced nurses
  • access to relevant short courses is often constrained by staffing shortages.

They are all quite critical of their training, especially the disjunction between theory and practice, the lack of attention to scientific knowledge, and the pattern of work placements. Most of them are thinking about their next move, often to a more specialist ward in the same hospital" (Eraut, 2003, p. 4).

Newly qualified graduate engineers

Critical features of learning while working "for engineering trainees are:

  • working in an "open plan" office with desks adjacent to team members, line managers and senior engineers, making it easier to ask questions and to participate in discussions. Getting to know who does what, and the range of available expertise/skills around them is an important early requirement.
  • a strong base of support from a wide range of mentors, managers, and team members in addition to accessible "happy-to-help" people within their own branch of the company and also in other branches. Contacts take the form of face-to-face interaction, telephone, e-mail, or fax.
  • all companies have a variety of on-line training courses/exercises for the graduates’ own-paced self-learning, but it appears that there is no monitoring system to check on the progress of those using such facilities, and trainees believe it is up to them to use this provision only if they feel so inclined.
  • some companies have a national "skills link" whereby a graduate can log their enquiry into the system from their desktop, and this will be accessible to all people on that site and elsewhere within the firm; anyone who can help may suggest either an answer or the name of a helpful person to contact.
  • strong agreement on the benefits of having previous practical experience such as an industrial placement or a sandwich year
  • views of HE are influenced by their immediate job needs and by the level of contact with industrial engineers
  • access to short courses is good
  • interest in the job is important, and carrying out challenging, real-world tasks is thought by graduates to be the most effective factor in learning
  • graduates believe that they learn most from doing things under supervision, followed by learning from senior engineers (observation, discussion, etc.), and attending courses, reading and finally informal open learning
  • graduates and their employers judge them as being strong in IT and its many applications, but weak in report writing and presentation skills
  • they often work on large projects with long time-scales but would like to understand more about how their tasks contribute to the overall project
  • a number of graduates find that they are engaged on too many simple, routine, even repetitive, tasks. However, they recognise the general benefits of some such activity, particularly early in their employment.

Trainees in small companies and local authorities get less support for gaining Chartered Engineer status; but there are more opportunities for on-site work and personal decision making/judgement, etc., thus providing a fast-track route towards a more rounded experience (Eraut, 2003, p. 5).

Case studies of newly qualified graduate nurses, engineers and trainee accountants

Case study of a newly qualified nurse

Eraut, 2003, p. 6:

"N61 works in a busy 50-bed Gastro-Intestinal unit, which incorporates both surgical and medical sections. She was visited after she had been there for 9 months and 20 months. She received good feedback and supervision from a very supportive manager and senior nurses. Nevertheless, lack of feedback from a rather passive mentor worried her. She had already (in 9 months) had two appraisals from her manager who was very keen on professional development and had a policy of growing her own senior nurses ‘in house’ rather than suffer from a failure to recruit at senior level. Her manager was also well aware of the pressures faced by novices confronted with the overwhelming experience of multi-patient, multi-task, continually interrupted ward nursing, and was frequently urging new nurses to ask for help. She inducted new nurses through all the ward areas to give them experience of working for a variety of patients with different dependencies.

N61 has a particular concern with getting all her written records done on time. This is a concrete symbol of being organised and in control, and prevents things being left to the last minute. Late additions to these records could always be made. After a ‘low period’ at six months, she was now confident that she could do her job and aware of her growing professional development. She noted she had time to reflect more when based in less busy areas.

She described her progress in terms of:

  • moving on from concentrating on tasks to seeing patients in context and more of a whole
  • being able to ask when she doesn’t know something or has too high a workload
  • learning more about management
  • being able to brief patients on surgical procedures

After 20 months, she continued to emphasis her need to be in control and finish her writing. Her time management was better and she needed less support. She had stopped receiving supervision, after 8 months and had started self-directed reading on relevant issues. She had become IV trained and had been on several short courses - basic life support, advanced life support, pain management, central lines. She wanted to start taking a degree by stages over a long period. She had begun to mentor students, and had taken on management responsibilities when people hadn’t turned up. She had quite enjoyed it, and had ‘picked up aspects of what is expected of a co-ordinator or team leader’, but wasn’t seeking that role yet. She gets significant support, both socially and at work, from a group who joined the unit at the same time as her and have ‘gelled.’ This was also recognised by her manager.

There are many tasks in which she is now more confident. She is more aware of her learning through practice without noticing it at the time. Dealing with very ill people is becoming more routine. She is prepared to do fewer observations than requested if she realises it is not necessary to do them so frequently. She is about to go on a High Dependence Unit course and expects to get a better "scientific" understanding of "what is actually happening" with things like blood gasses. She believes that novices need clear protocols but more experienced nurses develop a more holistic awareness" (Eraut, 2003, p. 6).

Case study of trainee accountants

Eraut, 2003, pp 8-9:

"Most workplace learning occurs through membership of audit teams, starting with very simple tasks that require no previous experience or knowledge of accountancy. Like other trainees A29 and A41 are graduates with good basic skills, communication skills, confidence and experience of independent learning. The process closely resembles an ‘ideal type’ apprenticeship; most learning comes from senior trainees while working on client premises and some from the audit managers. The work is structured by the framework of the current audit, being constructed, the audit of the previous year and tests (or protocols) pre-designed in their home office for each particular client by managers and senior trainees, but not as yet by our respondents. Audit teams work to strict deadlines and mutual co-operation is essential, as are good relationships with their clients. The process involves collecting information, sampling records, comparing and analysing figures and constructing an independent, credible, defensible account. The allocation of time to the most important evidence is critical; and although there is foreknowledge of likely areas of work, many unforeseen problems arise that have to be dealt with quickly and may involve some re-allocation of time. There is a strong tradition of supporting trainees, especially in their first year, which combines positive teamwork with a recognition that the sooner trainees make a net positive contribution to the teams, the better for all concerned. Audits can last from 2 days to 5 weeks and teams are reconstituted for each audit; their size varies from 2 to 12 members. Most trainees are involved in only one team at a time, and sometimes there are no ‘home office’ days between their audit visits.

In the early months, learning occurs through being coached in detail on how to do the tests, asking lots and lots of questions, and peripheral participation in the whole audit process. The constant message is: If you are stuck, don’t waste time, ask someone right away. If you think there may be a problem, alert your senior right away. They know that their immediate seniors still remember what it was like to be a novice and this is reassuring. Team working to tight deadlines is a very inclusive process and most novices feel very well supported most of the time. Tidiness and clarity are important because everything is cross-checked and referred to, people need to quickly understand what you have done, what you are talking about.

Trainees recognise, with hindsight, many different forms of progression:

  • size of task: doing a test to doing a whole section
  • speed of work: getting things done more quickly
  • significance of task: low risk to high risk for validity of audit
  • complexity of audit: very simple to very complex
  • confidence: pursuing questions more rigorously, interviewing more senior client officers.
  • increasing range of clients: the more experience, the easier to understand the business of a new client
  • increasing responsibility: being coached, close supervisions, through to only outcomes checked and unless a problem is signalled, being only person on client site" (Eraut, 2003b, pp 8-9).

Case studies of two graduate engineers

Eraut, 2003, p. 10-11:

"E39 has an M.Eng degree in Mechanical Engineering, but has joined the Building Services Division of a large consulting firm, and is seeking to get chartered status with the Institute of Chartered Building Services. S/he was visited after 8 and 19 months. The start was a frustrating 3 months doing little else than reading technical material and project reports, because there was little work available. S/he had had small bits of involvement in a small number of projects but had not seen any project through from start to finish. Within a few months s/he had worked out who to ask to get what. S/he assessed her/his own strengths as being interaction with people, team working, organisation, meeting deadlines; and being easily distracted as a weakness. Throughout the 18 months, s/he had attended a range of courses (all 1/2 day or 1 day). S/he enjoyed working with other professions. Though working on his/her own, s/he interacted with others as if they were team workers and they responded well to that approach.

E39’s manager tended to overestimate what s/he could do, but that was good. S/he learned to say quickly if s/he couldn’t do it without more help. The manager gave positive feedback, but E 39’s first Professional Development Review was very late though useful when it came. Another manager gave no feedback at all, just signed her/his reports. S/he did meet other graduates sometimes, but these were usually purely social occasions. S/he identified the key factors affecting her/his learning as challenge, support and feedback; challenge was her/his greatest concern in this job. S/he felt it was improving just before her/his first visit, then had quite a challenging period. This included one very challenging project, but s/he was now wondering whether another equally challenging project would turn up: At the time of the second visit, the flow of work was easing off again.

The challenging project arose almost by chance, because s/he was in the right location overseas when the need arose and was able to pick it up at once. It involved close work with structural engineers and much negotiation. S/he was the only mechanical engineer involved and the project was well outside her/his previous experience. S/he had to produce a lot of reports, and keep in constant contact with the UK home base. S/he also got very good feedback from the clients. Other projects had been interesting but less challenging.

The work team was the same at the time of the second visit, but s/he was taking on more responsibility; and was organising the local seminar programme. S/he recognised that most of the expertise she was able to benefit from came from other people’s wide experience rather than their formal training or university programmes. The biggest difference from university projects was that cost was the first constraint and architects were the second constraint. S/he had learned some interesting practical principles. A colleague advised her that when you have too much work you should take it back to all those who want it done and ask them to decide on the priorities. S/he also had learned that, when being asked to do certain tasks, s/he should teach those asking her/him so that they could do it for themselves. Both interviews ended with uncertainty about staying in the job if more challenging work did not arrive!

E 37 is a Mechanical Engineer working in the power generation department of an engineering consultancy company. Visits took place after 2 1/2 and 11 months. S/he has both M.Eng. and M.Sc. degrees; and several modules of these were reported to be relevant to her/his current work. S/he works in an open plan office, which is sometimes found to be too noisy and distracting. E 37 has been allocated a series of relatively small jobs, which s/he describes as "very very small tasks in a big project"; and feels under-worked and under-challenged. S/he is keen to become a Chartered Engineer, but is not very clear about the detailed arrangements. Nor apparently is her/his mentor who is supposed to provide this advice. S/he meets other trainees and more experienced engineers socially quite often, and feels included in the company. S/he participates in leisure activities with company colleagues and is now managing one of them. S/he has used the company intranet to seek advice on a problem.

E37’s favoured modes of learning, in order of importance, are: trying things out, observing others, attending courses and reading. S/he is acutely aware of his/her lack of field experience, though probably has more than many graduate entrants S/he wants to spend some time on sites, but so far only two one-day visits have been arranged. S/he has attended several courses on power generation and one on presentation skills; and is reading a book on report writing. S/he recognises that company reports, unlike academic reports, do not report everything.

S/he has noted some good role models, people with both technical expertise and social skills, and also gets good feedback on her/his performance; but has not been involved in many projects and has had limited roles in those in which s/he did participate. S/he functions more independently now, and knows who to see about what. The lack of challenge so far has been a major disappointment" (Eraut, 2003, pp 10-11).


Eraut, 2003, pp 11-12:

"One prominent finding of our earlier research on mid-career learning was the overwhelming importance of confidence. Much learning at work occurs through doing things and being proactive in seeking learning opportunities; and this requires confidence. Moreover, we noted that confidence arose from successfully meeting challenges in one’s work, while the confidence to take on such challenges depended on the extent to which learners felt supported in that endeavour. Thus there is a triangular relationship between challenge, support and confidence (Eraut et al 2000). We have now added a further element to each apex of this triangle to reflect factors found to be significant for the learning of early career professionals. These are: feedback because of its huge importance at this career stage, the value of the work (both for clients and for career progress) as an additional motivating factor and commitment to learning, which together with confidence affects the extent to which early career professionals are proactive in taking advantage of the learning opportunities available to them.

Interacting learning factors:

  • Challenge and value of the work
  • Feedback and support
  • Confidence and commitment

Our evidence from this project confirms that both confidence in one’s ability to do the work and commitment to the importance of that work are primary factors that affect individual learning. Confidence depends on the successful completion of challenging work , and that in turn may depend on informal support from colleagues, either while doing the job or as back up when working independently. Indeed the willingness to attempt challenging tasks on one’s own depends on such confidence. If there is no challenge or insufficient support to encourage a trainee to seek out or respond to challenge, then confidence declines and with it the motivation to learn. Commitment is generated through social inclusion in teams and by appreciating the value of the work for clients and for themselves as novice professionals. Concerns about career progress that arise from inadequate feedback of a normative kind can weaken motivation and reduce commitment to the organisation. Both commitment to learning and confidence affect the extent to which early career professionals are proactive in taking advantage of the learning opportunities available to them" (Eraut, 2003, pp 11-12).

" The allocation and structuring of work was central to our participants’ progress, because it affected both (1) the difficulty or challenge of the work and the extent to which it was individual or collaborative, and (2) the opportunities for meeting, observing and working alongside people who had more or different expertise, and for forming relationships that might provide feedback and support. For novice professionals to make good progress a significant proportion of their work needs to be sufficiently new to challenge them without being so daunting as to reduce their confidence; and their workload needs to be at a level that allows them to reflectively respond to new challenges, rather than develop coping mechanisms that might later prove to be ineffective. There are also likely to be competing agendas when tasks are allocated. Novices are more efficient on tasks where they already have enough experience, but also need to be involved in a wider range of tasks in order to extend their experience. Thus managers and/or senior colleagues have to balance the immediate demands of the job against the needs of the trainees as best they can, as well as satisfying the requirements of professional bodies and/or health and safety. This analysis suggests three important operational questions:

  • Which of these critical work factors are fixed and which are variable?
  • To what extent is the allocation of work to novice professionals or the issue of invitations to participate in other work activities decided by a manager or by a relatively junior but more experienced colleague?
  • Who is aware of whether a particular novice feels overloaded or under-challenged?

Our conclusion is that these important workplace variables may be determined by (a) the way the organisation works (and are, therefore, unlikely to be changed to suit the needs of learners), (b) decisions made by managers with relatively little personal knowledge of the novice or (c) decisions made by more experienced colleagues who have a regular working relationship with the novice" (Eraut, 2003, p. 13).


  • Eraut, M. (2003) Learning During the First Three Years of Postgraduate Employment – The LiNEA Project, Paper presented to the ECER 2003 Conference, Padua, August 2003.
  • Eraut, M. (2004) Transfer of knowledge between Education and Workplace settings, in H.Rainbird, A.Fuller and H.Munro (Eds) Workplace Learning in Context, London: Routledge.
  • Miller, C., Freeman, M. and Ross, N. (2001) Interprofessional Practice in Health and Social Care: Challenging the SharedLearning Agenda, London, Arnold.