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Career Counseling

Navigating the world of employment is a highly difficult task in good and bad economic times

career counseling

Searching for a new job often seems like being lost in the middle of a dense forest.

You know you managed to get yourself in there somehow, and now you're looking for a path, a sign, or anything to find the way back. In these situations, you wish you knew someone with a map – a guide or expert – with knowledge of the path and the resources to help you find the way out.

Thankfully, career counselors are available to help those navigating the confusing and challenging period of career change and search.

Foundations of career development

It’s no secret - most people need to work for a living.

But the reality is that not everyone is satisfied with his or her career decisions. Sometimes the job is a poor fit, other times the stress levels might seem too high for anyone to manage, while still others are just looking to branch out and realize their unfulfilled career dreams.


The process of career counseling is fairly straightforward, making use of assessments and personal insights to help direct a client to a new career while also providing interviewing and resume-building techniques. (see Career as a Career Counselor).

But in order to analyze and gain a truly holistic view of an individual's career aspirations, skills, and abilities, career counselors draw from various theories of career development.

According to “Career Counseling Practitioners: Reflections on Theory, Research, and Practice,” published in The Journal of Career Development, researchers examined how theory affects the practices of career counselors.

In the article, researcher Chris Brown asked a group of counselors and psychologists which degree theories influenced their career counseling practices, and which theories they used the most when consulting clients.

Results from the group showed that counselors most used John Holland's theory of career development, Donald E. Super's theory of career development, and social learning theories of career development.

The counselors indicated they used Holland's theory the most when working with clients. Holland's theory splits individuals into six different personality types and matching working environments. To facilitate this matching, clients take the Strong Interest Inventory, which is based on Holland's theory. For more information on this test, see Career Counseling - Strong Interest Inventory).

Career counselors using Holland's theory and the Strong-Interest Inventory would analyze a client's personality type and skills to match them with an appropriate career environment. For example, someone who finds interest in working with computers would seek out an occupation in software development rather than construction.

When dealing with students or those who recently graduated from high school or college, some counselors prefer to base their counseling methods off of Super's approach. This is because Super advocates a more complete view of someone's life – ranging from his or her childhood interests, to the skills they developed in school, to how they adapt to new situations.

Super's Theory of Vocational Choice

Super maintains that there are six stages of vocational development:

  • Crystallization Stage (Ages 14-18) - At this stage, individuals develop concepts of selves and desires, studying a variety of subjects to establish their interests.
  • Specification Stage (Ages 18-21) - At this stage, individuals have a better idea of what subjects and occupations they wish to study. They begin to concentrate on one or two subjects to decide what it is they wish to do for a career.
  • Implementation Stage (Ages 21-24) - At this stage, individuals begin seeking employment in their careers of choice.
  • Stabilization Stage (Ages 24-35) - At this stage, the individuals continue working, analyzing their choices to determine if the work is a good fit for them.
  • Consolidation Stage (Ages 35-55) - At this stage, individuals have decided that they enjoy their careers, and continue working, eventually leading to promotion and retirement.

Source: The Psychology of Careers by Donald E. Super

In “A Lifespan, Life-space Approach to Career Development,” published in The Journal of Vocational Behavior, Super explains that experiences largely influence how an individual shapes his or her interests.

Super indicates that career counselors must examine a person's education, hobbies, life aspirations, and past occupations in order to receive a better idea of what might be a good future career. Because people frequently change interests throughout their lives, counselors should help individuals see how these interests might fit together in a career setting.

For example, consider a college-aged individual who is about to graduate with a degree in history. This student entered college without much of an idea of what he wanted to do, but enjoyed taking history classes in high school and thought it would make a good major.

Now with graduation on the horizon, the young man is nervous about getting a job with a history degree. In order to gain a better understanding of what he should do with his degree, the man visits with the school's career counselor.

Meeting with the student, the career counselor assembles a complete assessment of the individual’s life. The career counselor looks at his past employment history, internships, and volunteer work, while asking about his hobbies and interests.

The counselor discovers that the young man is passionate about writing, enjoys working with others, and advocating for political causes, having previously worked for a nonprofit group. Additionally, the boy's history degree provides him with a wide range of viewpoints of how certain governments have succeeded and failed.

Working to combine the boy's passion for writing, politics, and history, the career counselor recommends the boy look into work as a consultant for a political campaign. In this position, the boy would write press releases, give advice and a historical perspective to the campaign, and maintain past connections he made while working for the nonprofit group.

Additional theories

Similar to Super's theory, social learning theories of career development take a holistic look at how one's entire life affects one's career decisions.

Krumboltz's learning theory of career counseling holds that direct experiences and observations about an environment lead a client to make generalizations about the world and work.

Krumboltz's four factors to consider

According to the book Career Theory and Practice: Learning Through Case Studies, by Jane L. Swanson and Nadya Fouad, there are four factors to consider in Krumboltz's learning theory:

Genetic factors

Some individuals might have innate genetic endowments and special abilities they inherit from their parents. Krumboltz believes that some individuals might be genetically predisposed to have musical, artistic, and athletic abilities.

Environmental conditions and events

Environmental factors are usually outside of the control of the individual, and include conditions like job opportunities, technological developments, community influence, social policies, and labor laws.

Learning experiences

Krumboltz believes that learning comes in the form of instrumental learning, and associative learning. Through instrumental learning, people learn through reinforcement or punishment. In associative learning, people learn to associate certain ideas with another stimulus. For example, someone who enjoys a show about police might find a career in police work interesting.

Task approach skills

These are the skills someone brings to a job. This includes experience, expectations, and general performance.

Source: Career Theory and Practice: Learning Through Case Studies

In addition, Krumboltz believes that people will choose careers based on the following factors: whether they've expressed confidence in completing tasks typical of that career; if others have reinforced their interest in the career; and if they know someone who has positive experiences in that career.

Taking these factors into account, Krumboltz advocates clarifying potential career options through the Strong Interest Inventory and other career assessments.

Helping others with career decisions

If you're interested in a career using knowledge of theories and services to assist others with finding jobs and adjusting to new careers, request information from schools offering degrees in counseling.

Using chaos theory in career counseling

Traditional career counseling typically involves analyzing personality traits, interests, and skills to match someone to the perfect job.

But at least one theory of career counseling maintains that the traditional methods career counselors use are unrealistic in the constantly changing and unpredictable labor market.

Those who follow the chaos theory of career counseling believe that parents, social and environmental context, gender, age, political and economic climate, interests, abilities, geography, and many other life events all influence choice of career and career direction.

And all of these factors are naturally unpredictable and subject to change.

In “The Chaos Theory of Careers: A User's Guide,” published in The Career Development Quarterly, authors Jim E.H. Bright and others write that counselors must take life’s complexities into account, encouraging clients to reflect on how they impact their lives.

Career counseling from a chaos theory perspective allows clients to examine how these chance events affect their careers, and also how they might capitalize on these events.

Because chaos theory acknowledges that nothing is completely predictable, counseling based on this theory focuses less on discovering the perfect career for a client, and more on finding ways to deal with change.

Using chaos theory during career counseling essentially helps clients to understand how small, often unpredictable events often lead to possibilities in the big picture. Counselors working with clients help them to develop strategies for dealing with change and uncertainty at work.

In “Counseling Chaos: Techniques for Practitioners,” published in The Journal of Employment Counseling, author Robert G.L. Pryor lists the principles of chaos that career counselors must understand to effectively work with clients:

  • Order and randomness are natural aspects of human experience;
  • Careers have a tendency to become susceptible to unplanned outcomes;
  • Humans have the capacity to a) recognize an unpredicted possibility b) create opportunities c) encourage good fortune d) take advantage of an unplanned outcome;
  • The complexity of the human experience introduces unpredictability;
  • This reduces knowledge of outcomes and control over outcomes; and
  • This unpredictability can result in the total transformation of a career.

With an understanding of these concepts, career counselors adhering to chaos theory help those thrive in a constantly changing marketplace.

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