Can careers theory be useful?

This should probably have been the first post…

For several years I have delivered a training course with this title. It was based on the question asked by many careers advisers who, whilst expressing an interest in theories, found it difficult to see how they could be applied to everyday careers work.

In an article for Phoenix a few years ago I argued that theories help us to question our assumptions about what is important and what is peripheral in career choice. Because career decisions are extremely complex, with a multitude of overlapping factors, trying to deal with them in a limited time will always involve making assumptions. You and I as career practitioners will make assumptions every time we decide to ask one question rather than another, or follow one thread out of the many available to us. We do not articulate these preconceptions; we are often not even aware of them. A theory is a set of explicitly stated assumptions. As such, they can help us view a client from an angle which is different from our habitual perspective.

But how?

Applying theories within a discussion is almost impossible – there’s too much going on. However, reviewing a client or case study after the event through the eyes of different theories can be enlightening. The process goes something like this:

  • Pick a theory – preferably one that feels a little alien to your normal way of thinking.
  • Immerse yourself in that theory and – for a time – pretend that it is the only truth.
  • Now examine a client. This could be by listening to a particular discussion you have recorded or just thinking about commonly occurring client types.
  • Try as hard as you can to squeeze the client into the theory you have chosen.
    • What information becomes significant? What is peripheral?
    • What alternative interpretations of particular phrases or behaviours spring to mind?
    • What avenues could you have explored that you didn’t?
    • What alternative approaches could you have taken?

Hopefully, this process will help you to find an alternative way of looking at what is going on with a client. OK, there’s nothing you can do about anything you missed now, but this process might make you more aware of something next time.

A very similar approach is taken in the book Career Theory and Practice: Learning Through Case Studies by Jane Swanson and Nadya Fouad (one of my recommended books) in which one poor individual is examined through the filters of a number of different theories.

  • What are your natural assumptions?
  • What do you do to regularly challenge or test those assumptions?
  • What’s your favourite theory – and what does that say about you?
  • What theory do you find it hardest to apply – and what does that say about you?


  1. #1 by Aminder K Nijjar on 30 October 2009 - 18:52

    Thank you for this very clear and user friendly approach to careers theory. The post-consultation (career guidance interview) activites you suggest are a very good idea. I’d be very interested to read about colleagues’ experiences of trying this, and I’ll try to do the same.

  1. Classics – Gottfredson « Careers – in Theory
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  3. Planned happenstance brainstorm « Careers – in Theory

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