The East and West of Careers Guidance

I was recently in Bangalore undertaking a graduate employability research visit. The highlight of my trip was a meeting with colleagues from The Promise Foundation – a not-for-profit organisation involved in some ground breaking careers work in India. The ‘Promise’ team is made up of behavioural scientists who examine theory to develop careers interventions that are relevant to the Indian context. We spent time learning about the Jiva project and observed elements of the programme being applied in a local school.

I had a fascinating discussion with Sachin Kumar a fellow ‘Theories Geek’ and the Jiva Programme’s Project Manager about the concept of a career in the Indian context. I understood from Sachin that a major difference between the east and west in regards to career decision making is the notion of individualism and collectivism. In the west career planning focuses on the individual, his or her interests, skills and aptitudes; this coupled with the mobility across occupations gives the individual a sense of freedom with their career decision making. Where as in India, family and the wider society are very much intrinsic to the individuals career beliefs, aspirations and decisions. For example, divergence from family and parental directions could be taken as disobedience. A further layer of complexity within India was its caste system where the work one was expected to perform was based on the caste you were born into.

Abilities and talent were no longer important. Although discrimination by caste has been abolished; a subtle but strong influence on work behaviour continues to underpin the Indian work situation. The discussion with Sachin and his colleagues got me thinking. Within Higher Education, a large proportion of clients seeking careers support  are increasingly representing diverse cultural perspectives and need us to deliver guidance that incorporates their beliefs, values, and worldviews.

In a separate meeting, one of our Alumni commented when asked about their experience of their UK University Careers Service, “The adviser was very nice, she asked me lots of questions about my career decision making and made me think about what had led me to my career choice. I did at the end of the interview feel very sad. Although she made me think I knew I couldn’t change my social situation or career decision. I guess although we spoke the same language we ultimately didn’t understand one another”

I have as a result started questioning my role as an International Careers Adviser as my knowledge and understanding of different cultures and socio-economic challenges faced by the students I see doesn’t even scratch the surface. As a result of meeting with alumni and colleagues from The Promise Foundation, I do believe that to be effective, we as guidance professionals must adapt our traditional, individualistic approaches to careers guidance and incorporate culture-specific variables. But the question is how do we do this?

If you have any suggestions or examples of good practice I will be very keen to hear your comments.

The Promise Foundation is organising the first Careers Conference in India in October. Further information can be found at

Further reading

Career Counselling – A Handbook by Gideon Arulmani and Sonali Nag-Arulmani. Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Company Limited, 2005

Related post: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs


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  1. #1 by David Winter on 11 March 2010 - 17:29

    Although the following article is based around ethnic minorities in the US, it has some interesting points about how to approach culturally-sensitive guidance.

    Flores, L.Y. & Heppner, M.J. (2002) Multicultural career counseling: ten essentials for training. Journal of Career Development, 28(3), 181-202.

    This ERIC Digest is quite useful (and brief).

    Kerka, S. (2003) Career Development of Diverse Populations. Educational Resources Information Center.

    Try looking up the Culturally Appropriate Career Counselling Model.

  2. #2 by L Whittern on 11 March 2010 - 21:46

    Saiyada, the approach we use to helping ALL our career counselling clients works just as well in the situation you’ve outlined, when you really don’t know at the outset how much room for manoeuvre the individual client can negotiate. All individuals and families are different. I have clients – from a similar background to your client – who were determined to break free of their cultural constraints and successfully did so.

    OK, all our clients have a one to one session lasting half a day – so they have more time than many careers services can allow. However, we’d start by finding out their INDIVIDUAL situations and the circumstances that might impinge on their career choices.

    If there were any major obstacles (eg financial, cultural, physical and domestic responsibility constraints) then we’d work with the client then and there to see whether they could be removed or at least reduced, at a [personal] cost the client felt was acceptable.

  3. #3 by Claire Tessier on 12 March 2010 - 07:20

    Saiyada, I think you raise an interesting point. I don’t think our approach to careers counselling works for ALL clients. For example, I find culturally, the clients I see come in expecting we are the experts. Often the MA students have an expectation about the careers service based on the support received back home which is often information provision. They are not familiar / comfortable with the reflective approach to guidance we use. In some cultures it isn’t acceptable to question / challenge the expert so how authentic is that intervention?

    If we were to read the feedback from the alumni you posted, the approach to guidance seems great – the adviser made the client think / reflect. But how effective was this from a client’s perspective? You really have made me think but like you I don’t have any answers.

  4. #4 by Saiyada Smith on 12 March 2010 - 12:00

    Thank you all for your very interesting comments.

    I can see both arguments and the challenges they pose in our work with international students. In particular I feel the one hour model that most HE Careers Services follow don’t allow much space in finding out about the client and their situation.

    I will try and write a follow up post on culturally appropriate counselling models and see ways we can incorporate these into our work.

  5. #5 by David Winter on 12 March 2010 - 12:59

    In theory, a sensitive, truly client-centred approach (however long we have with them) should enable us to work with clients from any cultural background. Unfortunately, we are only human and it is hard for us not to interpret what we hear from clients through the filters of our own value systems. We are pre-disposed to assume that what is true for us is true for all, unless we have been made explicitly aware that there are alternative perspectives and primed ourselves to notice them.

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