Metaphors of Career: Introduction

Having decided to start writing a blog about career it makes sense to start having a look at what “career” actually is. I’ve decided to write a series of posts around what career is using Kerr Inkson’s metaphorical approach to defining career.

Most of us have a vague sense the career is somehow different to just having a job but beyond that I recon most people think that career is just one of those common sense terms that you just know what it is. Why bother actually trying to pin it down? You may feel that working hard at definitions is for academics, bloggers, ivory tower philosophers and other types with too much time on their hands who try and justify their existence by mucking around with terms. Why bother actually trying to define career?

Though you may not be interested in technical discussions about defining career you are more almost certainly interested in your own career. We tend to be more interested in the personal than in the abstract. So what happens if we ask personal questions such as “what is your personal theory of career?”, “what does career mean in your life?” or “how would you describe what your career is and how it relates to the rest of your life?” Asking these sorts of questions makes the discussion immediately relevant. Thease questions are concerned with how we see the world and how we live. They also recognises that we have different lives. Different things are important to us. We live in different contexts and we approach and make our lives in different ways using different means. It may be tempting to say that some definitions of career are better than others and a universal definition of career allows us to sift the good from the bad. I do think there is such a thing as a bad or unhelpful definition of career but I think its important to start with where people are at. This allows us to keep what matters to us and keep what makes us different intact as we work out what a good definition of career might be. Rather than asking what is career I want this series to look at a way of working out what your personal theory of career is.

How then do we approach this task? Its quite a hard thing just to ask what does career mean and expect a good response. I think its worthwhile looking at a range of descriptions of career and rather than just choosing one at the exclusion of the others and then look to see how they might combine to provide a variety of perspectives. This is what Kerr Inkson does in his book “Understanding Careers: The Metaphors of Working Lives.” Inkson describes nine metaphors for career which each provide a different perspective. Working with metaphors allows people to ask what they like and don’t like about a point of view, it can highlight what already exists in their theory of career, it can show what could be added to it to make it richer, it can reveal where blind spots are and what new possibilities exist for engaging with career as a subject. Inkson’s approach partly recognises that career is a complicated subject and so best handled through a number of perspectives. It also recongises that people are different and so a variety of metaphors put together helps us avoid a unrealistic one-size-fits all approach.

How is this useful? One of my hopes with this blog is to try and keep theory connected to practice. So what is the advantage of defining career and using Inkson’s method to do so?

Firstly though theory may not be that interesting the practice of career is interesting to everyone. Given this its important to note that new and better practice mostly comes from different perspectives. For someone stuck in their career in some way looking at new perspectives on career opens up new ways of acting, of approaching problems differently and may open up new possibilities for moving forwaed. Linked to this as a careers adviser I’m concerned with my own professional practice. This will always come out of my view of what career is. This will determine how I act in my job and how I try to help people. So considering other metaphors of career opens up new ways of acting as a professional, it may confirm or enhance some of my current practice or create new alternatives.

Secondly a lot of career problems are created by other people. No man is an island and no-one lives out their career by themselves. People are frustrated in education, feel limited by their employers, angry at the quality of career advice their school gave, held back by their parents and so on. This often happens because different theories of career exist between people. When a father wants his son to take over the family business because “its what has always happened” while the son wants to travel “to find himself” the conflict has happened because different theories of career exist. Getting down to these different theories exposes why the conflict exists and helps people appreciate the other persons viewpoint and then navigate and negotiate in these relationships. This is a negative take on relationships, and I want to avoid just seeing other people as a nuisance in an individuals career. So it is equally helpful to ask where different theories from different people have influenced us and helped us. This is useful for the professional as well. A lot of professional frustration comes out of the views of clients about their careers or the limits imposed upon professionals by their employers. Again asking what different theories of career are in play may be of great use here. If your headmaster just wants you to get sixth formers to progress onto uni while you want to properly explore what your students want from life this friction is again underpinned by different theories of career. Therefore understanding these theories helps you see what the other person you are working with is assuming and aiming at and helps you to respond.

Inkson has nine metaphors for career which are inheritance, construction, cycle, matching, journey, encounters and relationships, roles, resource, and story. I’m going to write a post on each metaphor and see where that leads. I haven’t decided on the exact order but I’m going to use start with “matching” as I think it is probably the most common view of career. That’s all for now. As this is my first post, please, please leave comments, be brutal, I can take it.



5 thoughts on “Metaphors of Career: Introduction

  1. Hi Tom
    An thoughtful blog. I like the ‘Running through a forest’ metaphor, and will be interested to see how your exploration of Inksen develops. You are of course right – careers work often largely revolves around the frustrations of lack of resources, or influences from others which isn’t always helpful. It’s little surprise that advisers forget theory, although the tide may be turning back to valuing it. The real triumph would be if the clients could understand it too, so that they come to realise why they chose their occupation – and what they could do differently.

    • Yep, really agree with your point about clients understanding theory. Think it would make the guidance process more transparent and empower clients more to apply theory to themselves and learn to think differently.

  2. Hi Tom,

    Great first Blog. I’m all for connecting theory to practice. The theory side of careers guidance has gone well and truly out of the window this last few years. There hasn’t been any obligation whatsoever in the standards for the qualifcations I’ve assessed previously i.e. Advice and Guidance, LDSS to cover theory. Nice to see the new Level 6 Diploma has a Unit on theory. Keep Blogging! Ade

  3. Firstly this is interesting and well for actually getting it written I never seem to find the time! I’m looking forward to your next post and seeing some of these ideas expand. What the term career means is something I’ve had a few late night debates (often involving wine) so I have a couple of questions to put to you.
    Do you think the current social construct of careers, the concept we accept without questioning, has become outdated with longer life spans and more fluidity in people vocational careers as well as the acceptance of other types of careers such as parenting increasing?
    My second question is do you think that a head teacher wanting careers practitioners to focus on ‘ getting students into uni’ is really due to a different definition of career or actually shows a difference in the definition of positive progression and the way outcomes are measured and league tables are calculated? To a good careers practitioner a positive outcome is helping the student move forward into something they are happy with and can be successful in but that doesn’t make uni progression statistics for league table comparison and to you as a marketing statistic in the prospectus!

    • Thanks again for your reply and for engaging, really kind of you. Yes I do think a lot of how career is viewed especially in education is outdated. I think there’s a temptation just to move people on to the next stage without trying to understand how much we change over our life span or how many different roles we play or different situations we face. I think there’s still a bit of a feeling careers work prepares people for a job for life. As you point out our lives are more fluid and more complex. I feel careers work has to set people up to keep managing change and uncertainty not just get people into a “career”.

      On my view of head teachers just wanting to progress students to uni… I take your point in that heads (or any manager) and careers professionals tend to have different aims (league tables versus individual desire). That said I do think that there is a different view of career that underpins this. In this example the head assumes that a good career is one that follows the “best” route while the careers worker thinks a good career is one that the student wants to have. I guess the thing is that I recon very few heads really think what they are offering for students isn’t for the students good but they have a one-size-fits-all view of career which encourages them to be paternalistic. The difference is between thinking there is a pre-set “best” career path that will work at least for most students or if the “best” career path can only be discovered by respecting the desires of the student.

      Maybe where this can be helpful is as a professional the temptation is to say that heads care about league tables and careers workers care about people. No-one would really try and persuade a head not to care about league tables (its their job to care), this just leaves me feeling stuck. While if I can see there is a different view of career it encourages me to make a better argument myself about this in my context.

      That’s quite a long answer, what do you think?

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