What should we aim to do in a one-to-one careers appointment?

Flickr, by Joe Houghton

Flickr, by Joe Houghton

What should we aim to do in a one-to-one appointment? As my diary rapidly approaches the new academic year my head is full of what I want to improve for the year ahead. One of my big worries is that my one-to-one work isn’t what it should be. I feel I am not as successful as I could be in moving students forward in their career development and my skill as a one-to-one practitioner has not developed as much as it could have done since I finished my training. Students don’t seem to respond as positively as they could to my sessions and then not as many come back for follow-up appointments as I would like.

All of this has got me in to thinking what am I trying to achieve in a one-to-one? Particularly what frames of reference do I have in mind that I am hoping to communicate to students. This has got me in to thinking what are the various theoretical approaches available to me to use in one-to-one work? I have come up with a list of six I want to examine and consider their benefits.


The employability approach asks what needs to happen for you to get a job, preferably as soon as possible. It is the dominant approach in lots of unemployment support, recruitment agencies and increasingly schools and university careers services despite to my mind not having a particularly robust theoretical framework. Once someone knows what they want to do the emphasis quickly moves on to advising on job search, using social media, creating CVs and application forms and then performing at interviews. If someone doesn’t know what they want to do they tend to be pushed towards an online psychometric test or told to look at relevent websites (in the UK think Prospects and the National Careers Service) without any real guidance. This is a stereotype but I use it to show that often people who buy in to this approach struggle to work with clients who don’t know what to do.

This approach is driven by knowledge of what employers want and very short on critical engagement with what clients want and why clients may not be able to produce what clients want. What makes this approach appealing is it fits in so clearly with the agendas and targets many HE careers advisers work to. My big question though is is it weakened by its lack of flexibility with working with unsure clients and is it more suited to help the practitioner achieve targets rather than supporting the client progress?


Flickr by Ella's Dad

Flickr by Ella’s Dad

The matching approach has the longest theoretical tradition particularly focussing on the works of Frank Parsons and John Holland which in many ways are foundational to the field of occupational choice. When I trained as a careers adviser I learnt a version of this through Nottingham Trent’s Career Planning continuum and especially the concept of a Well Informed Realistic Decision. Matching claims that certain vocations require certain skills and so individuals can best consider what roles they are suited to by considering their skills and then considering which jobs require these skills.

The draw of matching is the confidence it can give you to approach what is often an intimidating problem for a client. There is a simplicity to understanding your skills and then considering which roles would need these skills. In terms of one-to-one work this leads you to focussing on skills awareness and then opportunity awareness and then looking to match the two up. Sometimes (as in the NTU Career Planning continuum) this is enlarged to take in what someone wants from work as well as what skills they offer to it but the task is still the same, build self and opportunity awareness and then match the two together. I feel more often than not this is what my work reverts back to. I find though it often isn’t very inspiring for my clients and does not help them engage with the breadth of issues which they face.


Matching is based on the idea that self-awareness and opportunity awareness are attributes we can be positive about understanding (hence the association between matching and logical positivism). Constructivism counters this view by pointing out that post-modern views of knowledge do not hold this positivist outlook and we should instead look to new ways to construct how we view ourselves and our careers.

If you read the work of MacMahon, Patterson and Savickas (among others) they are keen to highlight how our views are not externally verifiable but instead are constructed from within. This is especially true of how we understand and define a career. Mark Savickas (building on the earlier work of Donald Super) for example points to how we do not progress our careers by rationally matching ourselves to vocations but by employing a concept of the self. That is to say we have varied ways of seeing ourselves and varied ways of understanding the nature of work and it’s wider place in our lives. Career development is driven by our attempts to evolve our knowing as we impose meaning from within rather than rationally receiving it from without.

One of the main complaints about constructivism is that it is not entirely clear how to put these ideas in to practice (except avoiding matching). My best attempt at understanding this would be to see the task of a one-to-one appointment as based on helping the client realise they can construct reality rather than having to receive and understanding and as that they should embark on the task of imposing meaning on who they are and what they see work as being. Meaning making and meaning construction seem like powerful tools which I would like to make more use of and I hope would make my session more personal and dynamic. I guess the problem is to make sure they are pointed, that they do not turn in to an existential dissection of reality but are actually helping someone. The way I see it is engaging clients in how important it is to discuss their frames of reference and by exposing this opens up new ways of seeing and acting.


Flickr by JD Hancock

Flickr by JD Hancock

The focus of social theories of career choice is that any individual is connected with a series of relationships at a local, social and political level and that these relationships affect the options available to them and how individuals choose between them. You get a wider range of social theories (in fact many other theories hold a social element). The range between John Roberts belief that our social situations all but determine our future career path through Bill Law’s Community Interaction Theory which sees people as being influenced by others but through support can understand and respond to these influences through to Patton and McMahon and their systems theory which from a constructivist stand point aims to understand the wide range of relationships an individual has and help them understand the meanings these have to them and how these relationships could be constructed differently.

The perspective that all of these theories bring to guidance is to say that we are not merely individuals making individualistic decisions but we are social being connected to others and having our career trajectories altered by these relationships. This makes the task of the guidance worker to help the client understand how their social situation affects their career and what an appropriate response to this might be. Though theorists may differ on how to do these tasks the common theme is to ask clients how their social situation affects them and how they should respond to this. I feel there is untapped power around this theory. Realities like house-mates, course-mates, lecturers, parents, older siblings all come together to have profound effect on how students should be behaving in their career development. Students often find themselvess in a series of complex networks at university which compete on their time and provide competing views on how they should behave. Helping students understand how they sit inside these networks, how they are currently acting and how they could act differently I feel is very powerful especially because of the holistic and realistic way it thinks of the individual. The challenge though is to keep in mind the possibility of change. Social theories (especially Roberts who does this explicitly) give the impression that social situations are overwhelming and deterministic, removing the possibility of change.


Narrative theorists have much of their origins in theories related to constructivism but (in my opinion) in a very important way differ from them. For me constructivism is primarily based on epistemology (how you know about yourself and how you know or define career) while narrative theory is primarily based on understanding how change happens. For this reason narratives are often used by constructivists as a model of career management.

The theory takes its wider intellectual routes from Paul Ricoeur, Anthony Giddens, Donal Super and Mark Savickas’s work and often finds importance influence from the excellent work of Larry Cochran. The fundamental questions from a narrative perspective are around how past, present and future link together. How is your present the product of your past? What does your present say about what your future is likely to be or could be?

For me the real advantage of narratives is how it gives a frame to hang other ideas of, it deals with perception (the constructivist concern), with your social situation (the social concern) with how your skills relate to your situation (the matching concern) and even gives a frame to understand how chance has and will affect your career. The key with a narrative approach is to help clients understand their past, present and future(s) and how to manage their movement from present to future in light of their past. This can be particularly hard to manage in a one-to-one session. The shear amount of information that can be produced by asking someone to “tell their story” can become overwhelming.

I find narratives appealing for a number of reasons, they are engaging as they focus on the individual, they are practical because they deal with how someone changes and they are accommodating to other theories because stories integrate other ideas such as someone’s way of understanding the world and their social situation.

Chaos/ Happenstance

Flickr by Andreas Fusser

Flickr by Andreas Fusser

Chaos and Happenstance based theories are primarily based around Krumboltz’s theory of Planned Happenstance and then Pryor & Bright’s Chaos Theory of Careers. The single thing that both have in common is the criticism that most other theories of career rely on the belief that in some way the future is predictable and so we best manage it by planning for it. In response the focus of these theorists is that to a large extent, especially in our rapidly changing modern world, the future is far from predicatable. Because chance events are by nature beyond prediction we should move our career management beyond focussing on prediction, choices and goals as our primary tools and instead consider how to prepare individuals for uncertainty.

They then move on from this to identify particularly abilities particularly of use for responding to uncertainty. This can range from clients viewing themselves and the world of work as changing and evolving through to more general skills such as flexibility, openness to different perspectives and robustness in the face of failure. This all makes the guidance process less about choosing what to do as it is preparing someone for change, giving them a set of practical tools to deal with the change and uncertainty they are going to experience in their life. I feel the challenge is to really engage a client in this way of thinking if they come in with a different mindset and probably to balance this approach with more planned approaches so a client is not just set up to respond to change but can plan and attempt to master it as well.


In the table bellow I have tried to set out the fundamental question as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the approaches I have discussed above.

Theory Fundamental Question Strengths Weaknesses
Employability Are you ready to successfully apply for a job? Fits in with current HE careers agenda. Week on supporting clients who have not made a decision.
Matching Where in the workplace do you best fit? Makes a complex task simple. Can be mechanical and over simplistic.
Constructivist What are your ways of knowing who you are and what your “career” is? Identifies the importance of personal understanding. Not always obvious how to use it and how it makes a practical difference to clients.
Social What social relationships are you part of and how do they influence you? Identifies the primary importance of networks. No obvious route to change, just identifies the status quo, can feel deterministic.
Narrative How do your past, present and future link together? Fundamentally engages with personal change. Can be a bit overwhelming keeping a narrative together.
Chaos/ Happenstance Do you understand the weaknesses of planning and are you ready for the unpredictable? Recognises the weaknesses of planning and the power of uncertainty on our lives. Has to be held in tension with more planing based approaches.


One response to this table for many will be that different theories have different uses on different occasions. The claim is you should use theory as a tool box for you to dip in to with a client. For me this is a bit circular because you still have to choose a theory which will be done on the basis of your over arching theory of how you see your client and what you think one-to-one work actually is. That said holding on to the strengths of different perspectives does seem very appealing. This is why I find myself drawn to a narrative approach is allows me to take on other different theories while still having something that holds everything together. I think for me the task is to work out how I can do this in a more practical way with clients.

So what do people think? Have I missed anything? What theories to people use in practice? What strengths and weaknesses do people think their approaches have?

Note: I have recently added a follow up post about the interrelationship between how we approach clients and how we use theory in appointments.

9 thoughts on “What should we aim to do in a one-to-one careers appointment?

  1. Hi Tom
    Great post. I also want to spend more time this coming year reviewing my guidance practice and incoprating theories into 1:1s – let’s hold each other to it!
    I make quite a lot of use already of narrative approaches, mainly because I work mainly with older clients who already have a ‘career story’ to tell and are usually keen to tell it to an impartial listener. I encourage them to see links between the past, present and future, and to have a go at diagrams to represent which things from the past and the present they would like to take into the future. Hard to do this fully in a one-to-one as you say – it sometimes needs to be a takeaway exercise.
    I’m becoming more aware again at the moment of how much people are influenced by others in their career decisions, and want to find ways of helpting clients engage with this. Always important to check how much clients want to engage with others’ influences and views rather than pushing the ‘but it’s your decision’ approach which is really easy/tempting to do.
    Have a great term.

  2. Hello Tom, I really liked this and am definitely in the ‘theory as toolbox’ camp. My only question is – why do you need to choose an over-arching theory? If our work is truly client-centred, then might the best approach be to use the tools best able to help that client in a way that makes sense for them?
    Feel free to shoot me down in flames….

    • I agree you should use appropriate tools but you will still adopt a questioning strategy based on a certain theoretical stand point. I think theory helps us get to the point of resolving need as well as being a technique we use to resolve it. If that makes sense?

  3. Fascinating, thanks Tom, much food for thought as I prepare to see a fully-booked diary of appointments today! I keep coming back to a broadly client-centred and humanistic approach – contracting at the beginning of the session to reach a shared and agreed understanding of what the interaction will address on that occasion. This can then allow the adviser to dip into the toolbox as appropriate, but always involves some element of the client telling their story. Clients can clearly consciously or otherwise leave out or edit elements of, for instance, the influences on their career thinking and implementation – but that is their prerogative. I certainly wouldn’t advocate a Rogerian approach as such (certainly not in a single twenty-minute appointment), but attempt to leave the student as director of the session as far as possible.

    Just a few spontaneous lunchtime thoughts…

  4. Hey Tom, really interesting overview of careers theory and a nice reminder of thinking about one to one work. I think I agree with the theory as toolbox thought – theories are there to help us support clients in different ways depending on what the client brings and we could use whichever suits the occasion (which can be challenging as technically we need to be master of all!). I think perhaps what you mean when you say what overarching theory do you start from with clients is perhaps what guidance/counselling perspective do you use? As Tim said he works off a semi Rogerian humanistic principle as do I personally but you also mention liberal viewpoints in another post or earlier in this (I can’t remember now!). Do you remember Ricky taught us that stuff? This isn’t career theory per say but the way you approach client interaction to then hang theory off, right? In terms of actual questioning strategy, I still like to use guidance models like NTU quite a bit as well to run a session (or perhaps it is a bit closer to Egan now) but then bring in or note theoretical effects that come up in exploration. Personally, a tactic I routinely use at the start of a session, even as a kind of ice breaker is just a brief overview of where the student is now, how they got there in very practical terms, so as you say, a brief narrative type of interface. I have also been working in FE to date though, which hasn’t yielded great chance to use significant guidance (did far more CE) so I probably need more practice to develop further really. I also note that in that age group I see a lot of social effects prevelent and see the applicability of social theories! Cheers and hope all is well, Fran PS. I think perhaps there are lots of other theories out there for resolving need, I am not sure if you technically included motivational type interviewing? Something I am keen, one day, to learn more about!

  5. Just more food for thought but interestingly some advocating for a counselling/psychodynamic approach in terms of preparing clients emotionally for change. Both ethically and practically within our range of competency should we/do we cross the boundaries between coaching/counselling and guidance frameworks? Its something I struggle with sometimes. In terms of competency I feel comfortable within a coaching approach with different spheres of career and guidance theory hanging off that but inevitably it can stray, especially with a narrative approach. So the question is, does how far we stray is really a matter for how consciously competent we really are in our approach? If our toolbox is a construction of our perspective of guidance and career theory then who’s to say, even if our labels are the same, we are actually using the same tools? In practice how often are we observed and measured, if at all……

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