Is Career Work too Negative?

How do you feel about going to the dentist? For me I’m not that big a fan and my attendance record proves it. My problem is I sit down at the dentists, am told of because of the wait since I last attended, get someone prod around in my mouth, often have them drill into my touth, am told of for my brushing technique, told to floss, told to come back in 3 months time and then charged more than my monthly utilities bill for the privilege. Unsurprisingly I rarely come back inside 3 months, I admit this is a flaw on my behalf but I feel dentists have an issue in how they promote their services, guilt and horror stories tend not to positively engage people.

What does this have to do with careers work? Well I fear careers work increasingly justifies itself and engages with it’s clients on a similar basis. Some of the catch phrases I hear bandied around (HE) careers work bare this out. We are constantly telling people that “a degree is not enough”, they need to “brand themselves” and focus on “their unique selling point” they they need to “get experience”, “build a network”, “get on LinkedIn” that we are here to help (implication – you’re not ok!) that we can help people make a “realistic choice” and that “there are jobs out there for the right candidate.” It could all be boiled down to “jobs are hard (but not impossible) to get, you almost certainly don’t know how to get one, we can help you get a job (probably) if you do what we say, and if you don’t… job center (plus?!) for you my friend.”

I think there are a number of things that have created this situation. Firstly targets, destination figures which are taken as a one off census in the UK, 6 months after graduation, creates pressure and a particularly time frame around student career development. We feel the fear factor that students aren’t progressing towards targets and so often pass this on to students. Secondly the positioning of careers inside education. Most careers workers I know feel marginalised and squeezed for time, they don’t see enough of students, they’re not supported enough by other staff, no-one knows what they should be doing. This is often leads to careers workers wanting to shout “I’m Important! Take me seriously!” The problem is this call for importance can often be linked to some vision of student’s futures beset by unemployment and failure. “I’m important” very quickly slips into “ignore me at your peril.” Finally a matching paradigm of careers. Matching paradigms focus on the rational, what a realistic choice is. This approach tends to focus on limits, on narrowing down options, converging on the one “right” answer. This often comes across as implying that most decisions are wrong and most career ideas are out right wrong or have been arrived at using the wrong method. Again this is negative, encouraging students to be realistic, narrowing in on the few possible options that fit all of the data. If you’re a careers adviser just ask yourself this, are their certain careers you wince at inside when people mention them? Do you just wish less people would want to get into film/ journalism/ clinical psychology/ the civil service or whatever else it might be? If this happens you are probably being affected by some of the ideas above.

So what might the alternative be? if you are interested in challenging some of these ideas what form what that take?

Self-awareness Focused

This is a bit of a hunch I have but I feel that the self is often lost in the careers work I come across. When you are looking at matching models we tend to focus in on how the individual can fit into work (not the other way round, how work can fitted to the individual) this makes work the fixed object and the individual the bit that moves. Everything is therefore based on work and how the individual understands themselves in relation to it.

I think a subtle but significant shift can be made to move away from discovering options to discovering your self or potential selves which you can develop. Paraphrasing Savickas then career becomes a prop in how you develop a meaningful life rather than a place you must be adjusted to and most fit with. Again the difference is subtle but significant.

Positive Psychology

I recently came across the excellent work of Career Cycles, which I may blog more about in the future. Career Cycles aims in part to use Positive Psychology to build a new approach to working with clients. To quote from Zikic and Kranklic disucssing Career Cycles,

“ …the [Career Cycles] method’s unique emphasis on positive psychology is based on supporting ways clients can attract, rather than seek, career and life enrichment possibilities. Second, it frames these possibilities as positive statements of what clients desire, rather than focusing on barriers and career obstacles. In using positivism, the [Career Cycles] method examines clients’ life spans and moves away from objectivity and job matching toward self-defining stories that reflect the fulfillment of developmental tasks and occupational transitions”

Positive Psychology contends that psychology can be in danger of just looking at negative aspects of the individual and just looking to cure their big problems rather than looking at the individual as a whole and trying to encourage them to flourish by considering how they can bring their strengths, values, relationships and wisdom to bare to achieve a full and flourishy life. This focus to help people focus on their strengths and become the best they can may seem a bit trite and disney-ish but I feel it can be a healthy antidote to often negative approaches to clients and careers work that focus on problems, lowers expectations of people and aims for people to get somewhere rather than become all they can be.

I wonder if positive psychology is an area that can be explored more in careers work?


A genuine developmental perspective can be of use here. Developmental perspectives are concerned with change and what you want to become. The key question is not what assets do you have but what you want to develop. There has been a raft of popular books recently looking at habits and skill development that support the idea that humans have a great capacity to develop themselves given the right time and motivation. This should be a significant to matching paradigms as it moves the question from “what can you do?” to “what do you want to become?”

This approach isn’t about throwing realism out the window or being naive but having a positive view of human potential when given opportunity and motivation.

Creativity/ Lateral Thinking

Finally I’ve talked about creativity before but I feel it can create a new perspective on decision making which is based on broadening out your options, thinking divergently and non-laterally to generate new possibilities. This is about thinking about the many things someone could do and then innovating new ways of getting there. Again this is about possibilities over limits, about the many things someone could do rathern than the one thing they should do and about how we can create meaning rather than have find a “right” answer.

So what do you think? Is career work too negative? Could re-examining this aspect open up new avenues of practice?

9 thoughts on “Is Career Work too Negative?

  1. This is a very interesting perspective! I have to say, though, although I certainly wince inwardly when students mention particular careers, it’s normally to do with the fact that they are the ones I know least about! To a certain extent, realism is necessary, especially as most students will need ‘a job’ in order to pay bills, even if that is just for a while , while they develop into what they want to be/work towards ‘the job’. So I think it is important to not say that realism is bad – but to say that it can aid in the achievement of the ideal.

  2. Interesting post Tom. I would like to think that if and when students do engage with careers services their experience is generally positive and that their aspirations are supported and encouraged rather than being undermined, and that they are given the practical advice they need in order to work towards making those aspirations a reality (discuss!). There is probably a tendency to narrow down options and in some cases toward a matching approach. This isn’t necessarily to imply that there is only one right decision, but merely responding to the fact that on a practical level students do need to make some kind of decision at some stage in terms of where and how to start (or continue) their career journey. Nonetheless you’re also right that different and more creative approaches may meet some students’ needs better.

    However I think the ‘visiting the dentist’ analogy is a good one in terms of students’ perception of the service and the probable reason that many don’t engage in the first place – it feels like a chore, they think they’re going to be ‘told off’ for not having done an internship / got a LinkedIn profile / made a decision / whatever, and it’s a kind of “I suppose I should go and see them” attitude rather than “Brilliant – they can really help me move forward”. I think a lot of it is to do with how the service is marketed and promoted and what kind of impression students are given about what might happen in a guidance interview or other one to one intervention. Maybe the focus is about getting people inspired about what ‘careers’ could be all about in those initial contacts we have with students in induction talks and the like as I think that is where sometimes the ‘doom-mongering’ type messages can come across. If people come away from those contacts feeling energised and inspired rather than daunted and worried, then hopefully they are more likely to engage with us, (and to do some more from optimism than fear) – it’s then up to practitioners to justify that approach by making the guidance experience positive and inspirational as well.

  3. Tom, this has inspired so many thoughts I don’t know where to start! There are certainly instances where I feel clients need to be more realistic, particularly regarding the demand/supply aspect of particular career areas or the availability of particular jobs within certain geographical locations. However, as I think you’re implying here, simply telling them to be more realistic isn’t necessarily the way forward, and the theories and models you allude to provide strategies for opening up broader possibilities.

    I agree with Ghislaine to some extent, but the tensions between ‘practical considerations’, e.g.I need a job/a certain salary/more security’ and other things we feel we want in a career don’t necessarily resolve themselves as we move towards our ‘ideal’, but are part of the ongoing framework in which careers develop and decisions are made.

    One of the problems with the matching model I see as someone who works with clients already in work is, in some ways conversely to what you are saying, it doesn’t take enough account of organisational structures and external factors and the impact these can have on career development, e.g. I can use a matching model to work out that I value connection and choose a career that I think will give me that, but then I get moved to a separate location from the rest of my team. Narrative and developmental models can, as you point out, play some role in helping people make sense of their current situation and relate it to possible future realities. I also find the Psychological Contract Model helpful for visualising the disconnect between employee expectations and organisational needs:

    • Hi Anne. Thanks for your thoughts as ever. I liked your point about how realism and ideals don’t always resolve themselves and thanks for the link to the Psychological Contract info, very interesting.

  4. I enjoyed your article Tom, as I often feel the same way. At times I feel a sense of futility and wonder how, in the face of some seriously scary economic trends, my students can ever achieve what they have been their told their whole life they need to achieve in life to be considered successful. Or, like you, I notice myself hectoring students about setting themselves apart and getting a step ahead.

    Self is central to how I cope with it. I do what I can to remind students that career is part of self, encouraging them to take on a bit of life design in addition to career planning. Chris Jones’s comment about our initial contacts also resonates with me, as I’ve recently found myself arguing that we (the career development team) should avoid using the word “career” in our initial offerings, and instead focus on students’ sense of self: their purpose, their values, their influences and the systems in which they operate. In fact, at times when I get a wind up, or a few beers down, I start to wonder if “career” is itself a flawed paradigm and that what we do needs to be reframed. But reframed as what, is the big question.

    • Hi Michael, thanks for commenting. I like how you talk about career and the need to keep attaching it to some of those important constructs you discuss. I feel partly the issue is de-coupling career as being entirely focused around work as that opens up a broader set of meaningful ideas attached to it (as you discuss).

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