career counseling – two models & infinite possibilities

My counseling degree program is largely bound by CACREP standards, which means that I had to take a Career Counseling class last winter, which means that poor Billy had to hear, for the entire fall semester leading up to it, about how much I would hate this stupid class and how unexcited I was for it and how I don’t even want to do career counseling anyway, why are they making me take this, life is so unfair HOW CAN THEY DO THIS TO ME. (That is maybe a little bit of an exaggeration, but the fact remains.)

So, obviously, in Entry #4,912,403 of the Time To Eat Crow series that my life has been, I loved that class. I loved learning about the different ways that theorists conceptualize career development, from the very random (Krumboltz) to the verging-on-predetermined (Holland), and I was especially thrilled to learn about the theories which took into account environmental factors – for instance, the impact that gender and other social identities have on career decision-making (Gottfredson). Is it coming through? I loved this class. It falls into the category of “things I’ve experienced that I wasn’t expecting to like but which pretty thoroughly changed everything”, which I think is always a good list to review. And one of the biggest things I took from it was the overlap between personal counseling and career counseling, and the way that a person’s self-perception influences their career choices.

Since finishing that class a year ago, I’ve had to take the MBTI for one class, as well as take the StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment as part of my job. These back-to-back assessments captured a slowly-but-surely developing theme in my life; that is, the balance between a way of being that is emotionally-oriented (I am the very picture of an INFJ) and a set of job skills and interests that are decidedly intellectually-oriented (my 5 top skills are: Futuristic, Ideation, Intellection, Learner, and Strategic). I am not sure I would have had an effective way to conceptualize and discuss this dichotomy in myself without the insight that juxtaposing these assessments provided me. This chance occurrence (what up Krumboltz!) got me thinking a little more about the ways I’d like to approach career counseling in my own life as a student affairs professional.

What I like about both of these systems is that it’s not a “test and tell” approach to career counseling; you’re not administering a test and receiving results that tell someone they’d be perfect, for example, as an engineer. It’s not that I think “test and tell” is necessarily a bad approach, or even that I think it’s the counselor’s fault for not making it clear that these are suggestions, not prescriptions. It’s more that, as I reflect on my own experience as a middle-to-high-schooler attempting to figure out my own path, I realize that I was looking wildly in any direction for someone to just tell me what to be already. There is no counselor on earth who could have explained the results from my Strong Interest Inventory in a way that didn’t instantly say to me, “okay, that’s what your college major is going to be,” because that’s what I was looking for the assessment to do.

All of this is to say that I believe a key advantage to these systems (MBTI and StrengthsFinder) are that they each require a lot of de-briefing and a lot of self-analysis on the part of the client – there is no “bottom line”. It’s taken me almost a year to fully assimilate the results of both of these assessments – but a year later, here I am getting ready to start a career that I’m truly in love with. High-school me would have been forced to grapple with these results, and figure out what it was that I wanted to do; neither one of these assessments was going to do it for me. Both assessments give you a place to start, and a framework within which to begin imagining your career life as “successful” – that is, productive and happy.

There are some drawbacks, though. MBTI in particular can be too abstract. I mentioned that I’ve been taking the last year to fully assimilate it – most clients don’t have a year, and I doubt its ability to be effective on its own after one session at a career center. StrengthsFinder, while much more concrete, is also expensive and requires you to buy a hard-copy of a book and use that hard copy’s included code to fill out a form online – not exactly an optimal setup to be used day after day with new clients. I can’t imagine that being part of a sustainable career center model, particularly at a smaller institution, but maybe I’m wrong.

These are certainly disadvantages that need to be weighed alongside such other factors as the size of the group that you’re working with and the intent of the assessments. I think that in working with medium sized (10-15), long-term groups, such as yearlong groups of student leaders, these assessments would be a very valuable addition to an experience that clarifies goals and values. My department, for example, provided the StrengthsFinder assessment as part of the professional development for our undergraduate students, and returned to it periodically throughout the year. I think this is an example of an effective model.

I also think that the model becomes particularly useful when you use the models together. This is because MBTI, built primarily as a way to conceptualize a person’s personality, has a fundamentally different assessment approach than the StrengthsFinder, which, as I understand it, exists solely to help describe your strengths in the workplace. A two-pronged approach, combining both assessments, is what it took for me to start being able to describe this difference between my emotional “way of being” and my intellectual “way of working”, which in turn was the impetus to my being able to properly visualize career goals that worked for me. Both assessments are valuable, but I think from a student development perspective, using them in tandem is more likely to generate the sort of long-term, life-changing thinking that leads to solidifying values and creating action-oriented career plans than using one or the other on its own.

© 2020 Caroline Horste

I am neither a professional nor an expert, and nothing here should be taken as counsel or legal advice. Along the same vein, nothing here should be taken as representing the views of anybody but myself, including my employers or the organizations I volunteer for. -CH