There are lots of different ways to describe the one-to-one conversations we have with our students or clients. In the UK, ‘careers advice’ and ‘career guidance’ are common terms, but ‘career coaching’ and (perhaps more so in the US) ‘career counselling’ are also used. Each of these suggest a slightly different approach to helping people with their careers, through advising, guiding, coaching or counselling.
In Understanding Careers: The Metaphors of Working Lives Kerr Inkson explores how metaphors can give us a greater understanding of the concept of career. Inkson explores how careers can be understood through metaphors such as relationships, journeys, cycles and action. The various metaphors help demonstrate that the concept of ‘career’ can be made sense of in many different ways.
While the majority of the book is focused on using metaphors to understand the careers of our clients, the book ends with a chapter from Mary McMahon on metaphors that can help explore the role of the careers professional. The metaphors presented in this chapter really got me thinking not only about my own role but also how it might be perceived by the students I work with. I thought it would be interesting to present the metaphors McMahon covers in her chapter, and the extent to which I recognise them in the work I do and the careers profession as a whole.
1. Careers professionals as doctors
In simple terms, doctors identify ‘what’s wrong’ with their patients in order to help them. A patient might book an appointment with their doctor, who will then ask him/her questions to find out about their symptoms and their experience of them. A doctor’s role is to diagnose the problem in order to identify a possible treatment, or to refer the patient to a specialist.
I recognise that our clients often have a ‘problem’ that they want to talk to us about. This could take the form of not knowing where to find job or internship opportunities, wanting advice on how to approach an employer or guidance on what to do after graduation. It’s important to recognise however that the doctor metaphor carries connotations of there being something ‘wrong’ with our clients. In terms of my own work, it could be unhelpful if one of my students was hesitant to come and see me because they felt in some way abnormal or unhealthy in relation to their career. On the other hand, I have met students who made it clear they saw themselves as needing fixing, so it’s possible they saw me as some kind of careers ‘doctor’.
2. Careers professionals as experts
The second metaphor Mary McMahon introduces in relation to careers work is that of the expert. Experts can be distinguished from non-experts by virtue of their exclusive knowledge of a particular subject or skill. You might consult an expert to learn more about a particular subject; to get the expert’s advice in order to make a decision. The relationship between an expert and the person seeking his/her expertise is an imbalanced one; the expert is in a position of power with something to ‘give’, whereas the individual requires the expert’s knowledge.
I do recognise that expertise plays a large part in my role, and that students would likely view me as being an expert on careers. Some students I see seek my knowledge of different industries, the graduate labour market and recruitment processes; they might expect me to be able to give them comprehensive and detailed answers for any questions they might have on any number of career paths. However, the label of ‘expert’ can be unhelpful as it doesn’t accurately reflect the breadth of what I do. It also implies the students I meet with are passive receivers of my expertise, and that it’s my role to simply transmit this to them. I certainly wouldn’t want my students to become wholly dependent on me to help them make their decisions. While I am sure some students wish this were the case, I see my careers expertise as being much more nuanced; facilitative rather than purely transmissive.
3. Careers professionals as psychologists
A psychologist evaluates and studies behaviour and mental processes and often specialises in a specific area such as education, health or sport. They may undertake assessments to investigate their client’s situation, by using psychometric tests, interviews and observing behaviour. In the book McMahon describes the role of psychologist as “testing and measuring a person’s potential and dysfunctions”.
I know some careers advisers might use psychometric tests as part of their work with clients, but I feel this is not that common. We would certainly probe and challenge our clients as a psychologist might do and my own appointments with students involve some measure of figuring out how they experience and see the world. Although I can often recognise where a student has been going wrong in their approach, I still struggle with the idea (similar to with the doctor metaphor) that I am there to treat them for some condition. However, I do think that careers appointments can be therapeutic on some level for the students I work with, so I can recognise an aspect of what a psychologist does in my own work. At the same time, any metaphor that puts the careers adviser in a position of ‘power’ over their client suggests an imbalance in the relationship that does not ring true for me.
4. Careers professionals as employment agents
An employment or recruitment agent acts as an intermediary between companies with positions to fill and individuals looking for work. Their role is to match the two together by meeting with candidates, building relationships with companies to better understand their needs, advertising vacancies and advising both parties to facilitate the best possible match.
I’ve certainly met students who expected I could connect them with employers, but the matching process doesn’t reflect what I do — not least because in my current role I spend much more time meeting with students (whether through one-to-one appointments or workshops) than I do employers. Although I do work with employers, building relationships that mean I can better serve my clients, I do not work for them. The primary concern of a recruitment agent is with employers as paying clients, whereas my ‘paying clients’ (via tuition fees) are students. I feel that the metaphor of employment agent is more reflective of HE careers advisers back in the days of the Milk round, when our role was often seen as that of a gatekeeper to connections in industry.
5. Careers professionals as listeners
Although not a profession in its own right, McMahon suggests a careers professional can be understood through the metaphor of the ‘listener’, providing ‘an audience for stories and a sounding board for frustrations.’
We all know how important listening skills are in our roles. Although some of our clients want to be told what to do, many just want to be heard. A large part of what we do is to listen, not passively however but actively; listening to the content of what’s being said, how it’s being said, possible meanings behind this and the feelings expressed. We do this to build rapport but more crucially, to be able to move the conversation on in an informed manner. Although most of the students I work with need me to do more than just listen, I feel that ‘listener’ describes what I do far better than employment agent or doctor.
6. Careers professionals as coaches
Coaches support their clients by taking a future-focused, goal-oriented approach when working with their clients. They work with specific types of people, or in distinct areas or industries such as executive coaches, sports coaches or life coaches. Coaches aren’t all identical though – sports coaches for example might have more riding on the ‘success’ of those they are coaching. This means they might become very frustrated or even angry when their client fails or doesn’t quite perform to the standard they expect.
Beyond the obvious fact that I don’t get angry with the students I work with, one other key difference is the proximity and frequency of contact time. Most coaches spend sustained or regular periods of time with their clients, whereas I would see most of my students one or two times at most. Some careers professionals (especially career coaches!) would follow a template that more closely resembles that of a sports or executive coach. While my current position certainly has elements of coaching, I do not think of myself as a coach.
7. Careers professionals as architects
An architect plans, designs and reviews the construction of buildings, working closely with their clients to ensure their designs match requirements, are safe and functional.
In his book Choosing a Vocation (1909) Frank Parsons uses the metaphor of ‘building’ a career. He describes career counsellors as ‘architects’ in the process, developing the plan that leads to the house or building: “The building of a career is quite as difficult a problem as the building of a house, yet few ever sit down with pencil to paper, with expert information, to plan a working career and deal with life problems scientifically, as they would deal with the problem of building a house, taking advice of an architect to help them.”
In this metaphor, the careers counsellor is regarded as an expert who is there to guide the individual. It’s interesting to see how this complements Parson’s Trait and Factor Theory, in which he highlights the crucial role of personal counsel in the career search. I actually quite like this metaphor for the work I do, but there is the obvious caveat that once buildings are completed, they primarily stay the same; people’s lives are subject to ongoing change and development.
Final thoughts: metaphors as framing devices
The breadth of metaphors McMahon introduces in Inkson’s book helps us to understand the role of the career adviser more deeply and shows just how differently our clients may view us and our roles. Reading the chapter has really made me reflect on what our clients might want from us, and their understanding(s) of our role. Clients might want ideas, advice, information or even answers; they may want to feel listened to; they might just want us to confirm they’re going on the right track.
As McMahon points out, different careers practice may reflect one metaphor more than others, or might combine them. While I can recognise elements of each metaphor in the work I do, the key thing I’ve taken from exploring these metaphors is how they might influence client expectations. For example, if I see my role as being akin to a psychologist then a client who turns up expecting a recruitment agent is in for a surprise, and will probably go away disappointed. Contracting is a common area for all of us to let slip from time to time, but I’m reminded just how important it is for careers work.