Delivering a career theory workshop for staff

career theory workshop staff


I recently worked with a group of fellow careers advisers at the University of Birmingham to plan and deliver a workshop on career theory. The session was aimed at raising awareness of theories of career choice for colleagues in both guidance and non-guidance roles. Having never planned a session on this topic before I thought I’d share what we decided to include.

Why bother with career theory?

Aware that some colleagues would be completely new to theories of career choice, we started by explaining what a career theory is. We then posed the question ‘Why bother with career theory?’; this resulted in a discussion about how theories allow us to be client-centred and to understand the varied influences on an individual’s choices and how they make decisions.

If you’d like to find out more about the importance of career theory, read ‘Expanding your vistas – get into career theory’ from David Winter’s excellent blog Careers – In theory.

Elements of a theory

Instead of launching straight into our individual presentations on specific theories, we encouraged the group to consider each theory in terms of one of three elements it places most emphasis on.

  • Agent – the person ‘doing’ something
  • Environment – where the ‘doing’ is being done
  • Action – what is being ‘done’

This elemental approach to understanding theory was first introduced to me when studying on the QCG course (and are taken from Rethinking Careers Education and Guidance: Theory, Policy and Practice).

Career timeline exercise

We originally planned to use the career timeline exercise below (also taken from my time on the QCG course) to allow the group to reflect on their own career development. Although we didn’t end up including it in our session, I think it would be a great activity to encourage self-reflection.

  • Draw a pair of axis: the vertical axis will indicate how you felt at a particular point in your career, and the horizontal axis will be the time at which you felt like it
  • Choose a point to start (people often choose the point at which they left school at 16 or 18)
  • Then, draw a line on the chart to show the way in which your career has progressed – its ‘ups and downs’
  • Next, choose a point on the timeline that you would like to explore in more detail (it could be a high point, or low one, or a period of transition)
  • Note down what that point was, what you did (or did not do) and why, any influences or wider forces on the situation, how you made the ‘decision’ and how you would evaluate it

Your group could even return to their timeline after each of the career theories had been presented, in order to reflect on which theories could account for or explain their experiences.

Presenting the theories

When choosing theories to present, we knew we wanted to pick some that were well-known, and one or two which the group might not have come across before. With around 10 minutes for each theory we decided against including activities for each one. Some of my colleagues used their own career journey to introduce their theory which the group found engaging. In the end we decided to present the following seven theories* which I’ve briefly summarised below.

*In hindsight covering seven theories was perhaps a bit overwhelming for the group. If I were to run a similar session I would only cover three to five theories. 

Vocational Theory of Career Choice – John Holland (1985)

This theory suggests individuals and work environments can be analysed and then classed according to a typology called RIASEC (realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising or conventional). It is the fit or congruency between an individual’s personality type and occupational environment which determines satisfaction. 

Community Interaction Theory – Bill Law (1981)

Law’s theory focuses more on the effects that interaction between the individual and their community has on career choice and development. Law identified five modes in which influence can occur between an individual and their communities (families, peers, colleagues): expectations, feedback, support, modelling and information. 

Opportunity Structure – Ken Roberts (1977; 1997)

According to Roberts the notion of choice is misleading; it is social structure which dictates the opportunities available to individuals. He suggests all ‘choices’ are made within the confines of socially-defined environments. Roberts’ theory also explains how socialisation affects both educational and career aspirations.

Careership – Hodkinson et. al (1996)

This theory suggest that individuals have specific ‘horizons for action’ which are determined by the ‘field’ or environment in which they operate and their ‘habitus’, a personal perspective of what they think is possible within that field. Career interventions can be based upon whether a person’s horizons for action are too broad or too narrow.

Life-Stage/Rainbow Theory – Super (1980)

Super’s theory emphasises the developmental aspects of a person’s life and how these relate to and influence their decisions. At the centre of this theory is the notion of an individual’s ‘self-concept’ which stresses that as they change over time so do their skills, values and preferences for work. Super identifies five stages in life: growth (birth-14 years), exploration (15-24), establishment (24-44), maintenance (44-64) and decline (65+).

Career Construction Theory – Savickas (2001)

Heavily influenced by Super, this theory posits that individuals construct their own career by “imposing meaning on their vocational behavior and occupational experiences” (Savickas, 2005). There are three components: vocational personality (an individual’s career-related abilities, needs, values, and interests) career adaptability (which is influenced by Super’s developmental stages), and life themes (patterns that are present in the stories told by individuals).

Systems Theory Framework – Patton and McMahon (1999)

This theory takes into account individual and societal factors and combines them in to a single framework. There are three core systems: an individual system (including an individual’s gender, race, values, skills, interests) a social system (includes elements which influence the individual) and an environmental-societal system (includes elements such as location and the labour market).

Brushing up on career theory
If you want to brush up on your career theory I’d recommend reading another post by David Winter, Career theory starter kit and a series of posts written by Tom Staunton, Theories every careers adviser should know.

Video activity

After presenting the theories we played a video to the group which my colleague found on the icould website. The video features someone called Yasmin talking about her role as Curator Team Leader at the Science Museum in London. We asked the group to identify which theories linked to Yasmin’s career narrative:

This worked well and the group successfully identified a number of the theories we had covered. We considered using a written case study or video of a student but the video of Yasmin worked well as she had several years of experience to draw upon.

If you were looking for case studies I’d recommend Career Theory and Practice: Learning Through Case StudiesFor fun case studies read this post by David Winter which draws from a book currently on my reading list – Understanding Careers.

Career theory questionnaire

When considering how to engage our colleagues with the topic of career theory, one of my colleagues remembered a career theory questionnaire which she had completed during an AGCAS guidance course. The questionnaire is designed to identify theories one tends to subscribe to, allowing reflection over why this might be. We sent this to our colleagues beforehand and asked them to share their results with others in the room at the end of our session. This allowed the group to see how their own preferences and views matched different theories and what this might mean for their practice.

Questions for discussion

At the end of the session we presented our colleagues with questions to discuss in small groups:

  • Do you see any link between specific groups of students in your subject areas and any of the theories?
  • How could we use theories to inform our activities or approaches?
  • What theories are reflected in our service? Why have we adopted these?
  • What value might more focus on or integration of theories offer?
  • Do we need to change our workshops to help students recognise the variety of influences which impact on their career development?

Final thoughts

I enjoyed planning and delivering the session, but it was a reminder to me that career theories are complex and there are so many ways to ‘teach’ them.

Have you ever delivered a session to students or staff on career theories? How did you bring career theory to life?

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