Career Assessment and Counseling for STEM: A Critical Review.

Author:Rottinghaus, Patrick J.
Position::Major Review - Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

Career counselors must continually enhance their knowledge and skills to assist clients contemplating careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Therefore, the authors review STEM disciplines and theory-driven strategies for assisting diverse individuals to explore, enter, and persist in STEM careers. Appropriate use of career assessments can contribute greatly to this effort. To identify available measures for STEM-focused domains and constructs, the authors conducted a journal content analysis of stand-alone STEM-related career assessments from 1983 to 2016, identifying 39 articles with 153 measures. Notable results included the emergence of social cognitive theory and social cognitive career theory as prevailing frameworks for instrument development, a wide variety of disciplines and journals represented, an underrepresentation of minority samples, and untapped potential for cross-discipline and researcher-practitioner collaboration. Useful strategies and resources for counselors and recommendations for enhancing career assessments and interventions are addressed.

Keywords: STEM, science, mathematics, engineering, career assessment


Concerns about the need to increase participation in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce are ubiquitous and ongoing (United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], 2015; Zollman, 2012). Therefore, career development in STEM fields is a crucial concern of society, given that knowledge and skills in these disciplines will remain in demand for workers in the current technological economy (Shoffner & Dockery, 2015). A paucity of students entering STEM fields and concerns about persistence in these fields--particularly among women and members of underrepresented minority groups--further underscore the need to widen and deepen the STEM career development knowledge base among counselors, educators, and researchers. Therefore, we conducted a critical review of the STEM literature to provide perspective on the overall context of STEM career development. Our goal was to address ways of assisting clients in contemplating educational opportunities and negotiating the challenges of preparing for, entering, and persisting in STEM fields.

While providing counseling services to students who are pursuing STEM majors and beginning to explore related career paths, we are continually met by challenges associated with helping them navigate the complex processes involved in preparing for and entering STEM careers. Moreover, like many counselors, we acknowledge that it can be daunting to discuss technical fields with clients and that it can be a struggle to feel comfortable with STEM fields' content. Therefore, an overarching goal of our literature review is to enhance counselors' knowledge of STEM fields and their capacity for providing effective career counseling services to their clients who are entering STEM fields, and ultimately to increase the number of people choosing STEM careers.

Recent scholarship has emphasized the need for better connections between theory, research, and practice (Sampson, Bullock-Yowell, Dozier, Osborn, & Lenz, 2017). Although it can be challenging, linking insights drawn from a growing body of STEM research to practical implications for working with STEM clients is a critical endeavor for career counselors and requires more attention in the literature. To address this knowledge gap, we aim to highlight connections between theory, research, and practice (Sampson et al., 2014, 2017). In much of the extant literature on STEM careers, researchers have used Holland's (1997) theory and social cognitive career theory (SCCT; Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994) as frameworks for conducting studies. Despite ongoing efforts in research and scale development guided by these and other frameworks, only a limited number of STEM-related measures are readily available and commonly used for counseling purposes. Therefore, through a content analysis, we highlight the array of STEM-focused measures and constructs that have been examined in the literature. We aim to provide a guide to help counselors strengthen their understanding of STEM fields and increase their knowledge about specialized career assessments for STEM content, and to establish strategies to help them assist clients in contemplating STEM careers.

It is important to take stock of available measures that inform STEM career development research and career assessment practice in order to increase accessibility of the findings for counselors and researchers. Through our content review, we hope to offer career development professionals a resource for identifying appropriate measures for a variety of purposes, and inform researchers of knowledge gaps in assessments for STEM careers to further drive scale development efforts. In particular, we aim to support research and career counseling practices with more specialized groups, to include specific disciplines beyond STEM fields (e.g., engineering, biochemistry), and to identify future directions for researchers to investigate important concepts affecting career decisions of people from underrepresented groups. Given recent calls for integrating theory, research, and practice in vocational psychology (Sampson et al., 2017), our review focuses on translating the robust STEM career assessment research findings for use by counselors and other professionals.

To reach our aim, we first set the context for STEM career development, highlighting the historical background and the growing need to increase the STEM workforce. Next, we present STEM career assessments identified through a content analysis of journals. Although commercially available career assessments, such as the Strong Interest Inventory (Donnay, Morris, Schaubhut, & Thompson, 2005), are useful, they are limited in that they may be too lengthy, expensive, or time-consuming for some settings. Therefore, stand-alone measures focused on STEM content, including those that measure key constructs beyond interests, offer complementary tools that may provide more focused information for targeted practice and research purposes. We use the content analysis to draw implications for STEM-related career assessment and then identify strategies and resources for STEM career assessment and counseling. We conclude the review with directions for future research and career counseling practices to promote STEM career development.

An Overview of STEM Fields

In 2001, Judith Ramaley, who was then the assistant director of the Education and Human Resources Directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF), coined the acronym STEM to stand for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Zollman, 2012). Since then, common taxonomies and domains have emerged to organize STEM fields, especially those that are relevant to occupational and educational choices. We believe that increased understanding and awareness of various STEM domains will enable counselors to better serve clients contemplating careers in these areas. We discuss definitions of STEM fields, the various disciplines considered to fall within STEM fields, the increasing demand for a STEM workforce, and the importance of adaptability and contextual factors as related to STEM careers.

Defining STEM Fields

Although STEM fields traditionally contain four primary subject areas, many researchers, counselors, and educators who discuss STEM issues refer to only one of these disciplines in their work (Daugherty, 2013). Some sources, like the Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement, define STEM broadly, incorporating fields such as psychology and communications. In contrast, other sources, such as the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (Carnevale, Smith, & Melton, 2011), strictly limit the definition to traditional hard sciences and related fields. Still others have suggested expanding STEM to STEAM, incorporating the arts and other creative work, and to STEMM, to include medicine.

Rising Technology and the Demand for STEM Workers

The need to increase the workforce in STEM fields has gained significant attention among researchers and policy makers in the 21st century. However, the movement for the advancement of STEM careers can be traced to the formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the NSF in 1958. The founding of these organizations and the passage of the National Defense Education Act of 1958 were driven by concerns for the United States to keep pace with the former Soviet Union following the launch of Sputnik in 1957. The National Defense Education Act expanded the role of the counseling and guidance profession in supporting students to enter mathematics and other technological fields required for defense (Jolly, 2009). More recently, thriving technological advances in contemporary society have increased the need to train workers for jobs in STEM fields that require specialized knowledge and skills. Across decades of scientific and technological innovations, awareness of the importance of STEM fields has increased, resulting in policies that support STEM research and education, and propelling STEM into one of the largest nationwide movements in education (Daugherty, 2013).

The occupational landscape of STEM fields is complex and continually evolving. Advances in scientific research and subsequent applications to business and industry will result in new occupations and new demands for specific STEM-related skill sets. Zollman (2012) aptly stated, "We now are in the STEM generation" (p. 12) as science and technology exert pervasive influence in all sectors of the economy. Even areas such as agriculture, which traditionally did not require advanced technology, have become more technical. The manufacturing industry increasingly demands specialized skills and training, and a large number of manufacturing jobs are unfilled because of...

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