Identification and integration of career theory: students' perspectives on the process.

Author:Lindo, Natalya A.

In many counseling programs, while students are learning about career theory, they may be tasked in a separate course with identifying a theoretical approach to counseling. This may result in a dichotomous situation in which students lack an understanding of the relationship between career theory and counseling theory. Career counselors have long recognized the artificial distinction between career counseling and general counseling. However, counselor education programs generally lag, and there is a dearth of literature regarding the process of identifying and integrating career theory and counseling theory. This phenomenological study examined 6 students' perceptions of the process of career theory identification and integration. Analysis of in-depth interviews yielded 5 major themes: theory identification and integration, perceptions of career counseling, resources, personal dimensions, and application across the life span. Findings of this study have the potential to inform counselor education pedagogy regarding career theory identification and its application to the counseling context.

Keywords', career theory, theory integration, counseling theory, career counseling, counselor education


Mental health counseling is grounded in vocational guidance, yet a false distinction still exists between career and so-called personal or mental health counseling (Niles & Harris-Bowlsbey, 2017; Subich, 1993). Researchers have found few differences in presenting concerns between clients who report career-related issues and those who do not, indicating that career difficulties do not function in isolation (Pace & Quinn, 2000). In fact, career counseling clients' responses to assessments often indicate fundamental mental health concerns (Walker & Peterson, 2012). Mental health issues may serve as the impetus for career challenges or heighten existing career-related issues. Underlying mental health problems may hinder the career counseling process if clients are unable to engage in the cognitive processing and decision-making usually involved in career counseling (Walker & Peterson, 2012). Despite this potential interconnection, perceived divisions between career and general counseling persist (Lara, Kline, & Paulson, 2011) and have the potential to affect career counselors' training experiences, including their process of identifying a preferred career theory and applying it to the counseling context.

A False Divide in Counselor Education

A fundamental split within counselor education mirrors the false divide between career counseling and mental health or personal counseling (Chen, 2013; Pace & Quinn, 2000). Counselor training programs typically treat career counseling and general counseling separately and split the curriculum along artificial lines. In fact, despite its significance as a core counseling competency, career counseling has received less attention than other counseling specialties and may often not be considered a crucial area in counseling (Brown, 2016; Corey, 2013). In addition, researchers have found low interest and overall negative perceptions of career counseling among counseling professionals (Lara et al., 2011), and career counseling courses are typically taught by new assistant professors or adjunct faculty (Savickas, 2013). Given a relatively limited focus on career counseling, along with the distinction between career and general counseling training, it is not surprising that there is also a lack of research regarding the integration of career-related theory and counseling theory generally.

Career Theory Identification

Career theory provides a context for understanding the career development of individuals (Chen, 2013). This includes the intersection of interests, skills, values, personality, and cultural variables, as well as potential barriers and strategies for navigating career transitions (Zunker, 2006). In counseling programs accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), career counseling is a core course that may be taken by students relatively early in their program of study. In such cases, while students are learning about career theory, in a separate course, they are often tasked with identifying and developing a theoretical approach to counseling. This can result in a dichotomous situation in which students may not have a clear understanding of the relationship between career theory and counseling theory, or the degree to which counseling theory informs career theory identification (Sharf, 2013).

Most CACREP-accredited master's degree counseling programs have only one dedicated career counseling course (CACREP, 2015). Counseling programs with only one career course may carry inherent curriculum-specific limitations that force instructors to choose a basic or introductory approach to career counselor education, specifically regarding career theory identification. This may involve a survey course model with cursory exposure to multiple career theories and limited attention to integrating counseling theory.

In a survey course model of career counselor education, instructors typically attempt to include a wide range of career-related subjects. In this approach, students are exposed to a variety of key topics, such as culturally competent career counseling, career development programs, career assessments, and ethical issues in career counseling (Brown, 2016; Gysbers, Heppner, & Johnston, 2014; Niles & Harris-Bowlsbey, 2017). In this model, discussion of career theory may be limited to only one or two class periods. Therefore, the instructor determines what career theories are most relevant (Osborn & Dames, 2013). Students are not necessarily exposed to all career theories or given the opportunity to adequately explore the identification of a preferred career theory. A survey course model has its benefits and, with appropriate textbook selection, can be well suited for CACREP counseling programs that need to meet minimal accreditation standards and lack the resources for career-related specialty courses.

Although exposure to multiple career theories can be beneficial from a knowledge acquisition perspective, such an approach may result in a focus on breadth, rather than depth. In this case, students gain basic knowledge about multiple career theories but are unable to gain advanced knowledge and application experience under the direction or supervision of the course instructor. Instructors of counseling theories courses may have similar challenges. However, because of the tiered approach to clinical skill development inherent in CACREP-accredited counseling programs (CACREP, 2015), students have an opportunity to continue the process of counseling theory identification throughout their program sequence. If there is only one dedicated career counseling course, the same attention may not be given to the development of career theory (Osborn & Dames, 2013), even though many clients present with career-related issues (Chen, 2013; Hansen, 2001).

Given the possible limitations related to only one dedicated career counseling course, survey approaches to career counselor education may give minimal attention to the discussion of counseling theory and its potential intersection with career theory. As mentioned previously, this may be a function of course sequencing if, for example, the career counseling course is early in a student's program of study. The identification of a counseling theory is a complex process that hinges on knowledge acquisition over time coupled with timely application at appropriate developmental stages (Fall, Holden, & Marquis, 2017). Therefore, students early in their program--and likely also early in their identification of a counseling theory--may not be developmentally ready to understand the complexities involved in career theory integration. However, they may be able to engage in meaningful discussions regarding the identification of career theories that potentially align with counseling theories.

Although it is possible to provide a quality learning experience using a survey approach to career theory identification, counselor educators could benefit from using innovative methods in their teaching, particularly when limited to only one career counseling course. A nontraditional method reflects intentionality regarding theory identification and integration. This may include revising course content and format to give more in-depth attention to career theory and providing both in-class and field opportunities to practice from various theoretical perspectives. Throughout the semester, counselor educators can have ongoing discussions with students regarding their process of identifying career theory and engage in open dialogue about the inherent challenges in concurrent identification of a counseling theory.

Purpose of the Study

In the present study, we aimed to examine career counseling students' perceptions of the process of career theory identification and integration with counseling theory. We developed the study in the context of a revised career counseling curriculum with an emphasis on students' identification of their preferred career theory. This study addressed the following research questions: (a) What are career counseling students' perceptions of the process of identifying career theory in conjunction with a counseling theory? and (b) What are the specific challenges that career counseling students experience in identifying and integrating a career theory?


Research Design

Leedy and Ormrod (2010) noted that when there is limited information on a topic or when variables are unknown, qualitative methodology can help determine the parameters of a specific phenomenon. Therefore, we used a phenomenological approach to data collection and analysis to gain an in-depth understanding of career counseling students' perceptions of the...

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