Appraising vocational fitness

The most recent stop for my wanderings through the back pages of career development theory, research and practice has been Donald Super’s gargantuan Appraising Vocational Fitness: By Means of Psychological Tests. I would like to say that it has been a laugh a minute, but unfortunately this 727 page reference guide to the process of designing, implementing and interpreting psychological tests is a pretty challenging read. This is not to say that it is without value, but rather to note that reading 60 year old technical manuals is probably something for the most dedicated of careers nerds. Thankfully, ich bin ein nerd. So here we go…

Super’s book actually makes a pretty straightforward argument. It is possible, he demonstrates, to use psychological testing and the testing of skills, competencies and potential abilities to identify who would be fit for a particular vocation. This has a twofold advantage, firstly it serves society by supporting the placing of human resources in appropriate roles/sectors. Secondly, it enables people to gain a more accurate understanding of their own abilities and potential and use this ability to guide them in their vocational choice. Beyond this simple proposition Super basically guides the reader through the technical literature that they will need to engage with testing from either an HR or IAG perspective. As Super puts it “Vocational counselling has two fundamental purposes: to help people to make good vocational adjustments and to facilitate the smooth functioning of the social economy through the effective use of manpower.”

So if you want to know the difference between the Blackstone Typing test, the Minnesota Rate of Manipulation test, the Tweezer Dexterity test, the McAdory Art test, the Seashore Measures of Musical Talents and the Bernreuter Personality Inventory then this is the book for you. Super’s grasp of the variety of tests and understanding of how they can be used to sort a bewildering array of sheep from goats is fantastically impressive. The fact that the book is 60 years old and many of the tests have undoubtedly had their validity challenged (we have, for example, 13 separate mentions of the Rorschach Psychodiagnostic Inkblots) clearly makes it less useful for the contemporary practioner. Furthermore the backdrop to Super’s book is a stable labour market based on full-employment, continuous service and a perceived good match between employers needs and the skills of the workforce. Clearly some of this has changed and even if we accept the validity of the method it is likely to need to be reimagined for the contemporary world.

However, I actually found I had a pretty strong reaction to this book that went beyond the fact that after 60 years it is a little out of date. In amongst the technical specifications about validating tests Super is weaving a utopian vision. It is a utopian vision that unsettles me, but it is a utopia none the less. Round pegs will be slotted into round holes, effectively, efficiently and scientifically. “Perhaps some day” he wistfully imagines, “the dream of a comprehensive battery of tests and of test weights for all the major occupational fields will be realised.” Eventually the testing agenda can become the visible hand that guides the labour market, ensuring that there is a place for everyone and everyone is in their place. For example in his statement that “it is generally assumed that the placement of a student at the proper educational level, one on which he can compete with his peers without undue strain and on which he will be challenged by the need to exert himself in order to master the subject matter, results in better adjustment and greater satisfaction on his part.” Strays rather close to social engineering for my liking with people’s place in the world determined by their performance in psychometric testing.

Super’s book strikes me as very much part of the mid-twentieth century movement for technocratic government. Normally this debate is characterised in terms of state vs. market. On one hand we have the airmen of Shape of Things to Come bringing about a managed world of progress and modernity. On the other this hand this statism and modernity is seen as an inevitable progress towards tyrrany, for example in Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome. You can situate this debate as Keynes vs Hayek or as social democratic post-war consensus vs. Thatcherite individualism. However, Super’s book demonstrates an ideological perspective that doesn’t fit into any of these state/individual, left/right binary oppositions. The state doesn’t figure in his thinking at all (although presumably someone is employing vocational councellors). Rather the triumph of the science and rationality of testing guides the labour market ensuring efficiency, social harmony and individual satisfaction.

Of course, it is worth reflecting that social harmony, individual satisfaction and economic efficiency are not bad things. I think that I would hope that careers work is having a positive impact on all these things. However, while reading Super I kept being reminded of the film Gattaca. As ever, for me, science fiction explains the world better than almost anything else. In the world imagined in Gattaca everyone is slotted into a place based on their genetic profile. The summary of the films message that appears on the promotional poster read “there is no gene for the human spirit” and this perhaps offers me a pointer as to why I found Super uncomfortable reading. My humanism would lead me to believe that people are complex, creative and co-operative and that they will keep changing and always surprise you. Reductive testing regimes are likely to miss the vast potential of humans pigeon-holing them in ways that are ultimately self-defeating for all involved.

I don’t want this to sound like idealistic hippy nonsense. Obviously I recognise that employers have got to develop mechanisms for selection. As Super rightly points out the conventional ones (interviews, CVs etc) are unvalidated and often misleading. A well validated psychometric is likely to be fairer and for at least some people, some of the time, help to select them for more appropriate roles. My concern comes when you try to elevate this to an ideology and a social mission, particularly when it does not critically engage with existing social structures. Super’s book suggests that appropriateness for vocation can be judged by examining personal qualities but ignores the wider social environment within which this judging and matching takes place. Are you more likely to become a manual worker because of your high score in the Minnesota Rate of Manipulation test or because your father was also a manual worker and so was his father? To present a technical solution that ignores these social inequalities runs the risk of simply entrenching and strengthening existing social structures.

So where does this leave careers workers? Super’s descriptions of how to utilise tests during counselling interventions are actually pretty sensitive and sensible. His belief in the creative tension between client centred approaches and the utilisation of more objective testing is worth a read. For me the challenge is to use tests as tools for reflection and self-discovery without allowing them to become deterministic and constraining. There are as many ways to pursue a career and use your skills as there are to skin a cat. Tests should open this up rather than close this down. Finally I think that there is a role for careers workers in providing their clients with the tools to critically analyse the processes of selection. Understanding the processes used by employers, examining the scientific, ideological and pragmatic factors that underlie the use of different tests is the kind of information that might empower our clients to both succeed and to maintain a healthy critical distance from the processes that they are going through.

So who fancies writing “Deconstructing vocational testing”?

It’s the way you tell ’em

I spent yesterday at the NatureJobs Source event in London. I chaired a series of discussions in the morning (CVs, choosing the right job and considering the advantages of mobility) before working my arse off on the Vitae stand all afternoon. The event was a real success with hundreds of PhDs and postdocs streaming through asking for everything from directions to the nearest recruiter through to deep and meaningful discussions about their values and place in the world. The whole thing left me rather flustered and thinking that I’m pretty glad that I don’t work in promotions full-time. I can honestly say I’ve never started so many conversations with “Well, Vitae is a national organisation, funded by the Research Councils….”, but the patter was getting pretty slick by the end of the day.


Probably the most interesting thing I saw all day was a presentation by Vanessa Diaz who is a lecturer in bioinformatics at UCL. Vanessa was talking about the advantages and disadvantages of mobility. She’s worked in a variety of disciplines, sectors, institutions and countries during her career and provided an interesting reflection on the personal and professional issues that this raises. She discussed these issues through her own personal case study, essentially presenting the audience with a career narrative. However, she used a very effective trope to make an interesting point.

Vanessa first told her story in the way that she might explain it to a prospective employer. A narrative of smooth progression punctuated by big achievements. On paper she is a very successful scientist who has followed a pretty standard career progression (PhD, postdoc, fellowship, lectureship, building up her group etc). However she then went back to the start and told the story again, this time with the personal bits, the seeming dead-ends and the rationale behind some of her decision making. In this version her career no longer looked like a smooth and inevitable progress towards a single point. All of the decisions seemed less the result of a plan and more about the collision of random events with personal circumstances. New characters appeared that don’t make the official version most notably her husband whose own life and career has obviously had a major impact on her.


The whole thing was a brilliant illustration of the idea of career as narrative(s). I don’t know how involved/aware/interested Vanessa is in career theory but she seemed to be illustrating some of the current thinking through her talk. The idea that we make our career retrospectively for a range of audiences and that the career is essentially a narrative that we impose on often random or unplanned events was really well brought out. It reminded me of some of the discussions that we used to have when I worked for the East Midlands Oral History Archive. More conventional historians would sometimes challenge oral history saying that it was subjective, didn’t necessarily relate to real events and told you more about the person now than about the historical event that they were recalling. We’d respond, “but, that’s the point!”, of course it is all subjective, of course it tells you more about the dialogue between past and present rather than just relating the “facts”, but actually this is a more interesting thing to investigate. How is the past remembered, retold and most interestingly recast for different audiences?


One thing that intrigues me is that the retelling of the past through oral history interviewing is an exceptional thing that happens to people very rarely, usually only once or twice in their life. On the other hand the framing of your career through narrative is something that you do all of the time in job interviews, at parties when people ask you “what do you do?” and whenever you have to throw together a biography for some professional event or funding application. We pull up the events of our past, dust them off and rework them into new shapes. How aware we are that this is what we are doing might just account for some of our ability to do it well or otherwise and might just have an impact on how our careers end up turning out.


So maybe we should be training people to tell stories, lots of different stories all based on the same few facts. Maybe this would be a better focus of career events than the usual recruitment stuff about CVs and interviews.


Can anyone point me to any books/papers about narrative theory in careers?

Fixed term contracts and the limitations of careers work

A researcher walks into the careers service and says “I want a new job”.

The careers adviser sits her down, listens, probes and gradually the story comes out. She doesn’t know what to do, her PI says that she should be an academic, but she doesn’t seem to get interviews for the lecturing jobs that she applies for. He’s supportive and seems to believe in her ability, but never there and certainly hasn’t got round to doing an appraisal with her for ages. She’s just got a notice saying that her contract is coming to the end and she’s not sure that the next funding bid is going to come through in time. She doesn’t want to throw away her training, but she also doesn’t want to get stuck…. and what about having a family?

So, what is the response to this? I guess that we can sit, talk through her options, think about what she’s good at, help her to reach a realistic estimation of her chance at an academic career, show her what else she might be qualified for and so on. This would be good careers work, but is it all there is? Could we/should we take a step back and help her to upskill herself by running courses in assertiveness, basic employment rights and applying for research funding? Much of the Roberts funding has been spent on this kind of career and skills education. Although most Roberts training hasn’t been informed by career theory or lead by professional careers workers, it has undoubtedly found places to intervene around people’s careers.

Nonetheless, moving into a more skills training approach is a relatively small step for careers workers. It changes focus and tweaks the delivery method, but it is a step that it is probably possible for many to make within the current conception of appropriate professional boundaries. However, even then,  would this be enough? This woman is trapped in the middle of a systemic career failure. The culture in which she is operating is infecting her with viral career values that push vertical advancement over all other possibilities. What is more her current crisis is brought on by an approach to employment conditions that may be contestable, if not in a tribunal, then certainly in a campaign. Her career is both formed and constrained by the society and system she inhabits. Is it right for careers workers to contest these more fundamental issues or are we there to oil the wheels?

If we support this woman to rethink her place in the labour market and aid her to make a transition we’ve got a good chance that her life is improved as a result. But, is there also a danger that we let her manager off the hook and allow a poorly performing institutional approach to researchers’ employment to go unchecked? This is a tall order, but is it also important to think through. When is it better to wave a placard than to offer guidance? When should we (try to) intervene in system rather than support people to adapt to it? What is appropriate to do as a careers worker and what requires us to act instead as a citizen?

I certainly don’t have any answers to these questions, other than a belief that as Burke might have said ‘all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’ (for an interesting diversion have a look at Martin Porter’s essay on this quote). In other words, we should try and be good citizens where we can, and engage with our democracy in a multitude of ways. Where we can do this through our professional practice, great, where we can’t, we need to pursue it through other means. If we think that people’s chance of having a fruitful career is being squeezed out by poor policy choices then it is surely worth us trying to change these if we care about career.

I’ve been thinking about this while I’ve been working on Vitae’s Researchers, Fixed-term Contracts and Universities: Understanding Law in Context project. One of the things that has been coming out very strongly is that there are a wide range of possible responses to changes in the regulation of fixed-term contracts. Each university is coming up with different approaches to making changes to researchers (and other FTC staff groups) employment conditions. The exact institutional implementation is likely to have an impact on the careers of the researchers working in that institution. Yet, careers specialists are not generally part of the working groups that are drawing up these institutional approaches. Yet, they will be dealing with the personal fallout of what the institutions put in place. So maybe it is time to get involved in some prevention as well as administering the cure? Maybe time spent in committees looking at FTC regulations is a legitimate part of careers work? Or maybe it is just part of being a good citizen? I’m not sure, what do you think? I’d also be interested in hearing about how this tension between oiling the wheels and intervening in structures plays out in other areas of career work. 


I’ve recently applied to become a trustee at Apex.  Apex is a Leicester-based training and guidance organisation which works with offenders and those disadvantaged by exclusion from the labour market. If they accept me as a trustee I hope that I’ll be able to offer something useful and to make some useful suggestions in terms of their skills training and career development provision.


I’m particularly interested in getting involved with Apex because it would enable me to look at a lot of the issues that I’ve worked on from the other end of the educational and social spectrum. All of my career has been involved in education and training at the high skill end (graduates) and recently I’ve specialised still further in the very high skill (postgraduates and researchers). This has been very enjoyable and interesting, but there are some who would criticise this focus arguing that I’ve been working to improve the lot of those who need least help. Obviously I don’t agree with this on a number of grounds. Firstly, working to realise the potential of graduates and postgraduates seems particularly necessary in an economy where graduate unemployment is increasing. Secondly I don’t accept the simple equation that argues you’ve either got to spend on career development for one group or another. There is a good case for arguing that career development should be seen as a social and economic good and offered on a lifelong basis to all. Finally, I believe that researchers, in particular, have a key role in the creation of intellectual capital that means that investment in them can pay much wider social and economic dividends.


Nonetheless, I recognise that there are equally valid arguments that can be put for increased resourcing of skills training and career development with the poor and socially excluded. As I said I think that we should resist the idea of playing off one against the other, but it is clear that investment at the bottom of the educational scale has the potential to contribute to the creation of a more equal, democratic and less divided society. I believe this in principle, but I have very little experience in practice of how these programmes can work, and what their impact is. In higher education I feel I have an almost instinctive sense of what is likely to work/be useful/prove controversial etc. but outside of this environment I can only really guess or basis my opinions on second hand accounts.


So getting involved with Apex would be a really good opportunity for me. I hope that they feel the same about me.

The students are coming! The students are coming!


I walked out of my house last night to buy a pint of milk. To my surprise, London Road, which has been pretty sleepy all summer, was buzzing, filled to the brim with excited undergraduates clad in this years uniform of check shirts and dresses. It has been a number of years since I’ve taught undergraduates and so this always takes me a bit by surprise. Like most university staff I used to greet the return of the undergraduates with grumpy resignation. As they arrived on mass I’d have to give up the coffee shop to the confused hoards and beat a retreat once more to the strange mix of airport lounge and old people’s home that served as the Senior Common Room. However, this year, as I’m not working in a university I can treat the return of the undergraduates as a largely philosophical issue rather than an obstacle to me filling my daily caffeine fix.


So from my current vantage point I find the start of the new term rather exciting. Students, for all of their faults, bring a vibrancy to the town where I live. Walking by last night it was difficult not to be caught up in their enthusiasm and to be a little envious of the opportunity that they are now experiencing. Despite all of the concerns about slipping standards, inequalities in provision and rising student debt it is pretty clear that to be an undergraduate is for the most part a pretty brilliant opportunity. Sometimes in our discussions of employability we forget this, focusing on the negative rather than celebrating the positive. So let’s remember that an undergraduate degree (even a bad one) offers three years of opportunities to learn, space for personal reflection, challenges to meet new people and form relationships and access to mentors, advisers and tutors who you can bounce ideas off about the direction of the rest of your life.


Of course the conventional [three year, full-time, live away from your parents] model of HE is under threat from all sorts of directions. Some of these are good, the opportunity to combine HE with work, caring responsibilities or to remain close to family is essential for some and desirable for others. Others are not so good, with the rising personal cost of education possibly bouncing some students into patterns of living and studying that might not be their ideal choice. So it is important that we don’t priviledge a model of higher education that is only open to the rich, the young and the mobile. Nonetheless, it is also worth recognising the powerful model that the undergraduate degree offers to help young people make transitions, explore their aspirations and values and develop skills and knowledge.


Surely that is worth a few weeks of over-crowded coffee shops?


I’m going to use this post to warm myself up to a session that I’m doing at the Cambridge GRADschool later on today. I’ve been asked to come along and run an activity which will encourage people to think about the value of professional networking and to give them a bit of a chance to practice their networking skills.

I suppose I should start by saying that I haven’t always been convinced about the value of networking. As a radicalised student I would have spit blood at the idea of getting ahead on the basis of who you know rather than what you know. I was fiercely meritocratic and committed to the clash of idea upon idea. Personal feelings, I believed, had no place in the academic conference or seminar room, only the sword of truth and the shield of theoretical clarity should trouble these encounters. Because of this I presume I came across as a rather strange and aggressive presence in many of the events that I attended.

For the most part academic meetings are an opportunity to get together, share some experiences, moan about respective VCs and have a nose around and see what everyone else is up to. My attempt to re-enact the Putney debates at any given opportunity was essentially about me misunderstanding the form that I was being asked to work in. The academic world is a professional community. Of course ideas are important, but people who do not respect the community are unlikely to do well. Communities need sociability, shared aims and mechanism for interaction. They can handle some iconoclasts, but they need more people who can play the role of binding the community together, recruiting new people to it and policing community behaviour.

Because I failed to understand that the academic community was first and foremost a network of colleagues and friends who needed to find ways to get on, I found the experience of academic networking a difficult one. I wanted to argue about Baudrillard while others wanted to talk about football and discuss house prices. Whats more I was

unfamiliar to peopleso no one knew me

  • a PhD studentso no one needed to talk to me because I wasn’t particularly important
  • and rather shy and unfriendlyso I was difficult to talk to.  

    So I stopped going to conferences, sank into intellectual isolation and ultimately decided that it was not the world for me.

    Around about this time I also had the opportunity to go to a Labour Students weekend school. I was chair of the local branch and somehow I got invited to what turned out to be a hothouse for the next generation of Labour MPs. I’d like to say I became firm friends with various people who are now in the cabinet, but again my resistance to networking made me gag at what I was seeing. Here were a group of people trying to advance their careers. SHOCK! They would rather talk to important people than to people they’d never even heard of (like me). HORROR! Like the academics they’d rather talk about the football than about the relative merits of the single transferable vote vs. the top-up list system for the election of bi-cameral legislatures. GASP!

    So what does this say about me other than that I have nerd tendencies and I don’t like football? My ability to network was undoubtedly pretty low, but my belief in the value of networking was much lower. But, then I had my road to Damascus moment, when I read Robert Putnam’s, Bowling Alone. He argued that where there are strong bonds between people, individuals, communities and even nations flourish. He introduced me to the idea of social capital, demonstrating that our capacity to achieve things is as dependent on the networks of mutual aid and support as it is on wealth and resources. He convinced me that reciprocity was a highly progressive value and one which oils the wheels of personal and social success. What was even better, he had the stats to back all of this up. e.g.

    Joining and participating in one group cuts in half your odds of dying next year

  • One-half of Americans got their current job through a friend or relative.
  • Each employed person in your social network increases your annual income by $1400

    Putnam’s book is full of lots of mind-blowing counter-intuitive stuff like this that made me want to be part of rebuilding social capital. So I threw myself back into networking. I made friends with people, I talked to people, I tried to work out what they were about and to engage with them. I started from the position of what could I do to help them, rather than from the position of who could help me. I wanted to be offering reciprocity rather simply brown-nosing the rich and powerful. This kind of approach is sometimes called “netweaving” to try to differentiate it from more goal orientated approaches. Make yourself useful and people will generally repay the favour. Don’t enter every encounter trying to extract some value from it.

    It worked for me, I got a job with Vitae where I get to network all the time and I’ve been having a fine old time of it. I’ve now had lots of practice at going into a room where no one knows me and coming out with a handful of contacts who I might work with again. It has paid off for me personally and I hope it has offered some value to the organisation.

    My approach to networking is pretty simple and essentially involves three stages.

    Connect – The most difficult bit is going up to someone you don’t know. It essentially requires a chat up line to get you into conversation. If “do you come here often” is too corny then conversations about the weather, problems on the M25 or the quality of conference food/accommodation. If you want to get a bit more elevated using a previous session to open a conversation usually works “I wasn’t sure what she was getting at, were you?”.

  • Engage – Talk to people, ask them questions, don’t just monologue about you. Search for areas of shared interest and explore them. Don’t push too hard for outcomes, but be prepared to talk about opportunities if they arise.
  • Sustain –  Email the person once you go home. “It was nice to meet you”, “I was thinking about putting together a panel on XXX, would you be interested”. Try and find ways to keep the relationship going and look for joint projects to do. You are much more likely to build your network through shared experience than a single meeting.
    So there are a few thoughts on networking. Tonight we’ll be talking about this stuff a bit, but mainly we’ll be doing some actual networking. It might be create a future research alliance that will save the world, might just be a bit of fun…we’ll just have to see.
  • Goldacre/Drayson debate

    Just finished watching the Goldacre/Drayson debate online. Like most people I guess I went into it as a big Goldacre fan, and pretty much he came out of it best. However, Drayson came out rather better than expected. To be honest I’m still not sure exactly why Drayson feels that it is his job to defend the media. I don’t know why Goldacre wasn’t debating the editor of the Daily Mail or Five News or some similar

    You can watch it yourself on the Times Higher website.

    What was really exciting to me is the way that this event shows the enhancement of democracy through Web 2.0. A critic of the status quo was able to directly engage the establishment in debate. He was able to contact him directly, build a network of support and engage partners to host and broadcast the debate all very quickly. We were then able to watch online and ask questions via Twitter. This kind of approach has the potential to subject the smoke filled rooms to the light of day. For me, this is pretty fantastic and would have been unimaginable five years ago. I feel unusually optimistic about democracy tonight.

    Can the career development world learn anything from it? Any plans to broadcast the NICEC debate? Public debate on the future of Roberts?