Choosing a Vocation



LP Hartley wrote that “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” and reading Frank Parson’s seminal Choosing a Vocation I was repeatedly struck by just how foreign the past was. For those of you who aren’t aware of it Choosing a Vocation by Frank Parson’s is frequently cited as one of the foundation stones of careers guidance. Published in 1909 is describes a set of activities that can be used by the new profession of vocational counsellor in order to help people “win the best success of which one is capable”. The aims of the book are lofty, arguing that vocational counselling can have an enormous social impact by helping people to find the things that they are best suited for. Round pegs into round holes and so on. If we don’t do this then the social cost is enormous leading to “inefficiency… employment expense, waste of training, and low grade service.” In other words, careers matters enough to set up a profession of people to ensure that others pay attention to it. Parsons had already started this work in Boston by the time the book was written and the book shows others how it can be done.

Reading it you can see huge areas of connections with current careers practice. The activities of the vocational bureau sketched out by Parsons are remarkably similar to the current activities of many careers services. Broadly he argues that in order to give good advice one must know the person and understand the labour market. Then you will be able to fit one into the other. However, he also goes further and talks about the role of reflection, experimentation and self-discovery in the movement of an individual towards a career (I’m translating a little here from Parsons language, but I think that you would find these concepts are key to his method). He discusses the use of psychometrics (“tests of association time, memory-time, will-time”), encourages careers practioners to build up “a comprehensive view of the field of opportunity” i.e. to become familiar with the needs of the labour market, going beyond this to say that “data in regard to pay, conditions of labor, chances of advancement” etc should also be collected. He also talks about the value of transferable skills and reflective ability talking about how his bureau pay particular attention to “develop analytic power…one of the corner-stones of mastery and achievement”. He even talks about the role of work related learning, work placements and work experience, encouraging his clients to read about a variety of roles, talk to existing workers and “try his hand” at different jobs.

So far, so uncontensious and of course, one must not forget, so innovative and so groundbreaking. When Parson’s says that his most fundamental question is of “uniting, so far as may be possible the abilities and enthusiasms of the developed man with the daily work he has to do” he sure encapsulates a key aspiration that we all feel. If through our actions we can make people happier, more fulfilled and more socially useful, we can surely sleep easy at night. However, there are also plenty of things that make you start with the strangeness of 1909. First and foremost is Parson’s twin enthusiasms for eugenics and phrenology. Ancestry is enormously important to his interview methodology. For example the following questions:
6. Nationality of father and mother

8. Business or occupation of father, brothers, uncles and other near relatives.

14. Ancestry – grandfathers, great-grandfathers, etc, nationality and residence

These overt questions are then supplemented by close examination of a variety of physical features that are presumably meant to throw light on suitability for various occupations. For example:
Figure, slim, medium, thick-set, fat, plump, angular, straight, or crooked, bent, round-shouldered, hollow chested, bow-legged, or otherwise defective

Face, color, outline, features, symmetry, expression

Similarly the shape of the head is very important in forming an opinion of a client, with phrases like “head well shaped on the whole, but curves not full above the temple” and “Head large, splendidly shaped” abounding in the case notes that are included with the book. Some of the scientific material in the books conclusion also make surprising reading for the modern reader. The point of setting out this detail is not to rubbish Parsons but rather to show something of the character of this writing. He was clearly eager to put vocational guidance onto a scientific footing and borrowed liberally from the scientific ideas of the time. He also tries to push these forwards, developing a range of psychometric questions that are interesting and at times similar to modern psychometrics. At others they are absurdly leading e.g. “Do you smile naturally and easily and feel the smile in your heart, or is your face ordinarily expressionless?” and at all times they are unvalidated. Nonetheless we must remember that this is frontier stuff and appreciate it for the way it moved the debate on.

Another area that we would perhaps balk at Parsons’ conception of the careers project would be in his imagined role for the guidance counsellor. His interviews are far more judgemental and directive in style than we are used to. For example
 You have devoted your life so far too much to books and too little to doing useful work.

Your hand was moist and unpleasant when you shook hands.

The vocational counsellor is a gatekeeper as much as an advisor. Stopping some ambitions in their tracks and suggesting more realistic or appropriate alternatives. Generally the advice seems to ere to being conservative, frequently encouraging people to stick with what they know and to utilise the opportunities that they have. I’d guess that most of us would balk at this vision of guidance, preferring something that is empowering and enabling rather than limiting and confining. We also might balk at Parsons’ willingness to exceed his boundaries and give guidance on a wide variety of matters such as how to be a good cartoonist/lawyer/sign writer, whether you should smoke or not, what exercises to take and how to manage your digestion. However, again if we remember the historical context these seemingly wild moves are a little less bizarre. Counselling, nutrition and professional development were all just as much frontier worlds as vocational guidance and the boundaries between them were less clearly establ
ished. Nonetheless, reading Parsons’ is a sobering reminder that we should be careful to only offer guidance on things that we have some basic knowledge of. 

A more challenging area is the connection that Parsons’ draws between career development and civic development. While he might not have described it this way himself, Parsons was engaged in a political project to change American society. Vocational guidance was to be a constraint on the market, providing a planned input to the way the labour market developed. A logical extension of this is to encourage those that you are guiding to engage with public life and to learn from this engagement. Parsons’ doesn’t really talk about changing the political status quo, just about managing it better and more humanely and about engaging those that it impacts on in its management.

For me this unwillingness to challenge what he describes as an extremely flawed system is a major limitation of Parsons’ work. In particular his apparent disinterest in class and social position makes it difficult to take some of the discussions seriously. It is difficult not to feel that many of the judgements about suitability that are made in the book are in fact based on class prejudice about who would be suitable for certain occupations. For me at least there is a need for careers practioners to recognise the systemic issues as well as the personal ones in formulating our methodology and analysis of the world. Parsons’ world view is both historically and politically divorced from mine and therefore his careers methodology is necessarily going to have only limited usefulness for me. On the other hand I find the connection between what we now call careers and citizenship an appealing one. If we are going to talk about careers within meaningful social, political and economic contexts with the users of our services, as well as with each other, then this connection is probably a useful one. Parsons knew this in 1909 and it is this fusion of careers and political and social activism that still makes reading him powerful.

Has anyone else read or reread Choosing a Vocation recently? I’d be interested in your thoughts.



  1. Thanks for another interesting post.I agree with a number of points you make, but in other ways, I have a different take on some of the points you make in relation to Parson???s ???Choosing a Vocation???.Your reference to the ???strangeness of 1909 in relation career guidance including questions around: the nationality of father and mother, the business or occupation of father, brothers, uncles and other near relatives, and the ancestry – grandfathers, great-grandfathers, nationality and residence does not seem so strange to me. I am not saying that these factors, e.g. the nationality of a client???s parents should dictate the client???s career thinking and decisions, but that they often can or do influence the thinking. In the West, no, these questions are unlikely to be asked directly, though, even when we speak with clients about networking, which may include questions around ???Who do you know???? ???Can your family and friends help???? there are some implications (which yes, of course is very different to saying that a person can or cannot only do something because of their parents??? occupations). In some countries, especially Eastern countries and within some non-Western cultures, these types of questions are very acceptable, even in this day amongst communities and some employers (I don???t know enough about the career guidance systems [yet] in the countries to comment). We also know that there are studies that show relationships between class, gender, occupation, career decision making??? Initiatives such as ???widening participation???, ???positive action??? and ???equal opportunities??? are based on the acceptance of inequalities, some of which are around parental education and occupation type and their offspring???s aspirations and attainments.The points about the examination of physical features and suitability for occupations are also interesting. Whilst people, and career guidance practitioners in particular don???t ask about and presume a person???s appearance determines their career thinking, there are studies that show relationships between physical features, such as attractiveness, and occupations and salary (again, of course, the validity of these studies could be questioned). In addition, there is research showing correlations between disability, gender, race and ethnicity and educational and occupational attainment and progress. When career guidance practitioners are helping clients prepare for interviews, they may well refer to the importance of body language, ???genuine??? interest, smiling, giving a firm handshake (as apposed to a ???moist and unpleasant??? handshake), which is not a million miles from ??????"Do you smile naturally and easily and feel the smile in your heart????"Yes, Parson???s interviews were more judgemental and directive in style than we are used to and goes against the principles of today???s career guidance , but I see a lot of what he refers to as being very much alive and active in today???s world. Even where you cite him as referring to inform the client that they ???have devoted your life so far too much to books and too little to doing useful work???, what is so different to when we now emphasise to clients the paramount importance of extra-curricular activities, work experience???? The way we say this is different, but underneath has that much really changed?Your presentation of Parsons’ world view and careers methodology is both historically and politically very related to my view of today???s careers methodology, and in fact provides a useful lens for me, so thank you for it.

  2. I’m not really disagreeing that family and culture have a major impact on careers. However I think that this is a very generous reading of what Parson’s is saying. Yes he does make some point about utilising your family network to help in establishing yourself, but he seems equally interested in genetic, or rather eugenic, factors and how these are likely to impact on your personality. Again this is not to say that our genetics doesn’t have an impact on what we are good and bad at, but rather that the way that it does impact is likely to be so complex that a series of questions about what your uncle did for a living are unlikely to throw much light on this. I think that the point that you make about often Parson’s simply expressing himself in different language is a good one. I think that it is important that when we are reading historical documents that we try and see through semantic shifts to get at the essence of what someone is actually saying. I thought that I tried to do that in my original post. My feeling would be that Parson’s work has been enormously influential in setting up the structures and processes of what form contemporary career guidance. He describes these in different ways to us, but much of what he discusses remains recognisable. As you say we might not criticise someone for too much bookishness, but we might encourage them to devote more time to extra-curricular activity. The tone is different (I think in an important way) but the substance is similar. On further reflection I suppose my argument on Parson’s might boil down to something like. Parson’s is recognised for being influential in terms of establishing the structures and processes that underpin contemporary guidance. There are clearly some areas where modern readers would disagree with the attitudes and assumptions of an Edwardian from Boston. However, what I feel has been given less attention is Parson’s political and social mission. The way he concieved vocational guidance as a vital social and political intervention that had the power to transform society and the way he drew strong links between career education and what we might now call citizenship. This reforming zeal seems to me to be an exciting thing to remember Parson’s for and to try and pick up in our contemporary practice.

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