ESRC Researcher Development Initiative

I’ve just come back from a meeting of past and present holders of Researcher Development Initiative (RDI) projects organised by the ESRC. If you haven’t come across it yet the RDI is a great initiative from the ESRC that aims to stimulate the professional development of researchers by providing training and master classes in aspects of researchers practice (primarily advanced methodologies). I was involved in the TRI-ORM project which looked at training researchers in the use of online research methods.


The meeting was a good attempt to transfer good practice from one generation of award holders to the next and ESRC have stated an intention to support the next phase of the RDI with more meetings of this kind. The idea would be that RDI as a programme has the potential to be more than the sum of its parts. I’d applaud this and hope that ESRC will be able to continue to fund the RDI stream of activity. It seems like they are getting a lot for their money. It also seems important to me that in the context of the early career initiatives that have been associated with the Roberts agenda that funding councils do something to develop the skills of those of us who have moved beyond our ‘early careers’.

More on career theory

I’m just about to head off and dive into the iCeGS symposium. I’m kicking things off with 10 minutes or so on theory and I’m going to hand out the following text. Thought I’d share it with the blog for further debate and disagreement.

Theory Questions (10 questions in 10 minutes)

I thought that I would try and set out 10 questions that would help to orientate the way we see the theory that underpins the study of careers and the giving of careers advice.

These questions are a starting point for thinking rather than an attempt to be definitive.

Career theory

How can the concept of career be understood? What is it important to take into account when considering how individuals pursue their careers through the labour market and society?

1.       What about change? How important are social and economic changes in your thinking about career? Do theorists and careers professionals have a role as agents of change?

2.      Do you believe in free will? How far do you think an individual’s career is an outcome of the social and economic structures that they find themselves in and how far is it an outcome of their own agency?

3.      What is a career? How is the concept of career constructed? Does it relate to a series of definable stages or is it something more fluid that is repeatedly constructed through narrative?

4.      What is your discipline? What discipline does the study of career most belong to?

5.      What role do formal interventions have? Where do formal interventions such as IAG fit into a wider career theory?

Guidance theory

What underpins the interventions that professionals make in people’s careers?

1.       Why are you doing it? Why is career guidance useful? As a practitioner are you engaged in a process of support and smoothing for clients (amelioration) or in a process of changing their consciousness and the structures within which they operate (reform/revolution)?

2.       Who are you serving? As a guidance professional are you most focused on the opportunities that are available (employers), the social function you are being asked to play (usually mediated through government policy) or the aspirations of your client (independence).

3.       What are you? What professional grouping should guidance be considered to be a part of? Are guidance professionals educationalists, counselors, youth/social workers or involved in labour market management? Is there enough common ground for it to be considered as one profession?

4.      What are you doing? How do you see the guidance intervention? Is it about teaching lifelong career management skills or about providing a critical intervention. Are you teaching people about career or supporting their career decision making at key points in their life?

5.      How do you do it? How should guidance be delivered? Does the one-to-one conventional IAG interview have a special place in your practice? Are you equally happy delivering career via one-to-one, classroom/group sessions, online, through computer mediated guidance systems or via experiential learning e.g. work placements? Could you imagine guidance without the one-to-one interview?

Understanding career counselling


I’ve just finished reading Jennifer Kidd’s Understanding Career Counselling: Theory, Research and Practice. As part of my heads down cramming on everything career theory related it was pretty invaluable. It is an excellent book in setting out the wide range of theoretical positions that have informed career counselling. Very much a must read for all guidance professionals.



However, what struck me was the intellectual traditions that it drew on. While Kidd is careful to situate the discussion of career within a range of different literatures (psychology, sociology etc) what is clear is that the discussion of practice is very much constrained by the idea of the one to one counselling interview. Pedagogic theories that are highly influential hardly get a mention. There is certainly no extended discussion of what careers work might look like in a classroom setting.


When I talk about this guidance professionals are usually willing to concede that there are benefits to placing career learning in a group setting. However these are usually described in terms of efficiency and scalability with the one to one guidance session still being held up as the gold standard. The fact that Kidd doesn’t give any real space to work with groups shows that the classroom is still outside of the mainstream of careers work. I think that this is a mistake not simply because of issues of scalability but also because I think that learning is primarily a social process and one that is enhanced by undertaking it in a group.



I’m not trying to diminish the value of the conventional IAG one to one session. As this book shows it is a well-theorised intervention that is undoubtedly useful to a wide variety of people. What I do have some concerns about is the way that this delivery method has come to stand for careers work. It is a tool just as a session in a classroom, a weeks work placement or a computer mediated matching system is a tool. The practitioner’s job is surely to assess the learners, the learning that you are trying to encourage to happen and then to design an approach that is likely to bring that about. One to one guidance is likely to be an important part of that but it should not be seen as the pinnacle of careers work.



So can anyone recommend a book that provides the theory and practice of social/group-based careers work?

Career Theory

On Thursday I’m going to have to say a few words to help get the juices flowing at the iCeGS symposium. This event will be a meeting of some of the biggest brains in the careers world and is designed to offer an opportunity for some blue sky thinking. I’ve been asked to kick off the section of the meeting that is going to focus on career theory. I thought I’d write some tentative thoughts you here on the blog in the hope that it will get torn apart in time for me to rewrite for Thursday morning.

The first thing I was going to do was to make a distinction between career theory and guidance theory. By career theory I mean those approaches that attempt to explain what career is and what processes influence it. By guidance theory I mean those theories that impact on how professional guidance people undertake their jobs. I’m only going to have about five minutes for each of these – so it can’t be comprehensive. I’m looking for just enough to get everyone thinking. I’ll deal with Career Theory in this post and then hopefully get on to dealing with guidance theory in the next one.

Firstly I should say that to talk about career theory is a bit of an illusion. There is no unified body of thinking that makes up the theoretical underpinning of the guidance profession. Careers is a magpie discipline that draws from a wide range of sources. Theorists are not necessarily all working in the same discipline or paradigm and are therefore frequently not in debate with each other. Rather the synthesis of these different theoretical ideas is often sought by practitioners who try to apply this stuff.

Anyway, I thought that it might be useful to identify five ideas/debates (one per minute) that I think that every career theory has got to resolve.

1.       The politics of change. One issue that career theories have got to engage with is their orientation to political and economic change. Do they see society as a fixed system within which people pursue their careers or do they see it as dynamic and changing? If society is seen as changing what factors bring about these changes and how to they interact with the processes of individual career progression. Finally what role does the theory perceive for the theory itself in bringing about change and influencing the direction of society? Consider for example the story of a man who sets up a carpentry business, becomes unemployed, joins the army, gets demobbed and then goes to work for a local authority progressing up through the ranks to end up managing the department. This is a conventional career narrative that might be analysed in a range of ways. However if we situated this narrative in mid twentieth century Britain the context is changed. If we discover that the man took part in forces education programmes, voted labour and become a trade unionist it is changed again. Career theories need to grapple with these historical processes in understanding individual career advancement.

2.       Structure/agency. Closely related to my first point is the issue of how theories perceive individual careers being pursued within social and economic structures? On one end we might have heavily structuralist theories which argue that individuals have little meaningful choice and that we are formed and guided by the circumstances around us. While at the other end of the spectrum we might have those theories that claim that (at least) in meritocratic liberal democracies you can be whatever you want to be. Most of us would probably place ourselves somewhere in between these two poles recognising that all have agency but some have a hell of a lot more choice than others.

3.       How is career constructed? An important question for career theory to answer is how much “career” can be said to actually exist. Is career a series of defined stages in someone’s life or is it merely an interpretation that can be applied to a series of events that may not even have happened yet? Is career a psycho-social process or is it just a story that we tell ourselves to give our life meaning. Is it OK to recognise that these career stories are likely to be told differently to different people and for different purposes? Is this a distortion of reality that the researcher/theorist seeks to see past or is career actually too slippery and personal to tie down in this way? How we see something like career is likely to inter-relate to wider ontological and epistemological traditions and a career theory will need to know how it deals with these relationships.

4.       Discipline. What discipline do career theories draw on? The study of career sits on the borders of a wide range of disciplines. Psychology, sociology, labour market studies, management, education, cultural/discourse analysis and economics all jostle for position. As I argued in (3) the epistemological tradition you pick will determine much about your theory, structuring what you focus on, what questions you ask and what answers you get.

5.       The role of formal interventions. Finally career theories have to have a place for guidance, but what is that place. Some theories are likely to offer guidance a privileged position, while others will see it as being almost entirely irrelevant. In the middle are a range of possibilities focusing on different kinds of formal interventions that can be made by a variety of professionals and institutions. Examining what role these are likely to have on individual’s sense of their career is key to tying up this theoretical discussion with the parallel discussion around practice.

So will these five issues get people talking career theory or are they too obvious too state? What have I missed? Any and all thoughts would be appreciated.

Learning to labour



I’ve just struggled my way through Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour. I say struggled because this is a pretty heavy theoretical read, but also because I oscillated between finding it fascinating and being deeply annoyed by it. I’ll try and explain why the book provoked this dual reaction in me, but first I’ll try and fill in the basics of Willis’ argument.


Learning to Labour is subtitled ‘How working class kids get working class jobs’ and it sets out to explain how people take their path from school to work. Willis argues that kids from working class backgrounds move willingly, even enthusiastically, into jobs at the bottom of the economy that offer little possibility for either job satisfaction or advancement. Willis would argue that this process of people moving into poorly paid and unsatisfying jobs is an essential condition of capitalism. However, he explores why the wage slaves march into this situation as happily as they do. Willis bases his ethnographic study on the transition from school to work of twelve lads at a Midlands school.


At the centre of Willis’ book are a small group of lads. The lads don’t like the formal curriculum at school, they misbehave, sit at the back of the class, cheek their teacher and indulge in petty crime when the opportunity arises. The lads represent what Willis calls a counter-school culture. This counter-school culture is a kind of resistance that enables them to make it through school without absorbing its ideological values. Instead it creates its own ideology based on machismo, fetishisation of manual work and a complete disregard for learning in the sense understood by the school. Willis goes on to argue that the counter-school culture fulfils the function of smoothing the transition of the lads into shop floor culture. Their ability to survive and resist the school culture then becomes their ability to resist and survive in capitalism. On one hand their attitudes limit them and reduce the (very limited) possibility of social mobility afforded by education, but on the other hand, buying into the counter-school culture is the beginning of a strategy that will enable them to survive in the drudgery of the shop floor.


One thing that we should remember when reading Willis is that the book was written in 1977. Just as Frank Parsons or Donald Super are products of their time, Willis’ structuralism and discussion of a homogonous blue collar labour market are also deeply linked to the historical circumstances in which he was writing. Nonetheless Willis’ work has more than historical interest. The counter-school culture he describes is very much still with us and many young people are still opting to move into bottom of the economy with minimal violence required from the state. Willis’ book grapples with these issues in a creative and highly articulate way. His ability to draw connections between the sub-culture of young people and the wider political economy is extremely thought provoking.


Regular readers of this blog may remember that I waxed lyrical about a book called The Milltown Boys Revisted. The Milltown Boys Revisited covers very similar ground to Learning to Labour, but for my money is a more convincing read. Willis’ Learning to Labour builds a much more elaborate theoretical construct on top of the data that is unearthed by the ethnography. Willis makes a lot of bold claims about the way in which the counter-school culture operates and also what its significance is that I couldn’t help but feel were not really supported by the data he had. It raises a lot of interesting questions but doesn’t really chase these questions down sufficiently. Willis also looks briefly at other groups of young people e.g. disaffected youths in middle class schools, engaged youths in working class schools, different ethnicities and girls. All of these throw open huge questions that I recognise can’t be dealt with in this book, but by avoiding them Willis makes it difficult to feel that his conclusions would hold up. For example, how do engaged boys in working class schools make the transition into work in comparison to the disaffected? Does it actually make any difference in terms of destination, job satisfaction, integration into the shop floor culture and advancement. Willis does discuss these things but I didn’t feel that he really had the data to back it up.


Perhaps the thing that I found most difficult was Willis’ discussion of resistance. His argument that the counter-school culture is a form of resistance against an alien ideology seems right to me. However, as Willis discusses it is also an enormously self-defeating one. The lads who subscribe to the counter-school culture are, for the most part, condemning themselves to a life at the bottom of the economy. They realise the unfairness of this and struggle with this idea themselves. However Willis doesn’t really give any space to consideration of alternative forms of resistance. He does discuss the attempt by the teachers to use “progressive” teaching techniques to come up with an educational paradigm that is less confrontational, but he doesn’t look at other modes or discourses of resistance that might exist amongst any of the students. This may be because they are not there in the classroom (which I doubt) but it is certain that there are alternatives within the shop floor culture. Willis explores how counter-school culture interacts with the hierarchical formation of the factory, but does not look at how it interacts with the alternative structures that undoubtedly (in 1977) existed through the trade union organisation.


Willis’ work is a welcome alternative to an extreme structuralism that sees people as merely being shepherded by the economic conditions around them. His subjects demonstrate creativity and agency in the pursuit of their own aims. Nonetheless their aims ultimately strengthen and reinforce existing structures.  However this study remains within the confines of education and work and fails to explore the wider identity that these young people are likely to build for themselves in a host of different spheres (work, leisure, political activity, sub-culture, music etc). I would also have liked it to look wider and to draw in other types of young people in order to give it a broad enough perspective to really answer the question as to why working class kids get working class jobs.


I went for a very interesting meeting with CASCAiD yesterday. They sell a variety of products which help to match people to occupations and careers. These are non-psychometric tests that focus on the kinds of things that you like and dislike.

e.g. Would you like a career that involves working with young people?

As you work your way through the programme the sense of what you are interested in is built up and suggestions for possible careers are made. If you are not happy with the suggestions you can refine and rework until you come out with a career you are interested in pursuing. At that point you get a whole load of labour market information which informs your decision further.

CASCAiD argue that users get a lot out of using the system on their own, but they are keen to point out that there is real value in it as a tool for IAG professionals. So no need to worry that you are about to get trapped in a Bruce Springsteen song about how you “got replaced by a machine”.

I was interested in talking to CASCAiD because their system is collecting a huge amount of data about people’s career choices that it would be great to find a way to analyse (potential funders please apply here).

However it also made me think more about the role of technology in careers guidance. In some ways careers guidance has an interestingly conflicted relationship with technology. On the one hand we have approaches that draw from counselling, stressing the holistic nature of the guidance experience. This approach places the human relationship at the heart of guidance and emphasises the value that a guidance professional brings in their ability to probe and understand the client at a deeper level than their stated preference about career choice. To explore and challenge, perhaps problematicising their decision.

On the other hand guidance has been ideologically committed to a discourse around science and rationality. The use of a battery of psychometric tests speaks to this, pushing the idea that the correct appliance of science can solve both personal and social problems. One of the issues with this has been that various scientific tests have often been shown to be both unreliable and filled with ideological values of their own.

CASCAiD’s tool is a much less of a definitive matching tool and much more of an aid to decision making. It helps reveal consequences and possibilities and for this reason seems much more in tune with the normal practice of IAG professionals who have generally had to practice somewhere between the soft and hard poles of the profession.

I’d be really interesting to hear about people’s experience of using technology in guidance and how you feel that this has impacted on the kind of approach that you have taken.

Employability training

I’ve just spent the afternoon running a session on assessment centres for a group of recent graduates at the University of Nottingham. We had them working through in-tray exercises, simulating a revolving door interview and holding group discussions. Good fun was had all round and the experience of the assessment centre was hopefully demystified somewhat.

This kind of employability training is a major plank of the HE careers service offering. However it is not without its critics. It can be seen as being overly focused on the technical skills needed to ‘beat’ the process of graduate recruitment. If we are not careful it leads us into a kind of arms race with graduate employers where they constantly need to invent new tests in order to differentiate the vast mass of graduates and we constantly arm graduates with the tools to do well in the tests, thus ending the differentiation and necessitating a new test. If this was all that we did it would clearly be a zero sum game.

Careers work must be engaged with recruitment to give it relevance to clients and to ensure that we are aware of what employers are looking for. However, it shouldn’t solely be about recruitment. Career planning/management is ultimately part of a liberal education tradition that stresses the self-fulfilment, personal development and of the possibility of living up to your potential. At the same time careers work also has a social mission and aims to contribute to social and economic progress. What it shouldn’t be about is getting locked into a bidding war with graduate recruiters.

A conventional response would be to teach the recruitment focused technical skills, but to place these skills in a wider context of discussing career planning and issues about how people want to spend their lives. The course that we’ve been running makes an explicit attempt to do just that. However after spending an afternoon delivering one of the most technical/recruitment focused sessions on the course I feel pretty happy that a significant amount of liberal education also took place. Students interrogated the assessment centre activities, questioning whether they were realistic simulations of workplaces, they introduced labour market data, research and theoretical ideas to discuss the fairness of recruitment and they were able to use the assessment frameworks to learn about both an important social process (recruitment) and their own abilities, aptitudes and skills.

Careers work shouldn’t be tightly tied to the vagaries of employers current requirements. However, even when it is it can often exceed the scope of the task at hand and offer much deeper learning.