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Analysis of an online career narrative intervention: "what's my story?".

Many of the theories that guide career counseling practice developed at a time when career paths were relatively stable and workers could expect to stay within one career or even with one employer throughout their working lives (Gothard, 1999; Herr, 2001; Savickas, 1993). Vocational assessments emerging from this reality emphasized descriptive characteristics of both workplaces and individuals that could be matched for optimal person-to-position fit (Brott, 2004; Cohen, Duberley, & Mallon, 2004; Herr, 2001; Savickas, 1992, 1993). These assessments proved reliable and helpful in assisting clients.

Technology, globalization, and the free market economy have created a workplace that changes constantly, with specialized skills becoming obsolete seemingly overnight, mergers and acquisitions causing career instability, and employees feeling like free agents rather than lifelong assets (Amundson, 2005; Ballard & Ballard, 2002; Bright & Pryor, 2005; Chen, 2005; Cohen et al., 2004; Imel, 2001; Perrig-Chiello & Perren, 2005). At the same time, the expanding diversity of the workforce has made it difficult to capture a "norm" for individuals or for careers (Amundson, 2005; Clark, Severy, & Sawyer, 2004; Hershenson, 2005; Semmler & Williams, 2000; Stead, 2004).

Although many counselors continue to use traditional assessments, the use and interpretation of these measures has expanded to incorporate discussions of meaning, purpose, and creativity (Amundson, 2005; Bloch, 2004; Blustein, Schultheiss, & Flum, 2004; Brott, 2005; Inkson, 2004; Mignot, 2004; Savickas, 1997; Winslade, 2005). Rather than working with clients to make one decision based on fit, counselors are empowering clients to constantly assess themselves and working situations for long-term career transition management (Amundson, 2005; Bloch, 2004; Brott, 2005; Chen, 2003; Savickas, 1997; Winslade, 2005).

Constructivist career theories have emerged from this new concept of career counseling. Briefly, constructivist career development assumes that individuals organize themselves and the world around them into categories based on their own experiences and reflection on those experiences (Blustein et al., 2004; Brott, 2004, 2005; Bujold, 2004; Collin & Young, 1992; Hermans, 1992; Hoskins, 1995; Peavy, 1995; Savickas, 1993, 1995; Young & Collin, 2004; Young & Valach, 2000). The concept of career is such a construct and, therefore, varies for each individual based on experience and the understanding and personal framing of that experience. The process of career counseling includes the construction of a new concept of career, specific to the individual, created through action and discourse (Brott, 2005; Cochran, 1997; Hermans, 1992; Savickas, 1993; Young & Collin, 2004; Young & Valach, 2000).

Narrative career counseling is a type of constructivist model emphasizing language, discourse, and theme development (Amundson, 2005; Bloch, 2004; Brott, 2004, 2005; Christensen & Johnston, 2003; Cochran, 1997; Collin & Young, 1992; Ochberg, 1994; Savickas, 1993; Young & Valach, 2000). As such, career development involves the writing and revising of a coherent personal and professional narrative through exploration, experience, and reflection. By creating personal career narratives, clients are empowered to make career transitions in accordance with the overarching, long-term career constructs (Brott, 2004, 2005; Cochran, 1997; Hermans, 1992; Kush & Cochran, 1993; Ochberg, 1994; Savickas, 1993; Young & Valach, 2000).

The Narrative Career Counseling Model (Cochran, 1997; Collin & Young, 1992; Emmett & Harkins, 1997) has several advantages. First, it uses the clients' own language and does not rely on norm reference, reflecting diversity of human experience (Clark et al., 2004; Hershenson, 2005; Semmler & Williams, 2000; Stead, 2004). Rather than reducing clients to a particular set of traits, the narrative process invites clients to expand their experience, explore options, and create opportunities that fit into their changing constructs of careers. Second, it encourages long-term strategic transition management rather than one-time decision making that can create a cyclical pattern of quick choice followed by crisis (Cohen et al., 2004; Hermans, 1992; Perrig-Chiello & Perren, 2005; Platman, 2004; Savickas, 1997). Finally, it allows both the counselor and the client to be creative in the constantly changing world rather than relying on stability of either the person or the environment (Amundson, 2005; Ballard & Ballard, 2002; Chen, 2005; Kidd, 1998; Mignot, 2004; Rehfuss, 2003; Savickas, 1993; Winslade, 2005).

There are a number of narrative interventions emerging for use in career counseling. Lifelines; journaling; early childhood memories; career genograms; autobiographies; thematic interviews; collage; portfolios; and exploration of role models, favorite stories, and life themes have all been used to help the client and the counselor understand career constructs (Amundson, 2005; Brott, 2004, 2005; Chen, 2003; Clark et al., 2004; Cochran, 1997; Cohen et al., 2004; Emmett & Harkins, 1997; Forster, 1992; Frick, 1983; Hartung & Borges, 2005; Hermans, 1992; Jepsen, 1994; Mignot, 2004; Young & Valach, 2000).

One disadvantage of the narrative model can be the depth of work needed by both counselors and clients. Creating is certainly more difficult and more time consuming than matching. Traditional vocational assessments engage clients immediately and provide instant feedback upon which to build. Self-help models of career intervention have long been assigned by counselors to help clients work on career development issues independently (Clardy, 2000; Harr, 1992; Herr, 2001; Mau & Jepsen, 1992; O'Brien, 1997). Self-help vocational assessment built upon a narrative model may be helpful in making the narrative model more accessible and convenient for both clients and counselors.

The current project involved the creation of an online tool designed to help clients reflect upon their construct of career, including life themes of success, influence of others, interests, and values. The purpose of the study was to explore whether a Web-based intervention grounded in a narrative model of career development would be successful in helping to reduce participants' career indecision and increase their career certainty as measured by the Career Decision Scale (Osipow, 1987).

This project involved the creation of an online tool using a combination of constructivist and narrative career intervention activities in addition to more traditional exercises. Participants were randomly assigned to various treatment and control conditions. Volunteers in the intervention groups were led through eight online activities: (a) Narrative Themes: Early Childhood Recollections, (b) Narrative Themes: Autobiography, (c) Narrative Themes: Role Models, (d) Values Checklist: What Do I Really Want? (e) Interests: Choosing a Genre, (f) Significant Others: Casting Your Characters, (g) Personal Mythology: What Role Will I Play? and (h) Action Steps: What Do I Do Now?

The intervention used in the current study differed from many traditional career interventions in that it did not compare clients' responses with the responses of a norm group or with an established set of criteria. The online system did not apply an algorithm to generate outcomes other than to summarize information the clients entered. In essence, the system provided an online guided journal using many of the ideas proposed in the literature for exploring life themes. Given that most narrative interventions described earlier are used by counselors within the counseling session, this research project explored the use of self-help narrative career tools.

Group comparisons indicated that the intervention groups were significantly different from the control groups for both the Certainty subscale and the Indecision subscale of the Career Decision Scale, indicating that the intervention had a significant influence on outcome. In fact, participants with the best scores (high certainty and low indecision) were 4 times more likely to have been in the intervention groups.

By asking participants to expand exploration of career interest, skills, personality, and values into the realms of spirituality, purpose, meaning, and mission, this online tool brought a new dimension to online career development tools. At the same time, the number of participants in the intervention groups who did not complete the activities was troublesome. The length of the project and the amount of writing involved may have deterred people from finishing. Further research is needed to determine whether pairing the online tool with individual or group counseling may increase the retention rate and help provide the motivation necessary to complete the online assessment.

This project, specifically the online intervention, was a new and different addition to the field of career counseling. Although traditional assessments and career exploration tools have found their way online and continue to serve the needs of counselors and clients, this tool represents a departure in that few widely used Web sites from a narrative theoretical model are currently available. At a time when career counselors are pressed for time and resources to serve growing client demand, the need for accessible, affordable interventions is extremely important. Although many counselors may be interested in narrative approaches to career development, using more traditional tools that are easily accessible may be a necessity. The significant results of the current study indicate that employing interventions for use by clients from a narrative model of career development may provide counselors another tool for working from this new theoretical perspective.

The response to this project by volunteer participants was much higher than expected, implying that there is a strong demand on college campuses for this type of career intervention. Whether it was the notion of being able to use the Internet to get career-related assistance, the draw of trying something new, or other factors, it seems clear that students are interested in exploring this type of intervention.

Because the population included in the present study was limited to college students, the results are particularly applicable to college and university career counselors. By combining the intervention with additional factors to aid in keeping clients motivated (group support, weekly progress checks, or class assignments), the results of this study indicate that a significant improvement in career certainty and career indecision could be expected.

In summary, in order to assess the utility of assessment based upon emerging theories, this project involved the creation of an online tool using a combination of constructivist and narrative career intervention activities in addition to more traditional exercises. Participants were randomly assigned to various treatment and control conditions. Volunteers in the intervention groups were led through eight online activities designed to help them explore their life themes, impact of others, interests, personality type, and other factors of their career stories. Results indicate that participants using the online tool exhibited less career indecision and more certainty after completing the online tool and in comparison with participants who did not complete the activities.


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Lisa E. Severy, Career Services, University of Colorado at Boulder. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Lisa E. Severy, Career Services, University of Colorado at Boulder, Willard Hall, UCB 133, Boulder, CO 80309 (e-mail:
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Title Annotation:Effective Techniques
Author:Severy, Lisa E.
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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