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Systemic influences on career development: assisting clients to tell their career stories.

In recent years, constructivism has begun to assume a more central role in career theory and career counseling (Amundson, 2003; Peavy, 1997, 2004; Savickas, 2002). Inherent to constructivism is the recognition that individuals are active agents in the production of their careers. This fundamental theoretical underpinning has witnessed the client-counselor relationship becoming a more collaborative process, with the client taking a more active role in the process and the counselor facilitating narrative, storytelling, and discursive processes.

A major challenge for theory informed by constructivism is how to apply it in practice (Patton & McMahon, 2006b; Reid, 2006). The Systems Theory Framework (STF) of career development (McMahon & Patton, 1995; Patton & McMahon, 1999, 2006a) is a metatheoretical account informed by the constructivist worldview that meets the challenge of bridging theory and practice through the development of a qualitative career assessment instrument, the My System of Career Influences (MSCI; McMahon, Patton, & Watson, 2005a, 2005b; McMahon, Watson, & Patton, 2005). In this regard, Savickas (2005) is of the opinion that the authors of the MSCI have "translated their sophisticated theoretical model into a straightforward counselling method accompanied by coherent counselling materials" (p. iii). The MSCI is a reflection process, which assists adolescents to explore the systemic influences on their careers and, in so doing, to tell their career stories. This article describes a career counseling intervention based on the STF of career development using the MSCI reflection process. The article provides an overview of the STF, describes the MSCI, and illustrates the application of the MSCI with an adolescent.

STF of Career Development

In its brief history, the STF has proved applicable across countries, across cultures, and for career counselor training (Arthur & McMahon, 2005; Patton, McMahon, & Watson, 2006). Indeed, Amundson (2005) described the STF as one of four significant innovations in career theory. The STF is a holistic metatheoretical framework that accommodates both the content influences and the process influences on an individual's career development. This is illustrated in Figure 1. Content influences include the personal qualities and characteristics intrinsic to individuals, as well as the influences of the context in which they live, such as the people and organizations with whom they interact and the society and environment in which they live. These influences are organized in the STF as a series of interconnecting systems of influence on career development, specifically the individual system, the social system, and the environmental-societal system. The STF recognizes the changing nature and interaction of these influences (i.e., the process of career development) and is therefore conceptualized as a dynamic open system. The process influences include recursiveness (the interaction between influences), change over time, and chance. All influences are set within the context of past, present, and future.


The individual system is central to the STF, as shown in Figure 1, and includes a range of intrapersonal influences, such as gender, interests, age, abilities, personality, and sexual orientation. The intrapersonal influences represent the subsystems of the individual system. Individuals are both a system and a subsystem. As subsystems, they do not live in isolation, but rather as part of a much larger contextual system, which comprises the social system and the environmental-societal system. The social system (see Figure 1) refers to the other people systems with which individuals interact (e.g., family, educational institutions, peers, the media). The individual and the social systems occur within the broader system of society and the environment, the environmental-societal system (see Figure 1). The subsystems of the environmental-societal system, such as political decisions or globalization, may seem less directly related to individuals but nonetheless have influence on their career development.

The STF also depicts the process influences of recursiveness, change over time, and chance (see Figure 1). These influences are illustrative of the dynamic nature of career development and the interaction that occurs within and between systems. Recursiveness is the multidirectional and nonlinear interaction between influences. Thus, a change in one part of the system will result in a change in another part of the system. Furthermore, the nature of the influences and the degree of influence change over time. In addition, individuals' career development will not always be planned, predictable, or logical. Unexpected or chance events, such as accidents, illness, organizational restructuring, or natural disasters, may profoundly influence career development. All of the process and content influences are set within the broader system of time. The past influences the present, and, together, past and present influence the future. Readers wanting more extensive descriptions of the STF are referred to the literature (e.g., McMahon & Patton, 1995; Patton & McMahon, 1999, 2006a; Patton et al., 2006).


The STF has stimulated the development of a qualitative career assessment instrument, the MSCI, which allows individuals to reflect on the influences on their career development and, through this reflection, to meaningfully create their own career stories (McMahon, Patton, & Watson, 2004). The MSCI provides a map based on the STF that encourages individuals to fill in the details and reality of their career development through the telling of their career stories. The MSCI guides individuals through a step-by-step process of visually representing, elaborating, and reflecting on the constellation of influences on their career development. Essentially, individuals are encouraged to develop a personalized STF. In this way, the uniqueness and wholeness of individuals is emphasized, and, through this, career counselors gain insight into their clients and the interconnectedness of systemic influences on their career-related needs.

The MSCI is a booklet of 12 pages with each page providing brief information, instructions and examples, and a place on which reflections can be recorded. This guided process begins with a page titled "My Present Career Situation" in which the individual reflects on occupational aspirations, work experience, life roles, support networks, and previous decision making. This reflection is guided by open-ended questions such as (a) "What career decisions do you need to make in the future?" (b) "What strategies or approaches have you used in your previous decision making?" and (c) "Who has helped you or provided advice with your previous career decisions?"

Each of the next four pages of the MSCI booklet contains diagrams that correspond to a subsystem of the STF (i.e., the individual system, the social system, the environmental-societal system, as well as the context of time). On these pages, examples of systemic influences are provided, and individuals can select from them or add their own examples. Thus, individuals identify and then prioritize their influences on diagrams titled "Thinking About Who I Am" (the individual system), "Thinking About the People Around Me" (the social system), "Thinking About Society and the Environment" (the environmental-societal system), and "Thinking About My Past, Present and Future" (the context of time).

The next two pages of the MSCI assist individuals in summarizing their reflections on their influences. These reflections are then represented diagrammatically on a chart titled "My System of Career Influences." In essence, this step invites individuals to construct their personal STF by combining information from each of the previous four pages. Figure 2 illustrates a personal MSCI diagram completed by the adolescent client in the case study that follows. In addition, Figure 2 illustrates how the theoretical STF can be personalized by completing the MSCI.

In the final pages of the booklet, individuals are provided with an opportunity to reflect on their completed MSCI diagrams on a page titled "Reflecting on My System of Career Influences." This reflection process is guided by open-ended questions such as (a) "What stands out most for you?" (b) "What has been confirmed for you?" and (c) "What would you like to change?" Thus, through this reflection process, individuals are enabled to tell the story of their present career situation. The final step in the MSCI booklet represents the construction of an action plan that is guided by questions such as (a) "Who will you talk to about your System of Career Influences diagram and what would you like to tell them?" (b) "What action or steps will you take now that you have completed your System of Career Influences diagram?" and (c) "What information would you like to find out now?"

Working with individual clients using the MSCI is a collaborative process in which the career counselor can be seen as a facilitator, encouraging a process that is meaningful to the client who is recognized as an active agent in the process of career construction. More extensive descriptions of the development of the MSCI are available in the literature (e.g., McMahon, Patton, & Watson, 2003, 2005a, 2005b; McMahon, Watson, & Patton, 2005; Patton & McMahon, 2006a; Patton et al., 2006).

A Career Story

The following case study describes the use of the MSCI in individual career counseling with an adolescent. Thomas was in his final year of secondary schooling when he approached his career counselor for assistance. Although Thomas knew that he wanted to become a community worker, he felt confused that he had to take so many "things" into account in his career decision making. Both the career counselor and Thomas thought it would be useful to explore these "things" (influences), and the career counselor explained that the MSCI would provide a structured process within which this could occur. The career counselor showed Thomas the MSCI booklet and explained how it could be worked through over several sessions, either by completing the MSCI with her or by exploring the MSCI after Thomas had completed it. Thomas chose the latter option and completed the MSCI booklet at home by following the step-by-step instructions.


At the second session, the career counselor and Thomas began to work through his completed MSCI booklet. First, they discussed Thomas's responses to the page titled "My Present Career Situation." As Thomas and the career counselor reflected on his written answers, he began the telling of his career story. Specifically, he told a story that included information on his career decision, part-time and volunteer work experiences, life roles, future occupational options, previous decisions he had made, strategies and approaches he had used in his previous decision making, and advice he had received in previous career decisions. Among other things, he spoke of his interest in becoming a community worker and his previous interest in being either a musician or a teacher.

Thomas also related a story about his part-time job in a fast food chain at which he enjoyed customer and staff contact but not the repetition of the tasks he had to do. Through his school, he had undertaken voluntary work in an elder care facility, and again he had enjoyed his interactions with the staff and residents. He had received a glowing reference about his volunteer work at the facility, in which he had showed considerable initiative and a caring manner. His interest in his volunteer work led him to take on the role of president of the Student Outreach Society at his school, of which he was responsible for organizing fund-raising and coordinating projects. In reflecting on his part-time and volunteer work, Thomas realized that the time they demanded had influenced his decision to discontinue his piano lessons. He explained that in this decision he had listed the pros and cons of continuing piano lessons and talked to his parents, his piano teacher, and his girlfriend.

In the third session, Thomas and his career counselor reflected on the system of influences diagrams he had drawn in the MSCI booklet related to his individual system (Thinking About Who I Am), his social system (Thinking About the People Around Me), and his environmental-societal system (Thinking About Society and the Environment), all of these within the context of time (Thinking About My Past, Present and Future).

The Thinking About Who I Am diagram encouraged Thomas to consider intrapersonal influences such as his age, his interests, his abilities, his personality, his coping style, and his values. Among other things depicted on his diagram, Thomas explained that he was an organized person who related well to people of all ages. He considered himself an above-average student and had enjoyed his involvement in the school band and school musical productions. Although Thomas liked sports, he had a low level of participation in them. On his diagram, Thomas had prioritized his values (i.e., emphasizing the example of helping people) and his belief system.

The Thinking About the People Around Me diagram encouraged Thomas to consider social influences such as his parents, his teachers, his friends, his school, and the media. Thomas had prioritized parental influences in his diagram and explained that his parents were unhappy about his decision to discontinue piano lessons and were concerned about the security and the financial stability of his career choice. His parents had always expressed a desire for him to pursue a professional career. His girlfriend was supportive of Thomas and encouraged him to follow his dreams. Thomas felt pleased that the school had given him the opportunity to do volunteer work in a field that he now saw as a viable career option, especially since receiving the positive reference from his community service teacher. He was deeply moved by a talk given to his Student Outreach Society by a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Goodwill Ambassador.

The Thinking About Society and the Environment diagram encouraged Thomas to consider environmental-societal influences such as financial support, future employment opportunities, and the location and cost of postsecondary study. Thomas had prioritized financial support and the cost of his options in his diagram. In reflecting on this, Thomas indicated that his parents could support him financially in his studies provided that he studied at the local university. However, Thomas had found a course that interested him in a university in another state. In addition, he was tentatively considering taking a gap year with his girlfriend during which they could volunteer for community work in India. Thomas had begun to save for a gap year through his part-time earnings.

The Thinking About My Past, Present and Future diagram encouraged Thomas to consider past, present, and future influences such as his anticipated lifestyle, combining family and work, and role models from his past. On his diagram, Thomas had written the name of his aunt whom he admired because she had raised foster children in her family. Thomas liked the idea of being able to buy a house and together with his girlfriend starting a family one day. He expressed some concern as to how he could combine his community work with a future family life given that he could spend extended periods overseas and receive limited income.

In the fourth and final counseling session, the counselor and Thomas explored how he had combined all of his influences in one comprehensive MSCI diagram (see Figure 2). In order to discuss Thomas's completed diagram, the career counselor and Thomas considered his written responses to the questions contained on the page titled "Reflecting on My System of Career Influences." These questions asked Thomas to consider his reactions to, his feelings about, and his observations of his completed diagram.

Among other things, Thomas was surprised by how important his parents were to him in his decision making and that his girlfriend was less of an influence. For example, he felt sad that he had disappointed his parents about discontinuing with his piano lessons and realized that he wanted them to be proud of him. Through the completion of the MSCI, Thomas became aware of how important their financial support was to his future study plans. However, he also believed that it was important to do something about which he was passionate. Thomas explained to the career counselor that he had become aware from his diagram that his passion for community work and his future lifestyle ambitions may not necessarily be compatible. He expressed less confidence in the decision he had made to replace his long-standing interest in music and teaching by his more recent interest in community work and believed that his option of a gap year could provide an opportunity for him to clarify his interests.

As Thomas and his career counselor neared the end of their session, their thoughts turned to the page titled "My Action Plan," which required Thomas to think about sharing his MSCI and planning steps that he could take to assist him in his decision making. In essence, Thomas began constructing his future career story. Thomas thought his parents and his girlfriend would be interested in his MSCI, and he decided as a first action step to explain it to them. He now realized that a gap year had solidified as a viable option. In this regard, he decided a further action step would be to find out more about it in terms of its costs and practical arrangements, as well as his girlfriend's and parents' commitment to it. Thomas and his career counselor believed that another action step would be for Thomas to discuss lifestyle issues with a married community worker. In this regard, Thomas undertook to contact the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador he had previously invited to the school for assistance in finding such a contact.

Thomas asked his career counselor if he could come back in the second half of the year to see her again once he had implemented these action steps. The career counselor reminded Thomas that at that time it might be helpful for him to return to his MSCI booklet and construct a second MSCI diagram on the page provided in the MSCI booklet. Then, he could compare the second diagram with the first and reflect on the changes he noticed and how he explained such changes.


The case study of Thomas demonstrates the use of the MSCI as a theory-based guided reflection process that provides individuals with an opportunity to recount their experiences, elaborate meanings around their influences, and tell their career stories. The MSCI addresses concerns about practical applications of constructivist theories such as the STF. Such applications require individuals to assume an active role in the career counseling process and career counselors a facilitative role as they engage in a collaborative and discursive storytelling process. Consistent with its constructivist underpinnings, the MSCI reflection process provides individuals with an opportunity to locate their career decisions holistically within the context of their system of influences, and then to reevaluate and reprioritize them.


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Mary L. McMahon, School of Education, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia; Mark B. Watson, Department of Psychology, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Mary L. McMahon, School of Education, The University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia (e-mail:
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Title Annotation:Global Visions
Author:McMahon, Mary L.; Watson, Mark B.
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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