Vocational Psychology Career Advice

It has always been surprising to me that so few psychologists choose vocational psychology as a career choice. Given that Sigmund Freud said that love and work were the two most important activities in life, you would think psychologists would be extremely interested in the dynamics of choosing, changing, or advancing careers.

Vocational Psychology

However, this has not proven to be the case. Even as 84% of Americans say they would like to change jobs (Manpower, 2010), and presumably many of them would appreciate assistance in doing so, there are few vocational psychologists to assist them with employment challenges.

Wondering why so few psychologists-in-training choose vocational psychology as a specialty, I wrote to the listserv for the Society for Vocational Psychology (Division 17 of the American Psychological Association) and asked members to respond to three questions.

  1. Why aren’t more psychologists self-identified as vocational psychologists?
  2. What are the employment prospects for vocational psychologists?
  3. Would you recommend vocational psychology as a specialty to doctoral students in psychology? Why or why not?

Their responses are below.


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Based on my experiences, it seems that people don’t fully identify themselves as vocational psychologists because vocational psychology isn’t taken as seriously as other fields (e.g., counseling, clinical, neuroscience). Furthermore, I think people see vocational psychologists and career counselors as someone who only helps students or clients select jobs, internships, and leisure areas rather than someone who is assisting individuals with psychological, personal, and social problems. Similarly, many people perceive that vocational psychologists serve clients in only one to few sessions rather than providing interventions and treatments over the course of several weeks or months. Finally, some individuals may have a difficult time comprehending theoretical concepts to apply to practice or not have enough knowledge or experience in utilizing career-based techniques.

Based on the recent labor market trends, global economy, and economic hardships, I believe there is a significant and growing need for vocational psychologists – especially for populations that are under served (e.g., immigrants, unemployed adults). As more individuals are fired from current jobs or become dissatisfied with current working conditions, there will be an increased need for psychologists specializing in vocational theory. Furthermore, it will be important for vocational psychologists to create and utilize Internet tools and other online resources made available to consumers across the world. Finally, as the world of work continues to increase in complexity and frequency of changes, more psychologists will need to be available to assist clients in adapting to or overcoming these challenges.

As a current doctoral student focusing on vocational psychology and the process of career decision making, yes, I do recommend this specialty. Every day while I assist clients at Florida State University’s Career Center, I am amazed by the presenting problems and stories I hear on-desk. In addition, I am reminded of the interaction of career and mental health issues (e.g., depression, anxiety, perfectionism) that must be worked on first before interventions based in vocational psychology can be implemented. Over the past 2 years, I have really learned about the life-time impact of career issues and roles and truly believe this is a wonderful niche to conduct research in as a graduate student and driven researcher.

Mary-Catherine McClain, Doctoral Student in the combined Counseling Psychology and School Psychology program at Florida State University, with a special interest in career/vocational counseling


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I don’t think there is much modeling in the community for vocational psychology. I don’t think that even counseling psychology promotes it. I think this emphasis is fabulous if you like it as there is a tremendous need and demand, at least in the Seattle area.

Bob Fraser, Ph.D.,, University of Washington


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I can jump in from Canada with similar thoughts – at a counseling level, we have exactly the same issue between career counseling and “regular” counseling.

To briefly answer your questions:

(1) In most doctoral training programs, vocational psychology is not highlighted as an area to specialize in. In some cases, the “career” or “vocational” course is an elective or is a course taught reluctantly by an adjunct or grad student (i.e., not an area of passion).

(2) Although I have a Ph.D. in psychology, I haven’t registered as a psychologist (I’ve kept my counseling designation). Most of our corporate clients that want my vocational psychology expertise would call me a consultant – i.e., they’re not actively looking for a psychologist – so there’s likely some branding we could do as a profession to raise our profile and increase common understanding. That said, I think there is lots of work to do.

(3) In terms of recommending the specialty, I’d first want to know where they’re coming from and where they hope to land. I think vocational psychology is uniquely positioned between counseling and human resource management – if the student was looking for opportunities to bridge these two worlds, I’d recommend the specialty in a heartbeat.

Dr. Roberta Neault, CCC, RRP, GCDF-i, CCDP, President, Life Strategies Ltd., Aldergrove, BC; Editor, Journal of Employment Counseling


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The main reason more students don’t choose vocational psychology as their career specialty is that there are a limited number of employing entities that advertise positions for vocational psychologists. Outside of academia, a more frequently chosen moniker is career psychologist (or counselor), reflecting two realities: (1) In corporate and public settings, the term “career” has more face validity, and (s) To differentiate ourselves from our vocational “cousins,” vocational rehabilitation psychologist/counselors.

As for employment, creativity is definitely the watchword. For those interested in applied vocational psychology and organizational affiliations, I recommend, first and foremost, exploration of the larger hospital/rehabilitation institutions; those with an extant educational and/or holistic mission. Secondarily, investigate corporations utilizing industrial/counseling psychologists — most likely in leadership development, corporate universities, and training and development departments. Similarly, those with a penchant for research, may also find the pursuit of symbiotic relationships with I/O psychs fruitful environments.

For students with a robust natural network (across industries and organizations) then the solo or independent practice option is viable. For this option, one must also be solidly entrepreneurial, if one needs to be a primary wage-earner.

In summary, new entrants may find development of “job creation” skills, as opposed to “vacancy postings” as a more productive job search method.

I definitely recommend this career path to psychologists-in-training. If one has a deep passion for the “why” and the “how” of work across the lifespan and in various settings, then this is very intellectually rewarding work. Think less in terms of position title, and more about how you can bring the science and practice of vocation/career to an organization and/or individuals.

Michael E. Hall, Ph.D., Board-Certified Career Management Fellow; Executive Coach (Pro Bono), McColl Graduate School of Business; Certified Dual-Career Service Provider


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Ordinarily, my first response to an undecided student is, “Let’s get more information.” In this situation, I’m willing to supply some of it. Vocational psychology is currently suffering from a dissociated personality disorder — at one extreme it goes by the name of counseling psychology and at the other, industrial psychology. The first tends to be taught in education departments and the other in psychology. The first has tinges of social work and the other, calculus (well, psychometrics). The first suffers from status anxiety at times and the latter produces anxiety in many graduate students.

You might want to tap your inner Savickas and get some sense of the earlier influences that have impacted your developing career story. As well, I can offer you an opportunity to cast your shadow on a Kuder Career Search to connect you with certain other insights – like who has interests like yours and what have they done with them.

Yet too, you might want to look at the cost (how much grueling apprenticeship must you bear)/benefit (income, acclaim of your peers) ratio and make a completely rational decision. At worst, I keep a pair of dice in my desk drawer.

In other words, you might make your best choice now, but be sure it is not your last choice. Opportunities will continue to smack you in the face!

Donald G. Zytowski, Ed.D., ABPP Diplomate; Retired Professor of Psychology, Iowa State University; Consultant


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I’ll share my story. I received my doctorate in counseling psychology from The University of Akron and developed an interest in career counseling and research from working with several outstanding faculty mentors. (My program also emphasized non-career counseling which I embraced.) After completing my pre-doctoral internship at the University of Maryland Counseling Center, I was hired as Associate Director for Career Education and Counseling at the Georgetown University Career Education Center. In this role, I conducted career counseling, supervised masters-level career counselors, performed administrative tasks, and completed my dissertation examining aspects of Social Cognitive Career Theory. I saw first hand how career counseling and “personal” counseling overlap and observed how the most effective career counseling often included discussions about relationships, family, race/ethnicity, gender, mental health, self-efficacy, SES, etc. As a career counselor, I use a variety of intervention strategies and incorporate vocational assessments, card sorts, and genograms as appropriate.

In 2006 I was hired as executive director of the Career Center. In this role, I still work with clients (yes, we call our students “clients”) and set the agenda for all of our career development efforts with students and alumni. My job involves work with other Career Center constituents including employers, faculty/staff, alumni, and parents. The counseling psychology training comes into play every day through my direct work with students, supervision with staff, consultation with other professionals, attention to multicultural factors in our programs and services, and outcome research on our career interventions.

The counseling psychology degree also affords me with other opportunities. I am licensed as a psychologist in Virginia, DC, and Maryland and I maintain a small private practice in Virginia and DC working with clients and couples presenting both career and non-career issues.

Yes, there are jobs for vocational psychologists. However, I recommend that students and new professionals develop multiple interests and competencies to be marketable in this economy.

Mike Schaub, Ph.D., Executive Director, Career Education Center, Georgetown University; Licensed Clinical Psychologist


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The responses underscore how diverse the society has become. It may be time for the society to build upon your article and fund a study of job opportunities, current employment, etc.

My personal view has always been that vocational psychology is a focus or an emphasis in the broader field of counseling psychology. If one views career counseling and personal counseling as a continuum defined by the level of subjective distress presented by the client, then the focus of the work of a counseling psychologist can be anywhere in that range. So, vocational psychology is a specialty focus.

Arnold R. Spokane, Ph.D.


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As a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology, I’ve had a passion for career counseling and research throughout my training. Now that I’m heading to internship next year (at Arizona State University’s counseling center) and thinking about getting a job after internship, I was worried about having to drop career as a specialty if I was looking for jobs outside of academia. Reading other Div. 17 members’ feedback on possible career paths for Ph.D’s with a career focus has encouraged me to keep this as a part of my identity as I begin looking for jobs in the Phoenix, AZ area next year. Wish me luck and good P-E fit!

Andrew Kerlow-Myers, Doctoral Candidate, Division of Counseling Psychology, University at Albany, State University of New York


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Greetings all — after the very interesting responses to this query, I decided I would weigh in on the topic myself. I agree with much of what has been said, so will try not to repeat what others have already said.

I think one of the reasons for that so few psychologists identify themselves as such is that there really is no common agreement on what vocational psychology is – the comment about it spanning counseling psychology and I/O is absolutely right, IMHO. Also, for some reason, career development somehow doesn’t get the respect it deserves for facilitating a major life decision.  After all, what one does for a living only impacts where you live, who you marry, the car you drive, what opportunities your children will have, and both your physical health and subjective well-being. As my advisor said to me early in my graduate career, “Other than sleep, what else do you consistently do for eight hours a day? Other than one’s romantic or life partner, what do people complain about the most?” The answer, of course, was work. Clearly, vocational psychology is a trivial pursuit. Shouldn’t we be doing something more important with our degrees?

I also think that graduate training in vocational psychology tends to turn a lot of students away – not because of poor instructors or boring courses – but because most career counselors cut their teeth on the group I consider most difficult to work with in this area – undergraduates. In my training, we had to work with undergraduates for a year or two before they let us work with adults who were questioning their career directions in midlife. It was implicit that the undergraduates where seen as easing us into the field and the adults were viewed as the more serious challenges. Contrast working with a client who might never have been employed (or who has worked only typical student jobs) with one who has been in the workforce full time for years. One has vague impressions to guide them and the other hard reality. Contrast a client who is more immediately concerned with what to wear Saturday night than choice of major with one who understands that career unhappiness has negatively impacted their own well-being and that of their family. Everyone I know who has worked with both groups finds working adults far easier clients than undergraduates. To the extent 20/20 hindsight allows, I believe I would have been far more effective (and happier) working with undergraduates if I had been eased into career work with easy, highly motivated clients – working adults – and then introduced to the challenges of the undergraduate counseling center.

One of the problems with our field in the tunnel vision many of us have regarding career work – it happens in college counseling centers. There is so much more we can be doing. My daughter is transitioning from middle school to high school and I have been astounded at the quality and quantity of activities at her school – activities which took a child looking forward only to summer vacation and have her thinking hard about how high school connects to college, how college influences the kind of life she wants to live – and how to factor in her interests and abilities. In my own career, I research the work experiences of Latino immigrants. Given their limited degrees of freedom in employment, career work as usual would be meaningless. However, theories and models of job satisfaction have contributed heavily, and fruitfully, to my conceptual efforts. As my former advisor pointed out to me a few years back, I have returned to the roots of the field – an immigrant settlement house in Boston. I have come to realize that the emphasis counseling psychology places upon multiculturalism, positive psychology and social justice are not recent innovations, but were there at the beginning in efforts to help people adapt to a new country and a new culture in the face of open discrimination. Attaining social and political empowerment through the economic clout that arises from stable employment is just as relevant to the Latinos I work with now as it was for the European immigrants that Frank Parsons worked with in Boston over a century ago.

An important opportunity that vocational psychologists seem to have ceded to I/O psychologists and the “life coaching” crowd is work-related stress. The World Health Organization estimates that within a decade, stress-related disorders will be the number one cause of work-related disabilities in the industrialized world. Consider the epidemic of suicides in the Chinese electronic factory last year. Consider also, that for all of the hypothesizing regarding the relationship between stress and heart disease, only work-related stress has been clearly identified as a risk factor. Even after decades of outsourcing industrial jobs to other countries, work-related causes are the 6th or 7th leading cause of death in the U.S. This is higher than HIV/AIDS, suicide, breast cancer and other causes that are far higher on our social radar. I know from my own research that behavioral factors contribute to many of these deaths.  I have been horrified that I am one of the few counseling psychologists active in the field of occupational health psychology.

I would recommend career counseling as a niche to current doctoral students. However, I would even more strongly encourage them to think in much larger terms about vocational psychology.  Many of our European colleagues have a more unified view and label themselves work psychologists. The activities of career development, I/O psychology and many aspects of business management and health promotion all fall under this umbrella. I would like to see the United States move in this more holistic direction. If one takes such a view, the importance and applicability – and the employability – of vocational psychologists is tremendous.

Donald E. Eggerth, Ph.D., 
Senior Team Coordinator
, Training Research and Evaluation Branch
, CDC


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At Ball State, we have a doctoral cognate (specialty) in vocational psychology. All our doctoral students must do a cognate. Unfortunately, few students have selected this cognate!

I think our students become much more interested in vocational work when they learn about the social justice activities that vocational psychologists have pursued.

Lawrence H. Gerstein, Ph.D., Director, Doctoral Program in Counseling Psychology; Director, Center for Peace and Conflict Studies; Professor of Psychology; Co-Editor, International Forum — The Counseling Psychologist; Fellow, American Psychological Association


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I don’t understand how vocational psychology can be relegated to the edge of mainstream psychology. Who does this relegating?! Are we doing it to ourselves?! Vocational psychology is relevant to everyone who has a job and wants to keep it or aspires to have a job. How many such people are in the world? Why should their concerns be marginalized? Are their concerns less important than the concerns of people who suffer, for example, panic attacks? I, for one, refuse to be relegated to the edge of mainstream psychology. We belong right in the middle!

Dr. John D. Krumboltz, Stanford University


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For more information about vocational psychology as a career, please visit The Society for Vocational Psychology.

Comments

  1. Thank you for your article. I found this useful.

  2. Benny A. Benjamin says:

    This was a great contribution and hopefully a trigger for discussion among young and old alike. Thank you.
    What stands out for me is the overly narrow focus that is associated with this field in the eyes of young psychologists. Unfortunately, much of this stereotype is well-deserved. We need to find ways to broaden the scope in practice and in marketing.

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