Story/Narrative in Career Counseling

My preliminary literature review for my dissertation touches on using story/narrative in career counseling, but while working on an assignment (from which this entry is adapted) for a class I'm taking through Capella University (Strategies for Career and Life Planning), I was quite surprised to discover several articles on that topic that I hadn't seen before. "How could I have missed these?" I asked myself -- and then I realized that it was because this area of career counseling is so emergent that these articles hadn't even been published when I was first conducting my bibliographic searches.

Using narrative in career counseling probably has not yet reached the status of being called a model, although Cochran (1997) has written an entire book on the subject. In the literature I read, narrative was referred to as an "approach" (Campbell & Ungar (2004a, 2004b). The literature also calls it "emerging" (Campbell & Ungar, 2004a, 2004b). I predict that this approach will grow in stature and popularity and become an accepted model because it is so well suited to today's changing environment.

The narrative approach is very different from, for example, the trait-and-factor model in that it "focuses on helping clients to articulate their preferred futures rather than answering the question that is traditionally explored in career counseling, 'Who am I?' [trait and factor] ...that assumes that the self exists as an essential aspect of the individual, which can be revealed through the exploration of interests, skills, aptitudes, values, and personal styles" (Campbell & Ungar, 2004b, p. 28).

The authors also note (2004b, p. 29) that "the self does not have a trait base but rather a narrative base." Campbell and Ungar consider traits among many components of a client's story and one's skillset does not determine one's future -- and future is possible (2004b, p. 32) because "occupational identities are created not discovered (p. 34). In addition, in a critique of the trait and factor approach published before the emergence of postmodern/narrative approaches, Chartrand (1991, p. 519) notes that the literature has criticized trait and factor because of its apparent assumptions include the idea that "occupational choice is a single event, that a single type of person works in each job, that there is a single right goal for every career decision." For Cochran (1997. p. ix) the narrative approach is not concerned with the "matching" approach of a model like trait and factor, but with "emplotment."

Here are the stages of Campbell and Ungar's (2004, p. 30) narrative approach, "A Postmodern Approach to Career Counseling:"

1. Know what you want

2. Know what you have

3. Know what you hear

4. Know what constrains you

5. Map your preferred story

6. Grow into your story

7. Grow out of your story

Campbell and Ungar summarize one of the major differences in these approaches when they write that "traditional approaches gather information, whereas narrative therapy generates a different experience" (2004b, p. 35).

Peavy (1995) summarizes the differences with a series of adjectives for traditional approaches, including "efficiency, effectiveness,accountability, objectivity, neutrality, expertness, behavioral reductionism, quantification, measurement" compared to these for postmodern approaches: "self-construction, self as narrative, life planning." He places self as narrative in opposition to self as traits.

Chen (1997) believes that the traditional models will continue to be pertinent, but "they may not be sufficient to conceptualise the mission of the self in career making in the post-industrial era."

Other salient features of the postmodern/narrative approach:

  • It is a holistic approach that links to postmodern theory and approaches being used in family therapy, thus recognizing that career is a whole-life phenomenon (Campbell & Ungar (2004a, 2004b). As Campbell and Ungar write, "Careers are everything that people do with their lives rather than simply their occupation" (2004a).

  • Postmodern/narrative approaches recognize the self as "an entity that evolves and transforms from birth to death, not as a fixed entity" (Campbell & Ungar 2004a).

  • It strives for a "contextual sensitivity" (Campbell & Ungar, 2004a) not necessarily found in some of the models, which tend to offer minimal consideration of "family, community, economic, gender and racial contexts" (Campbell & Ungar, 2004a). Chen (1997) refers to a "person-context integration" enabled by narrative.

  • Its steps can be tackled in any order, and other career-counseling models can be used secondarily (Campbell & Ungar, 2004a, 2004b).

  • It emphasizes "acceptance of chaos, a positive attitude toward instability, and openness toward changing one's preferred future as opportunities present themselves" (Campbell & Ungar, 2004a).

  • It is characterized by "a turn away from 'psychometric self' and toward 'storied self'" (Peavy, 1995).

  • Interestingly, Hansen (2002, p. 315) asserts that all current counseling approaches already include narrative content.


    Campbell, C. & Ungar, M. (2004a, Sept.). Constructing a life that works: Part 1, Blending postmodern family therapy and career counseling. The Career Development Quarterly, 53(1).

    Campbell, C. & Ungar, M. (2004b, Sept.). Constructing a life that works: Part 2, An approach to practice. The Career Development Quarterly, 53(1), 28-40.

    Chartrand, J. (1991, July). The evolution of trait-and-factor career counseling: A person x environment fit approach. Journal of Counseling and Development, 69(6), 518-524.

    Chen, C. (1997). Career projection: Narrative in context. Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 49(2),

    Cochran, L. (1997). Career counseling: A narrative approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

    Hansen, J.T. (2002, Summer). Postmodern implications for theoretical integration of counseling approaches. Journal of Counseling and Development, 80, 315-321.

    Peavy, V. (1995). Constructivist career counseling. ERIC Digest ED401504.

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