At a recent party, I met someone fresh out of a marriage and family therapy program. In the middle of our discussion about our passion for being counselors, the topic of assessment came up -- specifically, career assessment.
Later, a mutual friend shared that my new acquaintance was “concerned” that I supported the use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and other similar assessments with my clients; the acquaintance did not think such assessments could predict career success. As a counselor for well over 20 years now, I am troubled by how often people, including my colleagues, judge assessments before being trained to use them and by how often, as a result, our student clients misunderstand assessments.
By way of primer, many assessments do support student career development. Myers-Briggs and StrengthsFinder help you better understand certain personal traits that may align with your career interests and values. They were not built solely for career development purposes, but they are quite useful to this end.
The Strong Interest Inventory compares your interests in various activities with those of others in many fields -- the idea is that, if they align, you may also enjoy the same professional interests. In the Biosciences, myIDP is a popular “options” assessment that compares your interests and skills with those necessary for success in various bio-related fields. Career Leader does something very similar for those interested in the broad area of business. Beyond online sessions, there are card sorts that allow you to work one-on-one with your counselor or coach to sort through which values and skills best fit your ideal work environment. Assessments may take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on which one you are taking and where.
One of the biggest misconceptions about assessments used in career counseling and coaching sessions is that they will tell you what you should do. In fact, nothing can tell you what you should do. Finding and developing your career of choice is a personal, often lengthy, process, and assessments are simply tools to help you navigate this process.
Assessments are typically introduced at the beginning of the career development process in the “understanding yourself” phase. They are important to complete before exploring what career options are out there for you. In general, they intend to help you understand how your interests, skills and values align with those of particular fields or work environments.
As a counseling tool, assessments create dialogue between you and your counselor or coach, helping you to understand yourself and helping your counselor or coach to better understand your needs. For this reason, it is imperative that your counselor or coach be well versed in both therapeutic discussion and in each of the assessments provided.
One of the conundrums of assessment is that it is self-reported information. As such, the validity of the test correlates to your own self-awareness. Before taking any assessment, your counselor or coach will meet with you to determine your own career-development concerns. If you already know your interests, skills and values, then assessment is not appropriate. It will only feed back to you what you already know about yourself. Likewise, if you have no idea what your interests, skills and values are, and especially if you are also suffering from depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns, you are not yet ready for assessment. Your answers may be scattered and reflective of what you already know: you are confused. In either of these cases, your counselor or coach may select other methods for discussion and support for your career development needs.
Once you and your counselor or coach determine that assessment is the right direction for your meetings together, you should decide together which assessment is right for you. Multiple assessments are common and useful in picking up various themes in your answers. After you have taken a few, however, results may begin to seem too similar. This, and the fact that assessments take quite some time and review, means it is important to be intentional about which one you use. One or two assessments may be more useful than taking all of them. Moreover, it is far more effective to meet with a counselor or coach to review your results than to review them on your own. As an expert, they will provide you with the necessary background on the test to make sense of results and, as an external observer, they may pick up themes that you have missed.
During the review of your assessment, your counselor or coach will explain the assessment’s purpose, background and intricacies. However, they will not tell you what the assessment means for you. Counselors or coaches will spend as much time listening as they do speaking in sessions. Your sessions provide opportunities for both reflection and planning. You should try to think of examples of times when you used the skills listed in the results or to envision yourself working in the environments described. Take the results home and discuss them with mentors and friends to get their feedback -- not on the tests, but on the ideas and themes represented within the results. Then, work with your counselor or coach to determine logical next steps, such as learning more about future fields, tailoring application materials to sectors of interest or revamping your social media profiles to reflect your fit with your career of choice.
Most assessments that people use for career development purposes have been measured and shown to be effective at fulfilling their intended purpose. This is where much of the debate about career assessment lies: whether or not it is valid. But validity is only relevant to your rationale for using the tool in the first place. As such, you should first determine which tool best aligns with your own needs and then work with your counselor or coach to set new career goals based on the results. Once you know yourself better, and once you have established a deeper relationship with your counselor or coach, you will be better able to recognize potential options and verbalize how you might fit within these options. Most of all, you will be set to make more informed career decisions confidently, without being told what you should do.
The bottom line: most college and university career centers offer assessments as part of their counseling or coaching and curriculum offerings, and taking advantage of such resources may very well make your job search more effective.
Stephanie K. Eberle is assistant dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine Career Center, which serves Ph.D.s, postdocs and M.D.s in the medical and biosciences. They are a resident fellow, managing a frosh dorm of 90 students at Stanford, and are also on adjunct faculty at the University of San Francisco. They are also a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.
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