The traditional model of career choice suggests a linear pattern. Get to know yourself. Learn your kills and talents. Explore careers that seem to best utilize your talents and skills. Today, both research and experience suggest that real career change doesn’t happen this way.
What’s real? Serendipity and zig-zag patterns
Contemporary researchers find that nearly every career path involves an element of serendipity. John Krumboltz of Stanford University published several articles on this topic in respected journals.
Herminia Ibarra’s research at Harvard Business School demonstrated that career change tends to follow a zig-zag pattern rather than a straight line, with two steps forward and one step back. She found limited value in extended introspection and self-analysis. See her book Working Identity.
What about testing?
Career coaches and counselors are divided on the subject of tests. Some insist that all their clients undergo a battery of tests. Others dismiss tests entirely. One career counselor says, “I can learn more about a person from astrology than from any personality tests.” One coach asks clients to define themselves as “earth, wind, fire or water.”
Before you pay for testing, I encourage you to ask what you hope to gain from the time and money you invest. Be aware of the limits on what tests can do for you. After all, if you could just take a battery of tests to forecast your future, we wouldn’t hear from so many job-frustrated people!
So why don’t tests have all the answers?
A job is much more than a series of skills. Every career or profession includes an ambience – style, working conditions, flexibility of time. Often it’s not the work itself that drives people out of the field. It’s the “other stuff.”
Take teaching, for example. You love kids and want to work with them and you don’t mind earning less than your corporate counterparts. Your workday ends at three and you get summers off. You get a decent pension and great benefits.
However, that’s not the whole story.
Your day begins as early as 6:30 AM.
You give up a lot of personal freedom. There’s no phone on your desk to make a call home — and certainly no privacy to talk. A quick trip to the bathroom? Someone has to cover the class. The students go home at three – but you have papers to grade, meetings to attend, and perhaps a rehearsal to direct. Your school district rewards test results, not creative learning.
Another example. Now let’s say you like to earn money and solve math problems. Are you ready for a CFO job? Each company has its own culture, of course, but in general the business world values image and style. You have to be comfortable moving through a hierarchy and giving the appearance of respecting authority.
Bottom line: Your aptitudes and values may drive you to teaching, but you will soon be searching for a new career if you are a night person who also values workplace autonomy.
If you have been working a long time, tests often show you are perfect for the job you hold now. After all these years, you’ve probably internalized values and attitudes of your profession — and you obviously have enough aptitude to remain employed! Clients frequently come to me after paying hundreds, even thousands of dollars for midlife, mid-career testing. “A waste,” they say ruefully.
On the other hand, your college-age children may benefit from testing, especially if they are thoroughly confused about their first career moves. College testing centers often employ high quality professionals because they train counseling students there.
Tests may not help you balance tradeoffs. Your aptitude and values may point you to a nature-loving outdoor career, but you realize there are few jobs available and those won’t pay enough to live on. You have to be creative if you’re going to make this combination work. The question, “How can I enjoy my love of nature and still earn a good living?” might best be discussed in a series of one-to-one conversations with someone who understands the career jungle.
On the other hand, strong motivation can compensate for low aptitude. In her book Crossing Avalon, Jean Shinoda Bolen writes of her determination to become a doctor, following a strong religious experience just before she entered college.
Bolen easily aced her liberal arts courses but struggled with sciences. At one point she received a midterm “D” grade in a zoology course. Yet she was accepted to a fine medical school and became a respected psychiatrist, Jungian therapist and best-selling author.
In a corporate setting, what appears to be test effectiveness may be self-fulfilling prophecy. MegaBig Corp administers aptitude tests to all applicants for sales positions. Only those who achieve a score of 80 out of 100 are hired. Those who earn 95 or higher are identified as high-potential superstars and sent off to special training. Managers, of course, see scores of their new hires, and they report a strong correlation between sales success and scores.
If you really wanted to test the tests, you’d administer tests to all applicants, hire a sample regardless of scores, and refuse to disclose test scores to supervising managers and trainers. Few companies would be willing to do this.
However, in one study, researchers told high school teachers, “Here is a list of IQ scores for your class.” In reality, the “scores” were locker numbers! Those with higher locker numbers mysteriously out-performed those with lower numbers.
The teachers tried to be fair, but anyone who has taped a classroom knows teachers can give subtle cues of approval, disapproval and support. Managers can do the same.
You probably can’t refuse to take a corporate test, but you may be in a position to ask some tough questions.
Before you spend money on tests, ask these three questions.
(1) Do you need to take tests to obtain this information? If you’ve been a successful accountant for ten years, you probably have a knack for numbers and details. However, testing may enhance your confidence if you feel shaky.
Elaine, a top executive in a Fortune 100 company, had been promoted to vice president in a male-dominated specialty. However, Elaine was getting nervous. There were only three or four departments like hers in the entire country and, if her job ended, so would her career.
Elaine visited a career counselor who began with a battery of tests.
“The tests show I’m very organized and I’m a good manager,” she reported happily.
Elaine dealt with thousands of pieces of paper each week and had been a highly-paid manager for over ten years. Her friends were not at all surprised by Elaine’s test scores. However, Elaine had received little praise or validation from her own management. She wanted those test scores to bolster her confidence as she began her midlife career exploration.
(2) Who will be administering these tests? University counselors work with bewildered undergraduates seeking their first jobs. Outplacement counselors work with experienced corporate executives, many of whom want a job just like the one they left. Find a service where you resemble the other clients.
Tests must be interpreted to be useful. If your counselor starts to gush about your intelligence or creativity, you may indeed be the next Einstein or Michelangelo — or you may be in the wrong testing center. If your counselor hopes to sell you on follow-up sessions, she’ll be highly motivated to come up with a story that leaves you feeling confident and appreciated.
Often test results are written so ambiguously that they could apply to almost anyone — a frequent critique of both astrology and Myers-Briggs. Overly specific recommendations can be equally useless. What will you do if the tests suggest you should become a police officer or a funeral director?
Have some fun. Pick any of the sixteen Myers-Briggs profiles. Ask a few friends to take a test. Pretend to score the test and then hand your friends the profile you chose at random. Nearly every time, your friends will say, “That’s me!”
However, be careful. Studies also show that people have trouble shaking their beliefs in bogus feedback, even when they’re told it’s bogus.
(3) Who designed these tests?
Some assessments are carefully designed while others have no more value than a light-hearted quiz from a popular magazine.
If you are asked to complete an assessment or test, don’t be shy about asking questions. If you want to push some buttons, ask about reliability and validity. Ask whether the test was “normed” on a population that shares your demographic characteristics.
“Self-validation” is a bogus concept. As we have seen, there are many reasons you might say, “That’s me! How accurate!”
One skeptic has put together or a solid critique of a popular test, the Myers-Briggs scale.
Bottom Line: Alas, there is no magic genie who can direct you to a new career. Tests may feel more scientific — but recent career research suggests that career-changers to listen for messages from serendipity and their own intuition. In particular, when learning to navigate a new career world, you need to develop creative strategies that allow you to plan realistically while remaining open to surprises that, ultimately, change your life