Most career counsellors and almost all school counselors can provide stories about having to counsel a young person who was determined to pursue a career that seemed, to the observer at least, to be outside their ability level. Teaching courses in vocational counseling, I have, on a number of occasions, been faced with the following question from teachers who are working towards being counselors: What do I do when a student tells me that they want to be doctor and I know they don’t have the cognitive level of functioning or the grades to meet the entrance to pre-med science programs? One of the important, and particularly interesting, dimensions of the self-system is the dimension of realism. My colleague, John Stewart, wrote about the realism of vocational choice (Stewart, 1995), referring to it as the degree of fit between an individual’s work-related characteristics and the characteristics of the chosen work environment. A lack of realism in vocational choice can result in aspirations towards careers that require different skills and abilities than the individual possesses and can result in frustration or shock when the reality of trying to meet the demands of the job become obvious. Conversely, it can result in under-utilization of an individual’s skills and abilities, which can result in poor job satisfaction and a lack of productivity. The latter situation was at one time a more common phenomenon with females (Wolfe & Betz, 1981), stemming from the tendency to aspire only to careers that have been gender stereotyped as appropriate for women. This often resulted in women under utilizing their skills and abilities.
It seems to us that the realism of fit between personal characteristics and those of the occupation would need to be preceded by a personal realism of the self-structure. This sense of personal self is often identified in the literature as an important component of Vocational Identity. While vocational identity is a broad subject, for the sake of our discussion of realism, we can define it as “the clear and stable picture of one’s goals, interests and talents” (Holland, 1997, p.5). In the process of developing a realistic vocational identity and, subsequently, a realistic fit between self and vocational choice, there exist a number of foreseeable barriers.
An obvious barrier is a lack of awareness of either the characteristics that one possesses or the characteristics of the occupations that are of interest to an individual. This lack of personal realism could be easily rectified with the provision of self or occupational information. A second hurdle comes from the tendency for vocational identity to change as a result of experiences throughout life (Stewart, 1995). The growth and experience one achieves as one moves through life can alter the personal realism and the realism of fit between chosen vocations and self. A third barrier refers to the scenario we started with: personal realism may become distorted as a result of conditions of self-worth and self-esteem. One of our most basic psychological drives is to protect the self and the maintenance of positive self-feelings, which can lead individuals to distort their vocational identity to better fit a desired identity. Finally, a fourth barrier may exist when one fails to engage in “thinking better about myself” (Reardon, Lenz, Sampson & Peterson, 2000, p.39). This refers to a failure to do things that improve the quality of our personal realism, such as overgeneralizing from past experiences or relying too much on another person’s opinion about our goals, interests and talents.
Holland, J. (1997). Making vocational choices, A theory of vocational personalities and work environments (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Reardon, R., Lenz, G., Sampson, J., & Peterson, G. (2000). Career development and planning: A comprehensive approach. Scarborough, ON: Nelson/Thomson Learning.
Stewart, J. (1995). Counselling individuals who experience career decision-making difficulties. Guidance and Counseling, 10(4) 52-56.
Wolfe, L., & Betz, N. (1981). Traditionality of choice and sex role identification as moderators of the congruence of occupational choice in college women. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 18, 43-55.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA