Career Counseling Process

Career counseling process has been defined as an ongoing, face-to-face interaction between counselor and client with career- or work-related issues as the primary focus. The goal of career counseling is typically to assist individuals in developing self-understanding, articulating direction in their careers, and achieving their potential and discovering their purpose in daily activities.

There are indications that many people at some point during their lives would like assistance with career planning or with making decisions related to vocational or occupational issues. Although there are some uncertainties related to what specific process factors should be included in career counseling, there are still indications that most clients benefit from participating in career counseling. It should be noted that there are many similarities between the process of career counseling and personal counseling, but counselors need specific training for career counseling. More knowledge is needed, however, on the underlying processes and mechanisms that lead to effective change in career counseling. Specifically, there is a need for additional research related to which career interventions work with whom and under what conditions.

Multiple studies have found that individuals benefit from career counseling, and this entry will discuss the research related to the process of the career counseling that assists clients with work issues. More specifically, career counseling process relates to the overt and covert thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of both clients and counselors while engaged in career counseling. This discussion of the career counseling process will address the following: (a) whether career counseling process is different and distinct from personal counseling, (b) process factors that positively affect outcome, (c) process factors that negatively affect outcome, and (d) process factors worthy of additional investigation.

Process in Career Counseling Versus Personal Counseling

There has been a long and extensive debate about the distinctions between career counseling and personal counseling or psychotherapy. Some scholars have argued that there is research support for the integration of career and personal counseling because there are similarities among clients, associated with research related to similarities of clients; common elements or counseling techniques; and similar outcomes for many clients. Both career and personal counseling clients share common problems, and they are not different in terms of level of adjustment or amount of emotional discomfort. In career and personal counseling, counselors use many of the same helping skills. A study conducted in England found that clients, counselors, and expert witnesses all agreed that the career guidance interviews were more effective if the counselor helped the client feel comfortable in discussing personal information. Interestingly, both career and personal counseling have been found to decrease clients’ harmful psychological symptoms and to increase their abilities to solve problems. Although the process of career counseling is similar to personal counseling, practitioners also need to know about career or vocational theories and specific interventions strategies.

Process Factors That Produce Positive Outcomes

In comparison to psychotherapy research, there is limited process research in career counseling and therefore significantly less is known about the relationship between the process of the counseling and what contributes to positive results. However, researchers have identified five critical ingredients that should be included in any type of career counseling. The five critical ingredients are written exercises, individualized interpretations, occupational information, modeling, and attention to building support. Each of these critical ingredients contributes to positive outcomes for clients, and research suggests that clients benefit from the addition of each critical ingredient to the career counseling process.

Other researchers have found outcome in career counseling to be positively influenced when the counselor encourages clients to engage in self-exploration and provides emotional support. Other process factors found to be helpful in career counseling were helping clients clarify assets and values, providing feedback from tests, and incorporating occupational information.

Process Factors That Negatively Influence Outcome

In addition to factors that positively influence career counseling process, there is knowledge related to factors that have little effect or that negatively influence outcome. It is important that career counseling involve a counselor, as there is substantial research that indicates that counselor-free interventions (e.g., Internet assessments) are not effective. In addition, there are indications that individuals do not consider the following to be helpful: (a) tests that do not produce new leads, (b) exercises that do not yield sufficient career direction, (c) unskilled counselors (e.g., inattentive, mechanical test interpretation), and (d) insufficient assistance in finding adequate career information. Counselors need to be trained on how to conduct career counseling in order not to use ineffective activities. Ineffective career counseling activities, such as ones that are poorly selected or are implemented in a haphazard manner, are not helpful to individuals who need help with their career planning.

Process Factors Worthy of Additional Investigation

Although there is an expanding body of research that can guide counseling psychologists about the most effective processes in career counseling, there are still areas where additional research is needed to provide more detailed clinical guidance to practitioners. One of the areas of substantial research in personal counseling or psychotherapy concerns the importance of the working alliance. The alliance is often conceptualized as (a) counselor and client agreement on the goals of therapy, (b) counselor and client agreement on the tasks to achieve the goals, and (c) the quality of the emotional bond between counselor and client. Experts in the field of career counseling frequently indicate that they work on establishing a therapeutic relationship when describing their approaches to career counseling; however, some researchers have not found a significant relationship between the working alliance and the positive outcome.

There are also some questions about the most effective number of sessions in career counseling, which is often referred to as the dose effect. Some researchers have found that longer career counseling tends to produce better results for clients. Other researchers have found that the most effective career counseling occurs in four or five sessions.

Another area in which counselors need to conduct more research is related to what types of career counseling work best for which types of clients. Even though there has been research that documents the vocational obstacles and barriers often faced by minority clients, there has been very little exploration of whether differing types of career interventions are more productive with clients from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. There are some models that have been developed to provide career counseling specifically for clients from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, but there has yet to be sufficient investigations of whether these models improve career outcomes for these clients.

Another area of fertile research related to the process of career counseling concerns effective methods for conducting and interpreting career assessments.

This is surprising given the significant role assessments have traditionally played in career counseling. In addition, many of the research studies related to the process of career counseling have been with college students, and additional studies are needed with older adults who are experiencing a variety of career transitions. For most people, work has a daily impact on their quality of life; therefore, it seems important to identify career counseling process factors that can assist individuals in finding work that is both satisfying and rewarding.


  1. Brown, S. D., & Ryan Krane, N. E. (2000). Four (or five) sessions and a cloud of dust: Old assumptions and new observations about career counseling. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Handbook of counseling psychology (3rd ed., pp. 740-766). New York: Wiley.
  2. Gysbers, N. C., Heppner, M. J., & Johnson, J. A. (2003). Career counseling: Process, issues, and techniques. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  3. Whiston, S. C., & Oliver, L. W. (2005). Career counseling process and outcome. In W. B. Walsh & M. L. Savickas (Eds.), Handbook of vocational psychology: Theory, research, and practice (3rd ed., pp. 155-193). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  4. Whiston, S. C., Sexton, T. L., & Lasoff, D. L. (1998). Career intervention outcome: A replication and extension. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 45, 150-165.

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