Process and Outcome Research

Process and outcome research are two interconnected research methodologies that identify the processes that go on in counseling sessions and the effectiveness of these processes in outcomes for clients. Specifically, process research identifies the counseling variables involved in client change, while outcome research identifies the actual changes that occur.

Moreover, following the definition of psychotherapy process, career counseling process denotes the overt and covert thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of both the client and the counselor during a career counseling session. Outcome denotes changes that occur directly or indirectly as a result of career counseling as measured in terms of immediate effects, intermediate effects, or distal effects.

Academic Writing, Editing, Proofreading, And Problem Solving Services

Get 10% OFF with 24START discount code

Within process and outcome research, there may be several process variables that are contributing to the outcome of the client. Process and outcome research is necessary in career research because career counseling involves psychological and emotional components that require counselors to use many of the same therapeutic skills that are used in psychological counseling. Thus, the majority of research designs and process and outcome variables of interest in career counseling are parallel to those investigated in personal or therapeutic counseling.

Process Research in Career Counseling

Process inquiry may include both the covert and overt variables of therapists and clients (such as thoughts, feelings, and behaviors) that take place in a counseling session or over the course of several sessions. Process career research has been conducted through the use of two major approaches: naturalistic settings and analogue inquiry. Naturalistic settings are actual counseling sessions with real clients. Forms of naturalistic inquiry include case study (e.g., a detailed focus on one or a few clients to identify process variables), conversational analysis (e.g., analysis of conversation between therapist and client to identify process variables), client’s expectations about career counseling, and process variables in group career counseling. Analogue inquiry involves the use of artificially created counseling situations to identify process variables. Analogue research usually involves watching a videotape of a mock session or reading a transcript that resembles an actual counseling session. Most analogue research has focused on counselor variables that may influence the process, such as verbal responses or behavior. Analogue inquiry has examined such variables as counselor verbal responses, counselor in-session behavior, and the process variables in initial interviews. Naturalistic settings allow the researcher to easily generalize findings about the career counseling process, but offer the researcher little control over confounding influences on process variables being measured. While analogue research allows a greater control over the processes being measured, the results are also more difficult to generalize to other individuals outside of the study.

There are four major design decisions that have been identified in the literature that will determine the format of the process research inquiry: (a) what specific processes are being measured, (b) the number of counseling session(s) that will be used to examine the specific processes, (c) the perspective or vantage point from which the specific processes will be measured, and (d) how the gathered data on processes will be evaluated. While there are many processes occurring during a counseling session (e.g., the formation of the working alliance between the counselor and the client), the researcher determines which specific process variables will be focused on and measured, as well as the level on which they will be measured. Examples of focuses of specific processes include content of session(s), what is done in session(s), style of session(s), and quality of the session. This focus may be measured on the microlevel (words stated) to the macrolevel (counseling relationship). For both naturalistic and analogue settings, most process research utilizes trained raters who identify and code the processes of interest taking place in the counseling session(s), thus providing a vantage point of how processes are measured. Traditionally, process data analyses have been correlational, but it is possible to use other forms of statistical analyses.

Outcome Research in Career Counseling

Outcome research seeks to evaluate the effectiveness of specific career interventions or general career counseling services. Outcome inquiry measures the effects of career counseling or interventions by comparing different career interventions to each other and to control groups. In career counseling, effects are measured by comparing (a) individual counseling to group counseling, (b) brief counseling to long-term counseling, and (c) career counseling to control groups. The effects are identified through the use of quantitative instruments that measure specific out-come criteria. Outcome criteria are variables that indicate the amount of change in a specific area—such as client satisfaction, realism or career choice, and career self-efficacy—as a result of the provided career service. Outcome criteria data may be measured while a client is still in counseling, after counseling has been completed, and during a follow-up measurement.

Increasingly fine-tuned meta-analyses have been conducted over the past 2 decades that demonstrate that effect sizes of career counseling varied, with some studies indicating it to be as high as .87 and others as low as .41. These varying effect sizes have prompted researchers to call for more thorough inquiry into career counseling as an intervention specifically and to examine a range of potential outcomes. Although it is important to know that most studies indicate that career counseling is effective with most clients, most of the time, learning more about the particular mechanisms that lead to positive outcomes is a critical research area.

As with process research, the researcher determines which outcome criteria to measure and selects appropriate instruments for this measurement. The outcome measures, or effects of career counseling, are highly influenced by the methods used in the study. Career outcome research utilizes both recruited participants who are given career counseling for the sole purpose of measuring outcome and actual clients who are receiving career counseling services. As with outcome research in personal counseling, not having random assignment and a control group will inhibit the researcher’s ability to attribute the measured effects to career counseling. Thus, within career counseling research the utilization of actual clients and comparison control groups is recommended for greatest ability to measure outcome effects.

Combined Use of Process and Outcome Research in Career Counseling

Process and outcome research have not been conducted in career counseling to the same extent as in psychotherapy. This lack of process career counseling research has been highly influenced by the former view that career counseling is void of psychological elements and thus not in need of process information.

In addition, career counseling is generally viewed as being effective, a view that does not prompt researchers to spend time conducting labor-intensive process inquiry that breaks down known effectiveness element by element. Outcome research is essential for career counseling because it has the power to measure the specific effect career counseling has on clients, while process research identifies the mechanisms taking place in career counseling that lead to that outcome. Recently a research agenda has been outlined in order to guide researchers to more systematic inquiry into the process and outcome of career counseling.


  1. Heppner, M. J., & Heppner, P. P. (2003). Identifying process variables in career counseling: A research agenda. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 62, 429—152.
  2. Hill, C. E., & Williams E. N. (2000). The process of individual therapy. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Handbook of counseling psychology (3rd ed., pp. 670-710). New York: Wiley.
  3. Swanson, J. L. (1995). The process and outcome of career counseling. In W. B. Walsh & S. H. Osipow (Eds.), Handbook of vocational theory and practice: Theory, research, and practice (2nded., pp. 217-260). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  4. Wiston, S., Sexton, T. L., & Lasoff, D. L. (1998). Career-intervention outcome: A replication and extension of Oliver and Spokane. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 45, 150-165.

See also: