Many people are surprised by how challenging it can be to make career-related decisions. What most individuals don’t realize is that in deciding on a career, they are also deciding on a way of life and style of being, or an identity. In my work with career counseling clients, I have found that individuals who have the most difficulty describing themselves to me typically need the greatest amount of career counseling. The question I most often ask myself about this latter group is “How can I help them clarify (or change) their view of themselves so that they can move forward with making career choices?” Fortunately, there is a theory, backed up by research, which has served this purpose well: the Stages of Change Model.
The Stages of Change model (Prochaska & Norcross, 1999) was developed to deepen our understanding of how people move through a cognitively- or psychologically-based change. They found a consistent pattern of behaviors that led to successful change after analyzing individuals who were successful in making changes in their lives. Over the past 20 years, the Stages of Change (SoC) model has been applied to a variety of psychological problems (e.g., smoking cessation, anxiety, and bulimia). The usefulness of this model lies in its ability to explain where the client is now and how to help them move forward in changing (or, in our context, making a career decision/transition).
There are six stages that make up the Stages of Change model (Prochaska & Norcross, 1999, 2001):
Precontemplation is the stage of change at which the individual is not seriously considering change because he or she lacks awareness of the need for change.
In the Contemplation stage, the individual begins to see that there may be a problem (e.g., noticing that they are dissatisfied with their current job). They are often trying to define their issue or understand how to address it.
The Preparation stage involves decision-making. The individual now has some grasp of their issue and has begun to seriously think about how to make the desired change (e.g., thinking about leaving their job).
The Action stage involves engaging in behaviors that seem most appropriate for creating change. In the case of career-related issues, this may mean participating in activities that would lead to an informed decision or change related to career direction or college major.
During the Maintenance stage, the individual continues engaging in behaviors that have proven to be of assistance in making change. This stage permits the individual to work through relevant issues until the change has been satisfactorily resolved.
The final stage, Termination, occurs when the issue is no longer of concern to the client. This stage is one that the Prochaska and Norcross believe is not always applicable. Some problems, such as dealing with diabetes, may always need attending to, so that a person remains in the Maintenance stage. (Prochaska & Norcross, 2001)
The Stages of Change model may provide significant assistance to career counselors working with individuals who are having difficulty engaging in the career development process. Phillips (1992) suggests that a lack of tolerance for tentativeness in the career choice process contradicts decision-making research, putting individuals with certain decision-making styles at a disadvantage, and does not consistently produce more effective decisions. This framing of client career difficulties is congruent with the SoC model, especially with the Precontemplation and Contemplation stages of change. For example, an individual that has recently become aware of the need to choose a career or major may still be resistant to making such change. This person may be mourning the loss of a previous or current choice, experiencing pressures from important others in their life to move in specific directions, or may be confused about their identity and options. Being supportive and processing these underlying sources of indecision can assist the career client in moving forward.
As an example, I have regularly taught career exploration courses to college students. They typically enjoy the self-exploration portion of the course but become more tentative during the action-taking portion. After students have narrowed down their career choices, they are encouraged to actively learn more about specific career options and (ideally) make a decision. Often, a decrease occurs at this point in class attendance, timeliness of turning in assignments, and involvement in class discussions. It appears as though further researching career options, conducting informational interviews, and attending career fairs have been intimidating practices for deciding individuals. This time, however, I introduced the concept of change (using the Stages of Change model) to help them understand the career decision-making process. In addition, I provided an opportunity to voluntarily complete an adapted version of the Stages of Change measure. Using this new approach, everyone chose to participate and the discussion that ensued was engaging and enthusiastic. After completing this activity, students invested more deeply in the action-taking portion of the class, producing more in-depth research and career plans than I had seen with prior groups. Attendance did not drop off, nor did late assignments increase. Moreover, when given the option to complete the measure a second time to “see” their “change”, everyone participated and attendance at post-class individual conferences was 100%. On average, the students moved forward one stage of change during the seven weeks between introducing the stages and end of the class. Essentially, while at midterm students were at Precontemplation through Action stages, by the end of class they were in the Contemplation through Termination stages.
I have seen the Stages of Change model work well for my students and clients and encourage you to consider it in your own practice. Becoming more effective in moving our clients through the career decision-making and change process will help them more effectively move on to their new “identity” and life, as well as provide us greater assurance that we are providing the most effective service possible.
Phillips, S. D. (1992). Career counseling: Choice and implementation. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (eds.), Handbook of Counseling Psychology (2nd ed., pp. 513-547). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Prochaska, J. O. & Norcross, J. C. (1999). Systems of psychotherapy: A transtheoretical analysis (4th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.
Prochaska, J. O. & Norcross, J. C. (2001). Stages of change. Psychotherapy, 38(4), 443-448.
Marie S. Hammond, Ph.D., LP, HSP, NCC, MCC, is an Associate Professor and President’s Fellow (2011-2012) at Tennessee State University and provides career counseling through her private practice, the Center for Career and Work Issues in Nashville, TN. Her research interests focus on vocational identity development in minority populations, and she is the Principle Investigator on a National Science Foundation Grant to test the effectiveness of a culturally-competent intervention to increase retention in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics careers. A member of NCDA since 1981, Marie has served on a variety of committees, including Public Relations, Awards, Veterans, and Professional Standards. She is also a National Certified Counselor (NCC) and Master Career Counselor (MCC). Marie can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.