Research Shows Effectiveness of Life-Story Writing For Career Change

By George Dutch

Linear ‘cradle-to-grave’ job security no longer characterizes the career journey of most workers in today’s global economy. Thousands of individuals may choose to change careers but millions will be forced to endure unplanned transitions and other highly challenging situations where they have little or no control due to changing social and economic factors. One example is the broken business model of daily newspapers: as advertising dollars move to online forms of media, many print journalists are being forced into career change as their jobs disappear or they choose to leave their profession because they are unable to re-invent themselves in the same field at the same level of compensation.


Helping individuals find re-employment quickly in the same field has been the focus of career services for decades, such as helping a journalist becoming a Communications/Media Relations Specialist with a large corporation, a job change that involves “crossing the street” to work for an organization that was covered previously by the journalist as a newspaper reporter. A career change, by contrast, is more difficult and involves moving from one career path to something completely different; for example, a journalist becoming a home renovator as an independent contractor. If current economic and social trends continue, this shift from job change to frequent career change for individuals may require a significant change in career guidance methods. Narrative-based career services (as distinguished from traditional psychometric trait-factor tools) is one of the new forms of career guidance that is being developed to help individuals acquire and exercise more flexibility, adaptability and mobility in managing their work lives.


While narrative-based interventions have a firm theoretical base, robust evidence to support them is only beginning but is necessary if such interventions are to be widely accepted by our managed care system in schools, corporate HR practices, or government-sponsored community programs.


Positive Career Change

Based on anecdotal evidence from my career practice and a literature review, I hypothesized that life-story writing can facilitate positive career change. I explored this hypothesis by designing an online survey that was completed by 44 individuals, including an experimental group that used a life-story writing process for guiding their career change in the past 1-10 years and a control group that attempted career change with non-writing narrative tools over the same period.


There is no standardized approach to narrative-based forms of career guidance. Certain verbal approaches or writing exercises may produce different results. Different tools and techniques—consisting of various theories, content, interpretive approaches, and action-oriented plans—form part of the research context that influences outcomes. The possibility of individual agency, choice and change is always performed in a dynamic context of theory, method and practice.


For the past 22 years, I have used a life-story writing approach that is organized around a structured process that requires clients to write about their lives in a chronological and/or retrospective manner. In summary, my life-story approach involves my written analysis of a client’s stories to identify and define in very specific elements of a motivational pattern. This pattern is presented as a ‘re-authored’ life story and summarized in a schematic diagram. The pattern is then matched to specific jobs in specific work settings that will recognize, reward and motivate the client for this pattern.Each client’s pattern is unique and personalized; is not dependent on previous skills or work experience; and avoids occupation, education, age, race or gender bias. As the economy changes, the ‘pattern’ is flexible enough to adapt to a variety of career options. Finally, the client is given a list of “Suggestions” about how to transition into a ‘new’ career. What matters to me is the complexity and nuances of each client-- this requires careful attention so that an understanding of their motivational pattern and the definitions/vocabulary associated with it can be made. An illustration of a typical interaction is provided in this webinar: "Finding Your Right Work".


The process of transition takes time and the interaction may continue for several years. But it only does so when the picture of a ‘new’ career identity “makes sense” to a client and they take ownership of it. Here is a list of positive career changes by this study’s participants:

  • IT Systems Analyst to Pet Groomer;

  • Electrical Engineer to Public School Teacher; Occupational Therapist in Mental Health to Medical Research Project Coordinator; Desktop Publisher to Certified Financial Planner; Software Tester to Senior Product Marketing Manager; Medical Laboratory Assistant to Library Clerk; Printed Circuit Board Designer to Musical Therapist; Lab Technician to IT Support Analyst; and Senior Telecom Product Manager in a private sector high-tech company to Senior Director, Global Operations in an NGO.

Results of this research show that life-story writing as a career intervention is often characterized by positive career change with extrinsic and intrinsic markers, such as more income; more congruence between job duties and values; an increase in positive emotions and a decrease in negative emotions; more clarity and confidence in career decision-making.


I look forward to discussing at the conference how narrative-based writing theories and practices may help counselors and clients navigate the shifting terrain of work by fostering self-knowledge, effective actions, and best practices for efficient career changes.

Tuesday June 30, 2015, 4:35-5:45pm

#201 Career Identities that Last a Lifetime: Benefits of Life-story or Narrative Writing Methods
This presentation shares  outcomes research that indicates a positive correlation between the intent of life-story writing to 'uncover' a personal story, to create a new career identity, and facilitate a positive career change. Presenters will focus on benefits for the client-counsellor relationship.
George Dutch, JobJoy


George DutchGeorge Dutch, MA, is a Career Counselor in private practice in Ottawa, the capital city of Canada.  His MA in Integrated Studies is focused on the relation between knowledge, power and work. His report on research Career Identities that Last a Lifetime: Benefits of Life-story Method at the NCDA Global Career Development Conference in June 2015 will combine theoretical, personal and practical aspects of the benefits of autobiographical writings for career change. You can reach him at 1-800-798-2696, or george@jobjoy.com


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