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Theory, Policy, Practice of a Career

by Susan R. Takata and Jeanne Curran
Revision of Text from 1993
Copyright on Revised Text: Summer 1999. "Fair Use" encouraged.

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: October 25, 1999
E-mail Faculty on the Site.

Now What??

Broad fields of knowledge, in fact the whole of your liberal arts education provide you with a background from which to analyze and evaluate careers and career-related opportunities as you encounter them. It has been our task to teach you where to find knowledge, how to effectively analyze and evaluate it, and to provide you with examples to practice synthesizing its elements to solve new problems. The buck stops here.

It is now your responsibility to apply these skills of analysis, evaluation, and synthesis to the world of careers. No one can do this for you. For the problems you encounter will be unique to you. Others, as in our examples, may have met that problem and found solutions; but only you can evaluate the extent to which what worked for them will work for you. This is the problem with the transfer of knowledge and it is for this purpose that you seek a liberal arts education -- to have these skills in judging how much and what portion of previously acquired knowledge now applies to this new situation.

There's Advice on Every Corner

Advice on careers will come to you, solicited or not, from many people. Careers, like babies and weather, are a topic on which everyone has an opinion. Your parents, your spouse, your friends will not only have advice -- but probably expound on it at regular intervals, especially if you have failed to accept it.

You will find mentors and sponsors, as you go through your career cycle, who will provide you with invaluable insight based on their path across the same career. You, in turn, will sponsor others.

Your professors will offer advice of many kinds, some of which will bear directly on your career choice. And almost every university campus has a placement center whose primary function is to help you in a career search, and more recently, in career development.

Don't let the profusion of advice confuse you. Gather it all, and sift it carefully through your knowledge base. Remember, a liberal arts education has by now bestowed upon you the faculty of evaluating and synthesizing masses of data.

The Books in the Library Corner
There's one last concern we'd like to mention -- books, lectures, the printed and the pronounced word. Volumes upon volumes of "career" books have jammed the shelves of bookstores and libraries. It is commonplace now to find whole sections devoted to job search and career strategies. And those who are avidly reading these books come from all walks of life -- from the 17-year-old who never had a job before to the 42-year-old divorcee (with 3 children) who hasn't worked in 12 years, to the 53-year-old executive who feels frustrated now that she's climbed to the top and is wondering "Is this all there is?" to the 40-year-old typesetter who knows his company is about to go to new equipment -- and that he'll lose his job. We all need career advice.

Many of the "how to" books offer useful advice. At the very least, they have popularized the notion that some alternatives are within our control. We, as sociologists, offer you the tools of our discipline to form some practical rules for sifting through all the advice. Just like you, and all the other millions of readers, we're impressed by some of the "how to" books. In this section, we'd like to review with you some solid ground rules on how to judge the truly impressive from the tinsel. Whenever a subject gains such widespread popularity, whole social movements spring up around it. Where once we had a book on CAREERS, now we find SON OF CAREERS, A DAY IN THE LIFE OF CAREERS, MY CAREER, ANOTHER DAY IN THE LIFE OF CAREERS, SON OF MY CAREER, and so on. And as sales on books rise, we find SEMINAR ON CAREERS, PROFESSIONAL CAREER DEVELOPMENT, INC., SEMINAR ON JOB SEARCH, INTERVIEW COUNSELING. And, of course, as in any other subject area, each of these will spawn special books, seminars, training sessions for special interest groups: women, minorities, secretaries, computer programmers, etc. The possibilities are endless. Even special careers are born. People become career counselors, career therapists, career search specialists. Why, some sociologists even begin to study careers almost exclusively. After all, it's become a social movement!

This is the stage at which you have to develop some practical ground rules for judging the quality of the advice being offered, especially since precious little of it is free. We offer here some guidelines that we've developed (by no means an exhaustive list) and then analyze one of our favorite "how to" books, as an example of how we sift through this massive literature.

Some Guidelines for Interpreting Career Advice
1) Do not judge the book, the seminar, or other specialist by the title. Titles are marketing devices, often thought up by specialists over the author's protests. The same is true for seminar and lecture titles and the professional titles and brief autobiographies of the people involved. Notice the titles, but reserve judgment. Some good books and people are self effacing. Some mediocre books and people crow very effectively.

Judge carefully books, seminars, people who promise you the answer to success. Social problems are complex. There are no simple answers, right for everyone! And careers are decidedly a social problem. Judge carefully the presence of hype or hard sell. Remember the old Shakespearean comment: "me thinks the lady doth protest too much!" Good material still needs good marketing. But enough is enough! If you encounter excessive selling, chances are the material just won't stand on its own.

We like humor. If you share this predilection, it may indicate a light, readable style. A sense of humor may also indicate a welcome sense of balance and perspective rather than one-sidedness. You'll need to check that out, too.

Simplicity and clarity are important if you're going to make sense of advice. Look for titles and read through brief passages for clarity of expression. If the writing, or the speaker, for that matter, seeks to impress with esoteric language the best of advice may be inaccessible. Anyway, we believe that the best advice is logical and straightforward. Your mother did have a point about common sense, you know.

2) Look for credentials. How is the person who is offering this advice qualified to advise you on careers? That you are very important. Where did this person get the information on which the book is based? His/her own experience? How like your background is that experience? How typical is that experience? Did the author seek out information from many different sources? Or ask his/her friends about their experience? If he/she asked friends and the friends are just like you, is the advice still valid? Maybe, maybe not. This is not an easy question to answer.

Research is costly, in both time and money. Most books are written for prestige and profit. No more time and money can be spent on them than will justify the prestige and profit they will reap. This means that many more books, seminars, etc. will be based on what people believe, from their own experience, to be true, than on a careful study of what research has shown. Before you leap to follow what sounds like great advice, question the sources and the applicability to your situation.

3) Look for a reasonable focus. No single book is going to answer everything everyone wanted to know about careers. (Although an encyclopedia of careers will undoubtedly crop up sooner or later). Does the book (or seminar) actually cover effectively what it offers in the title? Or does the seminar promise to teach you all the skills of professional business writing in two 4-hour seminar sessions, with a lunch break? (Don't laugh! This one is real. And it only costs $400!). Again, it helps to remember your mother's remarks about common sense!

Good advice tells you how to earn or learn the skills to get you where you want to go. Hype tells you that you can get anywhere you want to go, just by buying the hype. Notice that not one of these books or seminars comes with a written guarantee of a job! If you expect to find the miracle of a career dropped by the stork all pink and fluffy in your lap, okay. To each his own fantasy. That may be how your little brother got here.

Using What You've Learned

We could go on, but now you should have gotten the point. Our guidelines are coming right out of the chapter on sociological method for gathering information. We want to know if the author:

1) Stated a problem that falls within manageable limits.

2) Showed any knowledge of theory which might have a bearing on the problem.

3) Reported the results of other research that has been done on the problem.

4) Actually measured something and studied the problem, or just sat around elaborating on his/her own philosophy.

5) Samples his/her own experience only, limited study to friends, or actually conducted some research.

6) Analyzed the data, starting with theory and following it through to see if the data supported the theory, or just randomly reported anecdotes or advice.

7) Pulled the entire book or seminar together, so that you can come away with a sense of where and how it fits into your career preparation.

In order to provide good advice, a book need not meet all, or even most of these criteria. But, in order for you to understand how to apply the advice, you need to know how well it meets each criteria and how that affects what it means to you.

Yours is the Question

This approach to analyzing advice and information is essential to sort out the societal messages with which we are bombarded continuously. Needless to say, we have kept this analysis at a fairly simple level. But, it should provide you with an adequate general framework from which to begin to question. A good beginning -- for one of the major goals of a liberal arts education is to learn to question effectively.

Enough for now. One does not impart knowledge all at once, fact upon fact, theory upon theory, for mere categorizing and retrieval. Knowledge is to be savored, cherished, lingered over.
We hope we have offered you in this book as much of ourselves and our excitement about learning as we have of our discipline. Now is the time to close the book and make the knowledge your own.