Career Guidance: Metaphors Matter.

Are you a career practitioner? Perhaps you are part of a careers counselling team in a Higher Education (HE) workplace? If you are, then every day you listen, support, and guide a multicultural and multi-generational mix of students and graduates in their decision making and planning of their education, career, and working life. You understand that their values, qualities, and varied experiences of life influence their education choices and career plans. You also recognise that people conceive, design, develop, and organise their career futures through personal stories in dialogue with themselves or others such as their career counsellor.

Listen to Lachlan’s story

Narratives are infused with metaphors

Students and graduates like Lachlan tell stories of their lived experience that are peppered with dreams and aspirations. Through these narratives they convey their self-conscious in language infused with metaphoric frames that organise and go on to dominate their perspective. Inkson (2004, 2006) categorised nine metaphors of career as inheritance, construction, a cycle, matching, a journey, encounters and relationships, roles, a resource, and a story and in later research explored boundaryless and protean careers. Such metaphors may facilitate and highlight or alternatively, bias and obscure understanding of client, practitioner, or both.

Career counselling involves vocational decision-making and this is framed by the social context and personal values of the individual; in other words, their sense of reality or world view. These background assumptions can be examined through metaphor identification. In our research of Australian and Norwegian HE students and graduates (Creed & Nacey, accepted), we examined the language students and graduates used to talk about education, career, and future working life and identified metaphors using the Metaphor Identification Procedure VU University Amsterdam.

We found many similarities, for example:

containerEDUCATION IS A CONTAINER

Here, Kate and Guro talk about education framed as an object/container with an inside and an outside:

  • [Kate] It is sort of exciting to think that I can go out there and change things.
  • [Guro] I tillegg til at vi har lengre perioder ute i praksis.
    In addition to our having longer periods out in practice

givingEDUCATION IS AN ACTION

Fiona and Lise Helen frame education as an action of giving:

  • [Fiona] The opportunities that study is giving me and the extra skills that study is giving me, it’s opening up more doors.
  • [Lise Helen] Og det gir oss god erfaring i forhold til hva vi faktisk måtte møte i det ordentlige arbeidslivet.
  • And it (my studies) gives us good experience with respect to what we actually will meet out in the real working life.

constructionEDUCATION IS CONSTRUCTION

And, Armando and Magnus talk about their HE experience in terms of building processes:

  • [Armando]I would recommend USQ because there is the support and the environment which is very great for learning.
  • [Magnus] Med bakgrunn fra 7 år i rørleggerfaget var det naturlig for meg … å bygge videre på min tidligere utdannelse.
  • With my background in plumbing, it was natural for me … to further build on my previous education.

But we also found some differences, for example:

takingEDUCATION IS AN ACTION

Here, Stephen takes his education for a particular purpose whereas Daniel takes education more or less as a means in itself; both involving physical action:

  • [Stephen] In my future, I’d like to take what I’ve learnt from anthropology and combine it with my law career.
  • [Daniel]Du kan med denne utdanningen her ta mange forskjellige jobber.
    You can take many different jobs with this education.

making friendsEDUCATION IS AN ACTION

And, in this example, Sam talks about his HE relationships and encounters that could include networking as an active process in contrast to Kristian whose language more passive receipt:

  • [Sam]I’ve just learnt so much here and have made lots of good friends
  • [Kristian] Det er derfor …lett å nye studievenner
    It is therefore easy to ‘receive’ new study friends

And there were surprises, for example:

Interestingly, although we did find the metaphor of A JOURNEY was used to talk about career and working life, it was not a frequent feature of the student and graduate narratives.  For instance, here Damien considers his graduation and Kari reflects on her career:

journeyCAREER AND WORKING LIFE ARE A JOURNEY

  • …today is the final part of the journey [and] I think it signifies the next part of the journey [Damien]
  • Min karrierevei har vært preget av utfordringer [Kari]
  • My career path has been characterized [lit: stamped] by challenges

Implications for practice.

An awareness of metaphorical language has practical implications for career practitioners in their everyday communication and interactions with clients because metaphors provide a window to background assumptions and conventions. I should point out that this is not a one-way street; an understanding of metaphor provides practitioners with insight about their own theoretical frames of education, career, and working life. Therefore, when we talk about education in terms of physical motion (i.e.., EDUCATION IS AN ACTION), learning and teaching can be understood as involving a human action of providing someone with something that is taken and becomes EDUCATION IS A POSSESSION.

In our examples, a human action served as the frame of a metaphorical giving and taking scenario. Here, the entity of a university and/or the even more abstract entity of education is ‘performing’ the action of giving EDUCATION AS A RESOURCE. The ‘resource’ being provided to the student for their ‘possession’ is an opportunity and experience that they will be able to apply to their future career development and working life. As a career counsellor, consider the different entailment’s of EDUCATION IS AN ACTION (i.e., A POSSESSION or A RESOURCE). It it is important to be aware that metaphors may be expressed, reflected, or reinforced by those in positions of power or authority. This has implications for our own career guidance communication.  For instance, explicitly highlighting such a difference may prove beneficial in situations involving career guidance, as a student could be prompted to consciously reflect upon their reasons for enrolling in a particular program and the future utility of their degree.

Given the internationalisation of higher education, we propose that metaphor identification and conceptual analysis should be introduced to career counselling and guidance literature to help practitioners explore and understand the student and graduate narrative (and their own) leading from education to career development and working life.

Forthcoming publication: Creed, A., & Nacey, S. L. (accepted). An investigation of metaphor usage in career and working life: Introducing the MIPVU methodology. In P. McIlveen (Ed.), Radical social constructionism. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Sense.

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