What is best practice in careers education? An outline of the evidence.

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I recently published this article on LinkedIn. It’s an excerpt of some of the literature review work that I’ve been doing for my doctorate and formed the basis of my presentation at this year’s Career Development Association of Australia conference. 

An important pillar of the evidence base of careers education practice is formed by a series of meta-analyses of career intervention studies, published over the last 30 years. These studies have measured the impact of career interventions and explored the influence of different intervention methods and approaches (Baker & Taylor, 1998; Brown & Roche, 2016; Brown & Ryan Krane, 2000; Brown et al., 2003; Oliver & Spokane, 1988; Whiston, Brecheisen, & Stephens, 2003; Whiston et al., 2017; Whiston, Sexton, & Lasoff, 1998).

In these studies, what makes a “career intervention” is defined broadly, as any effort made to improve clients’ career development, which is most often measured as career maturity, career decision-making, vocational identity, or perceptions of environmental factors. Career interventions can be individual or group counselling, workshops, career development classes, the provision of career information and self-help resources, or computer-based or -assisted activities.

These meta-analyses have consistently found that career interventions do indeed help people, to a moderate but statistically significant degree. In the most recent study, Whiston et al. (2017) reported that on average, participants in a career intervention had a 60% chance of attaining a higher outcome measure than members of the control group who didn’t participate in the intervention, a finding consistent with those of previous studies. These studies have also found that repeated interventions are more effective than one-off interventions, group interventions are as effective as individual interventions, and interventions that are facilitated by an expert career development practitioner are more effective than those that are not.

Critical ingredients of career interventions

In a particularly influential study, Brown and Ryan Krane (2000) identified five critical ingredients that had a significant impact on the effectiveness of career interventions:

  • written exercises
  • individualised interpretations and feedback
  •  information on the world of work
  • modelling by more competent others
  •  support from social networks

They found that critical ingredients are most effective when combined, so that interventions that included three or more ingredients were much more effective than those that included only one or two.

Whiston et al. (2017) partially replicated Brown and Ryan Krane’s (2000) findings, supporting the importance of written workbooks, personalised feedback, and world of work information but adding three new critical ingredients that were found to have a greater impact than the original five:

  • counsellor support
  • values clarification
  • psychoeducation (exploring the process of making and working toward decisions).

It is impossible to compare the critical ingredients of Brown and Ryan Krane (2000) with those of Whiston et al. (2017) directly, because they focused on different outcome measures (career maturity and career decision-making self-efficacy, respectively) and Brown and Ryan Krane’s (2000) study did not report the effect sizes or statistical significance of each critical ingredient. This limited replication does not show that critical ingredients are not valid as signposts toward career intervention best practice. Rather, it enriches the value of critical ingredients as key approaches to career interventions, while also highlighting that practitioners and researchers need to treat them critical caution.

Career education best practices

These studies aggregate decades of research and hundreds of career intervention program evaluations. Taken together, they can be used to inform a model of evidence-based best practice in the provision of career education:

●    Repeated interventions are more effective than one-off interventions (Brown & Ryan Krane, 2000; Oliver & Spokane, 1988; Whiston et al., 2017).

●    Interventions facilitated by a career development expert are more effective than self-directed or computer-mediated interventions (Brown & Ryan Krane, 2000 ; Whiston et al., 2003; Whiston & James, 2013; Whiston et al., 2017).

●    Group interventions are at least as effective as individual interventions (Brown & Ryan Krane, 2000 ; Oliver & Spokane, 1988; Whiston et al., 2003; Whiston et al., 2017).

●    Structured group interventions, such as workshops, are more effective than unstructured group interventions, such as group counselling (Whiston et al., 2003).

●    Interventions that include critical ingredients (written exercises, individualised interpretations and feedback, labour market information, modelling from experts, and support from social networks (Brown & Ryan Krane, 2000); counsellor support, values clarification, and psychoeducation (Whiston et al., 2017)) are more effective, particularly in combination with each other, than those that do not.

●    Interventions should be targeted to the needs of specific client groups and incorporate relevant career development theories in full (Hughes, Mann, Barnes, Baldauf, & McKeown, 2016; Miller & Brown, 2004; Whiston & James, 2013).

Putting it to work

Obviously, this evidence base should be used by reflexive career education practitioners as they design, implement, and evaluate their own projects. It can contribute to a “curricular vision” (Bransford, Darling-Hammond, & LePage, 2005, p. 35) of career education which guides decisions about what kinds of transformative career learning outcomes we want for our students and how we can best facilitate them.

But just as importantly, this evidence-base should also be used by career educators to advocate for our profession and support efforts to assert our expertise in our collaborative and consultative roles. It can be used to justify the space we need to take in the curriculum, to have repeated exposure to students, and the time we need to develop relationships with students, promote social learning, and give effective feedback.

Careers and employability educators owe it to their students and themselves to base their work on, and evaluate it against, evidence such as this, and to let their institutional colleagues and communities know all about it.


Bransford, J., Darling-Hammond, L., & LePage, P. (2012). Introduction. In L. Darling-Hammond & J. Bransford (Eds.), Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do (pp. 1–39). Somerset, England: Wiley.

Brown, S. D., & Roche, M. (2016). The Outcomes of Vocational Interventions: Thirty (Some) Years Later. Journal of Career Assessment24(1), 26–41. doi:10.1177/106907271557966

Brown, S. D., & Ryan Krane, N. E. (2000). Four (or five) sessions and a cloud of dust: Old assumptions and new observations about career counseling. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Handbook of counseling psychology (pp. 740–766). New York, NY: Wiley.

Brown, S. D., Ryan Krane, N. E., Brecheisen, J., Castelino, P., Budisin, I., Miller, M., & Edens, L. (2003). Critical ingredients of career choice interventions: More analyses and new hypotheses. Journal of Vocational Behavior62(3), 411–428. doi:10.1016/S0001-8791(02)00052-0

Hughes, D., Mann, A., Barnes, S.-A., Baldauf, B., & McKeown, R. (2016). Careers education: International literature review. Warwick, England: Warwick Institute for Employment Research. Retrieved from http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/80474/

Miller, M. J., & Brown, S. D. (2004). Counseling for career choice: Implications for improving interventions and working with diverse populations. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work (1st ed., pp. 441–465). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Oliver, L. W., & Spokane, A. R. (1988). Career-intervention outcome: What contributes to client gain? Journal of Counseling Psychology35(4), 447. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/cou/35/4/447/

Whiston, S. C., & James, B. N. (2013). Promotion of career choices. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work (2nd ed., pp. 565–594). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Whiston, S. C., Brecheisen, B. K., & Stephens, J. (2003). Does treatment modality affect career counseling effectiveness? Journal of Vocational Behavior62(3), 390–410. doi:10.1016/S0001-8791(02)00050-7

Whiston, S. C., Li, Y., Goodrich Mitts, N., & Wright, L. (2017). Effectiveness of career choice interventions: A meta-analytic replication and extension. Journal of Vocational Behavior100, 175–184. doi:10.1016/j.jvb.2017.03.010

Whiston, S. C., Sexton, T. L., & Lasoff, D. L. (1998). Career-intervention outcome: A replication and extension of Oliver and Spokane (1988). Journal of Counseling Psychology45(2), 150–165. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.45.2.150

Making an impact

I really enjoyed this video that wandered across my social media vision the other day.

It captures the precise moment that the singer, Patrick Bruel, realises how much he has made an impact on people.

He’s clearly had plenty of success in his career by this point, to be playing on such a stage. But even so, he’s surprised and overwhelmed to see thousands of people singing his song. It’s an experience that I would imagine few people get to experience. So much of people’s work these days in anonymous and transactional, which is a shame.

Making a impact as teachers

Educators are fortunate in that they get to see the true impact of their work, something that Taylor Mali powerfully captured in his poem “What Teachers Make”. One of the greatest rewards in a teacher’s career comes when they see a student achieve something and know that they played a part – sometimes incidental, sometimes instrumental – in that person’s success. Often, teachers never actually see the results of their influence, as their contribution is realised many years later or in totally different contexts and environments. As an English teacher, for example, my help in learning to write clearly could one day contribute to a student’s workplace promotion, a publication, or a viral blog post. The link may not be immediate or explicit, but there is one.

Making an impact as a career development educator

For me, one of the great things about being a careers educator is the immediacy of this feedback on my work. I may help a student revise a terrible resume into a good one, and later hear from them that they had been invited to a job interview. Or I may help a student articulate their career goals, and later get a Linkedin invitation from them in the role they dreamed of. I’m proud to know that I made a positive difference in their lives and motivated to keep doing what I can to educate and empower my students.