The Language of Career Development

I would like to spend a moment thinking about terminology, and not just because I am a linguist, but because words matter.  The words we choose to talk about this process will inform how we think about it.  They will shape our agency and reflect presuppositions that we make about why it matters. So, if the word that I use to describe what we do as  ‘career development,’ what words have I chosen NOT to use to think about what we are doing here?

Let’s start with the second part of this compound: ‘development.’   The work that you will do in adopting a deeper view of career (or vocation, or profession – more on these terms later), by bringing theory to practice in looking at the linguistic construction of meaning through narrative is to articulate your agency, purpose, and identity.   I understand these activities to comprise a process of Career Development.  However, we could also use the term Career Exploration because we deliberately create and maintain a space to freely explore and test out different career ideas, not the least of which because it is hard to develop something when you are not yet sure what that something is.

Along the same semantic lines, I also like the idea that we work with you to build a professional sense of self, so why not use the term Career Building?  Well, I guess it is because I am not entirely sure if I like the frame that ‘building’ invokes in the work context.  I feel that the insights we explore are of use regardless of stage of career, and while I am happy to think about ‘building’ in the information-gathering and materials creation phases, in the work context, ’building’ seems to presuppose upward growth (building a house, for example), which feels like it can be limiting in scope and trajectory.  Not all of us are building or growing in the same direction (perhaps I am starting to reveal some of my own orientations to the process). I will refer you to literature on work orientation and work world centrality of this is something you want to investigate further and also avoid the term ‘building,’ at least for now.

Since I am not a career counselor, this is not Career Counseling either, so I am left with ‘development,’ which I like because development can be internal, it can be behind-the-scenes, and it is internal

But so much for why I like ‘development’ – let’s move on to ‘career’,’ the first part of the compound.

Well, in engaging these conversations, I actually connect quite strongly with the term ‘vocation,’ more strongly in fact than I do with ‘career’ or ‘profession’ or ‘occupation.’ ‘Vocation’ entails a sense of having been drawn to, called to, or trained and qualified for something.  When I use the term, I use it to mean finding one’s sense of purpose, finding expression for your gifts and getting trained to pursue your calling.  Thus, I feel very comfortable using Vocation Discernment and Vocational Design to describe what we do, but a Google search of these terms reveals that the top ten hits are for Catholic organizations. I happen to have been raised Catholic and teach at a Catholic institution, and while this term is not only used in religious contexts, such meanings are contained in its history.  I do not wish to suggest that the work we do is explicitly denominational, or even religious, so in order to avoid some of these unwanted intertextual associations, I will avoid ‘vocation.’

As for the rest of the terms: ‘profession,’ ‘occupation,’ ‘job,’ ‘work,’ and ‘career’ are all frequently used interchangeably.  Technically speaking, a ‘profession’ is an occupation that requires specialized training and accreditation.  Membership is regulated by professional governing bodies.  When people use the adjectival form ‘professional’ to modify a term like ‘development’, for example, the scope is broadened, but I choose to talk about ‘career’ to avoid a perceived limitation of the discussion to contexts such as medicine, education, or law for example.

When I use the word ‘job,’ I tend to use it to describe specific responsibilities of an individual as ascribed by their role within an organization, and because I wish to engage the discussion at a higher level, I like ‘career’ more than I like ‘work’ or ‘job.’  While I do recognize that there are many reasons to work for the sake of working, or to have a job that is not necessarily resonant with one’s ultimate calling, the work that I am inspired to do with students involves helping them make steps towards a professional life that involves more of the latter, so I use the term ‘career.’

Thus concludes our whirlwind tour of career nomenclature (I am not going to touch other possibilities like Career Planning  or Talent Management). I hope that this has helped a bit to clarify not just what I think about but why and how, and why it matters.


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