Professional Identity: how we make meanings

Although I have just joined the Centre as a Senior Teacher Fellow in Career Studies, my association with the university as a learner goes back some way.  My learning journey culminated more recently when I gained my PhD from the Institute for Employment Research in July 2018.  Completing a PhD part-time, at the same time as having a busy teaching and then management role in another university, was a bit like running a marathon: you keep thinking the finishing line must be close, and you just need to keep going!

My PhD explored the ways in which career development practitioners have formed and grown their sense of professionalism and professional identity.  I wanted to pursue this research for a number of reasons.  Firstly, the profession, in common with sectors such as health, social care and education, has been badly affected by austerity measures, as well as the constant recasting of provision, most notably in the wake of the Education Act (2011).  Secondly, the discourse concerning the profession has been, in many respects, rather gloomy, and cast its practitioners as deprofessionalised victims of neo-liberalism.  Thirdly, the sector is seen as fragmented along service provision lines, e.g., practitioners who work in schools and colleges are ‘different’ from those who work within universities or community settings.  And finally, I’ve had the privilege of working at a senior level within professional associations, and I wanted to explore the insights I had gained into the professionalism and identity of career development practitioners.

My method for gathering data was based on a strand of Grounded Theory Method (GTM).  I wanted to explore, ‘from the ground up’, the ways in which practitioners conceived of their role and identity within organisational and policy contexts.  In addition – and this part of my own professional background – I love listening to people’s stories.  Telling stories is such a universal impulse in all human cultures.  I heard many inspiring narratives which I treated with the utmost respect when analysing them for patterns and codes.

I found that the practitioners did share a common professional identity.  Its main core was a very strong commitment to helping clients make transformative choices that were right for them, and to developing labour market expertise as a way of supporting choice and remaining client-centered.

What is also interesting – especially in England – is how a new role in schools, that of Careers Leader, has added further complexity to notions of professionalism and identity.  In my experience, ‘teaching teachers’ about career development has helped them to review their professional stance, and renewed their commitment to facilitative, learner-centered learning.  As a result, I am keen to explore the implications that being a careers leader has for the individuals’ sense of professional identity.

Finally, my research also emphasised how knowledgeable and empowered the practitioners felt when making a difference to the clients they serve, and the organisations of which they are a key part.


About the blogger

Dr John Gough is  is a Senior Teacher Fellow in Career Studies. John’s research – including his PhD, which he gained from the Institute of Employment Research – shows his interest in professionalism and professional identity, and the ways in which people exercise their agency within complex organisational and socio-political contexts

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