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Careers Café

Testing out vocational tests


I recently had a peek at a new career assessment, and it has me thinking about the benefits and pitfalls of vocational assessments in general.

If you’re considering using career assessments, make sure they’re only part of your plan for exploring career options, because they only illuminate part of the picture. Vocational assessments typically look at some slice of a person (interests, values, personality as defined by the assessment developers), and compare it to a narrow range of careers. On the plus side, good assessments are very clear about what they measure and what they don’t.  So you’ll know that the careers that the Strong Interest Inventory suggests as good matches are based on your interests alone, for example. Assessments also typically refer to a broader range of careers than you might already have on your short list. Still, for a career assessment to be manageable, it has to draw from a pretty small percentage of the 13 000+ job titles out there.

Career assessments that direct you to job titles also have to assume a certain amount of uniformity in terms of how each job title is performed. But knowing that “electrical engineer” showed up on a career assessment as a good match doesn’t necessarily tell you whether you’d be happy working in a large, medium or small organization, or as an entrepreneur; whether you’d be happiest having a lot of contact with clients, a lot of contact with colleagues, or not much contact with anyone; whether you’d like your expertise to be as broad or as deep as possible within your field; or other factors that impact what being an electrical engineer might actually be like from day to day.

If you’re in the midst of feeling profoundly dissatisfied with a certain career, it can also be difficult to answer questions on an assessment with an open mind. It’s hard to avoid answering in a way that will prevent your current occupation from showing up in your top results.

The results of career assessments can seem so very authoritative, but those results are really just the starting point. They can suggest careers to research that you might not have thought of. They can make you aware of whether it would be valuable to do some extra research into careers that appeal to you, yet seem to be “poor” matches, according to the assessment. But in all cases, their conclusions should be treated as hypotheses.

There are some really sound assessments out there, and your average university career centre will stick with ones that have good reliability and validity, and that have been normed against populations that make sense for their student body. Just make sure that taking “tests” doesn’t replace the process of testing out your assumptions about the work you might like to do.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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