Goodwin's thoroughly irreverent critique of career testing
Considering a career change
but don't know what to do next?
Midlife, mid-career clients often begin their search by asking,
"Can I take a test to learn what career wold be best for
The answer is, "Maybe."
Career coaches and counselors are divided on the subject of
tests. Some insist that all their clients undergo a battery
of tests. Others dismiss tests entirely. One career counselor
says, "I can learn more about a person from astrology than
from any personality tests." One coach asks clients to define
themselves as "earth, wind, fire or water."
Before you pay for testing, I encourage you to ask what
you hope to gain from the time and money you invest. Be aware
of the limits on what tests can do for you. After all, if you
could just take a battery of tests to forecast your future, we
wouldn't hear from so many job-frustrated people!
why don't tests have all the answers?
is much more than a series of skills. Every
career or profession includes an ambience - style, working conditions,
flexibility of time. Often it's not the work itself that drives
people out of the field. It's the "other stuff."
Take teaching, for example. You love kids and want to work with
them and you don't mind earning less than your corporate counterparts.
Your workday ends at three and you get summers off. You get a
decent pension and great benefits.
However, that's not the whole story.
Your day begins as early as 6:30 AM.
You give up a lot of personal freedom. There's no phone on your
desk to make a call home -- and certainly no privacy to talk.
A quick trip to the bathroom? Someone has to cover the class.
The students go home at three - but you have papers to grade,
meetings to attend, and perhaps a rehearsal to direct. Your school
district rewards test results, not creative learning.
Another example. Now let's say you like to earn money
and solve math problems. Are you ready for a CFO job? Each company
has its own culture, of course, but in general the business world
values image and style. You have to be comfortable moving through
a hierarchy and giving the appearance of respecting authority.
Bottom line: Your aptitudes and values may drive you to
teaching, but you will soon be searching for a new career if
you are a night person who also values workplace autonomy.
you have been working a long time, tests often show you are perfect
for the job you hold now.
After all these years, you've probably internalized values and
attitudes of your profession -- and you obviously have enough
aptitude to remain employed! Clients frequently come to me after
paying hundreds, even thousands of dollars for midlife, mid-career
testing. "A waste," they say ruefully.
On the other hand, your college-age children may benefit from
testing, especially if they are thoroughly confused about their
first career moves. College testing centers often employ high
quality professionals because they train counseling students
may not help you balance tradeoffs. Your
aptitude and values may point you to a nature-loving outdoor
career, but you realize there are few jobs available and those
won't pay enough to live on. You have to be creative if you're
going to make this combination work. The question, "How
can I enjoy my love of nature and still earn a good living?"
might best be discussed in a series of one-to-one conversations
with someone who understands the career jungle.
On the other hand, strong motivation can compensate for low
aptitude. In her book Crossing Avalon, Jean Shinoda
Bolen writes of her determination to become a doctor, following
a strong religious experience just before she entered college.
Bolen easily aced her liberal arts courses but struggled with
sciences. At one point she received a midterm "D" grade
in a zoology course. Yet she was accepted to a fine medical school
and became a respected psychiatrist, Jungian therapist and best-selling
In a corporate setting,
what appears to be test effectiveness may be self-fulfilling
Corp administers aptitude tests to all applicants for sales positions.
Only those who achieve a score of 80 out of 100 are hired. Those
who earn 95 or higher are identified as high-potential superstars
and sent off to special training. Managers, of course, see scores
of their new hires, and they report a strong correlation between
sales success and scores.
If you really wanted to test the tests, you'd administer tests
to all applicants, hire a sample regardless of scores, and refuse
to disclose test scores to supervising managers and trainers.
Few companies would be willing to do this.
However, in one study, researchers told high school teachers,
"Here is a list of IQ scores for your class." In reality,
the "scores" were locker numbers! Those with higher
locker numbers mysteriously out-performed those with lower numbers.
The teachers tried to be
fair, but anyone who has taped a classroom knows teachers can
give subtle cues of approval, disapproval and support. Managers
can do the same.
You probably can't refuse to take a corporate test, but you may
be in a position to ask some tough questions.
you spend money on tests, ask these three questions.
(1) Do you need to
take tests to obtain this information? If
you've been a successful accountant for ten years, you probably
have a knack for numbers and details. However, testing may enhance
your confidence if you feel shaky.
Elaine, a top executive in a Fortune 100 company, had been promoted
to vice president in a male-dominated specialty. However, Elaine
was getting nervous. There were only three or four departments
like hers in the entire country and, if her job ended, so would
Elaine visited a career counselor who began with a battery of
"The tests show I'm very organized and I'm a good manager,"
she reported happily.
Elaine dealt with thousands of pieces of paper each week and
had been a highly-paid manager for over ten years. Her friends
were not at all surprised by Elaine's test scores. However, Elaine
had received little praise or validation from her own management.
She wanted those test scores to bolster her confidence as she
began her midlife career exploration.
Who will be administering these tests? University
counselors work with bewildered undergraduates seeking their
first jobs. Outplacement counselors work with experienced corporate
executives, many of whom want a job just like the one they left.
Find a service where you resemble the other clients.
Tests must be interpreted to be useful. If your counselor
starts to gush about your intelligence or creativity, you may
indeed be the next Einstein or Michelangelo -- or you may be
in the wrong testing center. If your counselor hopes to sell
you on follow-up sessions, she'll be highly motivated to come
up with a story that leaves you feeling confident and appreciated.
Often test results are written so ambiguously that they could
apply to almost anyone -- a frequent critique of both astrology
and Myers-Briggs. Overly specific recommendations can be equally
useless. What will you do if the tests suggest you should become
a police officer or a funeral director?
Have some fun. Pick any of the sixteen Myers-Briggs
profiles. Ask a few friends to take a test. Pretend to score
the test and then hand your friends the profile you chose at
random. Nearly every time, your friends will say, "That's
However, be careful. Studies also show that people have trouble
shaking their beliefs in bogus feedback, even when they're told
(3) Who designed these tests?
Some assessments are carefully designed while others have no
more value than a light-hearted quiz from a popular magazine.
If you are asked to complete an assessment or test, don't be
shy about asking questions. If you want to push some buttons,
ask about reliability and validity. Ask whether the test was
"normed" on a population that shares your demographic
is a bogus concept.
As we have seen, there are many reasons you might say, "That's
me! How accurate!"
One skeptic has put together or a
Bottom Line: Alas, there is no magic genie who
can direct you to a new career. Tests may feel more scientific
suggests that career-changers to listen for messages from serendipity
particular, when learning to navigate a new career world, you
need to develop creative strategies that allow you to plan realistically
while remaining open to surprises that, ultimately, change your
Cathy Goodwin, Ph.D.
Author, Career Consultant, Speaker
*Fast Track to Career Freedom*