Occupational Card Sort

Occupational Card SortsThe occupational card sort is a technique used by career counselors to assist persons who are unclear about their present or future vocational choice. It accomplishes this by (1) increasing the range and quality of information about self and about specific occupations, (2) expanding or narrowing the range of occupations being considered, and (3) encouraging further self and career exploration.

The occupational card sort is made up of a deck of cards, most often with occupational titles on one side and various types of information about the occupational titles on the reverse side. That information might include the definition of the occupation and various groupings or classifications of the occupation, such as the Holland Occupational Code, the World of Work classification, or data from the O*Net system. While occupational titles are the most common element on the front of such cards, other developers have used skills, values, or college majors as the items to be sorted.

The typical process used for the occupational card sort is to have the client sort the cards into three piles: Might Choose, Probably Would Not Choose, or Undecided. A simple instruction would be to have clients rank their top 10 occupations from their Might Choose pile. In some uses of the deck, the counselor will use the codes on the back of the Might Choose pile to derive a summary code, for example, a Holland Occupational Code. Several studies have found this to be an adequate method for deriving such a code, though there has been controversy over whether or not the deck should be used in this fashion. Some argue that if all that is desired is a simple code, instruments developed for that purpose should be used instead, and that the best use of the card sort is to gather more in-depth information or to initiate discussion or thinking about vocational issues.

To accomplish this, many counselors have their clients further sort their cards, for example, sorting only the cards they considered for their Might Choose pile into several piles representing the various reasons why they most liked the occupations. One subpile might represent occupations chosen because they would allow the client to help others, another might be a pile of occupations they believe would allow them to have a flexible combination of work and family life, and so on. As clients discuss their reasons with the counselor, it can open up discussion about the relative importance of various choice mechanisms. It can also alert the counselor to any obvious misinformation the client might have about the world of work.

Some counselors use the cards as stimuli for discussion, having clients go into great detail about their thinking about each card. For example, a client might put the card “Teacher” in their Would Probably Not Choose pile. With prompting on the part of the counselor, clients might be able to identify several issues that are playing themselves out in their deliberations about many occupations, not just teacher.

There are many attractive features of occupational card sorts, including the active level of involvement of the client, the immediacy of the results, the low cost, and the less formal atmosphere compared to paper and pencil or computerized testing. By having to generate their own reasons for why the occupational titles ended up in one pile or another, clients are actively engaged in creating the data and are manipulating the data in their heads, conjuring up images, and making greater distinctions and connections. The results of this process may allow the client to have a greater sense of ownership of the results and to feel a greater sense of accomplishment in the process. This is in contrast to a computer-scored inventory that does most of the processing for clients, the result of which is simply given to clients, without their having to do much reasoning. Finally, card sorts can promote a greater interaction with a counselor, which could bring about greater clarification of values and interests, gender role stereotypes, and other limiting beliefs. In fact, some of the early occupational card sorts were developed as a means of addressing gender role stereotypes, not just in the popular beliefs of clients, but in interest inventories themselves.

Occupational card sorts provide a process-oriented alternative to paper and pencil and computerized methods of assessment and exploration. As such, they can be particularly useful when working with persons who produce flat interest profiles or for whom none of the more traditional forms of career counseling seem to work. They are sometimes described as belonging to the group of more subjective, qualitative, or even projective methods of assessment, as contrasted with objective or quantitative methods.

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  1. Hartung, P. J. 1999. “Interest Assessment Using Card Sorts.” Pp. 235-252 in Vocational Interests: Meaning, Measure­ment, and Counseling Use, edited by M. L. Savickas and A. R. Spokane. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black/Consulting Psychologists Press.
  2. Slaney, R. B. and MacKinnon-Slaney, F. 1999. “Using Vocational Card Sorts in Career Counseling.” Pp. 371-428 in Testing and Assessment in Counseling Practice, 2d ed., edited by V. L. Campbell and C. E. Watkins Jr. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  3. Slaney, R. B., Moran, W. J. and Wade, J. C. 1995. “Vocational Card Sorts.” Pp. 347-360 in A Counselor’s Guide to Career Assessment Instruments. 3rd ed., edited by M. M. Mastie and J. T. Kapes. Columbus, OH: National Career Development Association.
  4. Tyler, L. E. 1961. “Research Explorations in the Realm of Choice.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 8:195-201.