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Not sure what you’d be best at? Take the test

Caroline Gould (right) spoke with student Megan Strathearn about an assessment test at the UMass Career Services office. Caroline Gould (right) spoke with student Megan Strathearn about an assessment test at the UMass Career Services office. (Nancy Palmieri for The Boston Globe)
By Aubin Tyler
Globe Correspondent / October 10, 2010

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Like many new college graduates, Megan Strathearn wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her career.

After graduating last May with an English degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Strathearn took a summer campus job that involved working on a series of articles about transforming a major into a career. An online self-assessment test, one of several offered at the university’s career services office, helped clarify her own interests.

“One was ‘clergy,’ ’’ she said with a laugh. “That was a ‘No!’ But another was ‘instructional technology teacher,’ — that was dead on!’’

Strathearn is now back at UMass Amherst, in a graduate school program on secondary education, taking classes in intelligent tutoring systems and computer-mediated education as part of her specialization in learning technology. An assistantship pays for her schooling and she works on campus part-time for the information technology department. The assessment, it seems so far, was spot on.

“I love what I’m doing right now,’’ the 22-year-old from Connecticut said.

Career counselors and other professionals argue that career tests can be highly useful to help people stuck over job decisions.

“There are innumerable choices, and humans don’t work well with a lot of choices,’’ said Caroline Gould, assistant director for career planning at UMass Career Services, who worked with Strathearn. “A lot of what we try to do is say ‘Get out there and try something.’ That has two great outcomes: ‘I loved it’ or ‘I hated it.’ ’’

Gould tries to help students understand where they are on four different points: values, interests, skills, and personality. For example, with skills, just because people are good at a particular thing does not mean they should make a career of it if they don’t have clear motivation to pursue that, Gould said.

“If an interest is that important, have you looked at it as a career choice?’’ she asked. “But be careful about mixing your life’s work with your hobby. Some people work to live and some live to work. You may have to go out and try it, which is why I’m an advocate of getting out and trying things.’’

In other instances, Gould starts by asking students what ideas they’ve rejected. “I had a student who wanted to be a sports photographer, but she threw that idea out. It turns out she convinced herself that she couldn’t do it. I always say, ‘What do you mean you can’t do it? Get out there!’ ’’

The range of clients whom Cori Ashworth counsels run from students unsure about their career goals to mid-career workers exploring other careers or trying to reposition themselves in their field. From her Amherst company, Career Continuum, Ashworth uses several different tests, including the widely used personality assessment, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Strong Interest Inventory, which give clients information about their similarity to people from six different occupational groupings: artistic, investigative, social, enterprising, conventional, and realistic. The Strong inventory gives a three-letter code tied to the Department of Labor’s Dictionary of Occupational Titles.

Ashworth also recommended using an online assessment called StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath. It has a positive-psychology focus based on innate strengths and talents, “building from what you’re good at, to what’s natural for you, so you can control your own future,’’ she said. “It’s well respected. You can buy the book, go online to take the measurements and ideas for action, and walk away feeling affirmed.’’

Myers-Briggs is the classic of the field, developed by Katharine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers. In the early 1920s, Briggs began to study the ideas in “Psychological Types,’’ by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Several decades later, Isabel Myers developed a paper-and-pencil questionnaire to assess personality type and explain normal differences between healthy people, based on Jung’s work. The test moved from the research arena into practical use in 1975.

The test assesses personality type based on how people express their preferences on four opposite pairs: extroversion and introversion, sensing and intuition, thinking and feeling, judgment and perception.

These eight mental processes have 16 possible combinations, depending on which processes predominate:

For example, perceivers may be happy with ambiguity or may want more information before making a decision. Sensing-types perceive based on factual, concrete realities, while intuitive people tend to see the big picture and are imaginative and verbally creative. Thinkers used objective or logical methods, while feeling types rely on more subjective elements.

Rachel Love, 22, took the Myers-Briggs after graduating from Smith College with a bachelor of arts in English literature and international relations in May 2009. “I knew I would like to teach,’’ she said, “but I was seeking a way to narrow the field.’’

Myers-Briggs told her she was an ENFP — Extrovert, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving. “It reinforced what sort of work environment I thought I’d like — open, valuing ideals,’’ she said. “The path was clarified if not the ending point.’’ Love is now entering her second year in Milan, teaching English part-time to high school students.

Smith’s director of career development, Stacie Hagenbaugh, said she uses both Myers-Briggs and another test, SkillScan, a card sort that helps students prioritize skill sets. “We use it judiciously when a student hasn’t identified her skills. Knowing their skills lets them articulate to an employer what it is they are bringing to the table.’’

At UMass, Gould said she tries to use Myers-Briggs sparingly. “I only give this to people invested in searching their souls,’’ Gould said.

Strathearn took Myers-Briggs as part of her summer job, helping other students find their career objectives, and found the results empowering.

“It gave me the words to explain my strengths to others, which is such a big part of the job interview,’’ she said.