Recurring Themes in Career Counseling of Gifted and Talented Students

Spring 2002 Masthead

Meredith J. Greene
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT


To move forward in any field it is important to assess its current state, to note issues that remain the same, and to look for new trends. In this review of literature, some research-based and some not, recurring themes in career counseling for gifted and talented students are presented for re-examination.

Choosing a career is a lifelong process that demands accurate perceptions of ability, potential, and achievement (Kelly, 1996). Many career choices must be made during the lifespan, requiring much thought and reflection in the decision-making. A lifelong approach to career development is needed as career plans “are based on a long series of iterative decisions made throughout our lives” (Watts, 1996, p. 46). Career plans must be constantly revised to adapt to a continually changing world.

Different stages exist in career awareness and career maturity (Kelly & Colangelo, 1990; Super, 1980), but central to all of these stages are the common issues of decision-making, development of identity, and exploration. Modern career counseling should teach students self-awareness and decision-making to help them build satisfying lives (Mitchell, Levin, & Krumboltz, 1999) and help in the development of necessary attitudes, skills, and academic pursuits for career exploration and planning.

Research and current literature indicate training and attention in schools to nonacademic issues such as career needs is minimal (Frederickson, 1986; Kelly, 1996; Mitchell, Levin, & Krumboltz, 1999; Moon, Kelly, & Feldhusen, 1997; Perrone, 1997; Watts, 1996). By not addressing the career needs of gifted and talented students in our schools, our society loses potential contributions, and many of these individuals continue to be anxious, confused, or frustrated about their career decisions. Gifted and talented adolescents require more than attention to their academic pursuits. While in the planning phase of career decision-making, individuals in late adolescence are also establishing their identity. A solid sense of self is the underpinning for clarifying plans and aspirations (Chickering & Reisser, 1993) thus, self-concept may be positively related to career; certainty and career planning.

Gifted and talented students may face more challenges in career development than their age-peers due to possible additional psychosocial issues that may affect their sense of identity, including multipotentiality (Kelly & Hall, 1994; Perrone, 1997), early cognitive maturation (Frederickson, 1986; Kelly & Colangelo, 1990), unhealthy perfectionism and stress from the high expectations of significant others (Clark, 1992; Perrone, 1997; Schuler, 2000; Silverman, 1993). Gifted and talented females may also face further challenges in career development (Arnold, Noble, & Subotnik, 1996; Hollinger & Fleming, 1992; Kerr, 1994; Reis, 1998; Rimm, 1999). Some of the literature is research-based and some is not, however the issues above proliferate in discussions of gifted education and talent development.


Multipotentiality is frequently cited as a problem for gifted and talented students in career planning (Clark, 1992; Kelly & Hall, 1994; Perrone, 1997; Silverman, 1993), although little empirical research demonstrates that this is, in fact, the case. In a 1997 study of 1,000 gifted adolescents, Achter, Benbow, and Lubinski found that only 5% truly displayed multipotentiality when above-level assessments of abilities and preferences were used. While intellectual ability was high across many academic subject areas, these multipotential students were actually diverse in their strengths and relative weaknesses, predispositions, and likes or loves for certain subject areas.

According to Berger (1989), the problem facing gifted students in their career planning may not be multipotentiality, but the lack of decision-making skills. Instead of focusing on their many existing abilities, these students should be encouraged to explore other aspects of their lives, such as their values, life-goals, and leisure activities (Stewart, 1999). By doing so, students learn to expand their experiences and develop new talents. Rysiew, Shore, and Carson (1994) assert that career decision-making is not a problem for students with multiple abilities, unless accompanied by multiple interests, motivations, and opportunities. Students are often expected to choose areas of specialization before they have even really experienced post-secondary institutions offerings as fields of study or majors.

Gifted and Talented Females

While many career counseling issues are the same for both genders, the career decision making process for gifted girls may present more challenges than for gifted boys because of girls’ earlier puberty and emotional maturation, along with greater self-concept discrepancies, higher and multiple societal ideals imposed on them and a minority status in some male-dominated occupational settings (Arnold, Noble & Subotnik, 1996; Kerr, 1994; Randall, 1997; Reis, 1998). Unfortunately for gifted girls, many of the same obstacles to career eminence have remained since the 1970s (Reis, 1998).

Some adolescent girls continue to opt out of the most challenging classes and lower their occupational aspirations as they progress through the educational system (Gottfredson, 1981; Reis, 1998), even though academic preparation and aspirations are crucial to college success (Gladieux & Swail, 2000).

Gifted girls tend to have more dominant career orientation, less traditional sex-role orientation, and a greater need to achieve in academic and occupational arenas than other females in general (Wolleat, 1979). While at the same time, the successful integration of career and family is of concern to most females with high career aspirations and is of more concern to females than to males (Reis, 1998). In a study of almost 1,000 college students, Novack and Novack (1996) found that 80% of females planned on attending graduate school and said they would be more committed to their careers than to marriage. However, a potential conflict is evident when one considers that 97% of these young women also said they planned to marry and 92% said they would be willing to make a career sacrifice for their husbands. Appropriate career counseling for females must realistically address both the difficulties and the advantages in successfully combining career and family.

Girls benefit from mentorships, with female mentors when possible, throughout their education (Beck, 1989; Gladieux & Swail, 2000; Reis, 1998). In Beck’s study on the effects of a mentoring program for high school females (1989), she found that career development was the area the most affected by the mentorship, and that females felt more strongly than males that the mentorship helped them look at ways to combine career and family. Kerr (2000), however, believes that all of the work of high school mentoring can be undone in a year and a half at college. Gifted and talented college girls frequently succumb to the culture of romance at this level, realizing that status on campus is most often achieved by having a relationship with “a great guy,” rather than by the pursuit of academic excellence and achievement (Erwin & Stewart, 1997; Kerr, 1994; Reis, 1995).

Unhealthy Perfectionism and High Expectations of Others

Unreasonably high expectations of self and unhealthy or neurotic perfectionism (Schuler, 2000) may lead to problems in choosing a career path (Clark, 1992; Kelly & Hall, 1994; Novack & Novack, 1996; Silverman, 1993). An unhealthy perfectionist can be immobilized because of a desire to be perfect. The pressure to make the perfect career choice, to please significant others, including parents, teachers, and peers, can cause anxiety and fear of failure, which in turn may lead to indecision (Stewart, 1999), delaying decision making about careers, or frequent change of college major (Frederickson, 1986).

Another possibility is that to gain approval or hold love, gifted and talented adolescents may choose to behave according to the expectations of others rather than pursue personal fulfillment (Colozzi & Colozzi, 2000). This preoccupation with the opinions and expectations of others can be an advantage, as in a positive mentoring situation, or a distinct disadvantage. Some gifted and talented students, and in particular females, do not pursue their own dreams because they feel they must conform to the wishes of their parents (Reis, 1998).

Early Cognitive Maturity and Vocational Identity

Super (1980) explains career or vocational maturity as the knowledge of one’s career interests, abilities, and goals in relation to the work world. Gifted students have demonstrated earlier career maturity by being more certain of career choices than other students (Kelly & Colangelo, 1990). This early, and sometimes premature certainty, may actually limit the further exploration of career possibilities, especially in college, where more choices are offered (Frederickson, 1986). Often, academically gifted students choose careers that require 10 or more years of post-secondary training (Stewart, 1999), and if this career decision is made early due to cognitive maturation without synchronous emotional maturation, the adolescent may not be able to consider the long range planning, persistence, and self-sacrifice needed to achieve the intended career goal. Kerr and Colangelo (1988) found that 50% of intellectually gifted college-bound students in their high school study selected majors from only three areas, engineering, health professions, and physical science, even though they were presented with almost 200 possibilities and had self-identified broad extracurricular interests. The long-term training for most professional careers also requires a certain amount of dependence, both financial and emotional, while the gifted population often needs to assert more independence at an earlier age (Silverman, 1993).

Kelly (1992) found that as a group, gifted students perceived fewer career barriers than other students, that gifted boys expressed more interest in a wider range of occupations than gifted girls, and that gifted girls seemed to attain more career information on their own than their male counterparts. Gagné and Poirier (1990) studied over 400 eighth and twelfth graders and found that over half of the students made their career choices based on limited personal knowledge of only 10 professions. Appropriate and ongoing career counseling could help many young students who know little about the changing nature of the work world or the myriad of occupations in it.


There are many opposing beliefs about the nature of what counts as educational knowledge, for instance research-based studies versus reviews of literature, but what is certain is that there is much more that we need to know about career counseling for the diverse gifted and talented population. To provide appropriate career counseling for all gifted and talented students, additional areas seldom addressed in the existing literature need to be further explored. Areas of future consideration should include:

  • the career needs of gifted and talented students who underachieve;
  • the emphasis on college for gifted students;
  • members of special populations of gifted and talented such as:
    • emotionally gifted,
    • creatively gifted,
    • disadvantaged,
    • gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender;
  • the importance of chance in career development.

A lifespan approach to career counseling is crucial, acknowledging that occupational interests, competencies, creativity, and preferences may indeed change over time. Career counseling must also be tailored for individual needs of a diverse population. A collaborative career counseling effort among counselors, parents, and teachers can help each student develop a personal definition of identity, achievement, and career success after careful self-analysis of abilities, life goals, and occupational possibilities.

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