Choosing a Vocation

Book Review By William C. Briddick

In the summer of 1908 Frank Parsons lay dying in a nondescript boarding house room in Boston. The race was on between a workaholic and mortality. After spending his childhood in Mount Holly, New Jersey and obtaining an Ivy League education, Frank Parsons embarked on an occupational odyssey from engineer, to laborer, school teacher, to attorney, to college professor, to economist, to political scientist, to social reformer. Frank Parsons completed his manuscript before he passed away and it was published in 1909, a year after his death. Choosing a Vocation became a landmark text for vocational counseling. Years later E. G. Williamson transformed Parsons's ideas into one of the first theories for the emerging profession of counseling.

Choosing a Vocation was hardly the first book to talk about the significance of vocational choice. However, Parsons's work arrived at a unique, historic moment when genius was befriended by zeitgeist and the scientific method was increasingly valued. Choosing a Vocation was a how-to manual for professionals who would eventually staff vocational bureaus and related settings.

The first part of the book provides an overview of what Parsons referred to as his "principles and methods" for gathering personal information from clients including detailed interview questions. Parsons describes his aims behind the gathering of such information and explains how his particular method of questioning enables the counselor to assess a client's interests, aptitudes as well as their readiness or potential for wise decision making. Seven steps are offered for a vocational counselor to use. The second part of Choosing a Vocation describes vocational information and resources from Parsons's era. It also lists basic skills or abilities that Parsons believed were necessary for success in different occupations. Parsons provides statistics related to particular lines of employment, classifications of the various kinds of vocations, vocations particularly suitable for women, the demand for workers in particular industries or occupations, and how particular vocations were distributed across the country geographically. The last part provides a history of the founding of the Vocation Bureau. Parsons was scheduled to begin training vocational counselors at the YMCA in Boston in October of 1908, but died a few days short of the first class. This part of the book describes the anticipated training process, materials utilized in the work of the Bureau, and case studies of actual clients who utilized the services of the Bureau.

In the conclusion of Choosing a Vocation, Frank Parsons encouraged his readers to capitalize on the period of expeditious growth found during youth, seizing upon it for the cultivation and development of the well-rounded individual, prepared to enter the world of work. Parsons explained that, when society realized its role in the preparation of future generations, it would realize its potential in tapping the true talents and resources of youth. When that era of enlightened awareness finally arrived, Parsons envisioned education at the heart of society with vocation bureaus in schools nationwide staffed with professionals as thoroughly prepared as attorneys or physicians.

Choosing a Vocation is a classic text and one still worthy of study almost 100 years after its publication. Some original questions asked by Parsons, by today's standards, might be deemed insignificant, irrelevant, or intrusive. His interactions with clients were at times quite directive, far removed from the person centered methods utilized today. Likewise, the statistical data and occupational information is dated, as are the supplemental materials. However, these materials, along with the case studies, illustrate the significance of both accurate occupational information and case studies in counselor training and career/vocational counseling.

As the 100th anniversary of the passing of Frank Parson approaches, we must realize that we are no longer his students. Choosing a Vocation is more than a required text, recommended reading, or a personal curiosity. We are the heirs of inspiration, paradigm, and everything that lies beyond it. The frail bachelor with brow furrowed in thought still shoulders a vantage point for our professional soles and souls alike. From this pinnacle, in the months ahead, may we rediscover his enduring vision of helping the poor, the underserved, and the immigrant, the legacy of Frank Parsons.


Parsons, F. (1909). Choosing a vocation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

William C. Briddick, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Counseling and Human Resource Development program at South Dakota State University. He is founder of the Historical Issues in Counseling Network within the American Counseling Association and a member of NCDA. In 2000, he began an extensive research project on Frank Parsons' life and contributions to the counseling profession. He can be reached at Chris.Briddick@SDSTATE.EDU

Frank Parson's book, Choosing a Vocation, is available in the NCDA online Career Resource Store .

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