Expanding Secondary Student Career Options Through Career Constellations

By Jennifer R. Curry and Dawn Mann

Donald Super (1953) wrote that adolescence is a time of career exploration with the outcome of a career goal, a process Super termed crystallization. Making a career decision, and establishing such a goal, includes evaluating information related to one’s interests, aptitudes, values, and post-secondary options. Students transitioning from middle to high school are often asked to construct a career goal and choose a secondary pathway that will align to post-secondary education and training.  One way to help students ascertain a career goal during the middle-to-high school transition is to begin with their career interests (Holland, 1973).

Assessing Student Interests

To assess students’ career interests, some schools and districts have purchased specific assessments which may be included in management systems for student career development and academic alignment (e.g., Naviance, Xello). However, when funds are not available, there are also free assessments that may be used to aid students in understanding their career interests. One such assessment is the O*NET Interest Profiler (O*NET, 2023b) which produces a Holland-type profile (i.e., RIASEC code) and allows students to choose a job zone (indicating preferred years of education or training tolerance). After students complete the assessment, lists of potential careers for exploration that align to their RIASEC codes and job zones are generated.

Another free interest-based assessment is the Career Cluster Interest survey. There are many inventories available including Education Planner, CareerWise at Minnesota State, and North Carolina’s Career Cluster Survey (see Table 1 for a list of Cluster Surveys). These surveys provide a rank-ordered list of an individual’s career interests. Once the list is generated, students can review Career Clusters on O*NET in their rank order. For example, if a student’s top three Career Clusters are: (1) Architecture & Construction, (2) Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources, and (3) Transportation, Distribution, and Logistics, the student would search careers of interest in the first career cluster,  and then create a short list of careers to investigate on Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) or O*NET (2023a). 

Constellations Instead of Lines

After assessing students’ interests, it is important to assist them in connecting interests to occupational options. To do this, counselors can assist students in viewing careers as constellations rather than a linear process. Although students are often placed on a pathway for high school that aligns to post-secondary educational options, counselors still want students to see a myriad of opportunities that align with their secondary pathways. For example, consider a student who chooses a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) CTE pathway in high school. The student might be advised to pursue postsecondary education aligned to this high school track that includes becoming a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or a Registered Nurse (RN). This is not misinformation, but it is linear, as seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Linear Process from CNA to LPN to RN

Curry Mann Figure 1

The linear pathways allowed for limited options. Comparatively, a career constellation would assist the same student in broader and deeper career exploration by allowing the student to review careers within the same career cluster to identify similar careers and expand career options. Figure 2 demonstrates a career constellation for a student exploring a career as a CNA. From the secondary CNA track, the associate degree-level post-secondary options (within the same cluster) are included that aligned to the student’s interest profile, while also comparing the payoff (information from OOH, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022). For contrast, the careers listed in the career constellation in Figure 2 present a range of payoffs comparative to the linear approach in Figure 1 where only one career track is explored. Students on a CNA track are eligible to explore and pursue any of the careers and might find they are interested in many of the careers in this constellation. 

Figure 2

CNA Career Constellation

Curry Mann Figure 2

Another example contrasting the linear and constellation approaches is given in Figures 3 and 4. Figure 3 provides an example of a student interested in law. One common linear advisement pattern is to suggest the student progress from a secondary pre-law track, to complete a four-year political science degree, and then a three-year law school professional degree. However, some students may be interested in earning income through working while attending law school. In this instance, options presented in a career constellation may offer an attractive alternative progression plan (see Figure 4). In other words, as the student considers pathways of progression to a career as a lawyer, rather than attending seven years of college, the student may choose to obtain a two-year degree, for example as a paralegal, and earn an income while continuing to pursue a four-year university degree and then the subsequent professional degree in law. By examining these options, the student can see opportunities beyond the traditional linear pathway. These optional pathways may be particularly attractive to students concerned with paying for college and law school or wishing to gain real-world experience while pursuing their degrees.


Figure 3

Linear Process from High School to Law School

Curry Mann Figure 3


Figure 4

Lawyer Career Constellation

Curry Mann Figure 4 Lawyer


Comparing Careers

Students need the opportunity to explore interests within the context of career development prior to establishing a career goal. Rather than developing a singular career goal, via a linear career path, students can research a constellation of careers within their interest range. In doing so, students will have multiple post-secondary options to consider. Career constellations can be created in classroom settings, small groups, or within individual planning environments and give students the opportunities to visually compare multiple careers within the same interest cluster. Students might choose to compare careers by median salary, education and training required, or projected growth. Career constellations provide one more technique for school and career counselors to use to meet the changing needs of students.


Table 1

Career Cluster Surveys

Education Planner http://www.educationplanner.org/students/career-planning/find-careers/career-clusters.shtml
CareerWise at Minnesota State https://careerwise.minnstate.edu/careers/clusterSurvey
North Carolina’s Career Cluster Survey https://tools.nccareers.org/clustersurvey/#/start
Pathway Planit





U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022). Occupational outlook handbook: Certified nurse assistant and similar careers.  https://www.bls.gov/ooh/

O*NET. (2023a). O*NET online: Browse by career clusters. https://www.onetonline.org/find/career

O*NET. (2023b). O*NET Resource Center: O*NET Interest Profiler. https://www.onetcenter.org/IP.html

Holland, J. L. (1973). Making vocational choices: A theory of careers. Prentice Hall.

Super, D. E. (1953). A theory of vocational development. American Psychologist, 8, 185–190.



Dawn MannDawn Mann, Ed.D., Director of Professional Development for New Dawn Training Solutions, brings 20+ years of experience in the education field. She received her professional start as a high school counselor and transitioned to the Georgia Department of Education, where her work in the career readiness space blossomed. Currently, she facilitates high-impact professional development for school counselors across the nation. dawn@newdawntraining.com


Jennifer CurryJennifer R. Curry, Ph.D., NCC, Vira Franklin and James R. Eagles Endowed Professor in the Lutrill and Pearl Payne School of Education at Louisiana State University. She is the coordinator of the School Counseling Program at LSU and her research specialty is K-12 career and college readiness. She has worked as an elementary, middle, and high school counselor and a consultant for K-12 schools. Dr. Curry is passionate about career development and post-secondary access for all students. jcurry@lsu.edu

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1 Comment

Amy Policastro Schroeder   on Tuesday 09/05/2023 at 08:28 AM

Great article, structure, and resources! Thank you for sharing! In NC, we have the https://nccareers.org/ site listing the assessments and process used which as well is public and may help others. The NCcareers resources is a project lead by eight NC Gov agencies, with NC Commerce leading it - this is free and available to anyone with the intent of supporting NC citizens K-Gray. Consider reviewing this for your K-12 guidance as well. We presented at NCDA Global 23 Chicago - please reach out with any questions. Thank you again for this article and work!

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