When Practice Fuels Research: Exploring the Impact of a Practitioner-Driven Research Grant

By Joonkil Ahn and Julia Panke Makela

In 2002, The Career Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) established the Robert P. Larsen Grant for Research in Career Development to support research by graduate students that increases knowledge related to career development and vocational topics. Over the years, Illinois has funded 40 graduate student projects on topics such as career barriers, decision self-efficacy, intervention outcomes, and vocational interests.

As Illinois celebrated the 15th anniversary of the Larsen Grant, we investigated the impact of this grant program. What difference has the Larsen Grant made in the lives of awardees, career center staff, and our university community, as well as in the broader career development field? We documented the history, contributions, and impact of the Larsen Grant program by:

  • interviewing individuals who established and administered the grant in its early years;
  • conducting comprehensive library searches to identify publications resulting from funded research; and
  • engaging past awardees, faculty advisors, grant reviewers, and career professionals regarding their experience with the grant.

This article highlights findings regarding the impacts of this practice and research partnership. Our hope is to motivate additional creative collaborations among practitioners and researchers, recognizing that partnerships can start and grow from all directions.

Photo By Waldemar Brandt On Unsplash

The Robert P. Larsen Grant for Research in Career Development was made possible by a generous gift from Dr. Robert P. Larsen, who worked at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Counseling Center from 1946 to 1985. During Dr. Larsen’s tenure, the Counseling Center was focused on academic and psychological counseling. He took a deep interest in vocational counseling that was atypical for his time. In the early 1970s, The Career Center (then known as the Office of Career Development and Placement), under the direction of Dave Bechtel, was charged to expand its responsibilities beyond senior placement to include career counseling throughout students’ academic experiences. A partnership – and a friendship – grew between Larsen and Bechtel, as they explored their mutual commitment to and passion for career development.


The Larsen Grant was established in the 1980s as the Robert Larsen Career Resource and Research Fund with the purpose of supporting cutting-edge publications that would guide colleagues on other campuses into new approaches to job search and career planning in higher education. Historically, “placement offices” were common on college and university campuses, and the Illinois publication series provided a strong voice advocating for a “career development” approach. A key capstone from the early years of this funding was a monograph entitled Making Career Decisions: A Lifelong Process, authored by Dr. Larsen in 1990. This monograph outlines a career development approach to college campuses’ career services, based on years of practice.

In 2002, the focus of the Larsen Grant evolved into funding research conducted by Illinois graduate students. The transition was led by Director Bechtel and Margaret Schrock, an Assistant Director, continuing the tradition of a practitioner-led initiative to connect with research. At this time, the proposal submission process, review teams (staffed by career practitioners), and research reporting processes were established that continue today. In 2009, an annual Larsen Symposium was established to provide an opportunity for student and faculty researchers to meet with campus career professionals to share findings and exchange ideas.

Impacting Grant Recipients

Past awardees pursued careers marked by diversity across industries, geographic locations, and disciplinary areas, such as:

  • faculty members in colleges and universities
  • counseling psychologists specializing in career development
  • data analysts in the private sector
  • administrators in higher education institutions
  • a researcher at an inter-governmental organization.

One theme that repetitively emerged from the interviews with grant recipients was the enhanced research experience and positive career impact that resulted from the Larsen Grant as a research training venue for graduate students. Participants shared that it simulated a complete cycle of the grant process, which was valuable because research and grant writing are well-aligned with graduate students' and junior faculty members’ role. Likewise, the symposium provided opportunities to develop presentation skills among a supportive audience.

Grant recipients on the faculty track reflected that the Larsen Grant enhanced their efficacy for applying to future research grants and working on research manuscripts. That is, this experience provided a simulative venue for receiving feedback on their research from reviewers and a starting point for a cohesive research job talk for their faculty job market.

Impacts on Career Development Literature

In follow-up contacts with past recipients and literature searches, Illinois gained insights into the footprint that the Larsen Grant has made on the broader knowledge base in the field of career development. From their funded projects, recipients produced at least

  • 11 career development-related theses and dissertations
  • 12 peer-reviewed journal articles
  • four conference proceedings
  • one book chapter
  • one encyclopedia entry
  • 18 additional non-peer-reviewed professional articles.

Another salient dimension of this research grant is that it brings diverse people with unique lenses from different disciplines into the topic of career development. Grant recipients represented eight departments from five different colleges on the Illinois campus.

Impacts on Career Professionals’ Practice

Career professionals appreciated the ways that the Larsen Symposium brought campus stakeholders together, such as present and past awardees, faculty advisors, potential applicants, and campus staff from different administrative and academic departments. In addition, career professionals who participated in reviewing Larsen Grant proposals often found this experience to provide compelling exposure to the process and culture of conducting research, which in turn has led to reviewers pursuing advanced degrees.

Looking Forward

Our 15th Anniversary exploration into the Robert P. Larsen Grant for Research in Career Development helped us uncover the ways in which the story of the evolution of the career development field is an integral part of the history of the University of Illinois. We observed the difference that practitioners make to further our field when we work to build partnerships with research colleagues. Illinois is excited to continue to foster practitioner-researcher partnerships and to cultivate the positive impacts that result. For more information on the Robert P. Larsen Grant for Research in Career Development, please visit https://go.illinois.edu/LarsenGrant.



Special thanks to Dave Bechtel, Margaret Schrock, Gail Rooney, and Jennifer Neef for their assistance in the preparation and reviews of this article. We also greatly appreciate the contributions of past grant recipients, reviewers, and administrators who participated in our 15-year anniversary study to help us understand and expand the impact of the Larsen Grant as we continue to enhance partnerships between career development researchers and practitioners.



Joonkil AhnJoonkil Ahn is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in K-12 leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dedicated to enhancing the college and career readiness of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Joonkil taught and helped students in multiple public high schools in Korea for 17 years. His current research examines for whom and when leadership practices may or may not work while using critical quantitative research methods. Joonkil can be reached at joonkil2@illinois.edu.


Julia MakelaJulia Panke Makela, PhD, CCC is the Associate Director for Assessment and Research of The Career Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. With more than 20 years of experience in career development, Julia has dedicated her career to exploring, enhancing, and communicating the value of career services. She specializes in facilitating practitioner-engaged program assessments that gather evidence to inform and continually enhance practice. Julia can be reached at jpmakela@illinois.edu



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1 Comment

Paula Brand   on Thursday 09/03/2020 at 11:21 AM

Thanks for this education. It was very interesting to learn about Robert Larsen and his legacy to our field.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.