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Career decision making

Career Decision Making: Evaluating And Applying Current Theoretical Models

Due to the difficult process of career-decision making for the majority of the population, researchers have formulated four main theories to better understand the complex relationships between the different factors that influence this important decision. Self-efficacy, abilities, interests, and personality types all play a significant part in finding the right career. Interventions and other types of career assistance have also been proven to have influences on which job an individual will apply for. Holland’s Theory, the Theory of Work Adjustment (TWA), the Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT), and Super’s Life-Span, Life-Space Theory all attempt to organize and explain how these influences act on the outcome of career-decision making.

To illustrate how career-decision making theories work in practice, two hypothetical individuals will go through the process of the application of the different theories. "Kenny" is a twenty-two year old Asian male from an upper-middle class family. He recently graduated from a private college and is looking for the right career path. He is intellectual, curious, and very creative. He likes to help others with their problems and excels at math and science. Kenny is also a good problem solver and seeks a career with elements of independence, variety, and creativity. He spends a fair amount of time with his family, playing basketball on the weekends, and spending time with his fiancée.

"Sally" is also going through a career-decision making period in her life. She is a thirty-one year old Caucasian mother of two. Sally comes from a low socioeconomic status and has an associate’s degree from a two-year technical college. She has been taking time off from work to stay at home with her kids and take care of her ill mother. Before Sally took time away from the workforce to care for her family, she really enjoyed her job working in an accounting firm. Sally would like to get back into the work force in a job that is both practical and concrete. She enjoys working with numbers and data and likes things to be in order most of the time, but work in an only slightly structured environment. Her past supervisors claim that she takes direction very well, but often needs assistance when dealing with unexpected problems. Sally would like a career with opportunities for advancement, leadership positions, as well as adequate pay and job recognition. Sally mostly spends her time fulfilling her household duties and assisting her mother during her time of need, and is anxious to get back to the work force.

Holland’s Theory

John Holland’s Theory of vocational choice proposes, "Birds of the same feather flock together" (Jones, 2002). In other words, people like to be around others who have similar personalities. In choosing a career, it means that people choose jobs where they can be around people who are like them. This theory is the best known and most widely researched theory on this topic (Jones, 2002). Many career counselors also use it. In Holland’s Theory, as Sharf (2002) explains, "People express themselves, their interests and values, through their work choices and experience. In his theory, Holland assumes that people’s impressions and generalizations about work, which he refers to as stereotypes, are generally accurate" (94). By examining these stereotypes, Holland placed people and work environments to various categories.

There are six different categories that Holland places people and work environments into. Each category has a different behavior that is expected by the worker and the environment in which the worker is placed. The six personality types included Realistic (i.e., practical, concrete), Investigative (i.e., intellectual, curious), Artistic (i.e., creative, expressive), Social (i.e., empathic, people-oriented), Enterprising (i.e., assertive, leader), and Conventional (i.e., structured, orderly). The six work environment models that Holland describes are named the same as the six personality types. The work environment models include Realistic (i.e., physical demands, technical skills), Investigative (i.e., intellectual demands, abstract problem solving), Artistic (i.e., creative demands, unconventional problem solving), Social (i.e., inter-personal demands, flexibility), Enterprising (i.e., inter-personal demands, assertiveness), and Conventional (i.e., organizational demands, planning).

Since most people are not just one type of personality, Holland uses a combination of three different types. Holland places all six types of personalities on a hexagon, commonly called "Holland’s Hexagon." The closer each personality type is to another, the more alike they are; the farther apart they are, the more different the types are from one another. When using Holland’s Theory to choose a career, people fill out a survey-like test to explain which personality type they are placed in. Once the career-seekers find out which type they are part of, they can see the characteristics of their specific type and, thus, choose a career that fits their personality type and work environment.

This is how Holland’s Theory works. Using the hypothetical individuals described earlier, one can see how this theory plays out. First, Kenny is an intellectual guy and is curious about many things. He likes to come up with his own ideas and tries to be expressive as best he can. Kenny is also people-oriented and likes to help people with any problems. After taking Holland’s survey-like test, the results show that Kenny falls under the Investigative, Artistic, and Social personality types. As expected, all three of these personality types are located next to each other on the Holland’s Hexagon. From knowing which personality Kenny is, he can now narrow down his career choice to fit those particular personality types and work environments. Possible careers could include a social worker or a musician.

For the other hypothetical individual, Sally is thought of as a practical and concrete thinker who likes to work with hard numbers and data. She also likes things to be in order most of the time. Sally does not like things to be totally structured, but not out of control. Holland’s survey-like test determines that Sally is the Realistic and Conventional personality types. Sally can now find out which career would be appropriate for her. Possible careers for Sally could include computer-programmer or statistician.

Holland’s Theory is great for determining a possible career choice based on interests. Obviously most people want a job that they are interested in and can exploit their interests and ideas. However, the theory only helps certain people. It does not take abilities, needs, and wants into consideration. For example, a person could be very interested in being an electrician, but they may not have the abilities to actually perform well at that job. By using Holland’s Theory, that person should be an electrician, but that job would not fit well with their abilities and maybe even other needs, like financial concerns.

Theory of Work Adjustment

Suppose that a recent college graduate would go to a career counselor to help him find a starting point in finding the right job for him. The counselor may choose to apply a number of different theories to find the right job for the right individual. If the counselor were to choose the Minnesota Theory of Work Adjustment (Dawis & Lofquist, 1964, 1984) he/she would subject the graduate to a series of different tests and assessments to determine his abilities, values and needs.

Kenny, after completing all necessary assessments, was identified as having high abilities in math reasoning and creative problem solving although he did have trouble expressing his ideas. Kenny also thought that creativity, independence, variety and social atmosphere were important aspects that his ideal job would have. Authority and social status were ranked lowest in his need scale. Taking his abilities and his need into account, the counselor came up with a few occupations that Kenny might excel at. Some suggestions were an engineer, and actuary, an accountant or a market analysis. All of these jobs utilize Kenny’s high ability in math and creative problem solving. The jobs also offer Kenny the opportunity to work independently, a variety of different work tasks, and certain companies in these fields offer their co-works opportunities to socialize outside of the work environment.

These careers that have been chosen were seen as a "good fit" between the individual and the work environment. A good fit has shown career success (Bretz & Judge, 1994) as well as good job performance and work attitudes (Caldwell & O’Reilly, 1990; Smart, Elton & McLaughlin, 1986).

Recent graduates are not the only type of people that need career counseling. Those looking for a career change also need some good advice. Often times it is necessary for individuals to take time off for family situations, during the time of his/her absence career decisions change. These individuals also need assistance in career decision making to which the Theory of Work adjustment can be applied to.

Sally, after deciding to return to the work force, also completed ability, value and need assessments. She was identified as having high perceptual speed and visual perception. Even though Sally had low problem solving abilities she is self-described as very compliant to authority and takes direction very well. Sally identified her most important needs as advancement, authority, as well as recognition and compensation. Creativity and social service were ranked as the least important values for Sally.

Since having a good fit between individual and environment produces organizational health (Meglino, Ravlin & Adkins, 1989), individual health and adaptation (Moos, 1987) and has been linked with increased pay and performance (Milkovich & Wigdor, 1991) it is important that the counselor looks carefully at Sally’s abilities, needs and values. After doing so, the counselor has come up with the following suggestions: accounting, paralegal, and an office manager. These types of jobs require an employee to work well with numbers and have good perception skills. Some of these jobs also may give the employee an opportunity to advance, authority over subordinates, and compensate the employee well.

Although the jobs suggested by the career counselor may seem like a good fit on paper, it is not always the case in reality. In these cases, where the employee and the work environment don’t produce a good fit, the worker compensates for the mismatch. The flexible adjustment style is when an employee tolerates the mismatch and continues working even though it is not perfect. An active adjustment style is when the work tries to change the environment so there will be a better fit. The reactive adjustment style is seen as the worker changing individual factors to better fit with the environment. It is during this stage where learning theories come into play. Adjustment styles show that individual factors can change the environment (active) and the environment can change the individual (reactive).

When applying the Theory of Work Adjustment it is important to note that it has many advantages over other person-environment theories. It has been proven to be applicable to many different populations, including the mentally retarded (Melchiori & Church, 1997). The Theory of Work Adjustment includes often neglected needs, interests and values which have been proven important in selecting a career (Vandenberg & Scarpello, 1990). It also addresses the reciprocal interacting effects of people and environments (active and reactive adjustment styles) which has become important in the application of person-environment fit theories in counseling (Rounds & Tracey, 1990; Chartrand, 1991) and in the person-situation debate (Kenrick & Funder, 1988). Also this theory ties together both learning theory as well as individual differences, bringing together two very different areas of psychology.

Some critiques of the Theory of Work Adjustment also need to be kept in mind while applying the theory to an individual. Some methodology critiques have been the abstract concepts of some of the questions when referring to needs (Melchiori & Church, 1997) as well as ordering the questions to balance questions concerning individual preferences and job preferences (Bretz & Judge, 1994). Critiques have also been made on both the theory itself and the person-environment fit category of vocational psychology theories. Many researchers have claimed that the interaction between the individual and environment is not fully understood yet (Hesketh, 1993; Bretz & Judge, 1994) and may miss some important aspect that may influence the relationship such as social support (Melchiori & Church, 1997). It has also been the observation of these authors that the theory does not take personality and interests into account in conventional ways such as Big Five constructs and Holland’s interests. Instead the theory converts personality and interests into needs and values which may not be representative of all individuals.

Social Cognitive Career Theory

The cognitive revolution in psychology in the 60’s and 70’s prompted the emergence of a new theory of career decision-making. The father of this new way of viewing career decision-making was Albert Bandura who strayed from the typical view of the interaction between personal attributes, environment, and individual choice and behavior. Most viewpoints of career-development models claim that behavior is a result of the interaction between person and environment. This can be expressed mathematically in a sense by the formula: B = f (P↔E) (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994). To incorporate behavior as a factor influential on both personality and the external environment, Bandura conceived the Triadic Reciprocity Model. In this model, personal attributes, external environment, and behavior all affect each other bidirectionally to determine a person’s agency (Bandura, 1986). Social Cognitive Career Theory has been expanded and delves further in stating that choice and cognition are the result of three main processes: self-efficacy judgments, outcome expectations, and personal goals.

Self-efficacy can be defined as a person’s judgment or confidence in their ability to attain a specific goal or task (Gore, 1996). Social Cognitive Career Theory postulates that human ability is dynamic and changing; therefore self-efficacy is not considered a static trait. The influence of self-efficacy has been shown to be a major determinant of choice of activities, career-related choice, and performance (Lent, Brown, & Hacket, 1994). Outcome expectations are termed personal beliefs about predicted outcomes to a particular response (Weiss, 2001). As opposed to self-efficacy where a person takes into account their abilities, outcome expectations are the imagined consequences of performing certain actions. Goals are not integrated into many theories; however, they are an integral influence on choice and behavior regarding SCCT. The reason for the incorporation of goals into SCCT is the fact that people are just more than responsive mechanisms to environmental and personal determinants, and that their behavior is directed by goals to achieve desired outcomes (Bandura, 1986).

To develop a more comprehensive model applying Social Cognitive Career Theory to career choice behavior Lent, Brown, and Hackett (1994) developed the Choical Model. The triadic reciprocity themes are still visually present; however, the authors also incorporate self-efficacy, outcome expectations, goals, interests, and actions into the model. A key point also illustrated in the model is the presence of both proximal and distal environmental effects (Lent, Brown, & Hacket, 2000). Distal effects are background factors that affect learning experiences that help form a person’s self-efficacy and outcome expectations. Proximal effects are those that are present during active career decision-making (interests and goals leading to actions). It is important to note that the model considers the person and decision-making process as dynamic, with actions feeding back to learning experiences; the Choical Model views the person as constantly re-evaluating their state and decisions.

Social Cognitive Career Theory has been to be a career-decision making theory with proven validity. Albert and Luzzo (1999) found that social cognitive career theory to be valuable in interpreting the effects that perceived barriers play in career development and career decision-making. Weiss (2001) in her study examined the effectiveness of SCCT across cultures including Asian Americans, Black/African Americans, and Caucasian students. The results of the study provided much support for the usefulness of SCCT in interpreting career choice behavior across culturally-diverse populations. Lent, Brown, Nota, and Soresi (2003) correlated SCCT to Holland’s theory and RIASEC types. Support was found across the Holland types for the hypothesis that self-efficacy and outcome expectations both predict interests, and that interests mediate the relations of self-efficacy and outcome expectations to choice consideration.

Regarding Kenny’s person input, we see him to be an Asian American with an aptitude for math and science having supportive parents. Kenny is a creative thinker, independent, extroverted, and curious in nature. Combined with his environment in being brought up (private college education, plentiful monetary resources, friendly neighborhood) this leads to his learning experiences. In turn, self-efficacy and outcome expectations form to affect more active phases of career decision-making involving interests, goals, actions, and performance. Kenny’s proximal contextual factors are also active in this phase, with his parental and social support, racial influences, and job availability all tie in.

We can see how the model flows with Sally in a similar matter, however, the core differences in the person, environment, and behavior are all taken into account. Sally is a Caucasian female of average intelligence with an aptitude for numbers and accounting. She is both practical and hard-working. Growing up, Sally’s environment consisted of a low SES upbringing with various family problems growing up in a relatively unsupportive area. Her learning experiences derived from these factors will be incredibly distinct from those Kenny developed. Concordantly, Sally will have differing levels of self-efficacy concerning different activities (i.e. higher for accounting rather than for applied science) and different outcome expectations (i.e. more negative view of failure resulting from a task due to less available resources). The proximal contextual factors of taking care of her ill mother and being a mother of two have a starkly differing effect on active phases of her decision-making.

Brown and Lent (1996) applied social cognitive career theory to career counseling strategies and came up with 3 main suggestions:

1. Conceive a wide span of occupational possibilities not misconstrued by cognition or perception.

2. Discover and surpass barriers to carrying out ideal occupational decisions.

3. Adjust erroneous self-efficacy beliefs so that most favorable choices can be formed and carried out effectively.

We should keep these suggestions in mind as counselors apply the theory to those of us in modern society.

Super’s Life-Span, Life-Space Theory

Unlike many other theories of career decision-making and development, Donald Super’s Life-Span, Life-space theory recognizes that career decision making is not an isolated event, but instead a constantly developing process. Super’s theory incorporates life-stage psychology, social role theory, and self-concept implementation (Super, Savickas, & Super, 1996). These three concepts can be used to both recognize where an individual is on a career development continuum and also to map a path for future development by exploring the individual’s self-concept and role obligations.

The life-span dimension outlines the five major life-stages and depicts the "normal" progression at which an individual should encounter each stage (Super, Savickas, & Super, 1996). The five stages outlined by Super, in progress ional order, are Growth, Exploration, Establishment, Maintenance, and Disengagement. Kenny and Sally, our hypothetical case studies depicted earlier, are both currently in the Exploration Stage. The Exploration Stage of the Life-Span, Life-Space model is when and individual crystallizes, specifies, and obtains a career (Super, Savickas, & Super, 1996). For example, Kenny, who excels in math and science, may look into a field such as engineering. He would then need to explore the numerous sub-fields of engineering, before deciding on one or two areas that interest him the most. From there, he would need to narrow it down to one type, possibly civil engineering. . Kenny would then want to complete all necessary training and eventually obtain a job in civil engineering.

While ideally, everyone’s career development would go that smoothly, people often encounter barriers that do not allow for such a seamless transition from one stage to the next. According to Susan Phillips and David Blustein (1994), Super’s developmental approach allows counselor’s to break people up into three groups with regard to their career development. The first group consists of individuals who are "on track". Kenny is part of this group. He has recently finished college and is looking to make the transition from full-time student to full-time worker. Career counseling for people in the "on target" category should focus on aiding them with developmental movement. The second group consists of individuals whose career development has lagged, allowing the individual to fall behind. In cases like this, counseling should focus on accelerating the development of these individuals, focusing on the areas where they have fallen behind, and helping them to move into the "on target" group. The third group consists of individuals whose career development has been disrupted. Sally is an excellent example, as she had to interrupt her career development in order to care for her mother and her children. Career counseling for people like Sally should focus on helping them reexplore, replan, and redirect their career path.

In addition to conceptualizing the developmental stages that an individual should pass through, Super’s Life-Span, Life-Space theory also examines the idea that people live a life while they make a living (Betz, 1994). Meaning, the theory examines not only the demands of the work environment but also the demands on people from other roles as well. Super focuses the theory on six roles that are common to many people: student, homemaker, worker, citizen, leisurite, and child. Because people hold multiple roles simultaneously, people often have to adjust their focus on one role in order to compensate for the extra energy needed to fulfill a different role. Sally is a prime example of this, she had to adjust her focus on her career and shift those resources into her role as homemaker in order to care for her husband, her mother, and her children. So, currently, Sally’s most salient roles are the roles of child and homemaker. Kenny’s roles are, arguably, somewhat less demanding. His role as child is the most salient, because he feels a strong sense of obligation to make his parents proud. Kenny’s role as leisurite is also important to him, as he enjoys having his weekends free to spend with family and friends. However, it is important to note that as Kenny enters and Sally reenters the workforce, their roles are likely to shift in order to include the worker role as salient as well.

The life-span dimension of Super’s Life-Span, Life-Space theory also examines the importance of an individual’s self-concept with regard to career choice. Super viewed occupational choice as an individual’s attempt to find an occupation that was congruent with his or her abilities, goals, and values (Super, Savickas, & Super, 1996). According to Nancy Betz (1994), the inclusion of self-concept implementation into the process of career decision-making was one of Super’s greatest contributions to the field. Research has repeatedly supported Super’s idea of self-concept implementation.

Self-concept implementation has interesting possible uses both for understanding the career choices that people make and as a tool for career counselors who are trying to help clients find a job that suits them. Research suggests that individuals with low self-esteem, one dimension of an individual’s self-concept, are less likely to choose careers that are a match with their abilities, values, and interests (Betz, 1994). Self- concept implementation is also an important issue to consider for women. Many women have been socialized to believe that certain jobs are "male" jobs; they may believe that they do not have the abilities to perform those jobs, even if those jobs are congruent with their interests and values.

Although Super’s Life-Span, Life-Space theory has been highly praised, it has also been criticized. One of the major criticisms has been the theory’s lack of consideration for gender and culture. According to Fouad (1994), Super’s theory assumes that an individual attempts to implement a self-concept that is separate from other people. The idea that an individual is a separate entity from society rather than a small piece of the larger whole is the product of an individualistic society. However, many societies have collectivist cultures and people from those cultures are encouraged to think of themselves in relation to other people. Thus, Super’s theory is not applicable to these societies. Also, research suggests that women are more likely to think of themselves in relation to others. This might lead women to select a job in which they are able to relate with others even if that job is not the best match for their abilities, goals, and values.

Another criticism of the theory, with regard to gender, is its inability to really evaluate how salient a particular role is. Gender affects the careers that people choose and how central the role of that career will be to the individual. This is not due to genetic predestination, but instead Western society’s expectations of men and women (Cook, 1994). Men are expected to be the "breadwinners". They are expected to provide for their families financially. Men become socialized to this and it becomes part of how they see themselves. It becomes a central aspect of what a "man" is. The consequence of this is that men believe that if they are providing financially for the family they are fulfilling their homemaker role, and thus their obligation to their families (Cook, 1994).

However, for women the role of homemaker is quite different. Women are expected to take care of the family emotionally, physically, and cognitively (Cook, 1994). Women who are good financial providers are not fulfilling their role as homemaker. Women who work outside of the home are still expected to perform housework and be in charge of childcare. Women who work outside the home are expected to handle the responsibilities of paid work, in addition to their duties as homemakers, not in place of them. This discrepancy indicates that counselors need to be sure that they understand what the personal meaning and duties of a role are for an individual that they are assisting with career development.


The aforementioned four theories: Holland’s Theory, TWA, SCCT, and Super’s Life-Span, Life-Space Theory each provide a unique perspective on the process of career-decision making with their respective advantages and disadvantages. However, not one theory is entirely comprehensive and can be standardized for use in every situation. It is the general opinion of the authors that an appropriate counseling methodology would involve utilization of theoretical approaches corresponding to the client (i.e. using SCCT when going across cultures). Also, a combination of theoretical approaches can provide a more complete assessment regarding career decision-making (i.e. Holland’s theory to formulate person-environment interaction component for SCCT). Further research should attempt to formulate a more integrated theoretical approach using validated aspects of existing theories as a foundation. Returning to Kenny and Sally, their stories provide an important lesson: we should appreciate the infinite number of differences that exist between human beings as not one theory is 100% accurate in predicting their decisions, behavior, or lifestyle.


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