Career Assessment

Career assessment is the process of gathering infor­mation that is used to better understand a client and his or her educational or career situation. Psychological instruments and structured questions are typically used in career assessment. The assessment provides infor­mation that can be used in the initial stages of coun­seling to inform the counselor about the client (diag­nostic information), as well as in the intervention stage of counseling to increase the client’s self-understanding, especially in relation to educational or work settings.

Career AssessmentCareer assessment has been in use since the early 1900s. Frank Parsons (1909) was one of the first pro­ponents of using assessment for the purpose of guid­ance, and in 1927 E. K. Strong, Jr. developed the first interest inventory, the Strong Vocational Interest Blank. The use of career assessment instruments, such as interest inventories, has been and continues to be a core feature of career counseling and development. Since the onset of World War I, the use of career assessment for the purpose of selection and placement has been a common practice in educational, government, and business settings. During the 1970s the utility and fair­ness of assessment practices and tools were questioned, especially in regard to the assessment of women and minority groups. This period of criticism led to refine­ments, including development of guidelines for the competent delivery of career assessment services to di­verse groups, and to closer scrutiny of the reliability and accuracy of instruments for all persons. Today, many counseling, school, and industrial/organizational psychologists use testing on a regular basis for educa­tional and career counseling, career development, and educational and occupational selection and placement. The goal of assessment might be to help clients under­stand how their interests compare with others in dif­ferent occupational areas (counseling) or to help or­ganizations identify who might perform best in a competitive program (selection). It is predicted that the use of career assessment will increase in the future (Seligman. 1994).

Career assessment in general, and testing in particular, typically occurs within the context of a counseling relationship. Counselors and clients work together to establish the goals of counseling and the type of as­sessment that is most appropriate for the client. Coun­selors are responsible for using instruments that are consistent with the goals of counseling and valid for the client. This means that psychologists who engage in the practice of career assessment must have a good working knowledge of career counseling so they can determine the clients’ needs and select the instruments that best meet those needs. They must also have a good working knowledge of measurement so that they can evaluate the quality of instruments and make interpre­tations that do not exceed the limits of the instruments. An educational casebook that illustrates responsible test use, including examples of career assessment, has been published by the American Psychological Associ­ation (Eyde et al., 1993).

Topics of Career Assessment

Previous authors (Betz, 1992; Hackett & Watkins, 1995) have divided topics of career assessment into individual difference variables (ability/aptitude, interest, and work values), career-process variables (decision making and career maturity), and career-related cognitions (career beliefs and self-efficacy). Although there is some overlap among categories, this is a useful framework.

Individual Difference Measures

Achievement, aptitude, ability, and intelligence tests are all designed to measure performance. In career assessment, aptitude and ability testing are used regularly, and they measure knowledge acquired through learning and innate abil­ities, respectively. Ability and aptitude tests provide in­formation about probable success in different training programs or occupational settings. This information can be used by clients to help them develop educational or career plans or by institutions to inform candidate selection. For example, most students in the United States take the Scholastic Aptitude Test or American College Testing Program examination for admission to college and the Graduate Record Examination for ad­mission to graduate programs. The Differential Aptitude Test and General Aptitude Test battery are well-known examples of multiple aptitude assessment batteries.

The use of ability and aptitude testing has been widely debated, with proponents advocating the predic­tive accuracy or efficiency of educational or employ­ment testing and critics raising concerns about culture, race, and gender bias. The use of ability and aptitude testing extends from issues with individual clients to social policy issues, such as adverse impact. Given the impact that aptitude and ability testing can have on clients, it is essential that psychologists understand the nature of norm-referenced testing, the use of appro­priate norms, the impact of the testing context, and principles of measurement, especially estimation and measurement error.

Interest assessment is the most popular type of ca­reer assessment and is a standard part of educational and career counseling. Interests refer to what people like, and they can be measured using hands-on tools, such as card sorts, or, more typically, through psycho-metrically developed interest measures (e.g., Self-Directed Search, Strong Interest Inventory). The pur­pose of interest assessment is to help people understand their general interest patterns (e.g., artistic activities) and their specific interests (e.g., writing) and to provide a comparison of their interests with people in different occupations (e.g., interests similar to those of commer­cial artists). Thus a psychologist would use interest as­sessment to help a client identify broad interest patterns and specific interests to better understand both work and leisure preferences. Interest assessment enhances self-knowledge, helps relate personal interests and work environments, and helps people prioritize different ed­ucational or occupational areas for further exploration. Issues of particular concern to interest inventories in­clude predictive validity (to insure that interests predict future occupational choices) and nonbiased (particu­larly nonsexist) results.

Values, or needs, are other topics that are frequently addressed in career assessment. Work values can be differentiated from interests in that the former refer to “what is important” and the latter refer to “what is liked.” Work values are qualities important to an indi­vidual that can be met through work and that generate work satisfaction. Achievement, autonomy, security, comfort, and altruism are examples of higher order work values (Dawis & Lofquist. 1984). When a work environment offers people who value achievement an opportunity to achieve, they tend to be more satisfied with their work. Thus psychologists would engage in work values assessment to help clients understand fac­tors that lead to work adjustment.

Values assessment can extend beyond the work en­vironment to include multiple life areas. The increased number of dual-career families has led many people to engage in career/life planning. a process in which peo­ple examine the salience of different life roles and how values are met across family, work, and community ac­tivities. The Salience Inventory is one example of an assessment instrument that measures values across life roles. In general, values assessment and clarification is an important part of both life and career planning. Of particular concern for values measures is the need to balance inclusiveness (capturing a broad array of val­ues) and functionality (maintaining a parsimonious framework for meaningful interpretation).

Career Process Variables

Career process variables describe the way in which people make educational and career decisions and the person’s stage of career de­velopment, including level of development within a stage. The most frequently studied career process vari­ables are career decision making and career develop­ment or maturity. It should be noted that career deci­sion making can also be an individual difference variable. Sometimes counselors simply want to assess level of career indecision. In this case, instruments (e.g., Career Decision Scale, Career Factors Inventory) are used to estimate individual differences in career in­decision and to identify possible sources of career in­decision. For example, career choice anxiety often in­terferes with someone’s ability to make a decision. From an individual difference perspective, a high level of ca­reer choice anxiety is a cue. or diagnostic indicator, for the counselor that affective antecedents of career in­decision need to be addressed.

Process-oriented career decision measures are used in the context of career development to provide feed­back on level of career decision-making readiness. The best example of this type of measure is the Assessment of Career Decision Making, which measures stages of career decision making (e.g.. awareness, planning, commitment. implementation), as well as individual dif­ferences in decision-making styles (e.g., rational, intu­itive, dependent). Career process assessment would be used to identify areas in which a person needs to en­hance developmental skills, and intervention would be designed to increase skills and help that person move to the next stage of career decision making.

Career development measures are sometimes re­ferred to as career maturity measures, but the word “maturity” can have pejorative connotations. Career development instruments measure career development competencies, such as occupational knowledge and ca­reer planning skills. They are typically used by psy­chologists who are working from a developmental ori­entation. The Career Maturity Inventory and the Career Development Inventory are the most widely recognized instruments of this type, and they are typically used as part of a career intervention to help students ascertain their readiness to engage in effective educational and career planning or to evaluate the effectiveness of an intervention ( i.e., pre- and post-testing). Collectively, ca­reer development measures are potentially very useful, but some concern has been raised about their psycho­metric adequacy.

Cognitive Measures

Over the last 15 years, career counseling has devoted increased attention to the influ­ence of cognitions on career development. Assessment tools have focused on confidence or self-efficacy and on beliefs that may impede the attainment of career goals. One notable 1 rend has been the inclusion of confidence scales in interest inventories. For example, both the Campbell Interest and Skills Inventory and the Strong Interest and Skills Inventory include a component in which people report their level of skills or confidence, respectively, across different general occupational areas. These scales are then used in tandem with interest scales to identify areas of high interest and confidence. as well as areas of high interest but low confidence. This type of information can help counselors under­stand a client’s hesitation or reluctance to explore cer­tain educational or occupational areas.

Sometimes the beliefs or stereotypes that people hold interfere with their ability to achieve career goals. Re­cently, instruments have been developed that assess people’s beliefs about themselves and work. Most no­tably, the Career Beliefs Inventory and the Career Thoughts Inventory assess beliefs related to self, work, and decision making. In the social cognitive tradition, these belief scales are relatively specific and measure constructs that are conceptually distinct from more global personality or trait constructs. This type of as­sessment works particularly well for psychologists who prefer to work from a cognitive-behavioral orientation or learning-based theory. Interventions focus on ex­amining the beliefs in relation to career goals and as­certaining their validity.


Career assessment is commonly used by counseling, school, and industrial/organizational psychologists, as well as by other counseling professionals. Although some career assessment instruments are designed for self-directed use, most instruments and assessments should be used selectively (i.e., appropriately for the cli­ent) and in conjunction with other information. Fur­ther, it is imperative that psychologists have a thorough understanding of instrument development and a psy­chometric understanding of a particular instrument before using it. Interpretations, which can be im­mensely helpful or hurtful, are based on an under­standing of the client, the assessment tool, and the sit­uation. The advent of enhanced computer technology is creating a need to reevaluate principles of responsible career assessment within a new medium. In summary, these trends suggest that career assessment will be a thriving but more complex area within psychology.


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  5. Parsons, F. (1909). Choosing a vocation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  6. Savickas, M. L.. & Walsh, W. B. (Eds.) (1996). Handbook of career counseling theory and practice. Palo Alto. CA: Davis-Black.
  7. Seligman, L. (1994). Developmental career counseling and assessment (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks. CA: Sage.
  8. Special Issue (1997). Career assessment for women: Theory into practice. Journal of Career Assessment, 5, 355-474.
  9. Special Issue (1997). Career assessment, multicultural diversity, and individual differences. Journal of Career Assessment, 5, 115-252.