Career Choice

Most individuals have an interest in or affinity toward certain career fields or occupations. Such aspirations and preferences are formed early in life and are a prod­uct of genetics, socioeconomic status, gender, person­ality, and learning history. These early hopes and dreams are modified (positively and/or negatively) by forces in society that act upon individuals and groups of individuals as they make career-related decisions (e.g.. labor market constraints, competitive admission to schools and programs. opportunities provided by spe­cial programs, etc.). Career choices result when indi­vidual aspirations and preferences are reexamined in light of the constraining forces imposed by the social environment in which that individual lives. It is possible to differentiate several levels of career choice based upon the degree to which that choice has been sub­jected to the limitations of societal constraints. An in­dividual may begin with a preference for a career—for example, medicine—that does not imply the weather­ing of any particular stress constraint, or crisis. A choice implies the completion of some actions or successful steps, and the attainment of a career is the final out­come of the career choice process. The distinction among these three constructs—preference, choice, and attainment—is important to a comprehensive under­standing of career choice. Although there is some ev­idence that young women may anticipate societal con­straints and adjust their preferences in advance, societal constraints have little effect on career prefer­ences but exert increasing influence as the individual moves further along in the selection process. Thus ca­reer choices and career attainments are affected sub­stantially by the limits and pressures of a limited labor market, as well as by other barriers and constraints that society imposes.

Career ChoiceResearch suggests that early occupational aspira­tions are similar across widely divergent social groups (Mexican, African American, White; cf. Arbona & Novy. 1991). Even though early career aspirations are similar, the resources and opportunities needed to implement such early choices are distributed very unevenly across these same social groups. Considerable evidence now confirms that some social groups, when faced with bar­riers, will have lower aspirations than others (Phillips & Imhoff, 1997). Minority group members, for example, face more pervasive social constraints than their non-minority counterparts, and women face more con­straints than do men.

Before moving to theories and models of career choice, the reader should understand that the term “ca­reer” generally implies more than a single instance of selection. Careers involve a series of choices or sets of preferences, choices, and attainments with the goal of increasing level of responsibility or learning with each successive job position. Thus careers develop, change, and accumulate over time. Careers promote identity de­velopment, interpersonal development, and personal meaning, as well as financial compensation.

Two opposing theoretical models have dominated thinking about career choice, beginning with the pub­lication of “Choosing an Occupation” (Boston. 1909) by Frank Parsons, a Boston social reformer. These two models, the search model and the compromise or de­velopmental model, account for the majority of research, theory, and intervention in the career choice process.

Search Models of Career Choice

This model, earlier termed the trait-factor view, main­tains that individuals search for a career option in which the working environment is a reasonable it with their personal qualities—interests, skills, personality, and so forth. Modern trait-factor theorists have de­scribed dynamic systems of person-environment fit— principal among them is John Lewis Holland (1997). Holland describes six relatively stable personality dis­positions (realistic, investigative. artistic. social. enter­prising. conventional) that develop early in life and di­rect the individual’s search for a career that will enhance that disposition. Occupational environments are classified using the same six types (realistic, inves­tigative, artistic, social. enterprising. conventional). In­dividuals are then rated as congruent or incongruent based upon the similarity between their personality type and the type of environment in which they work. Incongruent individuals are more inclined to report job dissatisfaction and/or to change jobs more often (even­tually to a more congruent option). Career choice ac­cording to the search model, then, is a relatively straightforward process in which the individual at­tempts to implement a career that is a reasonable fit with his or her interests and personal qualities in the face of societal constraints. Research support for the search model is found in a large body of literature that demonstrates the stability of occupational interests over time (Swanson. in press) and the correlates of person-environment it.

It now appears that a few common human traits or dispositions may underlie personality, intelligence. and interest measures (Ackerman & Heggestad. 1997). Stated another way, there is considerable overlap among measures of personality, interests, and even ability in the same individual. The search model has received new support from studies that find that the genetic component of occupational interests may be as large as 50% (Betsworth et al.. 1994) and that career choice, although it certainly has a developmental com­ponent, may be partially “hard-wired” early in life. Less change in the individual is presumed in search models than is implied in compromise or developmental mod­els, but a modern person-environment fit theory is a complex and appropriate way of thinking about career choice that does involve a dynamic interaction between individuals and their occupational environments.

Compromise Models of Career Choice

Compromise models of career choice reason that indi­viduals change and adapt over time by integrating ca­reer interactions into a developing self or ego identity. This identity cumulates over time. According to the de­velopmental or compromise view, individuals evolve predictably over time through a series of identifiable stages or phases chat eventually cumulate and culmi­nate into a career. The principal proponents of this compromise view (Gottfredson. 1981; Super. 1957; Vondracek, Lerner, Schulenberg. 1986) argue that the portion of individual career aspirations that changes over time is as crucial as (sometimes more crucial than) the portion that remains stable. Growth and develop­ment relevant to career choice begins quite early in life, accelerates during adolescence, and continues at a re­duced rate through adulthood.

Support for the compromise/developmental view comes from large-scale longitudinal studies that fol­lowed participants through the stages and phases of career development (Gribbons & Lohnes. 1982). Career maturity is a concept central to the development view. Individuals who complete the developmental tasks es­sential to each stage are judged to be career mature. Several inventories have been constructed to measure progress through career stages in adolescents and adults. The developmental model draws upon research in mainstream psychology on human development. Compromise or developmental models, then, imply in­cremental, predictable, and substantial growth in the individual’s career identity, rather than the more stable, transactional model implied in search models of career choice.

Anxiety, Neurosis and Career Decisions

Anxiety plays a role in many career decisions and may serve as a constructive motivator if the levels of anxiety are low or moderate. At higher levels, however, anxiety exacerbates career indecision and will make it more dif­ficult for the individual to make and implement a career choice. Likewise, what Costa and McCrae (1985) have dubbed “neurosis”—or repeated instances of nonconstructive or self-defeating behaviors—appears to play more of a role in career choice problems than social scientists first imagined. These twin problems, anxiety and nonconstructive behaviors, may affect an individ­ual’s ability to persist following a failure experience, as well as the ability to recover and revise his or her self-image in the face of serious environmental constraints.

Gender and Career Choice

The career choice of women is one of the most pop­ular topics in modern psychology. The literature from the past decade (Phillips & Imhoff. 1997) reveals that career choices of women involve a complex considera­tion of personal characteristics, labor market con­straints, family plans, and self-efficacy. This literature repeatedly demonstrates that even though gender ster­eotyping of careers and occupations is lessening, many women continue to lower their career aspirations in the face of pervasive societally imposed barriers—in many cases before those barriers are even encountered. Un­fortunately, successful attempts to intervene in this low­ering of aspirations are few and rarely successful (Phil­lips & Imhoff. 1997). Stress resulting from multiple roles, work-family conflict, and primary care giving (for children and aging parents) is high. Efforts to reduce this stress, in contrast to the aspiration research, have been promising. Sexual harassment appears to be a growing problem that can act to further constrain women’s participation and advancement in the work­place. It seems fair to conclude that career choice is a complicated process for women that continues to defy simple explanatory models. The literature seems to be emerging from its focus on negative aspects of women’s career development and emphasizing instead the ben­efits derived from maintaining strong social networks at work and at home. More research is needed on how best to assist women in managing complex career de­cisions and on theoretical models to explain those de­cisions.

Self-Efficacy and Career Decisions

Considerable research has focused on the self-relevant thinking engaged in about careers. Called self-efficacy or personal agency, research in this area examines the beliefs that individuals harbor about the probabil­ity that they can and will succeed in various occu­pations. This research literature draws upon Bandura’s self-efficacy theory and emphasizes math self-efficacy as it relates to women’s career choices. Self-efficacy, then, is a hypothetical construct that ex­plains the mediating effects of social constraints and barriers upon individual career choices. An unusually compelling review and application of this work in the field of interest measurement can be found in Betz (T999). Self-efficacy research continues to exert an in­fluence on both the compromise and the search mod­els of career choice.

Intervening in the Career Choice Process

Substantial progress has been made over the past 50 years in our understanding of how to assist individuals who are struggling with career choices. Several thera­peutic ingredients are essential to a successful career intervention (Holland, Magoon, & Spokane, 1981). These ingredients are:

  • Cognitive rehearsal of occupational aspirations. Re­hearsal involves thinking about, talking about, and clarifying career aspirations. In the face of difficult or anxiety-provoking career choices, most individuals avoid this crucial rehearsal component.
  • Social support from family, friends, advisors, counselors, or instructors. Parents and peers are especially helpful during career choices so long as the discussions re­main positive.
  • Information about self and the world of work. This in­formation includes information about one’s personal qualities, talents, and strengths, as well as informa­tion about the nature and requirements of jobs.
  • An accurate cognitive framework for organizing and fil­tering information. Many individuals report that they do not know how to go about making a career deci­sion. Learning how to do so, then, is an important component of any career intervention.
  • Mobilization of constructive career behaviors. These be­haviors include adequate exploratory behavior and persistence in job finding and follow through.


Career choice is a complex process of balancing per­sonal characteristics with societal constraints in an ef­fort to clarify and implement a series of career decisions over time. These decisions taken in sum are a career. Two theoretical models, the search model and the com­promise model, account for most of the research on how the career selection process occurs. Although in­tervention and counseling research has advanced con­siderably since the early 1990s, attempts to conduct ca­reer intervention research may be less frequent than they once were—thus slowing progress. Case study or individual case research offers a promising new avenue for studying the career intervention process. Questions of gender, anxiety, and self-efficacy are important con­temporary topics for study.

See also: Career Assessment, Career Development, and Career Interventions.


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