Career Development

Career Development Theories

The following theories are generally considered to be the most influential theories of career choice and de­velopment in terms of research and practice. Theories explaining career behavior provide the psychologist with a conceptual map and describe the purposes for which career counseling, career education, and other career interventions should be implemented.


Among the early theorists on ca­reer development, Frank Parsons in Choosing a Vocation (Boston, 1909) argued that a wise vocational choice was made first by studying the individual, second by understanding the relevant characteristics of occupa­tions, and finally by matching the individual with the occupation. This process, called the trait-and-factor the­ory, became the foundation for many career counseling programs and is still in use today. It has led to the development of assessment instruments, as well as to the study of individual job requirements. This theory focuses on individual traits but does not account for changes in values, interest, skills, achievement, and personality over the course of a lifetime. Thus, al­though assessments based on the trait-and-factor ap­proach are quite useful in career counseling, this the­ory is generally considered to be quite limited.


In contrast to the static approach ofCareer Development the trait-and-factor theory, Ginzberg, Ginsburg, Axelrad, and Herma (1951) were the first to view career devel­opment as a lifelong process, with an emphasis on very early development. Ginzberg and associates outline three distinct stages or periods in the career-choice pro­cess, each of which is divided into substages. During the fantasy stage (childhood before age it), play grad­ually becomes work oriented and reflects initial prefer­ences for certain types of activities. The second period, called tentative, is divided into four substages (interest, capacity, values, and transition) and lasts from ages II to 17. During the tentative period, the individual be­comes more aware of work requirements and of his or her own abilities and values and makes decisions re­garding vocational likes and dislikes. At the realistic stage (ages 17 to young adult), there is further integra­tion of perceived abilities and occupational interests. as the person first narrows his or her choices to a few possibilities and then makes a commitment by selecting a job or entering specialized training. Ginzberg (1984) reemphasized that career development is lifelong pro­cess for those who seek to attain major job satisfaction. As changing work goals occur, a person will reassess how to improve it with the work environment.


Donald Super’s (1953) life span developmen­tal theory includes five major stages. The first, growth, occurs from birth to ages 14 or 15 and is characterized by the development of attitudes, interests, needs, and aptitudes associated with self-concept. During the ex­ploratory stage (ages 15 through 24), occupational choices are narrowed, and the establishment stage (ages 25 through 44), is characterized by work experi­ence. From ages 45 to 65 the person experiences a con­tinual adjustment process to improve the working sit­uation. Finally, during the decline phase (ages 65 and over) there is reduced work output and eventual retire­ment. Super’s theory has been expanded and reined over the years. Super’s (1996) theory has increasingly been viewed as the most comprehensive of the devel­opmental approaches.


Roe’s (1956) theory focuses on early relations within the family and their subsequent influence on career choice. Roe classifies occupations into two major categories: person oriented and non-person oriented. Empirical investigations of Roe’s theory have generally failed to provide validation, and the theory itself is dif­ficult to implement in research terms. Roe’s major con­tribution appears to be her emphasis of the impact of childhood experiences on career development and her job classification system.


The theory that has generated the most research and has the most influence on the career prac­tice of psychologists and counselors is the work of John Holland. According to Holland (1985), the choice of a career is an extension of one’s personality into the world of work. Individuals choose careers that satisfy their preferred personal orientations. Holland developed six modal personal styles and six matching work envi­ronments: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enter­prising, and conventional. A person is attracted to the particular role demand of an occupational environ­ment that meets his or her needs. For example, some­one who is socially oriented would seek out a work environment that provides interactions with others, such as nursing in a hospital setting. Holland and his colleagues have developed a number of instruments (e.g., the Self-Directed Search) designed to assist in identifying individual personality traits and matching those traits to occupational groups. Holland’s theory assesses each individual in terms of two or three most prominent personality types and matching each type with the environmental aspects of potential careers. It is predicted that the better the match, the better the congruence, satisfaction, and persistence (Holland, 1985).


Krumboltz’s (1979) theory of career development is grounded in social learning theory and in classical behaviorism. It also incorporates the more recent ideas from self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1977) and cognitive-behavioral theory (Beck, 1976; Ellis, 1970). This theory incorporates many factors, each of which has a different impact on the person in his or her career decision making. First, genetic endowment may expand or limit options for each individual. In­cluded in genetic endowment are set factors (sex, race, developmental disabilities), as well as those innate tal­ents that a person can choose to develop. Second, ca­reer decisions are influenced by environmental condi­tions and events beyond a person’s control. such as cultural norms and economy. The third factor is indi­vidual learning, which can occur both instrumentally (e.g., being rewarded for writing may lead to an interest in being a journalist) and associatively (e.g., watching a movie in which a policeman is seriously injured may reduce the desire to go into law enforcement). Learning experiences include acquiring (or failing to acquire) work habits and problem-solving skills. Finally, Krum­boltz highlights the importance of what he calls self-observation generalizations. That is, people compare their own performance, skills, and abilities with some standard and draw conclusions about their competence and worth. These conclusions are used in making re­sponses to future situations. If the conclusions reached are not reasonable but rather unrealistic or inappro­priate, their images of themselves as workers, may be damaged. For example, a girl may not believe that she could be capable in math, and so she avoids math-related activities and career possibilities. In summary, Krumboltz sees career development as unique for the individual and believes that most of the influences on career development and career choice (e.g., interests. self-concept) are capable of being altered at any point in life.

Other Noteworthy Theories

Other theories of ca­reer development include the work of Tiedemann and his colleagues (Tiedemann & O’Hara, 1963) on the career decision-making process; a psychoanalytic ap­proach (Bordin, Nachmann, & Segal. 1963); the theory of work adjustment (Lofquist & Dawis, 1969); and a theory of circumscription and compromise in career aspirations (Gottfredson, 1981). Tiedemann’s theory has had little empirical support, but his ideas have served to highlight the importance of self-awareness in career decision making. The approach of Bordin and his colleagues (Bordin, Nachmann, & Segal. 1963) pro­posed that psychoanalytically developed dimensions of need that are established by the age of 6 inluenced career choice. The major contribution of this theory is the attention directed to the early developmental pro­cesses and early child-parent relationships. In the the­ory of work adjustment, the main construct of interest is correspondence, which is the fit between the individ­ual’s attributes and those required by an occupation. High correspondence should correlate with longer ten­ure and greater satisfaction and performance (Dawis & Lofquist, 1984). Gottfredson’s (1981) theory postulates that occupational preferences emerge from the com­plexities that accompany mental and physical growth. One unique feature of her theory is that the range of aspirations narrows according to sex type and prestige during self-concept development. Also, a person may compromise by settling for less compatible but more accessible career choices. In general, persons are less willing to compromise in job level and sex type because these factors are closely associated with self-concept.

Convergence of Theories

In 1990, Osipow sug­gested that the major career development theories are converging as empirical evidence about vocational behavior accumulates and as the theories are continu­ously revised. His analysis of four major theories in­clude those of Super, Holland, Lofquist and Davis, and Krumboltz. Osipow identified common themes among those theories: biological factors, parental influences, personality, outcomes, and life-stage influences.

Hackett, Lent, and Greenhaus (1991) have also ar­gued the need to work toward unifying career decision theories to bring together conceptually related con­structs (e.g., self-efficacy and self-concept), to more fully explain outcomes that are common to a number of ca­reer theories (e.g. . satisfaction), to account for the re­lations among seemingly diverse constructs (e.g., inter­ests. needs. abilities), and to identify the major variables crucial to a comprehensive theory of career develop­ment. If career development theory is to be compre­hensive and useful, it must include some variables that have received relatively little attention or that are even omitted in current theories. These include the influence of life roles (e.g., sex role, racial identity), what oppor­tunities are available to a person within a particular geographic area, and economic influences. It must be noted, however, that all-encompassing theories are likely to pose barriers to research and practice because of the increased number of constructs and the complex network of interrelationships among them.

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