An individual engages in career exploration as a way of gathering information about self and the environment, with a goal of fostering progress and career development. Although proactive career exploration is common when individuals undergo a career transition and when they are faced with the need to make an imminent career decision, exploration may also be triggered by curiosity and a natural desire to explore.
There are two types of career exploration. Environmental career exploration is the investigation of various career options that an individual may consider pursuing at any point in his or her career. In exploring the environment, the individual proactively collects new information on jobs, organizations, occupations, or industries that allow more informed career decision making. Self-exploration, on the other hand, is focused on defining and exploring one’s own interests, values, previous experiences, and career goals. It is a way of reflecting about and rethinking one’s career and gaining a deeper understanding of oneself. As a result of self-exploration, individuals obtain a clearer perspective on their desires and abilities and possibly the type of work environments they want to avoid.
Whereas environmental exploration is primarily behavioral in nature (e.g., informational interviews, library and computer research, site visits, attending networking events), self-exploration is more cognitive (e.g., reflection, completing self-assessment instruments, analysis). This is not a completely clean distinction, however, as self-exploration can also include behaviors such as soliciting and discussing feedback from others, working with mentors and coaches to gain self-insight, and observing one’s own behavior. Similarly, environmental exploration can contain cognitive activities such as reflection on personal experiences in potential employment settings, as in interviews, internships, or field projects. But in general, environmental exploration is a more active process, involving getting out there in the employment world, and self-exploration is more internal and cognitive, gathering and processing data about oneself. The two processes may occur at the same time and may influence each other. For example, as a result of an interesting work option encountered during environmental exploration, an individual may decide to conduct more self-exploration and reconsider his or her interests, values, and experiences related to the particular option encountered. Environmental career exploration is measured by the frequency of performing environmental career exploration behaviors, such as exploring other career options; self-exploration, on the other hand, is measured by the frequency of reflecting about oneself and one’s past career.
Triggers of Career Exploration
Sometimes career exploration is prompted by external factors, such as the triggers of undergoing a career transition; the contraction, expansion, or other changes within one’s organization; or factors related to one’s nonwork life (e.g., a work-family issue triggering exploration of other options). Even more distant contextual factors, such as the political and social environment in which an individual lives, can foster or constrain one’s exploratory activity. Thus, career exploration may take on different forms and functions in various cultures and time periods; however, there is much to be learned about these cultural influences on career exploration.
Although career exploration is a lifelong process, it has been studied more frequently among students making initial career choices than among employees in later stages of their careers. Nevertheless, it is likely that career exploration behaviors conducted during a school-to-work transition in one’s early career are qualitatively different from the behaviors conducted later on. In the early career years, there is a great deal of conscious, purposeful exploration of career alternatives as individuals search for the most suitable career fields, at least for the short term. On the other hand, in mid- and late career, more well-established individuals seeking a career change often search for alternative career options in order to “break their routines” in the particular career fields to which they have become accustomed. In other words, the task in early career is to end exploratory behaviors and “settle down,” whereas the task in later career years is to disrupt the habitual routine and engage in exploration that will lead to desired or necessary changes. For example, late-career individuals are often faced with social and contextual factors, such as changes in the labor market or lifestyle preferences, which require them to engage in exploratory activities. In this case, career exploration can be seen as a way of coping and preparing for unexpected shifts in today’s work environment. Given the instability of today’s employment contracts, the need to be introspective regarding oneself and one’s career, in the form of career exploration, is by necessity a lifelong issue.
For example, the importance of lifelong career exploration is highlighted for individuals in the midst of involuntary career transitions, such as loss of employment, which often triggers the exploration of other career options. Career exploration during this type of career transition can be seen as a coping strategy that allows for more extensive learning about oneself and other career options available in the environment. For individuals experiencing career transitions, it is also common to find that a high level of stress and an immediate need to make a career decision function as powerful triggers for career exploration.
In addition to career transitions and other external factors, various internal dynamics and individual characteristics may trigger exploratory activity. One of the important individual characteristics that positively relate to career exploration at the time of transitions is career role salience. Individuals who consider their careers to be a particularly salient component of their identity are likely to conduct more career exploration. These individuals feel more concern for their career development and more urgency to act and get involved in their career decision making. Career role salience has been found to influence career decision making in early as well as late career. For example, career role salience is positively related to exploration by students transitioning from school to work as well as by employed adults who aspire to a different position in an organization. Finally, career role salience is also an important predictor of environmental exploration, particularly for individuals facing involuntary career transitions later in their careers.
Other internal triggers of career exploration include intrinsic motivational factors, such as self-determination, natural curiosity, and proactivity. In addition, individuals who are goal directed, have high self-esteem, and are self-confident about their career decision making tend to engage in extensive career exploration. In this respect, career exploration can be considered a subset of a broader human tendency for purposeful action and making sense of one’s internal and external experiences. Individuals may be intrinsically motivated to explore and seek out novel experiences, thereby enhancing knowledge about themselves and the world.
There is also some recent evidence that the “Big Five” personality characteristics can serve as triggers of career exploration. The achievement-oriented and self-disciplined nature of conscientious individuals appears to be associated with greater exploration and career information seeking. Similarly, the assertive, gregarious, and energetic nature of the extraverted person is also associated with career exploration. Moreover, individuals whose personalities are highly neurotic and those who are open to new experiences are likely to engage in self-exploration. Research suggests that neuroticism may lead to behaviors that serve to compensate for feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability. A neurotic person’s emotional instability may lead him or her to engage in greater self-exploration for the purpose of reassurance regarding any doubts about the correctness of his or her career choice. On the other hand, emotionally stable individuals facing job loss situations, for example, tend to see reflection and self-exploration as unnecessary tasks; these individuals are very sure of themselves and their career choices, and they perceive self-exploration as a task for individuals who are more disturbed by job loss. Thus, although stressful situations generally trigger career exploration, the effect of stress on exploration may depend to some extent on one’s personality characteristics.
Individuals who are open to new experiences are more curious about themselves and prefer a wide range of options with regard to ideas, values, and experiences. Therefore, thinking and reflecting on one’s career-related abilities and interests may be particularly stimulating to the open person because they provide opportunities to master new challenges and enhance self-knowledge. Nevertheless, additional research is required to learn more about the relationship between personality and career exploration.
Social Support and Career Exploration
Another important predictor of exploration is the involvement of others who are significant to the explorer. Individuals who are able to provide social support and psychological resources can have a positive effect on the explorer’s experience. For example, safe and secure relationships within one’s family are extremely important determinants of exploratory activity. The support and security obtained in close family relationships promote general exploration in childhood, and this tendency is carried into adulthood. Later in life, career counselors and coaches may also foster exploration by providing constructive support and resources that individuals can use in career decision making. Especially in times of transition, tangible support provided by counselors and coaches can increase one’s ability and motivation to explore. In particular, it is known that counselors can increase clients’ control and competence in both self- and environmental-exploration tasks. Thus, any intervention that bolsters one’s confidence with respect to decision-making tasks also fosters exploratory activity. In addition, as suggested earlier, individuals may be faced with the need to engage in exploratory activity if they experience stress concerning their careers (e.g., during transitions or when faced with the need to make a career decision). Counselors may help these individuals manage their stress levels while they engage in productive exploration. Finally, it is known that individuals are often prone to biased information gathering and processing, which may lead to insufficient exploration of various options or premature career decision making. Support from career professionals may be especially relevant in helping clients evaluate their career decisions objectively, emphasizing the importance of alternative-hypothesis testing and proper information-gathering processes. Thus, guidance and support can lead to improved self-exploration, as well as to more comprehensive and diverse environmental exploration, allowing individuals to develop exploratory attitudes in relation to their overall life experiences.
Outcomes of Exploration
In addition to understanding the factors that may trigger career exploration, it is important to recognize the specific outcomes of exploration. In considering exploration in a broader context, it is often emphasized that the exploration process fosters a coherent sense of self or identity. Engaging in exploration promotes autonomy and integration of the self. Thus, the core outcome of exploration is self-construction, which refers to the process of developing a coherent and meaningful identity and implementing that identity in a life plan. Exploration can also be seen as a critical means by which individuals can construct and reconstruct themselves throughout the life span and across life roles. Through exploration, individuals seek self-relevant and interest-relevant information in different arenas of their lives.
The exploration process very likely cuts across life roles and domains and yields benefits that may not be limited to one domain. For example, learning about ourselves in the student role through self-exploration may change our self-concepts in general and influence the way we interact with others in our families or at work. Thus, exploration is embedded across life roles and can be seen as a lifelong process. This seamless quality of exploration allows learning or exploration in one domain to be mutually beneficial across the life space.
As individuals explore, they also gain greater levels of competence, and they may be able to experience an increasing feeling of “ownership” of their adaptive career behaviors and attitudes. Developing a capacity to explore one’s environment and one’s own internal psychological experiences, especially early in one’s career, may offer a unique advantage in an era of rapid social and economic change.
One of the most important outcomes of career exploration is improved occupational decision making. Exploration generates useful information about oneself and alternative occupations, thus helping individuals make the right occupational decisions at any point in their careers. For example, environmental career exploration at the time of an involuntary career loss has been found to lead to the acquisition of a higher-quality job upon reemployment. In this instance, career exploration is used as a coping strategy, and the exploration of various options at the time of transition helps individuals find new jobs that more strongly fit their personal qualities.
Career exploration activities have also been associated with recruiters’ ratings of an individual’s interview performance during a job search. Thus, career exploration enhances interview readiness, which relates to interview performance and outcomes. In addition, career exploration helps in making more informed job-search decisions, especially during school-to-work transitions. Later in adulthood, exploration is often conducted together with various job search behaviors, and the two processes influence each other. In searching for a new job by looking at job advertisements or talking to colleagues, individuals may encounter options that they may want to explore further, and thus exploration and job search may complement each other.
Thus, it is necessary to maintain this exploratory attitude throughout life and use exploration as a means of coping with and adjusting to a shifting set of challenges presented by a variety of career transitions and challenging job situations. While career exploration following a school-to-work transition can be seen as an adaptive process, conducting repeated exploration allows one to cope with social change and adapt to the realities of the modern world of work.
An exploratory attitude represents an open and nonrigid way of relating to the world, such that individuals are able to approach the vast number of new situations and changes they face in a manner that encourages growth and further self-development. Cycles of exploration are expected to occur throughout an individual’s life, particularly during the period preceding and following career transitions. Career exploration should be viewed as a lifelong process, with implications for individuals’ development at all stages of their careers.
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