Career Indecision

Career IndecisionCareer indecision, the state of being undecided regarding occupational interest or career path, has been defined in a variety of ways, making it somewhat difficult for investigators in this area to reach consensus on its nature and causes. Researchers have described individuals as undecided if they have not chosen or declared a college major, if they reported that their certainty about vocational choice was low, if they could not name a career choice, if they were unable to articulate career goals, or if they scored below a specified point on a measure such as the Career Decision Scale. The term career indecision has also been used to apply to the range of problems and difficulties individuals encounter during the career decision process. An individual might, for example, know that she wants to be a therapist but is not sure whether she wants to major in psychology or social work. Another individual might narrow his career options down to two choices but may have difficulties in choosing one over the other. Such individuals might be said to be career undecided to a degree, illustrating that career indecision can be thought of as existing on a continuum rather than as an either/or proposition.

Many people will, at some point in their lives, face a certain amount of indecision related to making career choices. It has been estimated that between 10 percent and 30 percent of college students could be classified as “undecided.” In fact, in many cases, career indecision might be thought of as a normative phenomenon, closely related to an individual’s age and educational level, with younger and less educated individuals more likely to be career undecided. In this regard, some researchers have suggested that a certain amount of indecision might actually be beneficial. The undecided student or adult may be more likely to systemically explore his or her options in hopes of making a more informed career decision than would the individual who hastily chooses a line of work but is nonetheless classified as “career decided.”

Most individuals who are undecided at some point do eventually move forward, make choices, and enter the workforce. However, for some individuals, career indecision is more than just a passing phase or a normative part of the developmental process. For those people, career indecision can be a major impediment to successfully preparing for work, for entering an occupation or profession, or for maintaining a satisfying work life. Since identity and self-concept are closely tied to an individual’s occupation and since job satisfaction is positively related to overall life satisfaction, prolonged or chronic career indecision can have a detrimental effect on an individual’s mental health and well-being.

The definition of what is prolonged or chronic is not always clear, but career counselors typically become involved after the individual or family members have become frustrated with a lack of progress toward a decision. Since career decision making is an important task in the life-span developmental process, the developmental timetable accepted by a given society often defines the point at which an individual’s indecision may be viewed as problematic. In the United States, the educational system expects that college students will declare majors by approximately age 20. Societal norms suggest that most young adults, unless headed for graduate school, begin to pursue careers after college graduation, when they are approximately 22 years old. Young adults who do not pursue college degrees are expected to choose and enter careers even earlier. However, in light of recent findings that suggest that brain development may not be complete until the mid-20s, as well as the sociological phenomenon of “extended adolescence,” it is not clear that these timetables are always appropriate. One viewpoint is that the diagnosis of career indecision cannot be made reliably until the individual is 25 years old. There is, however, evidence that chronic career indecision can be predicted at a much younger age. Because chronic career indecision is related to underlying psychological issues rather than a normal development process, individuals at risk for chronic career indecision will gain no advantages if they wait until they are 25 years old to begin treatment for their underlying condition(s). Chronic career indecision and its causes are discussed in more detail later in this article.

History of the Construct of Career Indecision

The construct of career indecision has been a focus of investigation since the 1930s. At that time, the population of interest was college students, who were dichotomously characterized as either career decided or career undecided. (Note that even today, most career indecision research focuses on college undergraduates.) In 1937, E. G. Williamson and John Gordon Darley published the results of their investigation into the differences between decided and undecided students in terms of academic commitment and achievement. Even though their results indicated that there were no significant differences between decided and undecided students, Williamson nonetheless extrapolated that there were many causes of career indecision, among them fear, lack of aptitude, and emotional instability. It was not until 1969 that Leonard Baird published the results of two large studies, with a total of more than 70,000 subjects, in which he concluded that there were no significant differences between decided and undecided students, particularly in terms of academic aptitude. His position was in accord with the developmental perspective of career indecision that was pervasive in the 1950s and 1960s, as put forth by theorists such as Donald Super and Erik Erikson. Baird maintained that his findings had important implications for counseling undecided students. He recommended that such students should not be anthologized. Rather, he maintained that undecided students should be made aware that their undecided status is normative in nature and that they are not academically inferior to students who are career decided.

During the 1960s and 1970s, career-indecision research continued to focus on the question of whether and how individuals who are career decided differ from those who are career undecided. It was hypothesized that understanding the inherent differences between the two groups would yield valuable information as to how counselors could best assist the career undecided. Although many researchers studied various hypothesized differences between the two groups in terms of achievement, aptitude, and personality factors, they could not reach a consensus. Some researchers found no significant differences between career decided and undecided students, while others found undecided students to have, for example, higher attrition rates, lower academic achievement, and lower self-esteem. Those who found no differences between the two groups point to the benefits of not pathologizing career indecision for those students who are undecided. Nonetheless, these contradictory findings did little to settle the question of whether characteristic differences exist between those who are career decided and those who are undecided.

Some of this confusion may be attributed to the failure to distinguish between developmental career indecision and chronic career indecision. Since most undecided individuals do eventually become decided, in many cases, there really are no major differences between the two groups, other than perhaps the age at which individuals pass through different developmental stages. However, researchers also uncovered evidence that career decision making remains chronically problematic for some people. For these individuals, career indecision can be a debilitating condition.

From that point on, researchers began to understand that there are separate, distinct categories of career indecision and that identifying the category into which an individual might fall could aid in the intervention process and help achieve positive outcomes. Much of the investigation that followed centered on the relationship between career indecision and multiple variables, such as personality factors, aptitude, cultural norms, and attachment style.

Subtypes of Career Indecision

Although there seems to be clear consensus that there are multiple subtypes of career indecision, there is less agreement as to the exact nature and definition of those subtypes. Moreover, researchers have been inconsistent as to the variables they have chosen to study in their attempts to explain career indecision. As a result, investigators have devised numerous methods for categorizing and conceptualizing career indecision.

One way to classify career indecision is to ascertain whether the individual is merely career undecided or is generally indecisive. It is important to note that there is an obvious difference between the states of being “undecided” and “indecisive.” Individuals who are career undecided may be that way for a number of relatively benign reasons, including their educational levels, lack of general work experience, or lack of information surrounding vocations. This type of career indecision is often thought of as a normal part of the developmental process. Individuals who are develop-mentally career undecided may benefit from brief and focused interventions, with the goal of providing information to assist them in making a career choice. Conversely, individuals who are generally indecisive in other areas of their lives are very likely to also encounter difficulties in making career decisions. This type of career indecision is generally more problematic and may require more extensive intervention.

Another way to categorize career indecision is to focus on the relative comfort level of the undecided individual. Some individuals may be career undecided yet experience little or no distress because of their undecided states. Such individuals, further characterized as emotionally stable, may not feel internal or external pressure to make a career decision at a given point in time, and therefore may be said to be comfortable with their undecided states. For other individuals, the inability to make a decision may cause varying amounts of stress and anxiety. These individuals might also report low vocational identity and lower levels of self-esteem.

It has been suggested that individuals with lower levels of academic abilities could constitute another subtype of career indecision. These individuals may see their choices as limited due to their academic disadvantages and may also believe that their career choices are unrealistic. They may become discouraged with their perceived lack of ability as well as their overall ability to choose and enter a career.

Many researchers have investigated the connection between various aspects of personality and career indecision. Some of these aspects include anxiety, self-esteem, locus of control, career self-efficacy (the beliefs that individuals have about their abilities to pursue and succeed in various careers) and vocational maturity (an indication of an individual’s vocational orientation and consistency of vocation preference, along with the level of information about and wisdom of a particular vocational choice).

Chronic Career Indecision

A certain degree of career indecision can be seen as a normal part of the developmental process, but when the indecision is related to underlying psychological issues, it is not likely to resolve over time. Bruce Hartman and Dale Fuqua introduced the term chronic career indecision in the early 1980s. The factors most often associated with chronic career indecision are anxiety, external locus of control, poor identity formation, and low self-esteem. Much of the current body of research focuses on the relationships between these factors and career decidedness and indecision.

Anxiety is one of the most common conditions researchers associate with career indecision and career indecisiveness. Research has addressed the impact of both state anxiety (associated with the act of choosing a career and/or the condition of being career undecided) and generalized trait anxiety. In essence, anxiety has been characterized as both a by-product of the decision-making process (state anxiety) and as a cause for career indecision (trait anxiety). Individuals who become anxious as a result of having to make career decisions may briefly question their own abilities to make correct decisions, possibly because of perfectionist traits, which can lead to avoidance of the decision-making process. Once these types of individuals ultimately make a decision, however, they are likely to become less anxious. This is in contrast to individuals for whom anxiety is a primary cause of indecision. These individuals may lack confidence in their abilities to make decisions and may also have poor overall problem-solving skills. For such individuals, making a decision leads to increased anxiety and self-doubt regarding the appropriateness of the choice. Trait-anxious individuals may also prematurely drop out of career counseling because of their discomfort with the decision-making process.

A condition related to career choice anxiety is external locus of control, in which the individual perceives little control over his or her own life and life choices. This may lead such a person to avoid engaging in problem-solving processes, which could reduce the level of anxiety and assist in decision making, because of a low level of confidence that such activities will make a difference. This, unfortunately, becomes a self-defeating cycle, as problem-solving skills can only develop through the process of practicing them.

A third area of concern for individuals who are chronically undecided is poor ego identity formation. This is based on the stages of psychosocial development described by Erik Erikson, the first five of which must be resolved by early adulthood. Beginning in infancy, these first five stages are trust versus mistrust, autonomy versus shame and doubt, initiative versus guilt, industry versus inferiority, and identity versus identity confusion. If the individual has difficulty in any of these stages, he or she will not successfully form a clear sense of identity, which is thought to be an important precursor of career choice. Possible reasons for this are discussed below, under “Family Influences.”

Low self-esteem is another variable that can contribute to chronic career indecision. Research has related low self-esteem to general indecisiveness, as well as to low self-efficacy (belief in one’s ability to perform certain tasks) and depression. All of these variables can inhibit the thoughtful problem-solving processes necessary for making effective life decisions.

A final, but somewhat controversial, cause of chronic indecision is referred to as multipotentiality. Some individuals who are considered gifted and talented may have difficulty choosing a career path because they have many different interests and skill sets. They may score uniformly high in several areas of aptitude and achievement. Moreover, results of career interest measurements for this group may indicate no clear preferences. Thus, the gifted and talented may be presented with a seemingly endless array of vocational choices, perhaps leading to a condition of career indecision. However, recent research has questioned the methods used to evaluate aptitude and preferences for this population, thereby casting some doubt on whether traditional assessment measures are useful in identifying relevant areas of concern.

Family Influences

Over the past two decades, career theorists have acknowledged that families and family influences are important factors in career decision making. The importance of considering family systems becomes even more critical in the current era, in which the definitions of family and work have become more expansive and complex. Family members may serve as career role models, providing concrete examples of how to succeed in a particular vocational area. Often, family members may be influencers, directing young adults toward high-profile or high-status careers or toward careers that meet the family’s needs in other ways, such as joining a family-owned business. Family members can also act as mentors, helping the young adult bypass traditional hurdles and hence overcome obstacles. For example, parents can help their child get a job within their own place of business, bypassing the usual interview process. They may know influential people who are already successful in their child’s choice of career and may make introductions, thereby helping the child to network. Family members, conversely, may function as gatekeepers, erecting financial or emotional barriers to careers they deem to be unsuitable for their dependent young adult. They may refuse to pay for college if their child does not pursue the course of study of the parents’ choice, or they may subject the child to high levels of guilt.

According to family systems theorists, when a child does not sufficiently gain a level of independence from the family of origin, that child may encounter difficulties in identity formation, a factor that career theorists associate with career indecision. It follows that a young adult’s career decision making may suffer when families exert too much influence or when the young adult does not sufficiently separate or differentiate from the family of origin. If the young adult fails to achieve autonomy and is not encouraged to explore career options independently, career indecision may result. Furthermore, researchers have suggested that young adults who are overly dependent or rigidly connected with their families may be conflicted between pursuing careers of their own choosing and careers that their families would prefer. As a result, a condition is created in which career decision making becomes even more problematic. However, this interpretation varies by culture, as discussed below under “Multicultural Considerations.”


Interventions for career indecision must be chosen based on an assessment of type and causes for the indecision. An individual who is developmentally undecided will tend to benefit from short-term career counseling, the focus of which will be psychoeducational and centered on assessment of interests, needs, and values. Career counselors can provide such individuals with practical information, including descriptions of various careers, workplace environments, and expected salaries. Counselors can encourage these clients to set up informational interviews or opportunities for job shadowing; they may also suggest various computer- or Internet-based tools to help clients with self-assessment and career evaluation. One effective form of intervention is referred to as cognitive information processing. This approach teaches a systematic method of identifying and solving problems, and it can be quite effective with those who need assistance in organizing the career choice process. In essence, with developmentally undecided clients, the counselor acts as a facilitator, providing assessment, assistance in gathering information, goal setting, and career plan implementation.

In contrast, the chronically career undecided or indecisive individual may require assistance in determining the underlying reasons for the indecisiveness before coming to terms with choosing an occupation. The counselor must consider that it may be neither the absence of self-awareness nor the lack of vocational information that is rendering the individual incapable of making a career choice. In this instance, a psychoeducational approach alone may be ineffective or even detrimental, as the individual may become even more anxious and frustrated by the continuing inability to make a career decision, even with the help of a counselor.

Among the areas of focus for interventions with chronically undecided individuals are anxiety, career self-efficacy, and family dynamics. Individuals whose career indecision is related to anxiety will benefit from treatment focused on both relieving general anxiety and anxiety specifically related to career decision making. An example of a career-focused intervention for anxiety is cognitive restructuring, which helps the individual recognize and change rigid and unreasonable beliefs. These may be beliefs regarding an inability to succeed, their own fit (or misfit) with certain careers, an inflexible demand that the chosen career must provide immediate and high levels of success, and the need to be completely certain before any decision can be made.

To move forward in developing a career plan, it is necessary to believe that one’s efforts will be rewarded and that career success is possible. Interventions focused on self-efficacy attempt to increase the belief that goals can be achieved. Like cognitive restructuring for anxiety, these interventions may focus on helping the individual modify her or his self-defeating beliefs, in this case specifically related to potential for success. The counselor may also structure activities that create successful experiences or help the individual recognize areas in which he or she has been successful that may then translate into career success.

In some cases, chronic career indecision is effectively treated through psychotherapy focused on family dynamics, such as inadequate developmental separation from the family of origin or family dysfunction related to parental alcohol or drug abuse. Those who have grown up in dysfunctional families may tend to think in black-and-white terms, and they are more likely to face psychological problems that interfere with all life choices. In such cases, treatment may be difficult and will initially focus on addressing the family system and psychological issues before addressing career choice.

Career Indecision throughout the Life Span

Although career indecision, by its very nature, usually is first seen during late adolescence or early adulthood, individuals may be career undecided at any time throughout the life span. Career indecision can occur when an individual is making an initial career choice, considering a career change, returning to work after a break in employment, or even beginning a new career after retirement. The need for ongoing monitoring and reevaluation of career direction may be especially necessary in the current work environment, in which individuals may no longer expect employment for life in any one particular field or industry. This is true for a variety of reasons. One is the rapid pace of technological change, which has made some careers obsolete. Another factor is globalization, which has led to economic pressures on companies to outsource jobs to the lowest bidder, often in other countries. Furthermore, downsizing has forced thousands of workers to suddenly reenter the job market, often with skill sets that may not meet current employers’ demands. A career choice that seemed safe and appropriate during the first phase of entering the world of work may look very different several years later, and, in fact, no career may be considered immune to changes or even obsolescence. Considering the stress and uncertainty associated with the current work environment, even individuals who have not lost their jobs may very well begin to feel anxious and unsettled about their current occupations, thus promoting one of the major conditions associated with career indecision. This may be especially true for individuals who were career undecided in the first place.

Multicultural Considerations

Much of the early research on career indecision focused on White, middle-class college students and adolescents. In the past decade, research has begun to examine the variables that may uniquely affect career decisions of racial and ethnic minorities; women; lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) individuals; and individuals with disabilities.

The culture of the United States and European countries is focused on individual achievement and autonomy, which encourages decision making independent of the family of origin. This is not the case in more collectivist cultures, however, such as those of Asia and South America. In such cultures, it is normal and expected for the family to have a strong influence on career decision making, and this can result in an inaccurate assessment of career indecision for an individual who appears by U.S. standards to have difficulty making an independent choice. Another important cultural variable is orientation toward time, which in the United States is toward the future. The Latino and Native American cultures, by contrast, are more present focused, and this again may cause an inappropriate assessment of indecision because of apparent inattention to advance planning. When working with individuals from other cultures, it may be important to assess the level of acculturation, or the degree to which the individual has adopted the norms of the host culture. Finally, it is important to consider the degree to which career decisions may be affected by workplace or educational discrimination and by financial barriers faced by individuals of lower socioeconomic status.

Historically, career decision making for women was viewed as secondary to life goals of marriage and child rearing. It is important to note that this view was never universal and that it applied only to women of higher socioeconomic status. Nonetheless, career counseling for women has almost always considered a balance of work and family obligations to be an important factor in women’s career choices. Because of a continuing pull between work and family, it might be assumed that women would face more difficulty with career indecision than would men. However, minimal evidence exists to support this assumption. Similarly, there is little evidence of a relationship between sex role and career indecision. However, for women in nontraditional careers, as well as for LGB individuals, anxiety related to career choice may result from either experienced or anticipated discrimination in the workplace. Measures of career indecision that do not account for barriers related to workplace discrimination may be problematic for such individuals, as well as for racial and ethnic minorities.

A relatively new dimension of diversity in career theory is disability status. Because of new laws providing access to higher education and the workplace, as well as medical advances, students with disabilities are increasingly present on college campuses and seeking advice in career choice. These disabilities may be physical or medical, learning based, or psychiatric. It is not yet clear whether individuals with disabilities experience indecision at a higher rate than do others. Some evidence suggests that individuals with disabilities may experience more self-doubt and that this may lead to higher levels of indecision. Furthermore, individuals with disabilities may tend to aspire to lower-level careers than do their counterparts without disabilities. Additional research is needed to determine the causes of career indecision in this population and whether individuals with disabilities require different interventions than do others.

Areas Requiring Further Study

While some research has begun to define cultural variables in career decision making, much more remains to be done. One important task will be to examine the existing career decision models to incorporate the values of interdependent cultures and therefore to refine the criteria for diagnosing indecision. Furthermore, although there is general recognition that career decisions occur throughout the life span, existing models still tend to focus on adolescence and early adulthood. Given the increasing rate of change in the workplace, which has led to a trend toward multiple careers rather than a single lifelong career choice, it will be important for both theory and practice to consider variables that may contribute to career indecision in older adults. Finally, a relatively unexplored area is the process of decision making and the nature of indecision for individuals whose career exploration process is more spiritually based, that is, those who have followed a “calling” into a career rather than having made a more data-driven decision.


It is clear that the concept of career indecision is much more complex than it would appear to be at first glance. There are numerous ways to define the construct and to identify its subtypes, as well as a wide range of antecedent factors and interventions to consider. In particular, it is important to differentiate between indecision as a normal developmental phase and chronic career indecision, which may require psychological intervention. Furthermore, these many factors are affected by multicultural variables that have only recently been addressed in the vocational literature.

See also:


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