Career satisfaction is an important variable in research on career development and other areas of inquiry dealing with occupations, work dynamics, and individual adjustment. Although career satisfaction is seldom the primary topic of research investigations, it is often studied as an important criterion variable in relation to many different personal and organizational factors. It should be emphasized that the term career refers to all of the work-related activities a person engages in and all of the work-related experiences a person has over the course of a lifetime. Defined this way, career applies to everyone who works, not just individuals in a profession or higher-level occupations. On the other hand, most empirical studies in this area have focused on professional occupations in which a career represents a sequence of related jobs over time, with an emphasis on advancement, progression, and cumulative experience.
When researchers ask people to look back over their lives and indicate how satisfied they are with their careers, several assumptions are usually made. First, a career is a concept that has meaning for people as a discrete phenomenon in its own right, as a specific domain of experience. Most people do not have to stop and think about each job they have had and how satisfied they were with each one to tell you how satisfied they are with their careers. They think about their careers as a whole. A second assumption is that careers change over time, and satisfaction depends on advancement. A person who starts out in a higher-level job and ends up in a mid-level job will almost always be less career satisfied than someone who starts out in a low-level job and ends up in a mid-level job. Thus, most scales that are used to measure career satisfaction have one or more items dealing with the progress a person has made over time in key areas such as income and job responsibility and in the development of knowledge, skills, and abilities. Third, as in most areas of satisfaction, the assessment of career satisfaction usually involves consideration of current versus desired or expected level of experience. For example, a career satisfaction item might ask: How satisfied are you with the progress you have made (in your career) toward achieving your goals for earnings? The lower the discrepancy between the current level versus the desired or expected level, the greater the satisfaction. If this model were valid, one possible strategy for achieving career satisfaction would be to keep expectations low. But such a strategy is unlikely given the optimistic expectations most people, particularly those with college degrees, have when they begin their careers. Moreover, it may be difficult to modify unrealistic career expectations, as suggested by studies of individuals in midcareer who still have high levels of ambition and desire for upward mobility while reporting lower levels of career satisfaction.
It is also important to recognize that career satisfaction is not job satisfaction. It is easy to see how satisfaction with career as a whole, covering all jobs, is conceptually differentiated from job satisfaction, which is usually a person’s satisfaction with a single job, typically the job he or she currently holds or most recently held. Even if one were tempted to consider career satisfaction as the average level of job satisfaction across jobs, we would not know which direction satisfaction is going or how satisfaction is impacted by non-job variables such as work-nonwork dynamics or changes in personality. Another important distinction often made is that career satisfaction represents a subjective indicator of career success, as distinguished from objective indicators of career success, such as salary or earnings and promotions or professional advancement.
Career satisfaction is often regarded as a key outcome variable representing career success and personal fulfillment Its value as a criterion of success is such that policy implications are drawn about professional practice and specialty choice based on career satisfaction. In the medical profession, for example, differences in career satisfaction inform theorists and policy analysts about the attractiveness of the medical profession, the impact of managed care, and physicians’ quality of life in different areas of specialization (e.g., family practice, internal medicine, surgical specialty, and psychiatry).
One reason so much importance is attached to career satisfaction is that it represents an overall summary of how a person feels about a lifetime of work— which represents about 100,000 hours for the typical American—and all the accompanying personal achievements, feelings of accomplishment, and gratification, as well as the setbacks and disappointments experienced in the course of a career. It is encouraging to see that in most studies, at least two-thirds of the respondents indicate that they fall in the fairly satisfied to very satisfied range for career satisfaction. Another way to view career satisfaction is as component and predictor of global life satisfaction, which is considered by some to be an overarching existential criterion or ultimate outcome of human experience. For younger individuals who can still modify their work behavior and alter their career trajectories, career satisfaction can serve as a benchmark against which subsequent assessments can be compared, to track career progress and monitor relative success. For older individuals, there are no career “do overs,” and career satisfaction can represent a final summary or subjective report card on the result of all their career endeavors.
Turning to the question of what factors relate to career satisfaction, one starting point is demographic characteristics of the individual. One might expect that career satisfaction increases with variables such as age or education. However, career satisfaction tends to be unrelated, or related at a low level of magnitude, to most demographic variables, including age, gender, education, marital status, parenting status, child care responsibility, time spent with children, and collegiate grade point average. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that construct relationships involving career satisfaction, such as the relationship between challenging work and career satisfaction, are fairly similar for most demographic variables, including type of occupation, as well as for individuals working in the same type of job in different countries. Such results offer hope for the development of generalizable models of career satisfaction.
As is the case for many other psychological constructs, career satisfaction can be viewed as the result of person-environment fit, or the interaction of person and environment. If a person’s career is well suited to his or her personality, career satisfaction should ensue. One way to evaluate this proposition is to examine the relationship between vocational interests and career satisfaction, with an eye toward whether satisfaction increases if career choice or occupational membership is congruent with one’s vocational interests. Research findings in this area generally indicate that career satisfaction is, indeed, related to expressed vocational interests and the fit between vocational interests and abilities in relation to occupational membership and career choice. Such results are important for practitioners involved in vocational planning, counseling, and career development, in which the focus is on helping individuals make educational and occupational choices that lead to career satisfaction.
Personality and Mental Ability Factors
Another line of research has examined the relationship between personality traits and career satisfaction. One rationale for such research is that people both choose and are satisfied with careers that are consistent with their personality characteristics. A second rationale for linkages between personality traits and career satisfaction is that some traits are generally advantageous for performance, adjustment, and feelings of satisfaction regardless of career path. A recent trend in this area has been to investigate construct relations using both the broadly defined Big Five personality traits as well as more narrowly conceptualized traits. The Big Five model, which includes the traits of Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Neuroticism, and Openness, has emerged as the most widely accepted and well-validated taxonomy of normal personality traits in psychological feature. Two of the Big Five traits, Extraversion and Conscientiousness, have been found to be positively related to career satisfaction in occupations in which there is a logical connection (e.g., Extraversion for customer service jobs; Conscientiousness for engineers) and in which the connection is less obvious (e.g., Extraversion and computer programmers). One of the most consistent relationships is for Neuroticism, which is negatively related to career satisfaction in a wide range of occupations. One explanation that has been offered for the Neuroticism-career satisfaction relationship is that there is considerable stress in most jobs these days (especially given the increased demands placed on jobholders and the greater threat of job loss in many fields). Stress accumulates over the course of a career, and less resilient individuals are less able to cope than are more resilient individuals, which can directly impact career satisfaction as well as indirectly impact it through lower performance. In addition, two “narrow” personality traits, Optimism and Work Drive, have been found to be positively related to career satisfaction for a variety of occupations.
Beyond the Big Five personality traits, a variety of other personality-related traits have been found to be associated with career satisfaction for one or more occupations. These personality-related factors include assertiveness, image management, team-mindedness, workaholism, locus of control, tough-mindedness, and proactive personality. One interesting point to consider in regard to significant relationships between personality traits and career satisfaction is that from a life span developmental perspective, personality precedes most of the other variables that have been found to be related to career satisfaction, such as mentoring, training, salary, job satisfaction, and supervisory support, to name but a few. Therefore, not much is known about the independent effect such variables have on career satisfaction, because most of the studies did not first control for the effects of personality traits. It may be that some personality traits account for the effects of, say, promotions or salary increases, on career satisfaction, which may lower the importance accorded to the latter variables as determinants of career satisfaction.
Given that intelligence is related to job performance, income, and organizational level, it is logical to inquire as to whether intelligence is also related to career satisfaction. One initial answer is that it may depend on type of career path and the opportunity to use one’s mental ability, as the relationship between career satisfaction and intelligence has been found to be negative for hourly jobs but positive for managerial jobs.
Another area of inquiry has looked at job characteristics and job-related variables in relation to career satisfaction. Because there is continuity of personality over the life span—which means that people are similar over time with respect to attitudes, values, feelings, and dispositions—and because most people work in similar jobs over the course of a career, one might expect job-related variables to be related to career satisfaction. On the other hand, we would not expect these to be highly related to career satisfaction, since the average person works in 10 or more jobs before retiring and has three or four different careers in his or her life. Stronger relationships might be expected in studies of young people who have had only 1 or 2 jobs or if there is a nexus of job features and job experiences over time, which is usually the case for professionals who progress along a single career path. In fact, most of the studies reviewed here are based on a single professional occupation or job group. Whether or not this is a weakness depends on one’s point of view. If one is an hourly worker who might expect to change jobs and even careers more than most people, these results might be of questionable value, but if one is a budding professional expecting to build a career in a single field, these results might be quite relevant.
One common finding is that job satisfaction is highly related to career satisfaction for occupations such as teachers, lawyers, managers, and psychologists. Also, a modest, positive relationship between job salary/earnings and career satisfaction has been observed in studies of specific occupational groups as well as studies of diverse occupations and organizations. Several other subjective job-related variables have been found to be moderately related to career satisfaction, including perceiving that one has job security, having challenging job assignments, doing “significant” work, feeling involved in one’s work, and having supervisory support. Several of the more objective job measures have been found to have little or no relationship to career satisfaction, including the number of hours worked, job tenure, and type of job; however, working full-time rather than part-time has been linked to higher levels of career satisfaction. Although there have been few studies on the consequences of career dissatisfaction, intentions to search for a new job and a new employer and to quit a job have been found to be inversely related to career satisfaction, which suggests that a relationship may be found between career satisfaction and the incidence of job turnover as well as the relative frequency of job turnover in a career.
Another area of research inquiry on career satisfaction has looked at the role of organizational variables. Most of the objective organizational variables studied have been found to have no relationship to career satisfaction, including organization tenure and organization size, though for physicians, there is some evidence that physicians in small-group practices are more satisfied than those in large-group practices. Managers generally report higher levels of career satisfaction than do non-managers, though this may merely reflect the influence of other variables, such as greater income and more challenging work. Organizational norms and values are found to be positively related to career satisfaction, including support and encouragement, training and development emphasis, value for work-personal life balance, and the congruence of personal values and organizational values. Social networks have also been studied in relation to career satisfaction, with results indicating that career satisfaction is positively correlated with having an integrated network of relationships in the organization as well having more breadth of social networks outside the organization.
One of the most promising and potentially useful approaches to the study of career satisfaction involves examination of career-related constructs and characteristics. Looking first at objective attributes, we find that career satisfaction is moderately related to extrinsic rewards or objective indicators of success, including career income, salary increases, percentage of raises over time, and promotions. On the other hand, type of career path and work experience seem to account for little, if any, variation in career satisfaction.
A number of subjective measures that reflect satisfying experiences, fulfillment of expectations, and positive prospects for the future are related to career satisfaction at levels that range from moderate to high. These include satisfaction with opportunity to achieve career goals, prestige of jobs held, career skills, career identity, perceived promotion opportunities, career prospects, perceived marketability, and career initiative.
From ancient Greek and Roman times onward, more experienced individuals have served as mentors to help less experienced, and usually younger, individuals develop their skills and abilities. Today, mentoring has become an established practice in many work settings to facilitate the professional development and career enhancement of employees. One line of research in this area has focused on the role of mentors and the mentoring process in relation to career satisfaction. Modest relations have been found for having a mentor, length of mentoring relationship, mentor support functions (such as instrumental, career development, and idealized influence), and learning goal orientation. Mentoring functions can also serve as moderator variables; that is, as variables that affect the relationships between other variables. For example, employees who report that their mentors provide more psychosocial support to them appear to have higher levels of career satisfaction when they use self-set goals as a career management strategy. Mentoring functions have also been studied as moderators of career satisfaction relationships. For example, employees who report that their mentors provide more psychosocial support report higher levels of career satisfaction when they use self-set goals rather than other self-management strategies.
With the emergence of interest on the boundaryless career, wherein an individual’s career spans multiple employers, jobs, and areas of skill development, has come an emphasis on individuals engaging in proactive behavior to ensure career success, rather than waiting for the vicissitudes of economic, technological, and organizational change to impact their career success. Initial results indicate that proactive behaviors (such as taking the initiative to update skills) and having a generally proactive personality contribute to career satisfaction. Similarly, career satisfaction has been found to be positively related to self-management strategies such as self-set career goals and having positive career expectancies.
Multiple Sources of Career Satisfaction
Some studies have looked at how different types of variables uniquely and jointly predict career satisfaction. As might be expected, when multiple sets of predictors are considered, more variance in career satisfaction is explained, with estimates ranging up to nearly half of the variance in career satisfaction being explained when using demographic, personality, job, organization, and career-related variables. It is somewhat premature to conclude which variables are more important than others, though the picture that is emerging points toward the importance of personality and motivational variables as well as career-related constructs and human capital variables (e.g., training, professional development, education, tenure) as important contributors to career satisfaction.
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