Crystallization of the Vocational Self-Concept

Crystallization of the Vocational Self-ConceptPeople have self-thoughts about many personal attributes that together form a multifaceted self-view (i.e., self-concept). For example, a woman might think of herself as smart, caring, and dependable (her personal self-concept) but also as fiscally conservative and socially liberal (her political self-concept). The vocational self-concept refers to the subset of self-beliefs about vocationally relevant attributes. Thoughts about personality characteristics, abilities, and the types of jobs that would be satisfying are essential elements of everyone’s vocational self-concepts.

Crystallization refers to the clarity and certainty of a person’s self-beliefs. Clarity is the ability to say what “is me” and what “is not me”; certainty is the confidence a person has in those judgments. Clarity generally precedes certainty. Young children’s self-beliefs about vocationally relevant attributes, such as interests and abilities, are tentative until additional life experience allows the child to develop certainty.

Self-esteem is a related concept that refers to how well individuals like their self-concepts. Self-efficacy, another related concept, refers to individuals’ beliefs about their abilities to perform specific tasks.

In this entry, the major components of the vocational self-concept are identified. Next, the process of vocational self-concept crystallization is described; and the entry concludes with a brief explanation of the influence of the vocational self-concept on vocational behavior.

Elements of the Vocational Self-Concept

The self-beliefs that compose the vocational self-concept vary across individuals. For example, body type could be a component of the vocational self-concept for persons contemplating a career as a professional athlete or an actor, but people interested in most occupations might consider their physical appearance to be irrelevant. Nevertheless, at least four attributes are an essential part of everyone’s vocational self-concept: personality, interests, values, and abilities.Personality is the consistent pattern of mental, emotional, and behavioral attributes that characterize an individual.

  1. Interests are salient and enduring preferences to engage in specific activities or behaviors.
  2. Values are emotionally held beliefs, assumptions, and convictions that create expectations regarding moral behavior and provide guiding principles for personal behavior.
  3. Abilities are talents or skills that enable individuals to perform the behaviors that are necessary for effectiveness in work, family, and community activities.

Development of the Vocational Self-Concept

Significant contributions to understanding self-concept development have been made by Eli Ginzberg and his colleagues in the Conservation of Human Resources Project at Columbia University; Donald Super, also at Columbia University; Harvard University professor David Tiedeman; Southern Illinois University professor Vincent Harren; and University of Delaware professor Linda Gottfredson.

Cyclical Process

Although crystallization is sometimes used to refer to the ultimate goal of vocational identity development, the term more commonly refers to the process by which clarity and certainty develop. Crystallization involves a cyclical process in which the range of options under consideration alternately expands and narrows. Throughout the process, individuals seek information about themselves and the available work alternatives. An early task in the crystallization process is gaining an understanding of what self-knowledge will be helpful in making career decisions. Strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, values, and priorities all must be considered.

Initially, this process expands the range of career options by drawing attention to previously overlooked possibilities. As more and more information becomes available, however, the individual begins to narrow the range of options by establishing priorities and eliminating less desirable alternatives. This process recurs repeatedly; options expand until some consolidation becomes desirable, then narrow until the new information is assimilated.

Gradually, the opportunities for new learning are exhausted, and priorities become well established. The end result of vocational self-concept crystallization is a clear understanding of self (clarity), a set of prioritized values the individual is confident will remain stable over time (certainty), and an understanding of the world of work and the implications of that knowledge for personal behavior. These prioritized values are used as a basis for making career decisions.

Stage Models

Stage models depict development as a sequence of changes that occur during a specific age range; descriptions of vocational self-concept crystallization typically use a stage model. Stage models are useful for gaining a general idea of the developmental process, because biological maturation and universal social experiences (e.g., the educational system) exert a major influence on development until the late teenage years.

Nevertheless, stage models oversimplify important features of the developmental process. Development is not linear; life experiences sometimes result in a return to a previous stage. Furthermore, the pace of human development is highly variable. Healthy individuals can and do develop at different speeds. Therefore, the broad age ranges specified in stage models are simplifications that are not true for all individuals.


Children begin to express vocational preferences by age four. These early preferences typically ignore the child’s potential talents and interests and focus primarily on the child’s perception of the pleasure that would be derived from the activity. Pleasures derived as an unavoidable consequence of participating in an activity are intrinsic rewards; the desire to receive these rewards is intrinsic motivation. Firefighter, nurse, and cowboy are common occupational preferences of young children.

During childhood, vocational self-concept development is characterized by generalized exploration. Children are interested in learning more about themselves, but they have no coherent strategy for obtaining vocationally relevant information. Negative choices are absent or nearly absent, leaving the child with a broad range of alternatives.

As they gain life experience, children begin to identify with and emulate adults in hopes of developing their own potency. Adult roles are most clearly defined in the areas of work, leading children to begin internalization of a work orientation and ideas regarding sex-appropriate behaviors. This process results in a gradual increase in a preference for vocational activities that lead to rewards such as approval and money. Rewards that are not integral consequences of the activity are extrinsic rewards. The desire for extrinsic rewards is extrinsic motivation.


Role-playing (e.g., pretending to be a firefighter or doctor) is one important mechanism children use for elaborating their vocational self-concept. By trying out a variety of adult roles, children gradually gain a clearer understanding of the activities they like and dislike. At about age 10 to 12, children begin to narrow their range of choices on the basis of their potential to bring intrinsic enjoyment. University of Oregon professor Leona Tyler demonstrated that the early development of vocational interests is characterized primarily by recognition of the things we do not like. Children at this age recognize the tentative nature of their choices and the need for further maturation and experience. Nevertheless, their emerging understanding of their interests and their desire to avoid activities they dislike cause them to begin limiting their choices.


Although parental influence remains strong, other models begin to exert a stronger influence on the thinking of the child around 12 to 15 years of age. Children at this age begin to form impressions of their abilities: the skills at which they excel and at which they do not. This process continues through the teenage years. Many children do not become clear about the implications of their abilities and talents for their choice of careers until their late teens or early 20s.


Numerous changes begin as adolescents enter the second half of their teenage years (14-17 years of age). One important development is an emerging awareness that work offers more than a means of satisfying personal needs. For example, a child who was initially attracted to a career in medicine because of the prestige and financial security enjoyed by physicians may now begin to consider the humanitarian aspects of the medical profession. This expanded view of occupations ultimately leads adolescents to a consideration of their personal values and the implications of those for their vocational choices.

During this time, adolescents also become aware that occupations are associated with differences in the ways people live. People in different occupations tend to pursue different leisure activities, read different types of magazines, and participate in different social groups. This growing awareness of extra-work features associated with occupations leads to a consideration of lifestyles young people desire.

Time Perspective

During their later teenage years, adolescents’ time perspective begins to mature. They grow increasingly aware that a career involves a set of activities that are performed daily across the adult life span. Furthermore, they become more sensitive to the reality that they may be faced with the need to make life-altering decisions in a couple of years. The importance of these decisions and adolescents’ lack of independence contribute to the sense of frustration and turmoil characteristic of the teenage years.

Adolescents’ emerging sexuality creates additional pressures. Many adolescents experience intense emotional attractions for the first time, but their continued dependence and the necessity to delay commitment until they have established themselves in a career frustrates their desire to act on their attractions.

Taking Charge

The timing of the vocational self-concept crystallization becomes more variable in the late teens and early 20s. Maturation no longer plays such a significant role in self-concept development, and the demands of alternative career paths are so variable that crystallization progresses at greatly differing speeds.

Around age 17 to 18, young people begin to have more independence of action. This allows them to take immediate, concrete steps toward realistic decisions. Whether headed toward college, the military, or jobs, they begin to assume greater responsibility for their career decisions. This lessens their turmoil considerably.

Adolescents’ increased freedom allows them to choose new activities that provide opportunities to learn more about their skills and interests. Reality testing in the form of exams and other performance evaluations provides valuable feedback about the range of feasible alternatives. Significant others in their environments take cognizance of these performance-based activities and provide guidance and encouragement. This leads to a better understanding of the suitability of alternative careers and of the preparation that is necessary for the careers they are considering.

Emerging Adulthood

Young people typically begin to integrate an understanding of their likes, dislikes, and abilities and their own and society’s values into a coherent self-view during the late teens and early 20s. They make tentative choices of career paths based on their two or three most strongly held interests and devise tentative plans that allow them to test the wisdom of their choices.

Although their goals are much narrower than in earlier years, they still have considerable flexibility and have not committed themselves irrevocably to the final decision.

Reality does not yet require (and often does not permit) a final decision at this point in the young person’s development. Vocational interests begin to emerge around age 15, and a degree of stability is evident after age 20, but vocational interests still undergo substantial change until approximately age 25.

Despite the somewhat general and tentative nature of their commitment to a limited range of goals, this commitment brings feelings of satisfaction and relief. The pessimism of the previous stage is replaced by naive optimism about the future. Individuals begin to focus on aspects of the self that provide confirmation of the appropriateness of their decisions. Many express a singleness of purpose, an unswerving attitude of goal direction, and an eagerness and impatience to reach their career goals.

Despite this, many young persons at this stage have not yet begun detailed planning for realizing their career goals. Many are naive about the specific rewards of an occupation and fearful of a final commitment. Avoiding an unsatisfying occupation is still a powerful motivation. Nevertheless, time pressures are experienced as more acute, and youngsters whose abilities to make tentative career choices are limited by lack of progress in crystallizing their vocational self-concepts often seek the assistance of a psychological counselor at this point.

Making a Vocational Choice

Experience, societal pressure to make a decision, and a growing understanding of the occupational tasks they want to avoid all contribute to crystallization of the young person’s vocational self-concept. Gradually, the young person moves toward a firmer commitment to a career path and begins planning in detail the actions that need to be taken to follow through on his or her commitment. This process involves an elaboration of the self-concept and of plans to implement it in the future.

Dissonance Reduction

Commitment is an internal psychological event: a self-statement of intention to follow a designated career path. As this internal decision becomes clearer, individuals begin to seek additional information. Often this takes the form of telling important others what they are thinking. Positive feedback leads to a greater sense of confidence and strengthening of commitment, while negative feedback leads to doubts and may cause the person to recycle back through the planning stage.

Often the young person must wait until the environment permits implementation of his or her decision (e.g., admission to college or a training program, being hired by an employer). Some postdecisional dissonance (i.e., second thoughts) typically occurs during this time, and the individual becomes actively engaged in dissonance reduction and bolstering. Dissonance reduction involves seeking information that is consistent with the decision while discounting information that is inconsistent with the decision. Individuals also exaggerate the positive aspects of their chosen alternatives and minimize or deny the negative aspects. They bolster their decisions by reviewing their resources and assets and developing contingency planning for dealing with setbacks.

As a commitment becomes more and more firm, it begins to be incorporated into individuals’ sense of who they are (i.e., self-concept). They begin to act in a manner consistent with their new sense of identity. This may affect external manifestations, such as how they dress and the type of leisure activities they pursue. Most people desire an interpersonal network of people having interests that are similar to theirs, so they may also change the people with whom they associate.


Implementation of the vocational self-concept brings an individual into contact with a new environment (e.g., classmates or work colleagues). Adjustment to this new environment typically follows a pattern of conformity, reactivity, and integration. This series of experiences leads to further modification and clarification of the vocational self-concept.

Initially, the individual looks to the environment for cues regarding the values, goals, and expectations of the group and reacts primarily by trying to fit in (conformity). Once they begin to feel accepted by the group, they begin an active attempt to change the group’s values and goals to bring them into greater congruence with their personal values and goals (reactivity). The resulting change in the group gives the person a strong sense of self that is somewhat lacking in objectivity. Finally, the group members begin to resist the new member’s emphasis on change, and a compromise occurs (integration). Both the group and the new member are changed during the implementa­tion process.

Life Span Development

The vocational self-concept continues to evolve across the life span. Vocational experiences (e.g., being promoted or fired, disliking a job one anticipated liking) provide information that is used to modify the vocational self-concept. Other life experiences (e.g., marriage, the birth of a child) also may influence the vocational self-concept. Eventually, everyone confronts the need to prepare for and enter into retirement.

Importance of Vocational Self-Concept Crystallization

The clarity and certainty of one’s vocationally relevant self-views are critical determinants of one’s ability to make satisfying vocational decisions. A body of clear and certain self-knowledge (i.e., a well-crystallized vocational self-concept) is essential to effective career decision making. Well-crystallized individuals are much better able to differentiate between alternatives that are and are not suitable for them.

Lack of a well-crystallized vocational self-concept causes a variety of career difficulties. Some people are troubled by chronic career indecision. Those who push ahead with a decision without gaining the necessary self-knowledge find it difficult to make decisions that lead to satisfactory career outcomes. As a consequence, they may drift from job to job without a clear career direction.

The desire to avoid an unsatisfying career is a strong motive. Individuals who lack well-crystallized vocational self-concepts are fearful that they will be trapped in unsatisfactory careers, and many feel gen­eralized anxiety about their futures. As a consequence, they experience a great deal of stress whenever contemplating career issues. Prolonged stress can lead to physical and psychological problems unless the underlying causes are corrected.

The vocational self-concept is most susceptible to influence during childhood and adolescence. For this reason, it is important for parents and those involved in the educational system to understand the vocational self-concept crystallization process and help children deal with developmentally appropriate tasks during their formative years.

Vocational experiences influence a person’s self-concept across the life span. Vocational problems can create or contribute to psychological problems. Events such as being laid off or fired, failure to secure a desirable position, or job-related stress are only a few of the factors that have negative psychological effects and may cause lasting changes in an individual’s self-concept. For this reason, the resolution of career dysfunctions may be instrumental in resolving more general psychological problems.

See also:


  1. Barrett, T. C. and Tinsley, H. E. A. 1977. “Vocational Self-con­cept Crystallization and Vocational Indecision.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 24:301-307.
  2. Ginzberg, E., Ginsburg, S. W., Axelrad, S. and Herma, J. L. 1951. Occupational Choice: An Approach to a General Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.
  3. Gottfredson, L. S. 1981. “Circumscription and Compromise: A Developmental Theory of Occupational Aspirations.” Monograph. Journal of Counseling Psychology 28:545-579.
  4. Harren, A. 1979. “A Model of Career Decision Making for College Students.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 14: 119-133.
  5. Korman, A. 1970. “Toward a Hypothesis of Work Behavior.” Journal of Applied Psychology 54:31-41.
  6. Super, D. E. 1951. “Vocational Adjustment: Implementing a Self-concept.” Occupations 30:88-92.
  7. Tiedeman, D. and O’Hara, R. P. 1963. Career Development: Choice and Adjustment. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.