Holland’s Theory of Vocational Choice

Holland's Theory of Vocational ChoiceThe theory of vocational choice developed by John L. Holland is one of the most widely researched and applied theories of career development. Based on the premise that personality factors underlie career choices, his theory postulates that people project self-and world-of-work views onto occupational titles and make career decisions that satisfy their preferred personal orientations. The theory incorporates several constructs from personality psychology, vocational behavior, and social psychology, including self-perception theory and social stereotyping.

Applications of Holland’s theory of vocational choice involve assessing individuals in terms of two or three prominent personality types and then matching the respective types with the environmental aspects of potential careers. The theory predicts that the higher the degree of congruence between individual and occupational characteristics, the better the potential for positive career-related outcomes, including satisfaction, persistence, and achievement.

Holland’s Theory Overview

The typology inherent in Holland’s theory organizes the voluminous data about people in different jobs and the data about different work environments to suggest how people make vocational choices and explain how job satisfaction and vocational achievement occur. Seven assumptions underlie the typology:

  1. Most people possess one of six modal personality types: Realistic (R), Investigative (I), Artistic (A), Social (S), Enterprising (E), or Conventional (C). Table 1 summarizes each of the six “RIASEC” types and gives examples of occupations associated with them.
  2. Six modal occupational environments correspond to the six modal personality types: Realistic (R), Investigative (I), Artistic (A), Social (S), Enterprising (E), and Conventional (C). Each environment is dominated by a given type of personality and is typified by physical settings posing special circumstances.
  3. People search for environments that allow them to exercise their skills and abilities, express their attitudes and values, and assume agreeable circumstances and roles.
  4. A person’s behavior is determined by an interaction between his or her personality and the characteristics of the environment. Based on an individual’s personality pattern and the pattern of the environment, some outcomes of such a pairing can, in principle, be forecast using knowledge of personality types and environmental models. Such outcomes include choice of vocation, job changes, vocational achievement, personal competence, and educational and social behavior.
  5. The degree of congruence (or agreement) between a person and an occupation (environment) can be estimated by a hexagonal model (see Figure 1). The shorter the distance between the personality type and the occupational type, the closer the relationship.
  6. The degree of consistency within a person or an environment is also defined using the hexagonal model. Adjacent types on the hexagon are most consistent, or have compatible interests, personal dispositions, or job duties. Opposite types on the hexagon are most inconsistent, or combine personal characteristics or job functions that are usually unrelated.
  7. The degree of differentiation of a person or an environment modifies predictions made from a person’s typology, from an occupational code, or from the interaction of both. Some persons or environments are more closely defined than others; for instance, a person may closely resemble a single type and show little resemblance to other types, or an environment may be dominated largely by a single type. In contrast, a person who resembles many types or an environment characterized by about equal numbers of workers in each of the six types would be labeled undifferentiated or poorly defined.

Figure 1. The Holland Hexagon

Figure 1. The Holland Hexagon

Career development professionals who use Holland’s theory of vocational choice typically assess individuals’ interest profiles from three primary perspectives: coherence, consistency, and differentiation. Holland has maintained that these factors correlate with the clarity and focus of individuals’ vocational personalities. An analysis of a profile in this way is customarily a prelude to a career development professional’s subsequent application of the theory, which involves translating an individual’s Holland profile into occupational alternatives for further consideration. Print, computer, and Internet-based sources are available to facilitate this latter process.

Coherence relates to the degree to which the Holland codes associated with an individual’s vocational aspirations or occupational daydreams conform to the Holland occupational themes (i.e., Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, Conventional). The consistency concept involves analyzing the proximity of the individual’s two dominant Holland types with respect to the hexagonal scheme. Adjacent types on the hexagon (e.g., Social and Enterprising) reflect high interest consistency; opposite types (e.g., Artistic and Conventional) reflect low consistency. The concept of differentiation relates to the variance between an individual’s highest and lowest types, typically computed by subtracting the extreme scale scores as assessed by a measure such as the Self-Directed Search. The larger the difference, the more highly differentiated the individual’s occupational interests.

Table 1. Description of Holland Types

Table 1. Description of Holland Types

Practical Applications of Holland’s theory of Vocational Choice

Career development professionals’ primary uses of Holland’s theory of vocational choice pertain to orienting clients to the world of work, providing a systematic means for career exploration, and, ultimately, facilitating career decision making and planning. Many clients find the theory’s basic tenets pragmatic and easy to grasp. In addition, many career-related resources incorporate Holland’s theory. These factors, in addition to its longevity, substantial research base, and renown among career-development professionals, have contributed to the theory’s popularity and utility.

A complex workplace, numerous known and unknown career decisions, personal and workplace uncertainties, and many uncontrollable factors pose daunting concerns to many people who confront career decisions. By imposing order and structure, Holland’s theory offers a means of helping both career counselors and clients make career decisions that promise fulfillment. Awareness of a proven, practical method for easing the process can be empowering. The theory’s research and applied bases, along with its structure and inherent systematic processes, offer clients assurance as they acquire a better understanding of themselves and their options.

Holland’s theory has also served as a basis for classifying and organizing occupations. The U.S. Department of Labor, for example, has integrated Holland codes into the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), a national database of occupational interest areas, education and training requirements, earnings, growth projections, and anticipated openings. The Dictionary of Holland Occupational Codes provided an earlier compendium of occupations listed by respective Holland codes.

A host of Holland-based products incorporate elements of Holland’s theory of vocational choice. The Holland theory is, for instance, integrated into some of the most well-known career assessment measures currently published, including the Self-Directed Search, Strong Interest Inventory, Vocational Preference Inventory, and the Career Assessment Inventory. Clients can take career tests integrating the Holland theory through traditional paper-and-pencil formats and via personal computers and the Internet.

The wide variety and availability of assessment measures that incorporate Holland’s theory have contributed to both ease of access and administration, which, in turn, have also indirectly contributed to the theory’s popularity. A variety of card sorts, self-directed career-planning books, and multimedia resources based in whole or in part on Holland’s theory are also available.

While most research and published material related to Holland’s theory of vocational choice have addressed career decision-making issues confronting youth and individuals early in their career development, the theory has been implemented well beyond these groups. Business and public organizations, for instance, have used Holland’s theory of vocational choice in human resource matters ranging from employee selection and staffing decisions to developing mentoring and succession-planning programs. The theory is also used in litigation involving disputes about earning capacity. A career counselor serving as an expert witness in a dissolution-of-marriage case, for example, could apply Holland’s theory as a partial basis for proposing a plan to help a spouse’s reintegration into the workplace after a period of absence or underemployment. Holland’s theory is also widely used among vocational-rehabilitation counselors who assist persons with disabilities in reexamining their objectives and career development after acquired disabling problems interfere with or otherwise alter how they can proceed.

Like all theories, Holland’s theory of vocational choice has had its detractors. Recent challenges to the theory’s applicability include assertions that research has failed to find a strong link between congruence and outcomes, such as satisfaction and performance. Other reviews of Holland’s theory have cited limitations that include problems inherent in trait factor theories, including the possibility that people can change themselves and their environments. Of course, the occupational and individual traits the theory attempts to match are variable and subject to modification. If an individual is dissatisfied with her job as an insurance claims examiner, for example, she has the option of attempting to change features of the job without changing its title. Job incumbents lacking career fulfillment quite often initiate these efforts before they seek job or occupational changes. Evaluations of Holland’s theory of vocational choice and comparisons with other theories have been proffered since the theory’s inception.


Holland’s theory of vocational choice is a staple among contemporary career-development professionals’ thinking about the world of work and methods of promoting clients’ career aims. It is among the most widely researched and applied vocational choice theories. Its longevity and appeal likely relate to its parsimony, its validation through scores of research studies, and the availability of multiple Holland-based resources that facilitate the theory’s implementation. Challenges to the theory’s validity will undoubtedly recur, and its continued viability will rest on its ability to assure its primary consumers, career-development professionals, that it meets the standards to which clients’ career guidance can be entrusted.

See also:


  1. Arnold, J. 2004. “The Congruence Problem in John Holland’s Theory of Vocational Decisions.” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 77:95-113.
  2. Brown, D. 2002. “Introduction to Theories of Career Development and Choice.” Pp. 3-23 in Career Choice and Development, 4th ed., edited by D. Brown. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  3. Gottfredson, G. D. and Holland J. L. 1996. Dictionary of Holland Occupational Codes. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
  4. Holland, J. L. 1973. Making Vocational Choices. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  5. Holland, J. L. 1985. Manual for the Vocational Preference Inventory. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
  6. Holland, J. L. 1992. Making Vocational Choices: A Theory of Vocational Personalities and Work Environments. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
  7. Holland, J. L. 1997. Making Vocational Choices: A Theory of Careers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  8. Holland, J. L. and Gottfredson, G. D. 1976. “Using a Typology of Persons and Environments to Explain Careers: Some Extensions and Clarifications.” Counseling Psychologist 6:20-29.
  9. Holland, J. L., Powell, A. B. and Fritzsche, B. A. 1994. The Self-Directed Search (SDS) Professional User’s Guide. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
  10. Osipow, S. H. 1983. Theories of Career Development. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  11. Swanson, J. L. and Gore, P. A. 2000. “Advances in Vocational Psychology Theory and Research.” Pp. 233-269 in Handbook of Counseling Psychology, 3d ed., edited by S. D. Brown and R. W. Lent. New York: Wiley.
  12. Weinrach, S. G. 1996. “The Psychological and Vocational Interest Patterns of Donald Super and John Holland.” Journal of Counseling and Development 75:5-16.