Throughout the history of career development, ideas about the self-concept have played a critical role in theory development, research, and counseling practice. Scholars in career development and humanistic psychology have developed perhaps the most commonly used definition of self-concept. In short, the self-concept is thought to refer to conceptions of oneself—in other words, the “I” or “me.” The self-concept includes both affective dimensions (such as self-esteem) as well as content dimensions. In addition, the self-concept has been understood from various conceptual and theoretical perspectives, reflecting recent innovations in career development theory.
Historical Considerations of the Self-Concept
Self-concept and its roots are best understood in the context of the history of career development and vocational psychology. Within these fields, the idea of person-environment fit set the stage for research and practice throughout the century. The earliest ideas about the self-concept emerged as a logical outgrowth of initial ideas about maximizing person-environment fit. In order to help individuals learn about themselves, counselors increasingly used tests and other measurement tools to provide clients with information about their interests, skills, and personality. One means of integrating these observations about individuals was to embed the intrapersonal attributes of an individual under the rubric of the self-concept.
Other contributions to the notion of self-concept grew out of humanistic psychological traditions. In this conceptual perspective, client-centered therapy was used to help individuals move toward a more positive and achievable self-concept in contrast to an unobtainable and idealized sense of self-concept. The goal of psychotherapy, according to this perspective, was to help individuals gain knowledge and insight about their experiences, which in turn would lead to a better understanding of their identity and enhance the clarity and confidence of their self-concept.
Building on an integration of early conceptual contributions from humanistic psychology and person-environment fit perspectives, scholars in the career development field began sustained research into the nature of the self-concept. Using life span development ideas as an organizing rubric for theoretical advances, life experiences related to work and career were seen as integrally connected to overall psychological functioning. Scholars suggested that by looking at an individual’s context (i.e., family, history, social relationships, economic factors, psychological functioning), we can better understand how one’s sense of vocational identity and self-concept begin to unfold.
These pioneers promoted the idea that it is important for people to know themselves in order to be satisfied in their work lives. One way of understanding this self-knowledge and other internal aspects of an individual is through the construct of the self-concept. According to the tenets of this construct, satisfaction in work roles is related to the degree to which people can implement their self-concept.
The Self-Concept in Career Development Theory and Practice
The role of the self-concept as a key element of career development theory and practice is evident in most of the major theoretical positions and counseling approaches. For example, the self-concept has been described as a matching theory by which individuals simultaneously consider their personal attributes and the attributes desired by certain occupations. The self-concept is understood as having multiple dimensions, including developmental, psychological, personal, and social aspects. Upon closer examination, the self-concept has been described as being composed of dimensions and metadimensions by leading career development theorists. Dimensions are considered to be the components of personality or the traits that people assign to others and themselves. Metadimensions of the self-concept are described as the characteristics of the traits that people attribute to themselves. In other words, metadimensions can be used to explore the tone and similarities among personality traits.
Self-esteem is one such metadimension that has affective characteristics. Self-esteem is characterized by evaluative and affective aspects of the self-concept that relate to one’s subjective sense of self. The degree of self-esteem associated with a trait or the degree of clarity or abstraction associated with a self-description (such as, “I am moderately good at math”) is a prime example of how metadimensions can illuminate an exploration of an individual’s self-concept. The ability an individual possesses to integrate interpersonal evaluations with the self-concept contributes to the consistency and accuracy in one’s self-esteem in addition to one’s level of self-confidence. The level of one’s self-esteem in relation to the self-concept is important in career decision making, as research has demonstrated a connection between the self-concept and occupational preferences. For example, a young woman may view herself as a good student in math and science; however, due to the impact of sex role socialization, she may attach negative affect to these self-perceptions, thereby inhibiting her capacity to construct a meaningful and maximally rewarding career.
Within the career realm, individuals may have a more circumscribed occupational self-concept, which reflects a subdimension of the overarching self-concept. The occupational self-concept refers to the translation of general beliefs and feelings about oneself to the working context. The individual described in the previous paragraph may have an occupational self-concept that reflects a strong avoidance of math and science with a corresponding self-concept that suggests more “feminine” attributes, such as caregiving and nurturing. However, the process of career development and matching between an evolving self-concept and evolving situations is never truly complete. In the example above, the woman with a self-concept that has sought to disavow her interests in science and math could change due to life experience and/or counseling.
Career development is thought to be characterized by developing, synthesizing, compromising, and implementing self-concepts. These self-concepts result from an interaction of inherited aptitudes, physiology, opportunities to play various roles, and evaluation of the extent to which the roles gain approval of superiors and peers. Furthermore, the self-concept has been described as the glue that might cement global theories of career development with well-assembled segments of preexisting theories.
The self-concept develops over time through interactions and experiences with aptitudes, physical qualities/ skills, and opportunities to observe various work roles. Although the self-concept starts to develop in childhood and further crystallizes in late adolescence, it can change and transform over time due to one’s experiences in the world. One prominent way of understanding the development of the self-concept is based on a three-tiered stage model: formation, translation, and implementation. The formation stage is devoted to differentiation of the self from others and identification with those who can serve as models. The translation stage builds upon the previous stage in that an adult role model may be used for reality testing. Individuals evaluate the extent to which their available role models are similar or dissimilar to them and the extent to which their own attributes would be suitable for a particular occupation. An example of this might be a male adolescent considering a career in teaching that would follow in his mother’s footsteps. Over time, that individual would learn about the skills required for this occupation and in turn would conduct a self-assessment to determine if this occupation would be congruent with his self-concept. This analysis may lead to commitment or rejection of the teaching occupation. The implementation stage of this model occurs as this individual activates his plan through pursuing higher education or employment in the chosen occupation. In the present example, this adolescent may have had a summer job teaching swimming, and he determined through feedback from others in addition to his own self-assessment that teaching would be an ideal occupation. His next step would be to attend college so that he could implement his professional plan, reflecting an implementation of his general self-concept into an occupational context.
Another informative approach utilizes four sequential stages to describe ways in which the self-concept changes as one moves through the career decision-making process. This model includes awareness, planning, commitment, and implementation. The awareness stage is characterized by an increased awareness of place in time in regard to an individual’s present state, the past, and speculation as to where an individual is headed. The self-appraisal within the awareness stage can lead to satisfaction with current circumstances or, alternatively, anxiety over past decisions that have resulted in dissatisfactory present circumstances.
The planning stage involves exploration and crystallization of career decision making. Through exploration, an individual is able to expand alternative scenarios for the decision at hand and then assesses the relationship between these scenarios and his or her self-concept. Once an individual is able to settle upon a specific option through gathering more information on alternatives and/or increasing self-knowledge of relevant values and priorities, he or she can transition into the commitment stage.
The commitment stage begins within an individual’s internal resolution to commit to a decision. Next, the individual cautiously shares this decision with close friends or family members to elicit feedback. Once the commitment has been openly stated and encouragingly accepted by an individual’s close family, friends, and colleagues, one’s self-concept is then further consolidated. Implementation is the last stage of this four-step process and occurs when an individual successfully establishes contingency plans, internalizes the positive aspects of the decision, and reduces the negative aspects of the decision.
This four-step model of career decision making was established with the college population in mind. Consequently, the decision to major in a certain subject is a relevant illustration of this model. As an individual enters college, self-awareness peaks in regard to a student’s past, present situation, and future aspirations. In some cases, the decision to major in a certain subject takes place prior to the start of college, with the awareness and planning stages occurring during high school. A female high school student who has received strong encouragement and praise for her mathematics and science skills from her teachers and family members might have easily arrived at a decision to major in engineering before stepping foot on her college campus. For this individual, college begins with the commitment stage as she determines which courses are necessary to implement her decision to major in engineering. There is a possibility of regression to the planning and even awareness stage if this student discovers extreme dissonance in her chosen major in regard to her self-concept (i.e., this intended engineering major finds out that she is most interested in the business and strategic side of technology as opposed to engineering concepts). The planning and awareness stages are revisited, and a new major, such as business, may be established as she tests her new ideas on her close friends and colleagues and against her evolving self-concept. While this model is sequential, it is not static; rather, it is a dynamic process by which an individual will move forward and backward through the stages as necessary.
Self-concept theory is flexible and malleable, much like the career trajectories of those it seeks to describe; different parts will be applicable to different individuals at different points in time.
The Cultural and Relational Contexts of the Self-Concept
There are several new advances in self-concept theory and research that focus on the role of context in shaping the formation and expression of one’s self-concept in the world of work. Context is typically understood as contemporary and historical factors relating to familial, relational, social, cultural, political, and economic influences that affect an individual’s development across the life span. Current contextualist research in career development includes in-depth explorations of the interface of work with relational and cultural factors.
Recent movements to contextualize career concerns have explored the connections between interpersonal relationships and work. Relationally oriented theorists have proposed that individuals achieve a sense of self-concept that is created and re-created in multiple contexts (including the work world) principally through their social interactions and relationships. According to this view, the self-concept is rooted in a relational matrix in which the individual’s past and current relationships are viewed as having the potential to inform individuals about their own attributes and to nurture their self-esteem and sense of inner cohesion.
Research advances regarding the cultural context of self-concept development view the self as both defined and embedded in an array of relationships within Western and non-Western cultures in different configurations and extents respectively. Culturally prompted constructions of the self-concept evoke a multitude of implications and outcomes, involving motivational, cognitive, and emotional processes as they relate to the world of work. Such explorations raise further questions regarding the degree to which the self-concept is established through culture and historical forces and its impact on work and career development.
The field of career development benefits from a growing understanding on how the self-concept develops and functions within a relational and cultural matrix. Career development practitioners and scholars are better able to assist individuals in work and career objectives with more explicit consideration of cultural and relational aspects of context.
Many of the theoretical advances on the role of the self-concept in career development occurred at a time when career trajectories were fairly stable, at least for a very visible (although not inclusive) cohort of the workforce. What, then, are the implications of the self-concept as careers become more complex, less orderly, and at times unpredictable? A close look at the research and theory on the self-concept suggests some plausible answers to this question. First, the notion that the self-concept can shift, based on contextual influences, is an integral notion that is common in most theoretical statements in career development. Second, the knowledge that the self-concept is multidimensional is also critical.
Considering these two observations in tandem suggests that many core aspects of the self-concept, such as values, interests, and beliefs about oneself, may function to provide a sense of coherence in a changing world. At the same time, the observation that the self-concept is malleable offers theorists and practitioners optimism about how individuals can cope with rapidly changing norms about career development. For example, individuals who lose their information technology jobs due to outsourcing may in fact be able to hold on to the fact that they are competent, capable, and talented workers with great skills and interests in computer technology. Yet at the same time, they may have to shift some of their interests perhaps to secondary areas, which they might not have considered in the past, in order to adapt to the changing world of work.
The scholarship on the self-concept has functioned as a bridge to unite many theories in career development. Moreover, the self-concept serves each of us as a coherent span that links our self-perceptions, attitudes, and feelings about ourselves. Hopefully, as more and more people across the globe have opportunities to construct their own careers, the wonderful privilege of being able to implement one’s self-concept in the world of work will become an expected part of the transition to adulthood.
- Blustein, D. L. 1994. “‘Who Am I?’: The Question of Self and Identity in Career Development.” Pp. 139-154 in Convergence in Career Development Theories: Implications for Science and Practice, edited by M. L. Savickas and R. W. Lent. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
- Blustein, D. L. and Noumair, D. A. 1996. “Self and Identity in Career Development: Implications for Theory and Practice.” Journal of Counseling and Development 74:433-441.
- Blustein, D. L., Schultheiss, D. P. and Flum, H. 2004. “Toward a Relational Perspective of the Psychology of Careers and Working: A Social Constructionist Analysis.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 64:423-440.
- Flum, H. 2001. “Relational Dimensions in Career Development.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 59:1-16.
- Harren, V. A. 1979. “A Model of Career Decision Making for College Students.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 14:119-133.
- Markus, H. and Kitayama, S. 1991. “Cultural Variations in the Self-concept.” Pp. 18-48 in The Self: lnterdisciplinary Approaches, edited by J. Strauss and G. R. Goethals. New York: Springer-Verlag.
- Rogers, C. R. 1995. On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
- Super, D. E. 1957. The Psychology ofCareers. New York: Harper & Row.
- Super, D. E. 1980. “A Life-span, Life-space Approach to Career Development.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 16:282-298.
- Super, D. E., Starishevsky, R., Matlin, N. and Jordan, J. P. 1963. Career Development: Self-Concept Theory; Essays in Vocational Development. Princeton, NJ: College Entrance Examination Board.