The American Heritage Dictionary defines aspiration as a strong desire for high achievement, or an object of this desire. According to this definition, an aspiration is either the desire to achieve an end state or the end state itself (goal). Theoretical interpretations of aspirations encompass both elements of the above definition. Researchers have defined the concept of aspiration as an expectation or goal comprising intentions and attitudes. An intention is a plan of action undertaken to achieve a particular goal, whereas an attitude represents one’s personal orientation toward a goal. Thus, the intention to pursue the goal and the attitude toward the goal comprise an individual’s aspirations. Career aspirations are the desire and intention to pursue an occupation or a particular position within an occupation. Aspirations play an important role in career decisions because they reflect the goals and intentions that influence individuals toward a particular course of action.
Aspirations develop over time. Throughout childhood and adulthood, individuals dream of places they would like to go, things they would like to experience, and ideas they would like to test. Adults often ask children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The younger the child, the less realistic the answer usually is (e.g., “I want to be a princess”). As young people grow, their vocational preferences begin to take on more realistic shapes. Individual characteristics such as sex, race, and social class may influence these vocational preferences.
The hopes and dreams of young adulthood often crystallize as career aspirations through experiences in the workplace. At work, individuals gain a sense of their own interests and abilities and begin to gravitate toward tasks, jobs, and occupations that most closely match their preferences and talents. Cognitive factors that are salient at work, such as valuing rewards associated with particular positions and feeling comfortable performing certain types of tasks, influence career aspirations and, ultimately, career decisions.
Career decisions are internal processes that allow individuals to analyze various alternatives and, finally, to accept or reject them. Career decisions may be broad, such as what type of occupation to enter, or narrow, such as whether to accept a promotion that will require relocation. Aspirations are a component of many career decision models because they represent the commitment an individual makes toward a particular course of action, and they also serve as the basis for feelings of success, a facilitator of career decisions. An individual’s experiences and the degree of success and failure associated with those experiences depend on whether the achievement is above or below an expectation or level of aspiration. The level of aspiration is fundamental for the experience of success and failure, and, ultimately, changes by success and failure.
An individual is more likely to feel successful when he or she sets a challenging goal (high level of aspiration) and is able to determine his or her own means of attaining the goal, the goal is important to the individual’s self-concept, and the goal is actually attained. Thus, experiencing feelings of success is a fundamental component of an individual’s career aspirations.
Career decision-making models that describe how individuals actually make decisions encompass aspirations and the related feelings of success. These descriptive models conceptualize the process of decision making as a sequence of cognitive events. The sequence begins with collecting information, assessing the information, and predicting outcomes of various courses of action in terms of probability and desirability, identifying alternatives, evaluating and selecting, and implementing the decision. The essential cognitive components involved in the career decision-making process include the outcome (goal or aspiration), the value of the outcome (importance of the goal or aspiration to the individual), and the likelihood of achieving the outcome (success or failure).
Descriptive career decision-making models assume that individuals choose careers believed to result in the greatest personal benefit, provided they believe that there is a good probability they can actually obtain positions in those careers. More specifically, an individual is likely to decide on a career if the career choice holds valuable outcomes, the individual feels that entering into that career can attain the outcomes, and the individual believes that there is a high probability he or she will be able to enter into that occupation. Therefore, aspirations form the component of the career decision-making process that inspires individuals to engage in career-related behaviors as long as they are positively reinforcing.
A prevalent theme in career decision-making theories is that optimal career outcomes arise from the fit between individual characteristics and the rewards and demands of the job. For example, major determinants of job success are an individual’s abilities and skills, whereas predictors of job satisfaction include an individual’s needs, values, and interests. Career aspirations operate internally to encourage individuals to develop skills that they value, seek out environments in which they can successfully apply these skills, and receive rewards in ways that are meaningful to them.
An understanding of the developmental nature of aspirations and its effect on career decisions is important to individuals and organizations. Individuals must first be able to envision the outcomes associated with a career choice before they engage in activities that will lead to a decision. The experiences of success and failure associated with various job tasks will help to steer individuals toward or away from particular goals. Individual support mechanisms, such as a supervisor’s support of an individual’s career aspirations and encouragement to accept appropriate developmental assignments, can help individuals further crystallize their career aspirations. A clear understanding of one’s aspirations will lead to more successful career decisions.
Organizational mechanisms such as performance management, training, and career development systems designed to foster the exploration of aspirations will support staffing, knowledge management, and succession-planning initiatives. Furthermore, recruiting costs (both implicit and explicit) decrease when promotion takes place from within the ranks of an organization. Fitting the right individuals with the right jobs can increase career satisfaction, job involvement, and organizational commitment.
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- Hall, D. T. 1976. Careers in Organizations. Santa Monica, CA: Goodyear.
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- Lewin, K. 1956. “Psychology of Success and Failure.” Occupations 14:926-930.
- Schein, E. H. 1978. Career Dynamics: Matching Individual and Organizational Needs. Reading, PA: Addison-Wesley.
- Super, D. E., Savickas, M. L. and Super, C. M. 1996. “The Life-span, Life-space Approach to Careers.” Pp. 121-178 in Career Choice and Development, 3rd edn, edited by D. Brown and L. Brooks and Associates. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.