Career Development

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Author: Karen D. Multon
Editor: Neil J. Salkind
Date: 2006
Encyclopedia of Human Development
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 8
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Career development is, for most people, a lifelong process of getting ready to choose, choosing, and, usually, continuing to make choices from among available occupations in our society. Each individualPage 220  |  Top of Article undertaking this process is influenced by educational, economic, sociological, cultural, geographical, physical, psychological (e.g., interests, skills), and chance factors. Work may be defined as a productive, gainful activity in a job or profession. Work determines a person's worth and place in society, and it strongly influences one's sense of well-being as well as psychological identity.

Despite the centrality of work in the majority of people's lives and the apparent complexity of the career development process, a survey by the National Career Development Association indicated that only about a third of American adults were in their current jobs as a result of conscious planning. Thus, the majority of people chose a particular job because of chance circumstances. In addition, about 28% of those surveyed reported they would be changing their job within 3 years. Assisting a person through the career development process is the primary task of a vocational psychologist or a career counselor.

Vocational psychologists and career counselors use a variety of techniques and interventions to facilitate a person's career development. These techniques and interventions include individual and group counseling, workshops, mentoring, apprenticeships, internships, job shadowing, assessment (e.g., interests, skills, psychological needs), and use of career resources. One major source of career information is the Occupational Information Network (O*NET). O*NET is available on the Internet and is a comprehensive database system for collecting, organizing, and describing data on job characteristics and worker attributes. Generally, there are three major outcomes of career development interventions: (a) making a career choice; (b) development of decision-making abilities; and/or (c) better adjustment to the work situations, such as job success and work satisfaction. Career development theory serves to guide the vocational psychologist or career counselor in the selection of assessment instruments and techniques.


Theories that explain career behavior provide the conceptual framework for career interventions. The following theories are generally considered to be the most influential theories of career choice and development in terms of research and practice. These theories are presented in chronological sequence beginning in the early 19th century.

Trait-and-Factor Theory

Frank Parsons, teacher, lawyer, engineer, and social reformer, spearheaded the vocational guidance movement. He was concerned with the exploitation of workers by industrial monopolists. This concern led him to propose a method to help individuals make wise vocational choices by first studying the person (e.g., aptitudes, interests, resources, limitations), then understanding the primary characteristics of occupations, and, finally, by matching the individual with the appropriate occupation. This process, called the trait-and-factor theory, became the origin of career counseling and is still in use today. The assumption is that traits are stable and can be reliably and validly measured (the word factor is just a form of statistical evidence that a trait exists). Therefore, assessment instruments on such traits as interests, values, decision-making style, and preferences for work activities were developed that are quite useful in counseling. This theory also led to the study of various job requirements. However, this theory is static in that it does not account for changes in values, achievement, skills, and personality characteristics over a person's lifetime in addition to the impact of major life events (e.g., childbirth, divorce). Thus, this theory is generally considered to be limited.

Ginzberg's Theory

In contrast with the static view of the trait-and-factor theory, Ginzberg, Ginsburg, Axelrad, and Herma viewed career development as a lifelong process beginning in early childhood. Ginzberg and his colleagues see three stages in the career choice process, each with substages. The first is the fantasy stage (childhood before age 11), in which play activities gradually become more work oriented and reflect the child's initial preferences for certain types of activities. The tentative stage (from ages 11 through 17) is divided into four substages named interest, capacity, values, and transition. During the tentative stage, the person becomes more aware of his or her interests and abilities, types of work requirements, and vocational preferences. During the last stage (ages 17 to young adult), the person narrows his or her career choices by taking into consideration occupational interests and perceived abilities and then selects a job or begins advanced training. In the 1980s, Ginzberg noted that older adults may reassess their career goals and make a career change.

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Super's Theory

Donald Super also recognized the changes that people go through as they mature. Career patterns are influenced by many personal characteristics, economic factors, psychological factors, and physical abilities, as well as chance factors. Super theorized that people seek satisfaction through work roles in which they can develop their self-concept. In fact, Super asserted, "the process of vocational development is essentially that of developing and implementing a self concept." Career maturity, a primary concept of Super's theory, is manifested in the successful achievement of age and stage development tasks across the life span. This developmental theory has five major stages. During the Growth stage (birth to age 14 or 15), the child forms his or her self-concept, which is associated with the development of abilities, attitudes, interests, and needs. The child also forms a general understanding of the world of work. In the Exploratory stage (ages 15 to 24), the individual makes a tentative career choice with related skill development. The Establishment stage (ages 25 to 44) is characterized by work experience. From ages 45 to 64, the Maintenance stage, the person experiences a continual adjustment process to improve the working situation. The final stage is named Decline (65+), during which there is reduced work output and eventual retirement. Super's theory has been refined and expanded over the years. For example, although Super originally presented the stages and tasks in a sequential manner, he later added that we cycle and recycle through the stage throughout our life span.

Super identified six factors in vocational maturity: (1) awareness of the need to plan ahead, (2) decision-making skills, (3) knowledge and use of information resources, (4) general career information, (5) general world-of-work information, and (6) detailed information about preferred occupations. Super also examined the various roles that we play during our lifetimes and how the relative importance of those roles changes over time. Super's theory has increasingly been viewed as the most comprehensive of the developmental approaches.

Roe's Theory of Early Childhood Influences on Career Choice

Anne Roe's theory focuses on early family relationships and their influence on career choice. Occupations are classified into two major categories: person-oriented and non-person-oriented. However, empirical research has failed to support Roe's theory. The major contribution seems to be the emphasis on childhood experiences on career development and her job classification system.

Theory of Work Adjustment

In the theory of work adjustment (TWA), Dawis and Lofquist focus on the major construct of correspondence. Correspondence is the fit between what a particular occupation requires and an individual's attributes. Work adjustment is the dynamic process by which persons attain and preserve correspondence with their work environment. Thus, high correspondence is hypothesized to result in longer tenure on the job (the chief outcome of correspondence and work adjustment), better performance on work-related tasks, and greater job satisfaction. Given these major assumptions and concepts, 20 major propositions have been developed to predict work adjustment. However, few of these propositions have been examined empirically. Those studies that have been done used designs that do not use causal influence, even though TWA posits work adjustment as a continuous, dynamic process.

Holland's Theory

John Holland's typological theory was developed to organize the data about people in different jobs and the data in different work environments. According to Holland, people function best and find satisfaction in work that is compatible with their personalities. Thus, he developed six personal styles and six matching work environments: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, entertaining, and conventional (often referred to by the acronym RIASEC). People tend to choose a career that is reflective of their personality. Holland suggests that the closer the match of personality to job, the greater the satisfaction, congruence, and persistence. All six types are a part of each of us. However, one to three types are usually evidenced more strongly. A brief overview of the RIASEC types, six work-related activities, and sample occupations is presented in Table 1.

Holland and his colleagues have developed a number of instruments designed to identify individual personality traits and match those traits to occupational groups. These instruments include the Self-Directed Search, My Vocational Situation, and thePage 222  |  Top of Article
Table 1 RIASEC Activities and Sample Occupations

Table 1 RIASEC Activities and Sample Occupations

Table 1 RIASEC Activities and Sample Occupations
Type Activities Occupations
Realistic Working with things Carpenter
Investigative Working with information Chemist
Artistic Creating things Writer
Social Helping people Social worker
Enterprising Leading others Sales
Conventional Organizing data Secretary

Vocational Preference Inventory. Holland's theory has generated a vast amount of research and has had more influence on career research and practice than any other career development theory.

Krumboltz's Social Learning Theory of Career Decision Making

John Krumboltz's theory of career development has roots in classical behaviorism, social learning theory, cognitive behavioral theory, such as that proposed by Beck and Ellis, and self-efficacy theory proposed by Bandura. Many factors that have an impact on career decision making are incorporated into this theory. First, genetic factors may expand or limit an individual's options. These genetic factors may include sex, race, and developmental disabilities, as well as those innate capabilities or talents that a person may choose to develop. Second, environmental conditions and events beyond a person's control such as the economy, cultural norms, or even geography may have an impact on career decisions. Individual learning is the third factor. For example, good work habits (punctuality, organization, etc.) and problem-solving skills may be acquired or there might be a failure to acquire these skills. The person may also have some life experiences that are rewarded and lead to a specific career interest. For example, having a parent who is a lawyer may lead to an interest in law as a career. Finally, Krumboltz's theory focuses on self-observation generalizations or comparing one's performance, abilities, and skills to some standard to draw conclusions about one's own competence and worth. These conclusions are used in making responses to future situations. If the conclusions are unrealistic, this may negatively affect the image of the self as a worker. For example, a belief that one is not good in mathematics is likely to result in avoidance of any math-related activities and career possibilities. Overall, Krumboltz views career development as unique for every individual, and most of the influences on career development (e.g., self-concept, interests) can be changed at any point in life.

Career Self-Efficacy

Bandura's social cognitive theory focuses on the central role of self-efficacy (SE) beliefs in influencing and guiding important aspects of psychosocial functioning, including career-related behavior. SE expectations are defined by Bandura as "people's judgments of their capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances." These SE expectations are hypothesized to help determine whether a particular action will be initiated, as well as effort expenditure, persistence, and emotional reactions when confronted by obstacles. SE is a dynamic aspect of the self-system that is specific to a particular behavioral domain. Thus, a person can have high SE in regards to achievement in athletics, but not in the area of an academic subject such as mathematics.

Hackett and Betz were among the first researchers to recognize the importance of the SE construct to career development. They developed an extension of Bandura's theory and posited that SE influences the career decisions, achievements, and work adjustment behaviors of both men and women, although the influence may be greater for women. There is growing support from the empirical literature to support the extension of SE theory to career-relevant behavior. For example, in a meta-analytic review of the academic SE literature, Multon, Brown, and Lent found effect sizes of 0.38 and 0.34 for the relation of SE to measures of academic performance and persistence, respectively. Some conclusions can be gleaned from this empirical literature: (a) SE beliefs influence career entry indexes (e.g., range of career options, persistence in education, career indecision), (b) SE relates to important work adjustment outcomes suchPage 223  |  Top of Article as job performance and coping with job loss, and (c) gender differences in SE often explain the male-female differences in occupational choices.

Other Noteworthy Theories

Other theories of career development (listed chronologically) include the work of Tiedeman and his colleagues on the career decision-making process, the psychoanalytic approach of Bordin, Nachmann, and Segal, and a theory of circumscription and compromise in career aspirations. Tiedeman's holistic theory served to highlight the importance of self-awareness in career decision making. However, it has little empirical support. Bordin and his colleagues hypothesized that psychoanalytically developed need dimensions are established by the age of 6, and these need dimensions influence career choice. Thus, the major contribution of this theory has been to note the importance of early child-parent relationships and development processes to career development issues. Gottfredson contends that occupational preferences emerge from the complexities that accompany mental and physical growth. She postulates that during self-concept development, an individual will narrow career aspirations according to sex-type and prestige. Compromise is also used in decision making in that a person may settle for a less compatible but more accessible career choice.

Convergence of Career Development Theories

Osipow argued that major career development theories are converging as empirical evidence about vocational behavior accumulates and theories are continually revised. His analysis of four of the major theories (those of Super, Holland, Lofquist, and Davis and Krumboltz) extracted common themes. These themes include the influence of both biological factors and parental upbringing, personality factors, and life-stage influences.

Several researchers (such as Hackett, Lent, and Greenhaus) argued for the need to work toward unifying career development theories. Major variables crucial to a comprehensive theory of career development need to be identified and defined. A unifying theory would bring together conceptually related constructs such as SE and self-concept as well account for the relationships among diverse constructs (e.g., interests, needs, abilities). To be truly comprehensive, variables that have received little attention in current theories need to be included. These may include what opportunities are available within a particular geographic area, the influence of life roles (e.g., racial identity, sex role, parent role), and economic influences. It must be noted, however, that such a comprehensive theory would pose barriers in both research and practice because of the number of major constructs and the complexity of the interrelationships among constructs.


There are some groups of people for whom certain conditions or circumstances may require some variation in the usual career development process. Of course, the career development process will be somewhat individualized due to the unique characteristics and circumstances of each person, but there are commonalities generally shared within groups of people. Groups that may experience some different circumstances with regard to the career development process include women; racial and ethnic minority groups; delayed entrants into the workforce (e.g., displaced homemakers, returning military personnel, prior offenders); midlife career changers (whether voluntary or involuntary), older workers; and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals. The exploration of group differences can advance the understanding of career development, although it must be noted that research has shown that differences between persons within a particular group typically exceed the degree of difference between groups. Therefore, it is important for the vocational psychologist or career counselor not to extend these findings rigidly when working with individual clients. In this section, some of the salient issues for three of these groups (i.e., women, racial and ethnic minority groups, and persons with disabilities) will be addressed here.

Women's Career Development

Compared with men, women may experience some barriers to their career development that have not been adequately addressed in the major career theories. For example, Farmer originally proposed a set of seven internal and external factors that inhibit women's career progress: academic self-confidence, myths about women and work, fear of success, home-career conflict, vicarious achievement motivation (i.e., feeling it is morePage 224  |  Top of Article important to focus on the career progress of a spouse or children instead of one's own career progress), lower risk-taking behavior, and sex-role orientation. As Farmer refined her model, she included background variables (sex, race, age, socioeconomic status [SES], ability) that are hypothesized to influence personal variables (academic self-esteem, values, attributions, and independence) and environmental factors (parental and teacher support)—all of which, in turn, influence the motivational variables of level of career aspirations, mastery strivings, and commitment to career. Betz and Fitzgerald comprehensively reviewed the research on the career psychology of women and summarized the literature by proposing four sets of factors that positively influence women's career choices: (a) individual variables (high self-esteem, high ability, liberated sex-role values, strong academic self-concept, androgyny); (b) background variables (working mother, supportive father, highly educated parents, female role models, work experience as an adolescent, androgynous upbringing); (c) educational variables (women's schools, advanced work in mathematics, higher education); and (d) adult lifestyle variables (late marriage or single, no or few children). Betz and Fitzgerald proposed a causal ordering of these variables, and Fassinger tested the model using sophisticated empirical methods. Fassinger's findings indicated that higher ability levels, in complex interaction with liberal sex-role attitudes, positively influence career orientation and career choice.

Career Development of Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Research on race/ethnicity and career development has fluctuated widely over the years, but in recent years there is a renewed interest in cultural, racial, and ethnic variables in career development. While there are no comprehensive models of minority career development, there are literature reviews on specific minority groups (e.g., African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans) to guide both research and practice. Different cultures may have different conceptions of the family, gender roles, and work-family relationships. For example, career may have a collective and not an individual meaning. Although it is important to understand the meaning of work, career, and other related concepts to an individual's racial or ethnic group, it is also important to assess the salience of membership in the cultural group to better understand the person's career behavior.

Career Development for Persons With Disabilities

A person with disabilities is someone generally considered different physically and/or psychologically from most people because of birth, developmental difficulties, accident, or illness. It should be noted that these disabilities may or may not prove to be a vocational hindrance. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 had a major impact on work for persons with disabilities. This act makes a distinction between essential and nonessential job functions, and an employer may only consider the essential functions when hiring or promoting people. Thus, the current disability policy of the United States focuses on the inclusion, independence, and empowerment of persons with disabilities.


Career counseling helps people to select careers, find the right job (e.g., by practicing interviewing skills, providing guidance on job applications), manage multiple roles and stressors to enhance adjustment to the workplace, and make decisions regarding retirement. Career counseling first began more than 100 years ago. The National Career Development Association has defined career counseling as "consisting of those activities performed or coordinated by individuals who have credentials to work with other individuals or groups of individuals about occupations, life/career decision making, career planning, career pathing, or other career development related questions or conflicts." In recent years, the relationship between personal and career counseling has been recognized to emphasis the importance of the person's vocational role with overall psychological well-being. For example, Multon, Heppner, Gysbers, Zook, and Ellis-Kalton empirically explored psychological distress as a variable in career counseling. Their results showed that in their sample, 60% of the career clients were psychologically distressed (e.g., anxiety, depression) and that career counseling significantly decreased their level of distress. Thus, career counseling can also have a positive impact on psychological health and interpersonal relationships. This awareness of the need for career counselors to develop competencies to work with increasingly complex issues has resulted in the National Career Development Association developing a list of competencies for career counselors. This list outlines an array of skills including both individual and group counseling skills in addition to legal and ethical issues in the field.

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As noted earlier, Frank Parsons was the first person to focus on the importance of vocational guidance, and he is sometimes referred to as the father of career development. His three-step procedure (a trait-and-factor method) for working with immigrants seeking employment in the late 1800s and early 1900s was outlined in his book Choosing a Vocation, which was published posthumously in 1909. Parsons wrote, "In the wise choice of vocation there are three broad factors: (1) a clear understanding of yourself, your aptitudes, interests, ambitions, resources, limitation, and their causes; (2) a knowledge of the requirements, conditions of success, advantages and disadvantages, compensation, opportunities, and prospects in different lines of work; and (3) true reasoning on the relations of these two groups of fact" (p. 5). Parsons's method had a lasting impact on how career counseling was conducted for a long period of time in the United States and continues to be influential in today's practice of career counseling. While all the theories of career development described earlier have had an impact on how career counseling is conceptualized and conducted, none have had as much of an influence on career research and practice as the work of John Holland.

The term career counseling has been used to describe a great variety of interventions, including individual career counseling, group interventions, classes, one-time workshops, or the use of computerized career information and guidance systems. Spokane and Oliver conducted a meta-analytic study to examine the effectiveness of a number of career interventions across a large number of studies. They reported an overall effective size for career interventions of 0.85, with group interventions having a greater effective size (1.11) than individual interventions (0.87). In 1988, the same authors conducted a second meta-analytic investigation of more recently published empirical studies and found career exploration classes to have the greatest effect size, followed by group test interpretation, workshops, and individual counseling. While it appears career counseling is effective overall, the aspects of career counseling that contribute to this effectiveness are less clear. Although some research has been conducted in this area, conclusions have not been reached.


The world of work has been changing very rapidly in the past few decades. There is ever-changing technology, shifting requirements for worker knowledge and skills, and a global labor surplus. All these changes are likely to affect the career development of individuals across the life span. Current trends in the area of career development include the following:

  1. There is a greater awareness of the need to attend to career development issues across the life span. With this awareness comes an increase in the career development programs available. These programs are in a wider variety of settings and are available from a wider range of personnel. These settings include business and industry, hospitals, prisons, and even shopping centers. Traditionally, counseling psychologists, college counselors, employment (or career) counselors, school counselors, and rehabilitation counselors have provided career development services, but now other groups have become more interested in the area. These include industrial psychologists, social workers, and mental health counselors. This burgeoning interest in career development has generated an increased interest in credentialing career counselors.
  2. There continues to be a greater focus on career transitions (e.g., school-to-work transitions, midlife career transition, involuntary job loss).
  3. Substantial changes will continue to occur in the economic, occupational, industrial, and social environments, and these changes will influence individual career development. For example, the use and sophistication of technology have increased dramatically. New jobs are created and the need for other jobs are reduced or even eliminated, thus requiring more workers to change jobs or even move to another occupational group.
  4. Along with more sophisticated technology and work procedures, there is a greater need for a better educated workforce. There are fewer opportunities for an unskilled workforce because the jobs they do are done for less money in underdeveloped countries.
  5. There will be more participation in retraining programs to develop new skills and update and enhance current skills due to changing job opportunities.
  6. It is likely that flexibility in work schedules (e.g., job-sharing, part-time, 4-day work weeks with 10-hour days) will increase, giving more options to workers with particular needs, such as mothers with young children. More workers will also spend at least part of their time working from home.Page 226  |  Top of Article
  7. There will be even greater attention to the career development of a more diverse population. The workforce today includes more women (including mothers of young children), members of racial and ethnic groups, openly homosexual and bisexual individuals, and persons of various types of disabilities (e.g., cognitive deficits, physical limitations, mental illness).
  8. Of increasing concern will be the impact of employment and unemployment on mental health. The interaction between interests, personality characteristics, and variables in the work setting (e.g., environment, type of supervisor) may result in certain mental health problems (e.g., depression, anxiety, increased interpersonal sensitivity). Similarly, the loss of employment may produce certain adjustment problems for both the worker and his or her family.
  9. As the "baby boom" generation approaches the traditional retirement age, more research has been generated concerning decisions regarding when to retire and how to plan for retirement. Financial status is a critical factor in the decision to retire, but other factors such as health problems and psychological issues also play a role.
  10. There will be a greater emphasis on work adjustment factors, particularly as they relate to productivity and quality.

—Karen D. Multon

Further Readings and References

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Brown, D., & Brooks, L. (1996). Career choice and development: Applying contemporary theories to practice (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brown, S. D., & Lent, R. W. (Eds.). (2004). Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work. New York: Wiley.

Hackett, G., & Betz, N. E. (1981). A self-efficacy approach to career development of women. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 18, 326–339.

Holland, J. L. (1985). Making vocational choices: A theory of vocational personalities and work environments (3rd ed.). Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

Leong, F. T. L. (1985). Career development and vocational behavior of racial and ethnic minorities. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Mid-Hudson Regional Information Center. (n.d.). Career development. Retrieved from

National Career Development Association. (1992). NCDA reports: Career counseling competencies. The Career Development Quarterly, 40, 379–386.

Niles, S. G., Harris-Bowlsby, J. (2004). Career development in the 21st century (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Symanski, E. M., & Parker, R. M. (Eds.). (1996). Work and disability: Issues and strategies in career development and job placement. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Walsh, W. B., & Osipow, S. H. (Eds.). (1994). Career counseling for women. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3466300125