Career Development: Theory (and applications)


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Career development: Theory

I don’t know what your expectations may have been in life, but you certainly did have some hopes of an excellent and rewarding career.

Unfortunately, in Ghana as in most developing countries, careers are not always chosen and most people do what their parents tell them to do or whatever comes along. Today we will delve into theory of career development from the 18th century and chart a path to career discovery.

Why border about career theories?

Career theories provide a framework for everything related to career development. The theories look at several facets of careers and certainly will help you with the 7 pillars of career development. It will give you a framework to discover you talents and career fit, prepare for the job market, growth and attain maturity.

It also sets the stage for career counselling and guidance, job placements and career models.


A career is the series of job(s) held in a life time. A career has several attributes such as length, impact and multiple careers. Length in terms of life long, temporary, medium term and advanced or declining years.

For instance, a retired teacher was a career teacher or a nurse or any other profession.

In the 21st century the average adult has held several jobs varying from a few months to 2 years, 5 or even over 10 years. Jobs have become increasingly scarce therefore job security is increasingly becoming a concern of many folks in developing nations.

The impact of a person also defines his career, for instance a successful business man, lawyer, doctor, teacher or politician with integrity.

Career theories

The big five theories were developed in the USA and used extensively internationally:

Theory of Work-Adjustment

The work-adjustment theory is sometimes referred to as the Person–Environment Correspondence Theory. It was originally developed by René Dawis, George England and Lloyd Lofquist from the University of Minnesota in 1964. It depicts adjustment as the interaction of person (P) with environment (E). The theory that relates to job satisfaction looks at the person environment fit to increase satisfaction.

The more closely a person’s abilities and values correspond with the work place, role or employer the more likely they will perform better.

Similarly, the more aligned the reinforcers (rewards) an organization offers correspond to the values that a person seeks to satisfy through their work, the more likely it is that the person will perceive the job as satisfying.

The theory identifies six key values that individuals seek to satisfy:

  • Achievement — conditions that encourage accomplishment and progress
  • Comfort — conditions that encourage lack of stress
  • Status — conditions that provide recognition and prestige
  • Altruism — conditions that foster harmony and service to others
  • Safety — conditions that establish predictability and stability
  • Autonomy — conditions that increase personal control and initiative

There may be no fit of person and environment or a perfect fit can change overtime due to poor working conditions or other external factors. As a result of a misalignment an individual may try to change work conditions active adjustment or reactive adjustment making changes to fit in the work environment. It could be from the employer or job seeker.

Application of Theory of Work-Adjustment

  1. Assess and discover your values (achievement, comfort, status, altruism, safety and autonomy) and make the right employment choice.
  2. Use the model to facilitate discussions on career satisfaction by discussing P and E fit by guiding people to review values and abilities and the extent the work environment re-enforces it.

Holland’s Theory of Vocational Personalities in Work Environment

Holland’s theory of vocational choices is formulated around the fundamental observation that people possess different traits, behaviors, and interests that can be organized according to six groupings or types. The six types are called Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional (RIASEC), each of which characterizes a type of person who may gravitate to, choose, and enjoy a specific occupation or vocational area.

The RIASEC personalities are explained below:

  • The Realistic type person is considered to be rugged, robust, reserved, practical, and materialistic. People of this type are often inclined toward mechanical, physical, or technical activities where hands-on capabilities are paramount.
  • The Investigative type person is considered to be analytical, intellectual, complex, critical, and cautious. People of this type are often drawn to the sciences, quantitative pursuits, and research and scholarly activities.
  • The Artistic type is considered to be expressive, imaginative, intuitive, emotional, and nonconforming. People of this type are often drawn to art, writing, theater, and languages.
  • The Social type is considered to be friendly, warm, understanding, idealistic, and cooperative. People of this type are often drawn to teaching, counseling, social services, and other helping activities.
  • The Enterprising type is considered to be ambitious, energetic, sociable, assertive, and excitement seeking. People of this type are often drawn to politics, business management, leadership, and other entrepreneurial activities.
  • The Conventional type is considered to be conscientious, methodical, careful, orderly, and thrifty. People of this type are often drawn to accounting, banking, clerical, and computational work.

Applications of the Holland Model

  • Assess yourself as an individual for which of the RIASEC personalities fits you. It is helpful in the career discovery phase.

Self-concept Theory of Career Development

Donald Super (1990) self concept theory of career development is based on the evolution of self concept in stages. Super developed the theories extending the work of colleague Eli Ginzberg. Super felt that Ginzberg’s work had weaknesses, which he wanted to address. Super extended Ginzberg’s work on life and career development stages from three to five, and included different sub-stages.

The five stages he identified were:

1) Growth (0-14) characterized by development of self-concept, attitudes, needs and general world of work

2) Exploration(15-24) characterized by “Trying out” through classes, work experience, hobbies. Tentative choice and skill development

3) Establishment (25-44) characterized by Entry-level skill building and stabilization through work experience

4) Maintenance(45-64) characterized by continual adjustment process to improve position

5) Decline(65+) characterized by reduced output, preparation for retirement

Application of Super’s Self-Concept theory

At the stage of career discovery and throughout all trajectories of career, use concept to discover and explore developmental initiatives.

Gottfredson’s Theory of Circumscription and Compromise

Linda Gottfredson in 1981 developed the career theory,it attempts to describe how career choice develops in young people. Many developmental theories focus on how an individual’s self concept develops with age. Circumscription and Compromise also focuses on the development of an individual’s view of the occupational choices available.

The theory assumes that we build a cognitive map of occupations by picking up occupational stereotypes from those around us. Occupations are placed on this map using only a small number of dimensions: sex-type, prestige level and field of work. As young people build this map, they begin to decide which occupations are acceptable and which are unacceptable — those which fit with their own developing self concept and those which do not.

The proposed stages of circumscription are:

  • Orientation to size and power (age 3–5). Children become aware that adults have roles in the world and they will one day take up those roles.
  • Orientation to sex roles (age 6–8). Children begin to categorise the world around them with simple concrete distinctions. They become aware of the more recognisable job roles and begin to assign them to particular sexes. They will start to see jobs which do not match their gender identity as unacceptable.
  •        Orientation to social values (age 9–13). By now children have encountered a wider range of job roles and are capable of more abstract distinctions. They begin to classify jobs in terms of social status (income, education level, lifestyle, etc.) as well as sex-type. Based on the social environment in which they develop they will begin to designate some jobs as unacceptable because they fall below a minimum status level (tolerable level boundary) and some higher status jobs as unacceptable because they represent too much effort or risk of failure (tolerable effort boundary).
  • Orientation to internal, unique self (age 14+). Until this point circumscription has been mainly an unconscious process. As entry into the adult world approaches young people engage in a conscious search of the roles still remaining in their social space. In this process they use increasingly complex concepts such as interests, abilities values, work-life balance and personality to exclude options which do not fit with their self-image and identify an appropriate field of work.

After circumscription has excluded options outside a perceived social and personal space, the next process is one of Compromise. In this stage, individuals may be inclined to sacrifice roles they see as more compatible with their self-concept in favour of those that are perceived to be more easily accessible. In this they are often limited by their lack of knowledge about how to access certain roles because of lack of information, lack of know-how and appropriate tactics, and lack of helpful social connections.

Gottfredson proposes that when people are forced to compromise their career choices, they are more likely to compromise first on field of work, then on social level and lastly on sex-type as the amount of compromise increases.

Application of Gottfredson’s Theory

Use in career decision making processes.

Social Cognitive Career Theory

Social cognitive career theory (SCCT) formulated by Albert Bandura (1960) and there have been several extnetions after. The theory explains how individuals form career interests, set vocational goals, persist in work environments, and attain job satisfaction.

Three intricately linked variables—self-efficacy beliefs, outcome expectations, and goals—serve as the basic building blocks of SCCT. Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s personal beliefs about his or her capabilities to perform particular behaviors or courses of action. Unlike global confidence or self-esteem, self-efficacy beliefs are relatively dynamic (i.e., changeable) and are specific to particular activity domains.

Below is a schematic of the SCCT theory.

social cognitive career theory

The SCCT talks about an interests model. choice model and performance model.

SCCT Interest model: Self-efficacy, outcome expectations, and goals play key roles in SCCT’s models of educational and vocational interest development, choice making, and performance attainment. As shown in the center of the figure above, interests in career-relevant activities are seen as the outgrowth of self-efficacy and outcome expectations. Over the course of childhood and adolescence, people are exposed, directly and vicariously, to a variety of occupationally relevant activities in school, at home, and in their communities.

SCCT Choice Model: SCCT’s model of the career choice process, which builds on the interests model, is also embedded in the figure above. Arising largely through self-efficacy and outcome expectations, career-related interests foster particular educational and occupational choice goals (e.g., intentions to pursue a particular career path). Especially to the extent that they are clear, specific, strongly held, stated publicly, and supported by significant others, choice goals make it more likely that people will take actions to achieve their goals (e.g., seek to gain entry into a particular academic major, training program, or job). Their subsequent performance attainments (e.g., successes, failures) provide valuable feedback that can strengthen or weaken self-efficacy and outcome expectations and, ultimately, help to revise or confirm choices.

SCCT Performance model: SCCT’s performance model is concerned with predicting and explaining two primary aspects of performance: the level of success that people attain in educational and occupational pursuits and the degree to which they persist in the face of obstacles. SCCT focuses on the influences of ability, self-efficacy, outcome expectations, and performance goals on success and persistence. Ability (as reflected by past achievement and aptitudes) is assumed to affect performance via two primary pathways. First, ability influences performance and persistence directly. For example, students with higher aptitude in a particular subject tend to do better and persist longer in that subject than do students with lesser aptitude. (Ability or aptitude may be thought of as a composite of innate potential and acquired knowledge.) Second, ability is hypothesized to influence performance and persistence indirectly though the intervening paths of self-efficacy and outcome expectations.

Applications of Social Cognitive career model

Use in determining interests and hence selecting career choice. Additionally it can used by employers to develop performance models.

Nicholas Guribie
Nicholas Guribie

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