Introduction to Career Development Theory

Career development theories try to help you make choices that lead to greater career satisfaction.
i Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images

For most people, making career decisions is a stressful activity. It is difficult to know whether you’re heading down the right path. The decisions don’t end when you get your first job in a particular field. Throughout your career, you will be faced with decisions about where to go next. Career development theories attempt to identify what drives us to make the decisions we do, and explore what types of decisions tend to lead to greater job satisfaction. Understanding these theories might equip you to make better decisions for yourself by allowing you to see what drives you.

Developmental Stage Theory

    Developmental stage theory was established by Donald Super, professor emeritus of psychology and education with Columbia University until his death in 1994. Super's theory suggests that career decisions are made based on the need to express a sense of self-concept. What we do for a living helps define who we are. In Super's model, decisions to develop that self-concept are made through five cyclical stages, all of which occur in each of four periods of life. The five stages include growth, exploration, establishment, maintenance and decline. The four periods of life include adolescence, early adulthood, middle adulthood and late adulthood. During the growth stage, an adolescent begins to explore careers that fit her sense of self-concept, whereas someone in late adulthood begins to explore roles that are not career-based.

Social Learning Theory

    Social learning theory addresses the external factors that can influence career decisions. This theory suggests the experiences you have and the people you encounter can have a strong impact on your career decisions. In addition to your own genetic makeup, your decisions can be influenced by the environment around you, events you encounter, learning experiences and task approach skills such as work habits and emotional responses. One prediction based on this theory is that people who are curious, optimistic, persistent and flexible are the most likely to take advantage of chance encounters, turning them into opportunities.

Trait and Factor Theory

    Trait and factor theory or career typology theory matches a person’s character traits to occupational factors. People who tend to be outgoing match better with careers in sales and other customer-facing occupations than those who keep to themselves and enjoy working with their hands. Personality types are categorized and matched to careers that suit those categories. Matching the personality type to the right job can lead to greater career satisfaction, according to this theory.

Theory of Career Choice

    An example of a trait theory based on career typology is the theory of career choice, a contribution to the field by vocational psychologist John Holland. In Holland's model, there are five classifications for both people and work environments, including investigative, artistic, social, enterprising and conventional. An artistic person matches best with an artistic work environment, but can also be compatible with an investigative or social environment. A conventional environment is the direct opposite of artistic and does not represent a recommended match. The degree of compatibility is used to predict outcomes such as career stability, achievement and competence, as well as the ability to influence or the tendency to be influenced.

the nest