Career Theories

Career development theories offer differing perspectives on how to view the individual developmental needs, organizational fit, and the career counseling process. Theories are used to help individuals find meaningful work that aligns with their traits, personality types, interests, values, and cultural contexts. As theories developed over time, they have shifted the focus from matching basic aptitudes and interests with job requirements to emphasizing the importance of finding satisfaction and meaningful work as integral to lifespan development. To further explore the significance of meaning in career development, meaning-centered theories also highlight the importance of finding meaning in one’s life and career. No one theory is superior to the others; however, some of the common theories have gained acceptance because of their usability and/or empirical support. The following are some highlights of several career development theories. Click on the links below to take you to a brief overview of the theory:

Early Light and a Tree

General Theory Applied to Career Development
Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 1940s)

Trait and Type Theories
Trait and Factor Theory (Parsons, 1909)
Myers-Briggs Type Theory (Myers & Briggs, 1940s)
Interests: Vocational Personalities and Work Environments (Holland, 1966)
Work Adjustment Theory (Dawis & Lofquist, 1984)

Developmental, Learning, and Transition Theories
Super Life Span, Life Space Theory (Super, 1953)
Theory of Circumscription and Compromise (Gottfredson, 1981)
Schlossberg’s Transition Theory (Schlossberg, 1989)
Happenstance Learning Theory (John Krumbolz, 2009)

Postmodern Approaches to Career Development
Social Cognitive Career Theory (Hackett & Betz, 1981; Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994)
Cognitive Information Processing Theory (Sampson et al., 1999)
Integrative Life Planning Theory (Hansen, 1997)
Constructivist Approaches (1989)
Career Construction Theory & Life Design (Savickas, 2005)
Chaos Career Theory (Pryor & Bright, 2011)
Strengths-based Approach (Schutt, 2007)
Value-based Career Decision Making (Brown, 2002)

General Theory Applied to Career Development

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Although this theory is not a career theory in particular, the basics of Abraham Maslow’s (1940s) Hierarchy of Needs model helps explain how we are motivated by certain needs. Maslow broke these down into five needs. When the lower-level needs are met, we can work on the higher needs but those basic survival needs must be met before moving up the pyramid that he designed to signify individual’s needs. His five levels of needs include:

  1. Physiological needs (basic survival needs such as air, food, water, shelter, and warmth)
  2. Safety and security needs (protection from harm, security, law, order, and stability)
  3. Love and belonging needs (relationships including family, friends, intimate partners, and coworkers)
  4. Esteem needs (achievement, status, responsibility, and reputation)
  5. Self-actualization needs (personal growth and fulfillment)

Understanding what needs a person has met can help a career counselor know where to start. For someone who needs their basic physiological needs of food and a place to live, helping them get any job and/or unemployment funds may be more useful than exploring their dream career. However, for an individual who has all of the lower needs met, they may be able to take more time to find a career with meaning that provides them personal growth and fulfillment.

Trait and Type Theories

Trait and Factor Theory

The Trait and Factor Theory (Parsons, 1909) is focused on identifying characteristics of the individual (i.e., traits) and the environment or job requirements (i.e., factors) so job seekers can find a career that closely aligned with their personal characteristics (Chartrand, 1991; Sharf, 2006). Parson’s process of matching an individuals’ traits with occupational factors included a component of self-knowledge;

  1. Understanding of their traits, or own characteristics (e.g., attitudes, abilities, interests, strengths, limitations)
  2. Knowledge about the factors, or conditions and requirements of the job (e.g., tasks, pay, advancement, opportunities)
  3. Determine a reasonable match between the traits and factors

The popularity of this theory began to fade in the 1950s as newer theories emerged and expanded on Parson’s basic trait and factor concepts. However, Parson’s contribution to career development and vocational psychology is still acknowledged today (Chartrand, 1991).

Myers-Briggs Type Theory

The Myers-Briggs Type theory focused on personality types and originated from its basis in structural personality theory; it was later adapted for use in career development (Chauvin, Miller, Godfrey, & Thomas, 2010). The foundation of this theory began in the 1920s, when Katharine Briggs became interested in Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types. For the next 20 years, she continued to observe and classify people into categories. Her daughter, Isabel Myers, joined her work in the 1940s and together they developed the Myers-Briggs Type Theory which used personality types to categorize human behavior (Myers, 1987). The theory identifies a scale of four dichotomous dimensions that describe characteristics of an individual’s personality. Individuals fall somewhere on a scale between the opposing variables for each of the four dimensions (Myers & Myers, 2004):

  • Extraversion – Introversion: where individuals focus their attention and from where they draw their energy; extraversion types place their attention on external people and things whereas introversion types focus on internal concepts and ideas. For example, at a party, a more extraverted type would prefer interacting with people and observing the activities around them, while a more introverted type might be more introspective and reflective of the experience.
  • Sensing – Intuition: the way people take in their information; individuals with sensing personalities notice information through the five senses and focus on the concrete or present moment, whereas those with intuitive type personalities will look at the larger picture and consider the patterns or future possibilities. For example, if both sensing and intuitive types were to witness a couple fighting, the sensing type would notice what they hear, see, and feel in the moment; for example, the man is yelling loudly and is expressing anger at the woman. Whereas, the intuitive type may consider the bigger patterns such as wondering if the behavior is typical or whether their relationship will end because of this fight.
  • Thinking – Feeling: the way an individual makes decisions; a thinking type will base their decisions on logical and objective analysis, while a feeling type will consider their values and subjective concerns. For example, a thinking type may weigh out the pros and cons of a decision objectively, possibly by writing a list of each, whereas a feeling type will ponder how their decision aligns with their values or how it will affect others.
  • Judgment – Perception: how an individual handles the outer world; judging types prefer a structure and organization with things settled, while a perceiving type is more flexible and spontaneous. For example, if a person with each personality type was going on vacation, the judging type might have an organized itinerary of their entire trip, complete with directions, times, and location of each planned activity, whereas the perceiving type would prefer to go with the flow and figure things out day by day, being open to a variety of options. 

Each dimension had a midpoint of zero and an extreme preference score of 30. Based on the scores for each dimension, individuals’ personality types were identified with a four-letter code (e.g., ENFJ) that included the preferences toward each dimension. For example, an ENFJ type would have MBTI scores that fell on the extraversion, intuition, feeling, and judging ends of the dimensional scales. Although the four-letter code may be helpful in understanding their preferences of those dimensions, the degree to which individuals fall on one end of each scale also identifies the strength or clarity of those preferences. For example, on the extraversion-introversion dimension, an extraversion score of 28 would indicate a much stronger extraversion personality type than someone who had a score of 5. The lower score, or score closest to the midpoint, might indicate more of a balance between extraversion and introversion preferences.

In addition to identifying personality types, the MBTI was later expanded to include a list of occupations held by people with various personality types (Myers, McCaulley, Quenk, & Hammer, 1998), making it a useful career development tool to aid in matching individuals with a suitable career choice. For individuals with high scores indicating an extreme preference in each dimension, this career tool may provide a clear approach to career development. However, for individuals who have lower, or more balanced scores, their personality type may identify only some of their ideal career options. For example, the ENFJ type who scored high on the extroversion and other scales would most likely prefer the ENFJ-related occupations; whereas, the ENFJ type who scored lower on the extroversion scale, may have a more balanced score between both extroversion and introversion preferences. Therefore, they may consider looking at the INFJ occupations as well to identify interests that may suit their personality. This approach would apply for any of the dimensions where an individual had a more balanced score. Although this theory was not originally designed for career development, the availability to easily match personality types with relevant occupations makes the MBTI popular in colleges and business. It can also be informative with understanding how one’s personality type can impact how they work with others or prefer different kinds of tasks.

Interests: Vocational Personalities and Work Environments Theory

Also known as Vocational Choice Theory, John L. Holland (1966, 1997) theorized that matching people to their jobs was key, yet he emphasized the importance of the individual’s personality (i.e., interests) in their career choices. He suggested that career success and satisfaction hinge on finding a job that aligns with one’s personality more than other characteristics. Holland’s Theory of Types evolved through a series of research studies throughout the 1960s and is one of the most researched and widely used career theories today.

Holland began by categorizing careers into six major types and examined the people who chose jobs within each category. From his observations, he proposed six types (RIASEC) that described both the personality styles and work environments that provided the best person-job match. These types include:

  • Realistic (R) – prefer concrete tasks such as physical or mechanical work including skilled trades and engineering.
  • Investigative (I) – favor independent and task-oriented work that may be more analytical, intellectual, or abstract, such as science and computer programming careers
  • Artistic (A) – desire self-expression and imaginative, creative, and introspective work as in a fine arts or writing career
  • Social (S) – an interest in people and community service, and possess good interpersonal skills like teachers, nurses, and counselors
  • Enterprising (E) – ambitious and persuasive and they often seek leadership and influential positions in sales or management
  • Conventional (C) – practical, conservative, and controlled; they like routine and structure such as clerical and accounting work

Calculus. Holland was intentional in visualizing the relationship within and between types. The closer they were to each other, the more closely they resembled each other. 

Consistency. Holland recognized that individuals rarely fell into only one type, but rather a combination of types. He found these combinations were typically in consistent patterns; therefore, his order of types was intentional. He created a hexagon model and placed a type on each corner, with a specific order of the types around the hexagon (i.e., R-I-A-S-E-C). The adjacent types (e.g., A-S) were considered consistent whereas the types listed opposite from one another (e.g., A-C) were considered inconsistent (Holland, 1997; Brown, 2007).

Congruence. The combination of types indicated the most important elements for an individual to consider when making a career choice that would be congruent with their personality. For example, an individual’s assessment results may include a two or three-letter code indicating the areas that aligned most with their interests (e.g., S-A-I: Social-Artistic-Investigative). While the first letter indicates their primary interest, the other letters indicate an elevated interest that may help guide them as they narrow their career options. Additionally, many occupational classifications were described with a multiple type code, and could help an individual identify careers that fit their two or three-letter code (e.g., College Instructor is classified as S-A: Social-Artistic; Holland, 1997).

Differentiation. Holland also believed that individuals were more certain of their interests if their scores were well-differentiated. For example, if an individual’s three-letter type was S-A-I, a well-differentiated score would include high scores on the first 2-3 letters and low scores on the other types. An undifferentiated, or flat profile, indicated that the scores across all types were similar. Holland believed that individuals with differentiated scores were ready to make a career-related decision; those with flat scores were not ready to decide because they were unclear about their interests.

Holland’s Theory of Types is still widely used in career counseling centers today and various instruments (e.g., Strong Interest Inventory, Self-Directed Search, Vocational Preference Inventory) are available to help individuals match their personalities with potential occupational choices (Brown, 2007).

Work Adjustment Theory

The Work Adjustment Theory (Dawis & Lofquist, 1984) evolved from 35 years of research with vocational rehabilitation clients. Sharing similarities with other trait and type theories, the Work Adjustment Theory follows the basic steps of assessing the individual’s characteristics, determining the requirements of the job, and then matching the two. Additionally, Dawis and Lofquist made several basic assumptions in their approach:

  1. People have two needs: survival needs (e.g., food, shelter) and psychological needs (e.g., social belonging and acceptance). Individuals whose needs are fulfilled become satisfied and their behaviors are reinforced.
  2. Organizations also have needs, and when both the individual’s and organization’s needs are met, correspondence exists; there is a person-job match.

Dawis and Lofquist (1984) believed that to achieve satisfaction, individuals would choose careers they thought would fulfill their needs and organizations would select individuals for the same reason. They felt this was important to job success and incorporated the measure of satisfaction and satisfactoriness into their theory as significant determinants in work adjustment.

  • Satisfaction represents the individuals’ satisfaction with the work
  • Satisfactoriness refers to the employers’ satisfaction with the individuals’ work performance. 

The congruent match between an individual’s traits (i.e., skills, aptitudes, and personality) and the job’s requirements could predict satisfaction for both the individual and employer.

In addition to the basic assumptions of their model, Dawis and Lofquist made 18 propositions based on the idea of predicting successful work adjustment, making this theory more complex than the others. Several instruments are available to measure satisfaction, satisfactoriness, needs, and aptitudes such as the Minnesota Satisfaction Questionnaire and Minnesota Satisfactoriness Scales; however, this theory is not commonly used today. Perhaps the complex nature of this theory, length of instruments, and popular use of other theories have limited its wide use (Brown, 2007). However, this theory lends support to the rationale that success, satisfaction, and meaning will most likely exist when there is a positive match between an individual’s traits and organizational factors.

Developmental, Learning, and Transition Theories

Super’s Life Span, Life Space Theory

Donald Super (1953) developed this leading career developmental theory addressing individuals’ self-concept, life span, and life space:

Self-concept. Super proposed that individuals are a blend of how they see themselves, how they want to be seen, and how they think others view them. This self-concept helps them identify their career goals and plans.

Life Span. As people progress through life, Super suggested that they go through developmental stages across their entire lifespan. He broke these down into five stages:

  • Growth (0-15): Focus on physical growth, forming the self-concept, and exploring early interests and abilities.
  • Exploration (15-25): Explore different areas of work, begin to focus on a specific career direction, get specialized training, and begin engaging in work
  • Establishment (25-45): Settling into a career field, making contributions to the field, and achieving higher levels of responsibility
  • Maintenance (45-65): Maintaining a job position, updating skills as needed to stay competitive, and planning for retirement
  • Disengagement (65+): Gradually separating from work, engaging in other projects such as leisure, time with family, and community activities

Life Space. As individuals are part of a variety of “theaters” (e.g., home, work, school, community), they have a variety of life roles (e.g., son/daughter, student, worker, spouse/partner, homemaker, parent, leisurite, citizen) in which they live out their lives. These roles play out in different stages of life. For example, someone might be a student from the time they enter school until graduating college. They may decide to go back to school later in life for additional training and pick up that role again. Super developed the Life-Career Rainbow to depict life roles across one’s lifespan.

Theory of Circumscription and Compromise

Linda Gottfredson (1981, 1996) views career choice as a process rather than an event. She developed her theory to explain why individual’s vocational expectations vary by sex, race, and social class and focused on the cognitive development of children (Gottfredson, 2002; Swanson & Fouad, 2015).

Circumscription is the process by which children eliminate unacceptable occupational choices. This is described in four stages based on an increasing age and developmental abilities of abstract thinking:

  1. Orientation to size and power (3-5): Children think in simple ways and become generally aware of size, power, and gender.
  2. Orientation to sex roles (6-8): Children begin to classify themselves by their gender roles and view their gender as superior, They eliminate jobs primarily attributed to the opposite sex.
  3. Orientation to social valuation (9-13): Adolescents become aware of social status, class, and prestige. They reject jobs that don’t carry the desired social hierarchy and are difficult to attain.
  4. Orientation to the internal, unique self (14+): Teens focus on their ability to attract their desired partner and fit into the right social crowd. They explore their values, interests, personalities, and skills to identify acceptable occupational options with greater attention to the social self. This stage begins the process of compromise.

Compromise is the process by which individuals accept less attractive occupational choices because of the inaccessibility to desired ones.

Happenstance Learning Theory

John Krumbolz (2009) applied Bandura’s (1986) social learning theory to career development and believed that the primary role of career counselors was not to find an individual a job but to help them create a more satisfying life. As our lives and careers move forward at a quick pace, it is impossible to plan for each event. Therefore, he termed happenstance to describe remaining open and exploratory while unexpected events happen. He outlined several basic beliefs of his theory:

  • Heredity and environmental influence can shape behaviors; counselors can only affect learning environments
  • There are two kinds of learning:
    • Instrumental learning – a behavior is rewarded with a positive outcome (e.g, you study and get an A on an exam)
    • Associative learning – other’s behaviors are rewarded with outcomes; they are used as role models (e.g., a classmate studies and gets an A on an exam)
  • There are two kinds of reinforcement:
    • Positive reinforcement – specific behaviors are rewarded
    • Negative reinforcement – a negative stimulus is removed

Krumbolz suggested getting clients engaged in their career development using the following steps:

  1. Find out what is troubling your client
  2. Listen to understand your client’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
  3. Brainstorm with your client the actions s/he can take and have them choose one action they will perform by a certain date. Have them report to you on that date.
  4. Evaluate success based on your client’s learned behaviors in the real world.

Schlossberg’s Transition Theory

Nancy K. Schlossberg (1989) describes transition as an event (e.g., getting a job or being promoted) or nonevent (e.g., not getting the job or promotion) that results in a change of roles, routines, or relationships. She proposed the 4-S model to describe the four parts of transition:

  1. Situation – a transition is triggered by a situation
  2. Self – the individual copes with transition using their strengths and experiences
  3. Supports – the people and resources available to help deal with transitions
  4. Strategy – a plan to get through and past the transition

Postmodern Approaches to Career Development

Social Cognitive Career Theory

Hackett & Betz (1981) and Lent, Brown, & Hackett (1994) also focus on the personal constructions people place on events as they relate to career development. Individual and environmental factors are considered but this theory also hypothesizes the following:

  1. Individuals have self-efficacy beliefs that they can accomplish their desired goals.
  2. They expect outcomes that support their beliefs
  3. Beliefs and outcome expectancies lead to developing their interests.
  4. Interests predict their personal goals in career decision-making.
  5. Goals lead to selecting and practicing activities that will help them achieve the goals.
  6. Successful activities lead to goal fulfillment and attainment.

When individuals have low self-efficacy beliefs or expectations, it will be challenging for them to meet their goals (NCDA, 2012; Gysbers, Hepner, and Johnston, 2014)

Cognitive Information Processing Theory

Researchers at Florida State University (Sampson, Lenz, Reardon, & Peterson, 1999) conducted extensive research in developing this theory. This theory focuses on the way people think and how these thought patterns affect their career decision-making. They look at three factors:

  • Self-understanding
  • Occupational knowledge
  • How one cognitively processes that information

They provide several steps to help direct a career intervention (NCDA, 2012):

  1. Conduct an initial interview with the client to identify concerns and skill levels
  2. Make a preliminary assessment of the client’s career decision-making readiness
  3. Collaborate with the client to identify needed knowledge
  4. Identify goals to gain knowledge
  5. Develop an individual learning plan
  6. Have the client execute the learning plan
  7. Review client progress

Integrative Life Planning Theory

Sunny Hansen’s (1997) Integrative Life Planning theory incorporates the identification of meaning as vital in the process of career development. Hansen’s (2001, 2002) approach evolved over 35 years of experience working in the areas of career development and counseling. She considered the impact of careers, communities, and families on individuals, and focused on the cultural context for life changes. Six critical life tasks connecting the important life concepts for individuals grew from her observations and included:

  1. Finding work that needs doing in changing global contexts
  2. Weaving our lives into a meaningful whole by integrating personal values into work
  3. Connecting family and work (negotiating roles and relationships)
  4. Valuing pluralism and inclusivity through cultural diversity
  5. Managing personal transitions and organizational change
  6. Exploring spirituality, purpose, and meaning

Hansen’s six critical life tasks point to her belief that the search for meaning and connection may become essential in one’s life. By exploring one’s life purpose and meaning in context with the other critical tasks, and by incorporating personal values into work, one can create a career and life that is more meaningful (Hansen, 2001; Sharf, 2006).

Constructivist Approaches

Postmodern approaches began emerging (1989). Key concepts around constructivist counseling include:

Constructivism: knowledge is constructed about oneself, others, and their world through their ideas, beliefs, and experiences; it does not reflect actual reality.

Social constructionism: individual’s knowledge and beliefs about self and others is understood in relation to social or other external forces

Career Construction Theory & Life Design

The career construction theory (Savickas, 2005) is built on Super’s theoretical framework with an additional focus on making meaning through a narrative approach. This theory goes beyond scores on assessments and encourages counselors to consider an individual’s story including their context, with whom they interact, and how they derive meaning. Key concepts around this theory include:

Self-construction: individuals develop from childhood where they first begin as actors, then agents, and finally authors of their lives and careers.

Career adaptability: evolved from Super’s concept of career maturity; it involves assessing the concern, identifying the developmental tasks, and exploring skills, and resources needed to resolve the tasks. Four dimensions of career adaptability include:

  • Concern: acknowledging planning and optimism for future career options; this is opposite of indifference, apathy, or pessimism.
  • Control: ability to take control over one’s own career choices; this differs from indecision, confusion, procrastination, and impulsivity.
  • Curiosity: the process of becoming inquisitive about interests and alternatives rather than unrealistic beliefs about self and the environment.
  • Confidence: increased self-efficacy or belief in career success; the alternative is career inhibition.

Life themes that guide career choices address why people make their career choices, what personality types might fit with a particular career, and how the individual can adapt to their career choice (Swanson & Fouad, 2015).

Chaos Career Theory

Unlike traditional predictive models of career counseling, this theory addresses the current realities of career decision-making including complexity, change, constructivism, and chance. Pryor and Bright (2011) described patterns of behavior to respond to life challenges using the concept of attraction.

Attraction describes how individuals organize the self and then maintain or sustain it when change occurs. It is divided into four types of attractors:

  • Point attractor: focus on choosing the best occupational fit based on a match between personalities, interests, and skills; they may discount chance or uncertainty in life in favor of focusing on a choice.
  • Pendulum attractor: swings in behavior between two opposing needs; they may attempt to compromise in the middle but only aggravate both options.
  • Torus attractor: uses routine, predictable, and safe thoughts and behaviors to try to control their lives; they classify people and things to maintain organization and their illusion of control. They avoid unplanned events and have difficulty with change.
  • Strange attractor: an open style of thinking that acknowledges the potential of change. This allows for growth and adaptability.

Spirituality is integrated into career development with this theory recognizing five dimensions for consideration:

  • Connection: a connection with others in our community, the world, and the universe.
  • Purpose: a sense of meaning, purpose, and significance.
  • Transcendence: a belief of a greater power.
  • Harmony: the ability for the parts to fit into the whole.
  • Calling: the idea that they are called to their chosen career.

Shiftwork describes the changes that occur to reconfigure a system. Chaos theory helps a client embrace uncertainty and change through 11 phase shifts from prediction to trust as faith (Gysbers, Heppner, & Johnston, 2014).

Strengths-based Approach

This approach changes the focus from the problem and deficits to the resources and strengths (Schutt, 2007). This approach is client-led, empowerment-focused, and future-orientation.

Value-based Career Decision Making

Brown’s (2002) approach focuses on the importance of values in career decision-making. Finding a job that aligns with one’s values can lead to greater job satisfaction.


Gottfredson, L., S. (2002). Gottfredson’s Theory of Circumscription, Compromise, and Self-Creation. In D. Brown, Career Choice and Development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gysbers, N. C, Heppner, M. J., & Johnston, J. A. (2014). Career Counseling: Holism, Diversity, and Strengths (4th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Counseling Association.

NCDA (2012). Facilitating Career Development: An Instructional Program for Career Development Facilitators and Other Career Development Providers (3rd ed.). Broken Arrow, OK: National Career Development Association.

Swanson, J. L. & Fouad, N. A. (2015). Career Theory & Practice: Learning through Case Studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.