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Definition: career development from Greenwood Dictionary of Education

A lifelong process through which an individual develops and identifies with an area of the working world. Involves the results of an individual’s education and career-related choices, along with one’s aptitudes, interests, beliefs, and self-concept. (kg)


Summary Article: Career Development from The Praeger Handbook of American High Schools

High school students face a variety of significant developmental tasks, and one of the most important is preparing for and choosing a vocation. Career development is actually a lifelong process that begins long before high school and continues through retirement, but high school is a key transition point in this process. High school students are at a stage of exploration: preparing for work, learning about possible occupations, and deciding what they will do after high school. Many factors affect the career development and decision-making process. People tend to choose occupations that are consistent with their interests (Holland, 1973) and for which they believe they possess the necessary skills and abilities (Betz, 2001). They also set their career-related goals based on their values and needs (Dawis and Lofquist, 1984). However, career development also takes place in the context of students' lives and opportunities. Available resources, high school experiences, and even demographic characteristics affect this process. Students face barriers, both internal and external to pursuing their career goals, and career choice is ultimately a compromise between the individual's aspirations and reality (Gati, 1993).

To understand career development, we need to understand how people develop career-related traits; how these traits affect their career-related decisions; and how external factors, which are often beyond their control, affect the career development and decision-making process. Children begin at a very early age to develop attitudes, beliefs, and competencies that shape their career development. As they grow and mature, the career development process changes over time. It has been described as a series of stages (e.g., Super, 1990). Different roles and values are important at different stages, and there are age-appropriate skills that need to be mastered at each stage. Children's earliest career goals are often unrealistic and they generally have only a dim awareness of how one goes about attaining an occupational goal. During high school, adolescents are at a stage of vocational exploration and preparation. They are continuing to learn about themselves and to develop their vocational self-concepts. They are also acquiring information about occupations and beginning to identify acceptable alternatives. Whether students decide to go on to postsecondary education after high school, pursue full-time employment, or even drop out of high school without a diploma, they make many career-related decisions during high school that affect the rest of their lives. Even after people choose and enter their initial occupations, career development continues. While some people become established and maintain employment in a single occupation, increasing numbers of workers change jobs and even careers many times over the course of their adult lives. So, this process of vocational exploration and decision making can continue or repeat throughout the course of adult lives.

One particularly important and well-researched set of career-related traits is vocational interests, that is, peoples' interest in or preference for different kinds of activities. Students' interests can be viewed as an expression of their vocational self-concepts. They are affected by personality, motivation, and environmental influences (e.g., learning and socialization). Interests begin to crystallize during adolescence, and by the time students reach their early twenties their interests remain relatively stable. Holland (1973) proposed that people express their interests and values through their choice of work. Where people congregate, they create an environment that reflects their “types,” so we can assess people and their work environments in terms of the same six general types: realistic (outdoors, mechanical), investigative (science, math), artistic (art, language, music), social (helping, teaching), enterprising (selling, business), and conventional (details, clerical). Research has demonstrated that people tend to choose occupations that match their interests, that is, jobs that belong to their same occupational type. People also gravitate toward occupations for which their own interests are similar to the interests expressed by incumbents. Interests are also related to a variety of other important career-related outcomes, including choice of college major, job satisfaction, turnover, and even job performance.

Work-related values and needs are also important in career development. People seek out jobs that provide rewards that meet their needs. One of the most well-developed models of career choice is the Theory of Work Adjustment (Dawis and Lofquist, 1984). This theory posits that the fit between a person's needs and work values and the rewards available in a job will affect the person's satisfaction with the work environment. Research has in fact shown that when people's needs more closely match the rewards available in their jobs they are more satisfied and less likely to leave. In addition, this theory also suggests that the fit between a person's abilities and those required by his or her job is expected to affect the organization's satisfaction with that person (i.e., his or her “satisfactoriness”), and again research has generally supported this relationship.

The relationship between abilities and career development is actually somewhat complex. Research has shown that people's perceptions of their own abilities to perform various activities predict their occupational choices (Betz, 2001). These perceptions, which are sometimes referred to as self-efficacy, also moderate the relationships between other personal characteristics such as vocational interests and career choice. That is, people are more likely to choose occupations that match their interests if they also believe they possess abilities important for success. Once they are in the labor force, people tend to, over time, gravitate toward occupations that better match their abilities (Wilk and Sackett, 1996). Abilities also affect course-taking patterns and academic achievement, which ultimately affect career opportunities and choices as well. Finally, selection procedures used in higher education and for many occupations include ability requirements (e.g., entrance exams, selection tests), which can limit students' educational and occupational opportunities.

Career development takes place in the context of students' lives and social settings: their families, their communities, and the schools and other institutions that touch their lives all play a role (Johnson and Mortimer, 2002). Broader societal factors, such as the economy and the labor market, impact career development through the availability of jobs. The more immediate social setting can both influence and constrain the career development process as well. Schools differ in structure and in the composition of the student population, and these differences can affect learning opportunities (e.g., course offerings) and educational attainment. Teachers also affect the quality of education and can also provide important career-related role models. Educational opportunity and achievement are critical factors in career development. High school success is related to later access to and success in postsecondary institutions. Vocational courses can also affect career decisions by providing access to skilled jobs, but some would argue they also lower the likelihood of college education and thus limit opportunities to enter certain professional and managerial occupations. The selection standards used by universities and other postsecondary educational institutions (e.g., high school GPA), as well as the costs of education, can further limit some students' career options.

Students' occupational choices are often related to their parents' occupations and socioeconomic status (SES). Parents affect students' occupational values, aspirations, and other career-related traits. In addition, the amount of support provided by parents can affect opportunities and persistence. Some research has also indicated that similarities between parents' and children's occupations are at least partially mediated by educational attainment. Women and minority group members, on average, have lower levels of occupational attainment. Finally, occupation is just one role in students' lives, and their occupational choices are also affected by their other roles and responsibilities (e.g., plans to raise children).

Learning theory offers some insights concerning how career related traits develop in the contexts of students' lives. The social learning theory of career development (Krumboltz, 1994) proposes that people acquire their preferences for various activities through a multitude of learning experiences. People are expected to prefer an occupation if they have succeeded at relevant tasks, observed a valued role model being reinforced for relevant activities, and/or were presented with the occupation's strengths or had positive words and images associated with it. There is a good deal of research that supports this theory. Role models can be important influences, impacting both the career decision-making process and the occupation that is ultimately chosen. Learning experiences both in school (e.g., classroom activities) and outside of school (e.g., extracurricular activities) also play an important role. Many of the decisions students themselves make during high school can also have a long-term impact on their career development and later career opportunities. The coursework students choose, the part-time jobs they hold, participation in both formal and informal cocurricular programs and activities, and active involvement in classroom activities are all related to career outcomes later in life. In addition, recent research has also shown that these decisions may not always be well informed. Contemporary adolescents' career ambitions are often poorly aligned with their plans for education beyond high school. Many high school seniors are unaware of coursework requirements needed to gain admission to the colleges and universities they desire to attend (Schneider and Stevenson, 1999).

Finally, the process of career development and decision making can progress more or less smoothly. Students experience both internal (e.g., fear of success) and external (e.g., discrimination) barriers in choosing an occupation. Career indecision, irrational beliefs about potential vocational alternatives, or dysfunctional thinking can confuse or slow down the career development process. Professional vocational counselors and school guidance counselors are trained to help, but many students work through the problems they encounter on their own. Increasingly, public high schools are providing students with access to computerized databases of occupational information, including state-specific information about occupations and educational opportunities as well as more detailed occupational information derived from national databases (e.g., the Occupational Information Network; O*NET; Peterson et al., 1999). Since career development is a process of learning about oneself, learning about potential occupations, and making comparisons, better access to occupational information can be expected to facilitate the career development process.

See also Academic Achievement; Career Academies; College Preparation; Motivation.

Further Reading
  • Betz, N. (2001). Career self-efficacy. In Frederick T. L. Leong and Azy Barak (Eds.), Contemporary Models in Vocational Psychology, pp. 55–78. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Dawis, R. V., and Lofquist, L. (1984). A Psychological Theory of Work Adjustment. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Gati, I. (1993). Career compromises. Journal of Counseling Psychology 4 (4): 416–424.
  • Holland, J. L. (1973). Making Vocational Choices. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  • Johnson, M. K., and Mortimer, J. T. (2002). Career choice and development from a sociological perspective. In Duane Brown (Eds.), Career Choice and Development, pp. 37–81. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Krumboltz, J. D. (1994). Improving career development theory from a social learning perspective. In Mark L. Savickas and Robert W. Lent (Eds.), Convergence in Career Development Theories: Implications for Science and Practice, pp. 9–31. Palo Alto, CA: CPP Books.
  • Peterson, N., Mumford, G., Borman, M. D., Jeanneret, W. C., Richard, P., and Fleishman, E. A. (Eds.) (1999). An Occupational Information System for the 21st Century: The Development of O*NET. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Schneider, B., and Stevenson, D. (1999). The Ambitious Generation. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Super, D. E. (1990). A life-span, life-space approach to career development. In Duane Brown and Linda Brooks (Eds.), Career Choice and Development: Applying Contemporary Theories to Practice, 2nd ed., pp. 197–261. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Wilk, S. L., and Sackett, P. R. (1996). Longitudinal analysis of ability-job complexity fit and job change. Personnel Psychology 49 (4): 937–967.
  • Hanson, Mary Ann
    Copyright © 2007 by Kathryn M. Borman, Spencer E. Cahill, and Bridget A. Cotner

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