Fundamentals of Career
Development Theories

Watch this video to receive a welcome message from your instructor!


Welcome to Fundamentals of Career Development Theories which offers an introductory review of many traditional and emerging career development theories, helping to develop your ability to work constructively with clients to build individualized career plans.

This course is intended for career center professionals, career/employment counselors, coaches, and/or practitioners, and HR professionals across a wide range of settings. However, the audience extends to practitioners in other levels of education as well as those who serve clients in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. This includes school counselors, workforce development staff, and others.  Participants will develop/enhance their knowledge of career development theories and enhance their skills in applying these theories with clients. Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to: 

  • Demonstrate an understanding of traditional and emerging vocational counselling theories
  • Demonstrate an understanding of various vocational counseling models and frameworks
  • Assist clients in a theory-based process of self-discovery, self-esteem building, and realistic goal setting

Each section of the course has readings, narrated PowerPoint presentations, and videos for your review. As you move through the course, track your progress by answering the questions on the worksheet.  

When you are to read text, watch a video, or answer questions, this will be listed in red.

As you move through the course you will track your progress by answering questions on a work sheet. Click the button to download the worksheet and save it to your computer.   After each unit of the course you will complete the corresponding questions on the worksheet. 

You will be asked to complete an evaluation at the end of the course. One of the questions relates to the time it took you to complete the course requirements.  Please be sure and keep track of the time so that we have an accurate reflection of the workload.  At the conclusion of the course, email the completed worksheet to the course instructor.

Your worksheet will be reviewed by the instructor and once found acceptable, you will receive a certificate of completion for 4.5 CEU clock hours. The content on this page makes reference to page numbers for certain career theory articles.  Those article are provided for you to read.  For your information the actual reference is below. Neault, R. A. (Ed.). (2011). Thoughts on theories [Special issue]. Journal of Employment Counseling, 48(4).

When you are ready, go to Part 1.

 Part 1The Value of Theory

Kendra Cherry said “A theory presents a concept or idea that is testable. In science, a theory is not merely a guess. A theory is a fact-based framework for describing a phenomenon. In psychology, theories are used to provide a model for understanding human thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. A psychological theory has two key components: (1) it must describe a behavior and (2) make predictions about future behaviors” ( A “career theory” therefore will provide a framework for understanding the notion of career; it may describe behaviours around career choice/selection or predict how careers may develop.  Conversely, it may also present the notion that career development, in today’s fast-paced environment, is inherently unpredictable.

Read the When Did You Last Think About Theory? article which offers a brief summary of the world of career theory with the goal of inspiring those working in career development to reflect on how theory is embedded in their practice.

Review the 10 Key Concepts in Career Theory tip sheet which provides a quick overview of the various theories to be covered in this course. Remember, there may be other theories you may wish to learn about, or have learned about in previous courses.

When you have completed the requirements of this section, be sure to complete the Part 1 item on your worksheet.  Then go on to Part 2. The next components of the course will focus on various groups of career theories; to begin, we will look at trait-factor approaches.

Part 2 Career Matching Theories

 Frank Parsons’ theory, know as Trait Factor, was based on the notion of matching personal traits to job characteristics. His theory, developed in the early 1900’s, assumed that (a) people possess stable and relatively unchanging characteristics know as traits, (b) there is one ideal job for each person, and (c) the ideal job is a match between these enduring personality traits and job features.  His theory didn’t really consider the complexities of family background, developmental stages, personality traits, sociological conditions, or the rapidly changing labour market.  

John Holland, in the mid to latter part of the 20th century, developed one of our most influential career theories. He identified 6 types of people (Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional – RIASEC), organizing those types on a hexagon with characteristics that shared similarities placed closer together and those which were quite different from each other placed further apart. Although all of these traits are found in combination within people, generally the most dominant two to three clusters of characteristics are significant in defining a work personality. Holland’s work is the basis of many interest inventories still used, including the Self-Directed Search, the Strong Interest Inventory, the Career Exploration Survey, the Career Decision-Making System, and the Vocational Preference Inventory.

Watch the following video to gain further insight into trait factor theory.

Refer back to the 10 Key Concepts in Career Theory tip sheet, Tip 1. When you have completed the requirements of this section, be sure to complete the Part 2 item on your worksheet.  Then go on to Part 3. Part 3 will look at developmental approaches and explore the importance of life roles in the career planning process.

Part 3 Developmental and Life Roles

In this section, the focus turns to developmental theories of career development. These theories outline how career development occurs, across a lifespan, through a series of largely pre-determined stages. Two theorists, in this section of the course, also introduced the importance of life roles (e.g., parent, child, spouse) in the development of one’s career. 

Ginzberg, in the mid 20th century, proposed a developmental / life stages approach to career planning The stages include:

  • Fantasy (birth – age 11)
  • Tentative (age 11 – age 17)
  • Realistic (late teens – adulthood)

Super, also in the mid to late 20th century, similarly proposed a stage-related, linear model of career development. His stages were:

  • Growth (birth to age 14)
  • Exploration (age 14 to age 25)
  • Establishment (age 25 to age 45)
  • Maintenance (age 45 to age 65)
  • Decline or disengagement (age 65 and over)

Later in his career, Super acknowledged the existence of “minicycles” (i.e., that individuals may cycle back to previous developmental stages, especially during times of career change and transition).

Watch the video below to learn more about developmental approaches and the importance of life roles in your career development work.


Refer back to the 10 Key Concepts in Career Theory tip sheet, Tips 2 and 3. 

Read Integrative Life Planning: A Holistic Approach by Sunny Hansen. This article is used with permission.  A key component of her work has been on taking a holistic approach to career development. 

Please complete the Part 3 item on your worksheet.   When you have completed all the requirements of this section, move on to Part 4.   

Beyond one’s life roles, culture also plays an important role in career development. The next section will explore some theories examining culture.

 CulturePart 4

Recently, many career development thought leaders have focused on how culture impacts career development. In this work, authors are focusing on a very broad definition of culture (i.e., one that includes age, ethnicity, race, gender, location, sexual orientation, religion, ability, socio-economic status, education, and many other considerations).

  There are three models or frameworks we are going to look at in this section.  They are the Culture-Infused Counseling model, the Culture Accommodation Model and the Career Counseling with Under-Served Populations Framework.

The Culture-Infused Career Counseling model, by Nancy Arthur and Sandra Collins, is “premised on the belief that cultural influences are inextricably woven into people’s career development” (JEC, p. 147). It was influences by multicultural counselling frameworks and considers three domains:

  • Counselor self-awareness
  • Awareness of cultures of other people
  • Awareness of the influence of culture on the working alliance

Culture Accommodation Model (CAM) is a “multidimensional and integrative model of cross-cultural counseling and psychotherapy” (JEC, p. 150) which can be adapted for our work as career counselors /career development practitioners. It outlines three major dimensions that must be considered when working with individuals: the universal (U), the group (G), and the individual (I). 

Career Counselling with Under-Served Populations (CCUSP), a framework developed by Mark Pope, is based on culture and identity; however his focus is on underserved populations. The CCUSP model can “help counselors develop an approach to helping underserved populations address their important career counseling issues” (JEC, p. 153). In his article in the JEC, Pope outlined 13 keys related to effective practice with minority groups.  You may have noticed that all of these are models rather than theories; however, recognizing the impact of culture cannot be overlooked, especially given the global economy and increasingly diverse workplaces.

Watch the Culture Counts video to learn about the importance of culture in career development.

Refer back to the 10 Key Concepts in Career Theory tip sheet, Tip 4.

Read any two of the following culture related articles.

Infusing Culture in Career Counseling

Cultural Accommodation Model of Counseling

The Career Counseling with Underserved Populations Model

After completing the requirements of this section, complete the Part 4 item on your worksheet, and then move on to Part 5. The next section will examine the role change and chance plays in career development.

 Change and ChancePart 5

In Part 5 we focus on change and chance, reviewing two different approaches to change and transition and two career development theories that consider the impact of chance events.

William Bridges saw change as an event (e.g., job loss, move) and transition as a 3-stage process; each stage must be completed before the next can begin.

Nancy Schlossberg takes a different approach with her 4Ss System for Coping with Transition; the 4 Ss include: Situation – the situation one is in during the time of the transition Self – individual and psychological factors impacting the transition Supports – what kinds of supports the individual has access to Strategies – the breadth and depth of the coping strategies an individual can draw on.

The Happenstance Learning Theory from John Krumboltz is the latest in a long history of his theoretical contributions to our field. In the Thoughts on Theories JEC article, Krumboltz stated “The happenstance learning theory is my attempt to make sense of our crazy world and provide helpful guidance to those who are providing helpful guidance” (p. 156).

Jim Bright and Robert Pryor also focused on the unpredictability of careers but drew from systems theory, specifically chaos theory, as they developed the Chaos Theory of Careers. They consider individuals and the environment as “complex dynamical systems” (JEC, p. 163).

View the Change & Chance video below.

Refer back to the 10 Key Concepts in Career Theory tip sheet, Tips 5 and 6.

Read any two of the change- and chance-focused articles below to learn about the theory in more depth.

Capitalizing on Happenstance 

The Challenge of Change: The Transition Model and Its Applications

The Chaos Theory of Careers 

When you have completed the requirements of this section, be sure to complete the Part 5 item on your worksheet.  Then go on to Part 6. The next section will explore career construction theories.  

 Part 6Career Construction Theories

In this section, the focus is on the notion on of career construction and career constructiveness. Here, authors are considering how individuals construct their careers, often using story-telling or narrative approaches. 

Several theories relate to the notion of career construction or career constructiveness, including:  Socio-Dynamic counselling (late 90s), by Vance Peavy, considers that every individual can construct his/her own work and life based on what is personally meaningful. It focuses on skills and techniques to help clients construct their preferred work/life, identify strengths and assets, and tell their stories.

Narrative theory (1990s) by Larry Cochran explored the construction of one’s career through the power of story. He recommends that career counselling focus on articulating and understanding the main character of a specific career plot through composing narratives.

Career Construction theory by Mark Savickas, incorporates and extends several components of theories we’ve explored so far, including the importance of allowing the client an opportunity to tell his/her story. He stated “the contribution of career construction theory is helping counselors to take multiple perspectives on clients and then to systematically apply the fitting career intervention” (JEC, p. 181).

Contextual Action Theory, conceptualized by Richard Young and Ladislav Valach in the early 90s, describes career development as an action system. In this view, career development receives social meaning through the interaction between individual intention and social context. As a result, people construct their careers through action.

Active Engagement by Norm Amundson, “create[s] a situation where clients and employment counselors are fully engaged in an active and dynamic learning environment” (JEC, p. 184). Amundson also introduces the use of metaphors and visual imagery, helping clients to paint a picture of their career concerns, and visions of the future.

Watch the Construction video below.

Refer back to the 10 Key Concepts in Career Theory tip sheet, Tip 7.

Read both of the construction-focused articles below from the JEC Thoughts on Theories Special Issues to read about more in depth.

Constructing Careers: Action, Agent, and Author 

Active Engagement and the Use of Metaphors in Employment Counseling 

Complete the Part 6 item on your worksheet. The next section will examine a systems approach to career development.

 SystemsPart 7

McMahon and Patton’s Systems Theory Framework of career development recognizes the interconnectedness of influential systems (i.e., individual, social, and environmental-societal). Both content and process influences (e.g., recursiveness, change over time, and chance) “depict career development as a dynamic and complex interplay of influences”; JEC, p. 170).  Broadly, this theory reminds career counselors to consider the various influences on clients’ lives and careers; career development of individuals occurs within an every-changing context. The following four models also help to illustrate a systems approach or perspective.

Amundson and Niles have developed A Hope-Centered Model of Career Development that recognizes the impact of environmental/contextual influences on every aspect of career development – from self-reflection through self-clarity, visioning, goal setting, planning, implementing, and adapting. Instilling and sustaining hope is a central emphasis of this model.

The same authors also introduced the Career Flow model, using the metaphor of different types of water movement to illustrate various situations a worker may encounter.  For example, white water experiences are those where demands are high, stress increases, and workers feel pushed to the limit.  Still water, however, represents times where workers may be underutilized, feeling stuck or bored with their daily tasks. Similar to those previously mentioned, this model illustrates the impact of context and systemic factors on individual careers.

Magnusson and Redekopp have developed a new model of Coherent Career Practice that presents an integrated systems approach, introducing four key elements: (1) Career Literacy, (2) Career Gumption, (3) Career Context, and (4), Career Integrity. Neault and Pickerell’s (2010) Career Engagement model looks at the dynamic interaction of challenge with individual and organizational capacity.  When these two components aren’t appropriately balanced, individuals may feel overwhelmed (when challenge is too high for available capacity) or underutilized (when challenge is too low).  

Refer back to the 10 Key Concepts in Career Theory tip sheet,  Tips 8, 9, and 10.

View  the video below to learn more about system theory and various models that help to illustrate a systems approach to career development.

Read any three of the following systems-focused articles below.

The Systems Theory Framework of Career Development 

Career Flow: A Hope-Centered Model of Career Development 

Coherent Career Practice 

Career Engagement: Bridging Career Counseling and Employee Engagement 

Complete the Part 7 item on your worksheet.

Conclusions and Congratulations!

Congratulations on completing this course.  

In this course you’ve briefly explored ten concepts in career theory, from the traditional trait-factor and developmental approaches through to various emerging theories as well as various models and frameworks. These have been overviews of the various theories and models relevant to our field, but we the course material may inspire you to delve more deeply into the theories and frameworks that guide your work. 

Make sure you have completed all items on the worksheet and send it to your instructor for review.  When it is determined to be complete, you will be issued your certificate of completion.

Evaluation requires that you complete a course evaluation. Click on the button to retrieve it.