What Is Career Counseling? 3 Fascinating Theories Explained

Career counselingChanging jobs every few years or less is increasingly the norm among younger generations.

A 2020 Deloitte survey found that 31% of Millennials and around 50% of those from Generation Z anticipate leaving their job within the next two years.

Working people are increasingly responsible for carving their own path (Savickas, 2011). But the countless career-sculpting possibilities can be an exciting but daunting process for people at any stage of life.

Career counselors offer a valuable source of support and guidance for people wanting to explore their aspirations, make a career change, or simply get more satisfaction from their work.

This article outlines what career counseling is, how it can be beneficial, and several highly influential career counseling theories.

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What Is Career Counseling & Why Is It Important?

Each year of full-time work equates to around 2,000 hours of our life – a considerable chunk of time. It’s not surprising then that being unhappy or unsatisfied in a job can profoundly affect our lives.

As well as providing financial security, jobs are a chance to gain fulfillment, meaning, and connection with others, and offer an important means of identity expression (Lent & Brown, 2013).

Career counselors are trained professionals who help people explore, understand, and execute career-related decisions. Sessions may happen in a one-to-one setting, educational contexts such as in a university, or as part of group counseling (Lent & Brown, 2013).

Career counseling also offers a supportive space to help people navigate the complex and ever-changing world of work, enabling people to find their own solutions to a variety of job challenges.

A Brief History of the Field

History of career counselingThe evolution of career counseling has matched the economic turns of the past century (Maree, 2015).

During the second industrial economic wave of the early 20th century (1900–1950), many people began working in industries that were manufacturing products on a large scale, such as textiles and iron (Maree, 2015).

Between 1940 and 1990, the spotlight shifted to specialization and honing in on a particular career path. The conventional “career” was punctuated with job milestones and a sense of progression, with the goal of gradually fulfilling more challenging and probably higher paid roles (Maree, 2015).

This was a turning point for career counselors, who could help job seekers identify opportunities that would land them on a solid career track (Maree, 2015). Tools like personality assessments that could identify people’s unique characteristics gained attention (Maree, 2015).

In the 1990s, rapid advances in computer technology were making waves in the workplace (Maree, 2015). Individual career identity became more important in career counseling, and goalposts moved from linear career progression to continued professional development and helping people develop versatility in their employment prospects (Maree, 2015).

Now, work is increasingly digital, remote, and flexible. As a result, Argyropoulou and Kaliris (2018) suggest that career counseling is becoming more dynamic and integrated, helping clients explore their career identity within the larger context of their life while also supporting them to manage their careers more effectively for themselves.

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5 Benefits of Seeking Career Counseling

There’s no question that career counseling can help people with the practical decision-making aspects of career choices. However, similar to other forms of counseling, the therapeutic relationship and the opportunity for dialogue are central to the effectiveness of career counseling interventions.

Reducing indecision and executing career plans

Career counseling has shown to be beneficial for making career choices in the longer term. One study found that after only four or five career counseling sessions, most clients had carried out their career plans within a year and reported less difficulty in making career decisions up to a year later (Perdrix, Stauffer, Masdonati, Massoudi, & Rossier, 2012).

Counselor support, clarifying values, and life satisfaction

Other research found that a strong working alliance with a career counselor was positively linked to increases in life satisfaction and negatively related to difficulties in career decision making (Masdonati, Massoudi, & Rossier, 2009).

In addition, a large meta-analysis involving 57 studies (Whiston, Li, Mitts, & Wright, 2017) revealed that counselor support and helping the client better understand their values were integral components of effective career choice interventions.

3 Fascinating Theories

Vocational ChoiceThe landscape of career counseling has evolved considerably over the last 50 years, which is mirrored in the development of psychological theories in this field.

Below, we outline three influential career counseling theories.

Minnesota Theory of Work-Adjustment

At the heart of the Theory of Work-Adjustment (TWA; Dawis & Lofquist, 1984) is the notion that the “fit” between a person and their work environment can drive important career choices (Swanson & Schneider, 2013).

The predictive model of TWA refers to the level of compatibility between a person and their environment (Swanson & Schneider, 2013).

  1. Does the workplace meet their needs? Are they satisfied?
  2. Does the person’s abilities match what is needed of them in the workplace? Are they satisfactory?

The TWA approach aims to determine whether there is an agreement between the individual’s values/abilities and the requirements of their job – the ultimate goal being a satisfied and satisfactory employee (Swanson & Schneider, 2013).

The process model of TWA seeks to understand the processes of work adjustment and how it can be sustained (Swanson & Schneider, 2013) by looking at adjustment styles that are influenced by:

  1. Flexibility:
    How much person–job incompatibility someone can put up with.
  2. Active adjustment:
    How much the individual affects their environment to increase compatibility.
  3. Reactive adjustment:
    How much the individual tries to change themselves to increase compatibility.
  4. Perseverance:
    How long someone perseveres with incompatibility after investing in active and reactive adjustment.

When a flexibility limit is reached, this will usually drive adjustment behaviors, and then perseverance dictates how long someone will continue trying to make the job “fit” (Swanson & Schneider, 2013). For example, a career counselor might explore whether greater satisfaction or “satisfactoriness” at work could be found in engaging in active or reactive adjustment (Swanson & Schneider, 2013).

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Holland’s theory of vocational choice

The theory of vocational choice (Holland, 1959) proposes that people and their environments fall into six “types” that are associated with particular values, abilities, self-beliefs, and inclinations toward certain activities (Nauta, 2013).

The types are:

  1. Realistic
  2. Investigative
  3. Artistic
  4. Social
  5. Enterprising
  6. Conventional

An individual’s pattern of “RIASEC” types is proposed to foretell a variety of career outcomes, such as job satisfaction and typical career paths (Nauta, 2013).

For example, someone in the Enterprising camp will value ambition and economic achievement and like working with people and data. Such a person is likely to have a keen desire to lead and is potentially suited to a career as a lawyer, manager, or politician (Nauta, 2013).

Holland (1959) proposed that the interests people have drive the competencies and experiences gathered and the beliefs developed, which can be helpful to understand future career decisions (Nauta, 2013). Work environments, too, can be classified according to types, in terms of the rewards on offer or the abilities required of employees (Nauta, 2013).

Social cognitive career theory

Social cognitive career theory (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994) is aligned with Bandura’s (1989) social cognitive theory, which proposes that people’s agency to make decisions is heavily influenced by their social environments (Lent, 2013).

While growing up, an individual’s environment and relationships can dictate the activities a person is exposed to and will be encouraged to pursue. The performance at certain activities and the feedback received provide a sense of a person’s capabilities and the consequences of carrying out certain behaviors.

According to social cognitive theory, self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations are catalysts for behavior (Lent, 2013). Self-efficacy beliefs refer to people’s dynamic perceptions of their capability to perform certain tasks, such as having strong self-efficacy beliefs about cooking skills, but feeling relatively incompetent at technological tasks.

Outcome expectations refer to beliefs about what will happen if certain behaviors are carried out (Lent, 2013); for instance, someone might believe that becoming a chef would involve working late hours, which would negatively affect their social relationships.

People can exert their agency for career choices through their personal goals. Outcome expectations and self-efficacy beliefs may work in tandem to influence people’s career interests and goals. In other words, we are more likely to work toward achievable goals that will also have positive outcomes (Lent, 2013).

Over time, as goals and interests facilitate the selection of pursuits, this leads to outcomes that feed back into the cycle, shaping or reinforcing outcome expectations and self-efficacy beliefs that drive future career interests. As self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations firm up, career interests may narrow and strengthen (Lent, 2013).


Career counseling in action video – PsychotherayNet

Career Counseling Process: 3 Models

For those of you who want to understand the career counseling process, we explain three models below.

Self-Directed Search

The Self-Directed Search tool (SDS; Holland, Fritzsche, & Powell, 1994) accompanies Holland’s (1959) theory of vocational choice. The SDS is a 228-item inventory that gathers information about work activities, interests, jobs, and self-assessed competencies and capabilities associated with the “RIASEC” types (Hansen, 2013).

The ranked order of types provides insight into that person’s unique profile constellation, and there are a staggering 720 possible combinations (Nauta, 2013). Career counselors may zoom in on the top three types (Artistic, Social, and Conventional), giving a three-point “Holland code” (Nauta, 2013).

This assessment becomes a starting point for career counseling to begin identifying career prospects that suit the person’s interests and personality profile (Hansen, 2013). Holland suggested that people with more consistent and differentiated profiles are more likely to have a steady career path, potentially because career decisions come more easily and they have greater clarity on which jobs are a suitable fit (Nauta, 2013).

A narrative approach

In line with social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1989) and social cognitive career theory (Lent et al., 1994), narrative career counseling is a wonderful way to ignite the client’s sense of agency in their career choices, making them the protagonist in their career story (Chen, 2011).

The aim is to support the client to understand and develop their own career narratives (Savickas, 2011) in a way that is helpful for their future selves (Cochran, 2011). One narrative-based approach is Brott’s (2004) “Storied Approach” of career counseling, which comprises three interlacing phases:

  1. Co-construction: counselor and client explore previous work stories and narratives.
  2. De-construction: looking at past “chapters” from alternative points of view to uncover consistent themes or storylines.
  3. Construction: the client embarks on future storytelling, discussing the themes they wish to leave behind and those they want to pursue.

To facilitate the processes of the Storied Approach (Brott, 2004), qualitative assessments may be used, such as

  • Life line:
    The client creates a timeline of significant memories and events as the counselor asks questions to deepen their insights into particular life “chapters” (Brott, 2004).
  • Card sorts:
    Card sorts are personalized to reflect the client’s values, interests, meaningful memories, or language they use. This can be helpful to clarify the counselor’s understanding of the client (Brott, 2004).
  • The goal map:
    The goal map explores anticipated challenges in the future and the client’s resources for dealing with these challenges. This helps clients begin to construct a vision of their next destination (Brott, 2004).

Multicultural career assessment

Culture, race, and ethnicity are fundamental considerations for effective and inclusive career counseling of all kinds. Multicultural career assessment is the process of actively exploring differences in race, culture, and ethnicity between the client and counselor in order to reduce opportunities for bias during the counseling process (Flores & Heppner, 2002).

  • Selection and use of assessment tools:
    Much consideration should be given to the cultural appropriateness of certain assessment tools. Does a construct or attribute mean the same thing across cultures? Has a tool been validated with representative samples of cultural/ethnic/racial groups (Flores & Heppner, 2002)?
  • Interpretation:
    The client’s cultural environment needs to be fully understood for the counselor to correctly interpret the context and meaning of assessment responses. The counselor should validate and sense-check any results and confirm their interpretations with the client (Flores & Heppner, 2002).

Goals of Career Counseling: 3 Examples

Finding work-life balanceNegotiating career changes and challenges is potentially a lifelong process.

Below are three broad areas where career counseling may be helpful (Lent & Brown, 2013).

1. Making career decisions

Perhaps the most well-known role of a career counselor is helping clients make decisions that align with their longer term aspirations, including identifying realistic job options (Lent & Brown, 2013).

Some people may have an overwhelming number of potential options, and some may not know where to start looking. A career counselor can help people realize an achievable roadmap for what they want to do (Lent & Brown, 2013).

2. Career adjustment and management

Change in a work environment can trigger feelings of dissatisfaction; for example, if a role changes, this may require an uncomfortable period of adjustment (Lent & Brown, 2013). Equally, job dissatisfaction may develop over time. A promotion may leave people feeling overly stretched, or expectations for what a job was anticipated to be like are left unfulfilled.

A career counselor can talk through these concerns to help identify how clients can cope with their situation and explore opportunities for greater job satisfaction or competency building (Lent & Brown, 2013).

3. Navigating work changes and finding work–life balance

Career counselors can provide support and help people find their way through a period of change. Some people may seek counseling following a difficult or unexpected life event, such as needing to relocate or being laid off (Lent & Brown, 2013).

For others, regaining work–life balance may be the objective, perhaps shifting their work goals or aspirations to better suit home-life demands or other interests they’d like to pursue (Lent & Brown, 2013).

A Note on Ethics

In the United States, the National Career Development Association (NCDA; 2015) provides a code of ethics for people in career counseling professions.

Professional members of the NCDA are required to observe certain values, such as

  • Facilitating and improving career development throughout people’s lives
  • Respecting diversity and advocating social justice
  • Protecting the integrity of the working alliance
  • Ethical and competent practice
  • Honoring the dignity and value of every individual

Furthermore, NCDA ethical guidelines of practice broadly relate to these core principles:

  • Autonomy — encouraging individuals to take agency in their own lives
  • Non-maleficence — avoiding doing harm
  • Beneficence — having a positive impact and taking actions that support wellbeing
  • Objectivity — fair and unbiased treatment
  • Accountability — taking responsibility for actions, cultivating trust, and keeping your word
  • Veracity — acting truthfully with clients

17 Tools To Increase Motivation and Goal Achievement

These 17 Motivation & Goal Achievement Exercises [PDF] contain all you need to help others set meaningful goals, increase self-drive, and experience greater accomplishment and life satisfaction.

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PositivePsychology.com’s Relevant Resources

You’ll find many worksheets and tools throughout our site that can support your career counseling practice.

Check out the following for a selection of useful resources and further reading.

  • Coping With Stress
    This two-part exercise invites clients to list experienced physiological and emotional symptoms of stress and brainstorm strategies to reduce, cope with, or eliminate these sources of stress. This activity may be helpful in a career counseling setting as it helps clients identify triggers that cause stress and pinpoint possible areas of underperformance that may act as barriers to achieving occupational goals.
  • Adopt a Growth Mindset
    This exercise helps clients recognize instances of fixed mindset in their thinking and actions and replace them with thoughts and behaviors more supportive of a growth mindset. A growth mindset is valuable when navigating one’s career as it can open you up to opportunities that may have initially felt too challenging or threatening, allowing you to identify new paths you may not have previously considered.
  • Identifying Your Ikigai
    This worksheet applies the Japanese concept of ikigai, or reason for being, to help clients identify a direction to take their career that aligns with passions and past experiences.
  • Career Counseling Training: 9 Certifications, Courses, & Degrees
    This article walks through the training and certification required to become a career counselor, including specific courses and degree programs you might wish to pursue.
  • Career Counseling Resources: 10 Techniques for Your Sessions
    This article provides valuable resources to career counselor, helping them plan the right career interventions that will lead clients on the right path.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others reach their goals, check out this collection of 17 validated motivation and goal achievement tools for practitioners. Use them to help others turn their dreams into reality by applying the latest science-based behavioral change techniques.

A Take-Home Message

The world of work is constantly shifting, and so too are many people’s career aspirations and expectations.

Increasingly, digital, flexible, and remote working options offer many advantages, but that doesn’t necessarily make the career choices any simpler. Compared to a time when people often had only a handful of jobs throughout their life, mapping out a modern-day career path can be a complex and dynamic challenge.

To meet the evolving needs of the working population, the career counseling profession has developed to use a more holistic and integrated process.

Career counselors can help people navigate and build careers by making job choices that are aligned with their values, abilities, interests, and life stories.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free.


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