Career theory starter kit

Beam Engine Kit by Phil_Parker

James Watt wasn't really into career theory

Multi-theoretical rather than meta-theoretical

I am highly wary of people who take only one theoretical perspective.

No matter how rich and multi-dimensional your theory is, no matter how many other theories it incorporates and subsumes, it’s still only a theory. It will never account for all of the variety, complexity and general messiness of real live people in real live environments.

The real problem with only taking one theoretical perspective is that you become subject to the Law of the Instrument (or Maslow’s hammer).

Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding. (Abraham Kaplan)

It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail. (Abraham Maslow)

If you only have one theoretical perspective, you only have one set of concepts by which you interpret a client’s situation. Because of confirmation bias, you will tend to look for things that fit in with those concepts and you may fail to notice things which don’t fit.

It is tempting to force the facts to fit the concepts and limit what you notice to things that you can describe easily in your frame of reference.

That’s why I shy away from big theories which seek to do everything and try to collect lots of simpler theories that look at career decisions from very different angles. Phil McCash from Warwick University has described this as ‘theoretical triangulation‘.

So, if you’re just venturing out into the world of career theory, which theories should you start with? Here are my suggestions, with no sound scientific basis, just my personal preferences.


At its heart career decision making will always be about making some kind of connection between an individual and an environment, so matching theories are important.

The dominant matching theory is Holland’s RIASEC model, but my favourite is the Theory of Work Adjustment because, unlike many other matching theories, it explicitly describes matching as a dynamic ongoing process.


Because career is a life-long project, it helps to have some ideas about how people’s priorities develop over time. Therefore, some kind of developmental theory could come in handy. Again, I’m going to sidestep the sector leader, Donald Super, in favour of some less obvious contenders.

I’m particularly fond of Erikson’s developmental goals, maybe just because they sound a bit more poetic than many of the other life stages.

However, if you want something very simple but actually quite useful, take a look at Mainiero and Sullivan’s Kaleidoscope Careers idea.


So far we have been dwelling on the more objective side of theory. Let’s take things a little more subjective and personal.

Social Cognitive theory looks at how people build up an understanding of themselves and the world around them through interaction with their environment and how beliefs about oneself and the world influence one’s behaviours and interests.

In career terms two very similar theories have been based on social cognitive thinking: Social Learning Theory of Careers and Social Cognitive Career Theory. Take your pick.

Making meaning

Exploring even further into the way individuals interpret and derive their own meaning from the world around them we are entering the realms of constructivism.

The ideal candidate for this section would be a narrative theory. However, I’ve yet to come across a narrative based theory succinct and simple enough to be included in a starter kit. If you know of one, please tell me.

Instead, we will enter the even more intimidating-sounding world of existentialism. At least here, perhaps because it’s been around for longer, there are some more clearly articulated concepts that we can play with.


Career thinking is not developed in isolation, so we should have a theory which looks in some detail at the influence of other people on career decision making. Social cognitive approaches do this, but they do lots of other things too.

A very simple and clearly focused theory in this area is Bill Law’s Community Interaction theory. Let’s add that to our kit.


Finally, I think we should have something which makes us focus on the unpredictable nature of life. Much as I would like to include Bright & Pryor’s Chaos Theory, I think it’s a bit too advanced for a starter kit. So I’m going to stick with the old favourite Planned Happenstance.

Just for starters

Remember, these are merely my suggestions for starting points. Please don’t think that the theories I’ve mentioned here are the only ones you will ever need, but they should make it easier for you to find a way into the bigger and more complex theories.

If you have any alternative suggestions about what should go into a theory starter kit, please let me know.

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  1. #1 by Tristram Hooley on 18 July 2011 - 20:46

    Pluralism is all very well, but I am reminded of the Malcolm X quote “A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.” While I think that there is value in many of the theories cited here it is also important to remember that many of them are constructed in opposition (or at least in criticism) of each other. For example critical theories which emphasise social structures and challenge social inequality would argue that matching approaches simply perpetuate the existing hierachy. While it is possible to hold both in your head when you are undertaking work with learners (I need to find him a job, but also to alert him to the fact that he has political power to change the nature of work) it is not possible to adhere to both at once. We combine and develop, we learn from critiques and our defence against them, but I think it remains important to know our own mind. Ultimately that means formulating theory, of course it is built on the bones of old theory, but the theory also needs to articulate what is wrong with them as well as what is right.

    • #2 by David Winter on 24 July 2011 - 16:08


      You said ‘…it remains important to know your own mind. Ultimately, that means formulating theory…’. I agree with those sentiments, but not necessarily in that order.

      Whenever we obtain information from clients, we try to interpret that into our own frame of reference, our own set of assumptions about what is important and how things fit together. Whether we call it that or not, we have a default theory. This will determine what we notice and what passes us by.

      This is precisely why it is important to know our own minds. However, we need an external reference point from which to observe ourselves. That’s where formal theories come in. Yes, one function of theories is to critique other theories. It is easy to critique a theory that has already been articulated (in an academic journal). However, when you are trying to critique a theory that exists implicitly in a practitioner’s mind, it is a little bit harder. That is why you need to explore a number of different theories in order to find one that sufficiently challenges your implicit theory.

      Through dialectic one comes closer to the truth. I don’t adhere to a theory; I adhere to reality. Each theory is just one window into that reality. I’d like to have as many windows as possible.

      Very rarely do I use theories explicitly with clients (your use of the word ‘learner’ maybe gives a hint at your own internal theory). My ideal is to build a theory explicit to each client as I work with them. Knowing about a wide range of theories enables me to do this more flexibly.

      But actually, my main use for theory is in reflective practice.

  2. #3 by Ghislaine Dell on 22 July 2011 - 12:16

    If you use or work with aspects of different theories, surely that doesn’t automatically mean you are formulating theory yourself, does it? And while theories are very interesting and give frameworks for discussions with clients, I often find I use such different aspects of them in different proportions with the clients I see that it would be impossible to develop just one theory.
    I also think (although this may be heretical) that theories would be a lot easier to read and understand and work with if they didn’t have such a lot of rebuttal/criticism of what has gone before.

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