Career development theories

This guide will help you understand what defines career development and different theories that can help individuals on their career journey. You will also learn how to apply these different theories to your own life and future career.


What is career development?

Career development is a process in which individuals assess their skills and career path in order to grow and advance their personal career journey.

Career development may involve taking skill assessment tests or beginning a career search based on one’s true passions. It also incorporates learning or developing the skills needed to succeed in careers that would fit their abilities and interests.

Career development theories

There are many theories about career development and the best ways individuals can advance in their chosen career path. We have collected some of the most impactful theories which can be referenced in your own career development journey.

Frank Parsons trait and factor theory

This theory was created by Frank Parsons in the early 1900s, although his theory wasn’t published until after he died in 1909.

His theory consists of two main characteristics: traits and factors. ‘Factors’ refer to possible jobs and occupations, while ‘traits’ refer to qualities of the people seeking careers.

In essence, a professional may test, interview, and observe an individual, assess the results, and then compare their findings to available occupations, seeking to find the most compatible match possible.

Other names for this theory are matching, actuarial, and career counselling.

Holland theory of vocational types

John Holland developed his theory building off of the ideas in Frank Parsons’ theory.

Essentially, he categorizes six personality types:

  • Artistic
  • Investigative
  • Realistic
  • Conventional
  • Enterprising
  • Social

While there are many facets involved in each personality type, the theory relies on an individual’s personality type to direct their proper career path.

This theory assumes that all people do have some features of each personality type, although identifying the dominant personality trait is key in determining the right career path for them.

For example, someone with a primarily investigative personality would be well suited to work as a biologist or anthropologist. On the other hand, someone with a dominant enterprising personality would work well in sales or promoting businesses and services for others.

Bandura’s social cognitive theory

Albert Bandura created this career development theory, which also relies on the personal aspects of an individual to build their career path.

However, unlike other theories, it places greater weight on a person’s past experiences. Behind these experiences, one can find what motivates an individual. When you find the reason behind what motivates a person (praise, controlling outside factors, competitiveness with peers), you can determine the career where they are most likely find success.

Super’s developmental self-concept theory

Donald Super began developing career theories in the 1950s and continued to do so throughout his professional life. As his ideas expanded, they also grew in complexity.

However, the primary basis of his theories is the idea that we can group the human lifespan into certain age groups. Within these age groups, we also develop different perceptions of the world around us, take on different responsibilities, and prioritize the most relevant things to that stage in life.

Super even conducted a study that followed individuals for a long span in their lives, from 9th grade up to their 30s, to confirm his beliefs. He found that with maturity and experience, individuals change their concept of self and often their goals. For example, in early adulthood, individuals often focus on relationships with others. By middle adulthood, many individuals move on to developing their skills and careers.

Krumboltz social learning

John Krumboltz developed a theory based on Bandura’s theories for his main concepts and then used those to develop his own theory, which incorporates career counselling.

Rather than focusing on inherited traits, Krumboltz’s theory is based on the idea that an individual’s development and experiences over the course of their life affect which career they are best suited for.

Krumboltz’s theory focused on inherited personal qualities, life circumstances, learning through consequences and skills gained through work experiences. According to his theory, these factors and experiences determines the best match for an individual and their career.

Ann Roe ‘needs’ theory

The ‘needs’ approach, developed by Ann Roe, assesses the structure of needs and values each individual has based on experiences early in life and childhood. However, the theory also accounts for environmental and genetic factors, all of which she believed should be considered to find a career that fits an individual’s ‘needs.’

The theory includes six levels of skills ranging from unskilled to professional/managerial (considered the top-level). From there, Roe also includes eight different significant occupation categories to build from; including science, technology, arts and entertainment, outdoor, service, business, managerial, and general cultural occupations.

Roe’s personality theory

Much like Ann Roe’s ‘needs’ approach to career development, the personality theory also places a lot of importance on an individual’s early life experiences.

In this case, the experiences Roe focuses on most are the interactions an individual has with their parents during childhood.

In short, the more interaction a person has with their parents, the more likely they are to choose jobs she classifies as ‘person oriented’ or ‘non-person oriented.’ In her needs approach, she also classifies occupations into eight different categories, five of which are person-oriented and three of which are non-person oriented.

Based on an individual’s experience, they will have different levels of independent capability. She also considered non-person oriented jobs to be the more independent of the eight categories.

Linda Gottfredson – circumscription and compromise

Linda Gottfredson’s theory of circumscription and compromise, developed in the 1980s, focuses primarily on children and the four main stages of their growth. These stages are divided into both age ranges, and the developmental orientations during these ages. This theory helps us discern why children would choose certain career paths. The age ranges included are 3-5, 6-8, 9-13, and 14 and above.

Essentially, the careers children identify with also correlate to their social understandings at the time. Younger children often choose gender-oriented careers, while older children tend to choose careers that are more involved in their community values and personal identity.

Tiedeman and Miller – Tiedeman’s decision-making model

Tiedeman and Miller’s decision-making career development theory is heavily based on Erikson’s eight psychosocial stages. This theory also includes an individual’s life as being important to career development as their occupational choices are. The decision-making model helps people searching for a career path to weigh several main factors to lead them to their ultimate career goal.

There are two main stages of different factors that make up Tiedeman and Miller’s theory. The first preliminary stage is called Anticipation or Preoccupation.

In this stage, individuals go through four main steps: exploration, crystallization, choice, and clarification.

The second stage, called Implementation or Adjustment, involves the following steps: induction, reformation, and integration.

Career development plan

Now that you understand the different theoretical career planning and development approaches, you can dive into a practical career development plan.

Download our template, which will be a good tool for working on a plan. It helps key stakeholders keep all the data in one place.