It’s not my intention to give full information or an extensive discussion on every theory. This website is intended to be a starting point and the main difference with other websites is the visual representation of the theory, which I hope will help get to grips with the theory. There are also links it the bottom to get your further research started.

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Career Self-determination Theory

Charles P. Chen 2017

Not much to be found? (but please read on!)

I was really disappointed trying to find out more about Career Self-Determination Theory. I could hardly find anything, apart from a chapter in a book which was in effect behind a paywall in the shape of a book I would have to buy at a cost of about £100 (!!!) for the E-book (!!!), no printing involved, which I can’t really afford, especially since it’s one of several theories to which applies the same. Having to buy several books in this price bracket would be ‘a bit’ too much.

The book itself looks very interesting and I would love to read it and investigate, but the price for me would be five times too much. Have a look for yourself. It’s the second theory that got me to feel a lot of frustration. If these people would like their ideas to get more traction, then this is not the way to go. I’m a strong believer in knowledge being freely available as an engine for the development of knowledge and understanding.

On the other hand, I know people need to earn a living. I would like to see at the very least, a free representation of ideas and then maybe a system where, if someone would really like to know more, they can pay a reasonable amount. I know this is part of the academic culture we have to deal with, but this is just learning for the rich in my view. So… it’s up to you if you would like to know more and literally pay the, in my view extortionate, price.


Having looked at this theory in psychology, I can see a lot of value in how this would work for career practitioners and will come back to this later and explore this in a career guidance context, when I have a bit more time. In the meantime, please explore my intermediate summary of this theory for careers and have a look at the links and videos below…

Self-determination Theory in Psychology

According to Edward L. Deci and R. M. Ryan, there are two kinds of motivation: autonomous motivation and controlled motivation.

2 Kinds of motivation

  • Autonomous motivation is characterised by an intrinsic motivation out of interest or recognition of genuine intrinsic value. This typically leads to more satisfaction, better performance and a more engaging attitude. For instance a deep interest in a subject.
  • Controlled motivation is the result of either a stick or a carrot, which means less motivation and more pressure and stress. An example could be the need for money and the pressures that brings with it, resulting in the need to do a job you don’t like.

Chen Self determination theory for career guidance on marcr.

3 Basic psychological needs

Ideally, autonomous motivation is something to aim for (in making valid career decisions). Edward L. Deci and R. M. Ryan claim that there are 3 basic psychological needs:

  • The need for competence, for doing well at a task and having the confidence to proceed.
  • The need for belonging, being cared for and caring for and a sense of being related to your surroundings or people.
  • The need for autonomy, to do what you feel is right rather than being directed or forced into doing something that doesn’t fit with your values, skill level etc…

Self-determination Theory and Universal basic human needs for career guidance theory.

Autonomous motivation can consist of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

Edward L. Deci and R. M. Ryan also discovered that extrinsic motivation has to necessarily lead to all the consequences in the diagram above. Sometimes, extrinsic motivation can be internalised by the client and can fulfil the need for autonomy just as intrinsic motivation can.

A good example is a client who is mainly motivated, rightly or wrongly, by money. They may enter a career that doesn’t suit them or a career they don’t really like, but the pay check at the end of the month gives them a sense of confidence and autonomy. Their sense of belonging can come from elsewhere, such as the social circle they can build up and maintain because of their earnings.

External motivation – their wish to earn a lot of money, money is not intrinsic to them – becomes an autonomous motivation.Chen 2 kinds of autonomous motivation career guidance theory.

How this can relate to career planning:

I haven’t found out directly how Chen’s theory fits in with that or how it uses Self-determination Theory in a career context. Looking at the information above, however, it’s not difficult to distil a workable translation out of the above for a career guidance context. Self-determination theory Chen.

How can we use this?

Thinking on from what we found out above, how we can use this theory in practice becomes clearer. Below are some examples in how we can support clients fulfil, or plan to build up to fulfil, the three basic psychological needs. Of course, what exactly we do depends very much on the client. For instance, a client with a lot of self awareness and confidence will require less in the way of career autonomy and maybe career competence but they may need some support in career relatedness because they find it more difficult to build those effective working relationships (the hierarchical top down boss).

Chen's Self-determination theory of career guidance.

Adding to this, we can then explore what their intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are and how they affect their choices and their functioning within the workplace. I would argue that both of them are linked. For instance:

A client with increased intrinsic motivation for a career could have more skills to do well in that career (increased career competence – making a hobby into a job for instance) and may have increased career autonomy as a result (‘knowing more than the boss’). Because they have both of these they may find it easier, or more difficult, depending on personality, to have that sense of (social) belonging within the career. However, be careful making assumptions. All of these need to be tested against the client’s reality through careful questioning and applying excellent listening skills.


Activity buttonNow we’ve looked at how this could work for career guidance, let’s think about how well this theory would perform in this context and how you would or wouldn’t use it.

  • This is not an easy theory to get your head around if you’re fairly new to career guidance; how easy would it be for you to apply this theory and to assess whether it’s useful with any given client?
  • What kind of client would or could you apply this theory with? Which needs the client comes in with would this be effective for?
  • What do you think about using motivation as the key lynchpin around which your intervention revolves? What would be good about doing this and what would not be as good?
  • It’s easier to see how this can be used with someone who has an idea of what they want to aim for to test with them whether it’s the right informed decision. Could you use this theory with someone who is not motivated to plan or who doesn’t know at all what they want to aim for next? How would you use this if so?
  • How would a client’s abilities affect how well you can apply this theory and how would you need to adapt for certain things such as age, ability, personality, etc…?


There are some interesting articles linked to psychology however, for those who want to explore: