Disclaimer: It is not my intention to offer an exhaustive explanation and analysis of each and every theory. It’s relatively easy to find that information on the many websites and in the many resources out there. It’s my intention to offer something in addition to this, a useful summary that supports different learning styles and an exploration of the tools we can use with clients, linked to the different theories. I would also like to offer a succinct critique with each theory or area of theoretical thinking, to get you started. Especially if you are completing your level 6 Qualification in Career Guidance and Development, it’s imperative that you form your own critique and make up your own mind about each of the different theories you encounter.
On this page:
Career theories can be divided up in different categories or families. Although these are not strict and some theories belong to more than one, there is usually one dominant ‘genetic’ strand within them. The main families or categories on this page are:
Differentialism Developmentalism Structuralism
Differentialism Developmentalism Structuralism
Social Learning Planned Happenstance Constructivism
Social Learning Planned Happenstance Constructivism
These are the main important ones to concentrate on for the Level 4 and Level 6 qualification in Career Guidance. However, you can also claim that the following category is important for the era we live in now, in addition to the ones above:

Career Theory – Categories

For information linked to individual theorists and theories, the next page contains a timeline from where you can easily link through. But, let’s have a look to see what they have in common, what the differences are and who the main theorists are:


Square pegs in square holes…

How are career decisions reached/planning achieved?

Clients are measured in a scientific way, through psychometric testing or other online tests, and by then matching their characteristics with those required for a particular career. Modern examples are the Morrisby test and Kudos, but also Start profile.

Central idea – original

Differentialism in the context of career guidance doesn’t have anything to do with how cultural differentialism is understood now, as a movement to protect differences between people(s) with different cultural heritage (Guido Bolaffi et al. Ed.. 2003). Within career guidance, it’s related to how individuals differ and how these difference can be measured in a positivistic or scientific way. An individual’s characteristics are deemed to be intrinsic to that person and unchangeable. Apart from environmental theory, another alternative term for Differentialism is trait and factor, which should make its central idea clearer. Theory’s genetic heritage and historic context - Click/Tap for further information
Differentialism was the first strand of career theories developed early on in the 20th century by Frank Parsons, regarded as the father of career guidance. For people who have studied humanities subjects, this concept may ring a bell. Sigmund Freud was regarded the father of psychology and David Émile Durkheim the father of sociology. All three were contemporaries, and the fact that they developed a new area of research says something about the era they lived in. Another theorist of exactly the same era needs to be mentioned to clarify the context differentialism was conceived in. Taylorism focused on measuring the workplace in a scientific way to maximise production for the least possible input (Taylor, 1911). Taylorism was very influential in the development of the conveyor belt production seen in Ford’s car manufacturing plants. We can now see how this is similar to how Parsons conceived career guidance, that is to say, as an efficient system to maximise the economy by measuring people scientifically and by then matching these people with a job that fits in with their characteristics. The argument is that this would make for happy workers who would work harder and thereby increase production. In an architectural context, Le Corbusier was a proponent of the same movement, arguing that ‘a house is a machine for living in’. His long-term influence on architecture says something about the longer term influence of the movement which is mirrored in differentialism. However influential Differentialist ideas still are, they are now transmuted into a more modern context that reflects the nature of today’s society and thinking.

How is it relevant now?

Today’s theorists and professionals have criticised differentialism for being too right and for seeing personal traits as fixed, while at the same time not recognising the flexibility and varied nature of the job market and individual careers. Differentialism is still very influential because it can offer an easy, quick and arguably cost-effective way into career planning and career decision making. However, trait and factor techniques by themselves are not regarded as enough anymore as the sole principle of career guidance or the sole tool in career interventions. It’s used in combination with other theories, models and techniques.


  • Frank Parsons 1910
  • Myers Briggs – Type indicator model 1944
  • Raymond Cattell – 16PF questionnaire 1946
  • Alec Rodger – 7 point plan 1952
  • Ernest Tupes and Raymond Crystal – 5 factor model 1961
  • John Holland – 5 personalities 1966
  • Dawis and Lofquist – Work Adjustment Theory 1984


Led to development of range of psychometric tests, interest profiles and skills inventories – examples are Kudos, Fast Tomato, Meyers-Briggs, etc…

Critique – some ideas

Some of the crucial points levied at differentialism can be:
  • Positive:
    • Can look measurable and cost effective
    • Can be easy and quick
    • It’s a good starting point and can be reassuring for the client
    • The different qualities discovered can be used for job applications
    • Easy way into decision making
  • Critique:
    • The world of work as well as individuals are more complicated
    • People and the world around us is not static
    • Can be regarded as the be all and end all of career guidance, which can be damaging for the client
    • Can undervalue intuition and may other factors that are important in career decision making (transport, availability of jobs, financial implications…)
    • Doesn’t take into account other social, cultural and familial influences
Can you think of any critique, positive or negative, yourself? How could differentialism help or hinder your practice? What are the positive outcomes it can generate and where can it be difficult or dangerous, for you or the client, to use Differentialist techniques and thinking?


  • Guido Bolaffi et al. Ed (2003), Dictionary of Race, Ethnicity and Culture, Sage Publications
  • Taylor, Frederick Winslow (1911), The Principles of Scientific Management, New York, NY, USA and London, UK: Harper & Brothers



We go through stages of change as we grow older

How are career decisions reached/planning achieved? And what is its central idea?

Central idea or premise – people develop in stages over time Super, one of the main theorists in this category of career guidance theories, developed the ‘Careers Rainbow’* which looks at the different stages people move through in life and how their self-concept changes throughout. As opposed to differentialism, developmental theorists will argue career development isn’t static but moves through different stages as people move through life. People make career decisions that will fulfil and be related to their self-concept at each and every stage of their life. Career decisions are therefore not a one time decision and career ideas change throughout life, as people move through the different stages. Career decisions will also become more mature and stable as people grow older. Theory’s genetic heritage and historic context - Click/Tap for further information
Developmental theory has a long history, from Jean Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century to Darwin in the 19th century to the present day. In the first half of the 20th century a developmental approach can also be recognised in the work of Sigmund Freud and was central in developmental theory of Jean Piaget. Their work was more related to the development of the intellectual and perceptive abilities of children, more so than the life long development from childhood to old age and especially Piaget’s approach was deeply rooted in psychology. Just like with these theorists, Once you start reading about Super’s theory of Self-concept, you will no doubt recognise that his theory had a very organic flavour to it in that he argued that people moved to the different stages organically, rather than because of sociological influences. Within psychology, developmentalism is strongly related to constructivism. In fact, constructivism can be argued to be developmentalism with a slight difference; the difference being that the individual takes a more active role in their development by selecting elements to construct their own reality, which changes throughout life.

How is it relevant now?

We can all recognise that we change throughout life and maybe even that we go through different stages. Developmentalism, when it comes to a staged model, has lost some of its direct relevance and lustre in the 21st century however, in that the ‘world out there’ and the ‘world of work’ are much more fragmented and prompt a less rigid and structured flow of change through life. Sometimes, the reality around individuals changes and we find ourselves not fitting in with that new reality as we are. This doesn’t mean that we can necessarily move on to the next state in our life, as the stages are linked to age, but that we may need to take a (partial) step back to a previous stage to reconsider and mature again into that new reality. Some theorists have recognised the rigidity of their theory and added to, or adapted it to reflect the modern age.


  • Eli Ginzberg – Developmental Theory 1951
  • Donald Super – Developmental Theory and Life Span Learning 1957 & 1961; further developed in 1980
  • Linda Gottfredson – Theory of Circumscription and Compromise 1981

Tools and Consequences for career guidance practice

As mentioned already, Super developed his Careers Rainbow, which can be used as a tool with clients but also as a reference for professionals. Career guidance needs to be on offer as an all age service, rather than just at the development stage (as differentialism would suggest is enough), including at different stages during childhood and adolescence, to give the career professional the chance to assess a client’s planning and its relationship to the different stage they are in, in their life. There are no specific tools developed around this theory in the same sense as there are for differentialism, as far as I know, but developmental work will depend on the theorist you want to apply the theory of. It will invariable include:
  • an assessment of where a client is, what life stage they are at,
  • and how their planning is influenced by, amongst other things, their level of career maturity, including skills, ideas, preferences and their awareness about self – their self-concept.
The aim for the career professional is to support clients to develop vocational maturity – to become more self aware and identify where they fit in, in the world of work, in relation to the stage of life they are at.


  • I would argue that developmentalism is reflective of a time when jobs were more stable and allowed a linear ‘career flow’ through life.
  • Earlier developmental models in particular can be seen as too focused on individual development and not taking account of external factors.
  • At the same time, it broadly relates well to many people’s experience of moving through life in more or less set stages and it offers a model for ongoing, all-age career guidance, such as the career guidance model in Scotland.
Questions to ask yourself in view of this theory could be:
  • Do we really flow through more or less fixed stages throughout our life? If, so, do the different theories reflect these well? And if not, why not? What stops us from moving through the different stages as proposed?
  • Do the stages we move through in our life appear to be ‘naturally driven’? Or are there other influences at play as well? And if so, which ones and how to they impact on us and the decisions we make?
  • Is developmentalism and the theories of the main proponents too fixed or too fluid, relative to your experience in your own life?
  • Does 21st century society allow for those stages? Or does present day reality contradict those?
  • How does developmentalism relate to the model of career guidance in England?
*See the relevant webpage on Super on this website.



We are what society allows us to be
Opportunity structure rather than occupational choice In this case, the iconography I decided to use to represent and help you understand and remember structuralism is only partially right. Structuralism is traditionally trying to explain how the different structures in society influence or even determine the choices we make and the opportunities we have. However, in the 21st century, it’s also about how we respond to these determinants and how we break free from them by being aware of the structures and influences in our life. The ongoing validity or how a theory needs to change, if it’s been conceived a long time ago, is an issue to consider with every theory you encounter or use for your assignment, but especially so with structuralism. Premise: structuralism stresses the influence of our environment in the broadest sense on career choice – class background, state of labour market, ethnicity, gender, etc… Access to employment is often determined by others – it’s not simply our own choice. Our own upbringing can also influence where we think we ‘fit’ in the labour market. Implications: The scope of careers guidance was initially seen as limited – guidance more about adjusting a person to the realties surrounding them. Career guidance took on the character of a job placement service. Because of it’s controversial nature, which affects us at the core of who we feel we are (our own free will) it’s important to consider this theory a bit further.
  • Ask yourself whether this still applies?
  • Can you think of examples in your own life where you recognised influences that weren’t your own pulling the strings?
  • And what approach can you take with clients, within the context of this theory?
Generally, the approach advisers often take is that the job market is much more fluid now and there is much more mobility. Within this, there are tools we can use: eg.: challenging and open questioning. Examples could be:
  • Making clients aware of the implications of social structures – making them aware of how this could impact on their career planning now and in the future.
  • Challenge clients on perceived limitations or opportunities relative to society’s structures.



Social Learning

We are what we learn
Social learning theory looks at how people view the same experience differently.
  • Premise: learning takes place through observations & direct experiences.
  • Individual learning experiences over a person’s life time are primary influences that lead to career choice.
  • Approach: providing career-relevant experiences and motivating clients to initiate exploratory activities
Tools to help the career guidance professional achieve this with the client include:
  • Helping the client to learn a rational sequence of decision-making skills through investigative questioning, prioritising, story building, etc…
  • Arrange an appropriate sequence of career-relevant exploratory experiences
  • Evaluate the personal consequences of those experiences through open questioning
A possible approach an adviser could take to work with this is to exploit the client’s ability to learn through observation, imitation and role modelling.



Happenstance Theory (a special mention)

In the context of social learning theory and in relation to the requirements for the level 6 qualification in career guidance and development, this deserves a special mention.
  • Premise: many start a career through chance rather than a rational approach
  • Approach: Need to try and prepare oneself for unplanned events – maximising opportunities.
  • Advisers can use the following tools to work with happenstance theory: e.g.:
    • Motivational interviewing to work around anxiety around uncertainty
    • ‘what if’ scenarios and creating ‘creative dissonance’
    • Exploring networks and techniques to access those
    • CV writing in broader context – as analytical & motivational tool
    • Opportunity exploration around LMI


We write our own story
Constructivism starts with the premise that we all form our own views of the world and this governs our thinking and decision making, including what we decid to do for a career or job. Constructivists also argue that:
  • The process of careers decision making cannot be simply explained
  • The approach they take is that the key for the adviser is to understand each individual’s constructs
  • Tools used to achieve this will be scripted questions to make sure the client understands what the career professional is looking for.
This theory has moved as far away as possible from differentialism with its fixed, positivist world view and its mechanistic methods. Constructivism describes a world without right or wrong answers – just different views! What this means for career guidance is that an approach is taken that entirely concentrates on the client and only indirectly takes into account other actors and factors that either limit or enable options or that influences the thinking of the client.



Holistic Career Theories

If you do what fulfils you, you never work a day in your life – 360º career planning.

Central idea

Holistic in the context of career guidance and career guidance theory is a marked break from a lot of the theorising that went before. Individual career theories used to concentrate on one aspect of the client’s life  – social environment, skills and aptitudes, life stage, what the economy requires, societal structures, etc… We have increasingly come to recognise that the individual is ‘a holistic being’ that moves through all of these and more.

How are career decisions reached/planning achieved?

There are generally two parameters we can recognise in holistic working: A vertical aspect that aims to go deeper than the individual issues of other, older theoretical frameworks:
  • Holistic career practice aims to explore the whole person and the career practitioner then looks for a combination of theoretical concepts and practical techniques in order to support the client.
A horizontal aspect that not only looks at how the client fits in with the working/social/political, etc… environment, but also all the other aspects of their life and environment and how they can acquire lifelong planning, decision making and problem solving strategies and techniques. Just like happenstance, lifelong opportunities for forced or voluntary change are important, but also, just like constructivism, the client’s life history and their own set of constructs as well as their socio/cultural environment and possibilities. Theory’s genetic heritage and historic context - Click/Tap for further information
‘Holistic’ is a word that is in the media a lot these days, related to what we eat, medicine, how we treat mental ill health and our general well being. There is a strong relationship between this and how career practitioners are beginning to see career guidance. We have always adapted theories to fit our client’s needs, but this is of a different order, where we see the client’s entire life as important. Changes in the world of work, the economy, politics and political views and the general fragmentation of different aspects of society means we have to be more adaptable and be ready to cope with change. To stay happy and healthy, a holistic approach can support us and clients in dealing with this changing reality. Change doesn’t necessarily come from one aspect of society, such as changing job requirements or our changing environment or class structure. Change comes from everywhere, all the time, in the 21st century, arguably in no small measure fuelled by changes in technology. Both of these aspects work together in making life a lot more uncertain for most of us and a holistic approach attempts to cover different fields of uncertainty but also the whole person. One can argue that these two strands stem from two very different eras in the past. The 1960s are are very much known for their break with a much more formal past. This impacted on all of us, whether we wanted it or not, but for a large minority this meant a move towards more experimental living, including trying out Eastern religion such as Buddhism and changing familial structures, accompanied by uncertainty within these structures. It’s not difficult to recognise certain elements in holistic thinking and practice today, arguably in part at least driven by an increasing need for living ‘holistically’ and with ecology and the environment in mind. A second strand I would propose is important for the second element of a need for holistic practice stems from the 1980s, when economic greed paradoxically was seen as something positive. I’m sure that many of us remember Ben Elton with ‘Loadsamoney’. The city was booming and old financial structures were gone, opening the door for a different kind of corporatism but at the same time more uncertainty and competition. I would argue that this trend continued, after a break in the 1990s, in the first decade of the 21st century during the financial boom, followed by a crash in 2008, causing (or increasing) a lot of the fragmentation we can see in society today. Holistic career guidance and planning can somewhat counter this uncertainty by engaging us in building the tools to deal with change. Holistic practice and planning is not about finding a career after school and sticking with this until you retire.


Some examples of Holistic Theorists/Theories are:
  • Arthur and Rousseau – Boundaryless Career 1996
  • Hansen – Integrative Life Planning 1997
  • Krumboltz – Happenstance Theory 1999
  • Miller – Tiedeman – Life-Is-Career Theory 1999
  • Rivern – Simard – Continuous Participation Model 2005
  • Pryor and Bright – Chaos Theory of Careers 2011


You could ask yourself the following questions:
  • Is a truly holistic approach possible in the career guidance environment of today?
  • In spite of claiming to cover ‘all angles’, is holistic theory missing out on certain aspects important in career decision making? (you could consider unconscious bias, the effect of lack of effective communication with a client, partly inherent in the language we use, etc…)
  • How can we work with a theory like this as practitioners? Isn’t it too overwhelming, especially for those starting out in career guidance? If not, why not?
  • Is it the best approach under all circumstances?
  • What could be the positive side to applying holistic practice to career guidance for you?
  • What knowledge, skills, insight and awareness is required in holistic practice – would you be able to acquire what is needed?
  • Holistic practice suggests lifelong development and learning – how does that work for us as practitioners? Paradox or supportive idea?

Some tips for your research:

Normally, none of us have access to a full academic library. The best most of us can hope for is a search on the web and the few books we have. Making your time on the web count is important and I hope the following will help with that:
  • If you are exploring a new to you theory, I would suggest starting with a picture search in google or similar. This will normally bring up a visual representation of the theory you are exploring. But… be careful you have the right one! This will hopefully give you a quick and easy way into a new theory.
  • Wikipedia, however imprecise it is by reputation, is a good starting point to get to know more about theorists. Also don’t forget the references at the bottom of every Wikipedia page, which can offer an excellent reading list for further exploration.
  • By adding the word ‘scholar’ or ‘academic’ behind your search term, you may have access to one of the many extracts of research texts that are available online. Another possible source of references, information and research could be book previews on websites like Amazon and co.
  • I have also added some useful links to websites about career theory in the ‘useful links’ section of this part of the website.
  Let’s have a look at how this developed over the past century and a bit…Next page - Career Theories - Timeline