Career Theory – Introduction and Concepts

On this page:
What is theory? Evaluating theory - Scope Supporting - Enabling - Empowering Choosing between theories

Tools for Working with Career Theories

Especially if you are working towards the Level 6 qualification in Career Guidance, having a way to evaluate career theories is going to come in handy. Other people may find it useful to get themselves (re-)engaged in how to assess theories, how to use them and how to explore their scope. This page is an introduction to doing that. Although there is no fixed way of assessing theories (wouldn’t the world be boring if there was!), there are certain things you can take into account. This is not intended to be exhaustive, it’s just an introduction. For those who have a degree already, perhaps in something entirely different, it’s a possible refresher and something to make you think, or even another way of doing things. This is also not a lengthy dissertation but a more practical short guide on different concepts, some used mainly on this website.

What is theory?

When people say “theory”, they usually mean any of the items above but most of the time they are thinking about a premise; “I have this theory of how this works…” they will say. Let’s briefly unpick theory in the context of career theory:


This is the initial idea, which can be a thought, a hunch, an idea, an observation or anything that catches the eye or mind and indicates something new about a situation. Usually, a conclusion follows a premise. In the case of career theory, this will be a new or different approach, based on a worked-out theory.


Builds upon, or challenges and adapts, the previously stated premise. See the example in the pyramid. This is where the premise will be worked out in more detail, based on evidence and offered as a foundation for a new or different approach and tools with which to apply career guidance, support, coaching or counselling.


One step on from a theory, we will have to think about how we are going to approach career support from the perspective of the premise and theory. How can you mould the theory or the findings in a more practical shape or angle you can actually use within career guidance? (also see below for an expansion on this).


having an approach is all nice and well but what are you going to use with clients to apply this approach? This is where we have to develop the tools to apply the approach, based on the theory which started out with an idea or premise. When you hear people say “I have a theory”, as mentioned, this could mean any of the 4 components above or all of them together. A lot of the time, ‘theory’ means an idea of how something works, without much evidence. Hopefully the explanation and graphic above has put ‘theory’ in a more useful context for career guidance work and self-reflection or reflection on practice. It’s important to be aware of the distinction, but the 4 elements above also offer a very good structure for critiquing any theory: Have a look on the web to see whether you can find a good working definition of ‘theory’. Are any of them useful for career guidance? At least they will have you start thinking about the different elements that come into the word ‘theory’.

Theories? Models? Approach? Eh? I’m confused…

Don’t be! Here’s one interpretation of the difference within the context of career guidance:


Theory is used to explain broad structures or underpinning ideas based on evidence and is less ‘applied’ – e.g.: structural theory – career planning is influenced or determined by social structure. See the second tier of the pyramid above. Theory refers to erm… ‘theoretical structures’ rather than ‘practical structures’, which means it describes background, away from how this background is applied practically in career guidance, although we do build tools based on theories.


A Model is used to offer a very practical structure, sometimes step by step, around which to build an intervention or interventions with clients in a very practical way – eg.: Egan’s model of career guidance:It’s directly related to how we work with clients and often/always has some instruction on how to work with clients generally or specifically.


An approach, in my interpretation, envelopes both of the above and is about how you use theories and models in your work. It’s about how you approach the client’s queries, issues, needs, etc… using a mosaic of theories, models and techniques that resonate with the client and helps them, but within that, also resonates with who we are. It’s your own style of working or the way you approach the work you do. Of course, this is bound up not just with the client’s needs but also with our own background, context, skillset, character, personality and talents. Approach in this sense is the ‘professional artistry‘ Schön talks about in his work.
Briefly explore the following to illustrate ‘theory’ and ‘model’:
  • Super’s Developmental Theory
  • The DOTS model
If you are a visual learner, use Google images and click through a link on there.

Evaluating Theory – Scope

How far does a theory reach? That is what is meant by scope. This is a very useful tool for evaluating theories and generally, scope is linked to detail. The more a theory or model envelops, the less it will deal well with detail if the theory is used in its pure form.

Some theories have a long reach

  • Give you an excellent general overview
  • Are not good at giving you a lot of detail
– e.g.: DOTS model, which you are now a bit familiar with already – includes everything but there isn’t a lot of detail.

Other theories have more limited reach

  • Are limited in distance they can take you
  • allows you to explore every bit of detail with the client
– e.g.: the narrative approach and other theories based on counselling. Bear in mind that scope or reach in both my examples, but the DOTS model specifically, is related to using this model/theory in its pure form, which few career professionals will do. You can use the DOTS model in combination with, for instance Culture Infused Career Counselling Theory (CICC) to work on a lot of detail. Often, the DOTS model is for instance used with a matching tool. Scope functions best in evaluating the usefulness of a theory or for building a critique of a theory or model.

Supporting – Enabling – Empowering

To Support:

To give assistance – E.g.: help a client interpret information, make them aware of job market trends and opportunities, help them write a CV or complete an application.

To Enable:

To give someone the means to do something – E.g.: help a client devise strategies to help them make meaningful and well-informed decisions and achieve a goal they are aiming for in the medium to longer term.

To Empower:

To give someone the power to control their own life independently – E.g.: help a client gain the confidence to devise their own strategies to allow them to make meaningful and well-informed decisions.  
Think of examples of all three so you are sure of the difference and you can assess, in your own practice, what you are working on with a client.
  • Are you giving them information or help them apply to university, a job or a course? Are you helping them devise a route for them to take? Or are you helping them build the skills to do both of the above for themselves? You can see, they are not exclusive and can be combined, even in one intervention.
Also think of what the implications are of using each one of these for the client, your work with the client and the relationship between you and the client?

Choosing between theories

Brown identified certain criteria for assessing theories and choosing theories for practice. These can be very useful in developing, or sharpening, your own mind when it comes to career theories and their usefulness for you as a career professional :

Explanation of the different items:

  • Accessibility: a theory should be easy to understand and follow, succinct and elegant.
  • Influence: a good theory influences others working in the same field. How prevalent is the theory and how far does it reach?
  • Comprehensiveness: theory should include all and explain and predict a wide range of concepts, structures and processes in society.
  • Causality: a good theory should explain phenomena and processes in terms of cause and effect. Are there any inconsistencies or claims without foundation?
  • Guide to practice: what is the implication of the theory for practice? Can it easily be translated in an approach and possibly tools to use with clients?
  • Relevance: a good theory should be relevant to life, society and how people act, behave, plan and make decisions in the real world.
  • Brown, D. (1990) ‘Summary, comparison & critique of the major theories’, in Brown, D., Brooks, L. & Associates (Eds), Career Choice & Development, 2nd Edition, San Francisco, Jossey Bass, pp 338-363.
  • Brown, D. and Brooks, L. (1996) ‘Introduction to Theories of Career Development and Choice; Origins, Evolution and Current Efforts’, in Brown, D., Brooks, L. & Associates (Eds), Career Choice & Development, 3rd Edition, San Francisco, Jossey Bass, pp 5-13.
As a last thing for this page:
If you are working towards a qualification that requires you to evaluate career theories, it’s a good idea to come back to this page once you start writing your assignment, especially to help you compose a good critique of each theory you use. Let’s now have a look at the different categories to help you make sense of how theories are linked together: Next page - Career Theories - Categories