Career Counseling – Definitions, Theories, and Assessments

Career counselors use theories and assessments to help others make career choices, think through career problems, find jobs, and explore opportunities. Just like therapists, there are many different types of career counselors who use different theories, intervensions, and assessments. One counselor might focus more on helping someone pick a career while another might help someone with job satisfaction or career development.

Choosing a career counselor will depend on what exactly you are looking for. If you are just starting out in your career you will probably want a counselor who can help you figure out what career path you want to take. If you have been in your field for a while, you might want someone who can help you progress in your field. In order to pick what kind of career counseling is best for you it can be helpful to know exactly what career counseling is, what some different theories are, and what assessments are used.

What is career counselin

Career Counseling Definition

Career counselors help people understand their employment options, find jobs, work on career development. Often career counselors are people who hold a master’s degree in counseling or social work. Some career counselors might be therapists, social workers, or life coaches. Because of how varied the work is, there is some debate in the field about the exact definition of career counseling. Therefore, the definition of career counseling changes depending on who you ask. One of the simplest definitions is just: the counseling activities related to meaningful and purposeful work. Some other definitions include:

  • “A process that will help you to know and understand yourself and the world of work in order to make career, educational, and life decisions.” –Boise State University
  • “Counseling with a focus on issues such as career exploration, career change, personal career development and other career related issues.” –Wikipedia
  • “Counseling that provides career information resources, discusses career development, and administers and interprets aptitude and ability assessments.” –GoodTherapy.org
  • “Advice and information about what type of job someone could do or how they could progress to a better job.” -Cambridge Dictionary

Career Counseling Theories

There are many different theories of career counseling. These theories date all the way back to Frank Parsons in 1909. He is largely considered the father of modern career counseling and was one of the first people to come up with a theory of career counseling. His theory was very simple, you observe and talk to an individual and then you match them with the best career for them based on what you have observed. This thinking is still the basis for many career counseling theories today. Although there are dozens of theories still in use today, we will cover five that are the most popular.

Trait-and-Factor Theory

Trait-and Factor theory has been one of the most enduring theories of career counseling. In essence, it focuses on matching people’s personalities with careers. In order to determine someone’s personality this theory requires taking into consideration someone’s abilities or aptitude, personal values, and occupational interests. The process includes three key steps:

  1. Studying individuals
  2. Surveying career options
  3. Using “true reasoning” to match individuals with an occupation

Trait-and-factor theory has been criticized because it assumes that there is one career goal for everyone and because career decisions are based primarily on ability. Many people do not have one career goal as trait-and-factory theory might suggest. Additionally, these career goals might change over time. Also, ability might not be the best way to match someone with a career. Someone who might be interested in a career but not trained in that field. Rather than pushing them away from that field they might just need some encouragement to get training. Critics of this theory would say that it pushed people like this away from things they might be interested in.

Theory of Person-Environment Fit

The basic foundation of Person-Environment Fit is the idea that if someone has a positive relationship with their work environment, they will have job satisfaction. The theorists Dawis and Lofquist proposed that work includes relationships, interactions, reward, stress and other psychological variables. These psychological variables must be adequately addressed by the work environment. Additionally, the individual must be able to meet the requirements of the work environment. So, it isn’t just that the place needs to fit the individual, the individual must also be able to fit the place. When both of these things happen, it is called consonance.

Four Key Points of Person-Environment Fit:

  1. Work personality and work environment should be a good match
  2. Individual’s needs more important when deciding if the environment is a good fit
  3. How well a person’s needs match the environment and vice versa is a good indicator of satisfaction
  4. Job placement is best done by matching the individual’s personality with the requirements of the work environment

Learning Theory of Career Counseling

Learning Theory was first proposed by Krumboltz, Mitchell, and Gelatt in 1975. You can read their original journal article about the theory here. This theory is broken down into two parts. The first part aims to explain where career choices come from. The second part of the theory addresses how career counselors are supposed to help people solve career or job related problems.

According to Learning theory there are four factors that dictate how someone choices a career. These include, special abilities or genetic endowments, environmental conditions and events, learning experiences, and task approach skills. The main takeaway is that there is not one thing that dictates someone’s career choice. This theory also stresses that there is not one career that is best for a person. Instead, the theorists emphasize that someone can grow into a career as long as they are willing to expand their skills and interests.

Here, the role of a career counselor is not so much in job selection as it is helping people deal with career or job problems. It is an approach where individual therapy and career counseling might overlap. This is because career counselors using this theory will address issues like burnout, change, relationships, obstacles to career development and more.

Social Cognitive Career Theory

Social Cognitive Career Theory was first described by Lent, Brown, and Hackett in 1996. The theory blends some aspects of social learning theory and cognitive theories. There are three key components to this theory.

  1. Self-efficacy
  2. Outcome expectations
  3. Personal goals

Counseling is centered around helping people develop self-efficacy. Outcome expectations are addressed by counselors as well. These are the personal beliefs people have about what will happen as a result of their career actions. Finally, counselors help people address personal goals so that these goals can help guide and sustain someone’s behavior. Even just the process of generating goals is thought to be helpful for building up a sense of efficacy. Essentially, this theory is all about helping clients create a sense of agency related to career choices and issues.

The Cognitive Information Processing (CIP) Approach

Authors Peterson, Sampson, and Reardon first wrote about CIP in 1999. Florida State University has a great page that describes their theory and research in detail. In a nutshell, the theory is applied to how people make career decisions and use problem solving skills in career decisions. This theory is very cognitive and rational in nature and rests on the assumptions that people make career decisions as a top down process. CIP relies on 10 main assumptions:

  1. Career choices come from the interaction of cognition and affect
  2. Making career choices is a problem-solving activity
  3. How well someone can problem solve depends on their cognitive abilities and knowledge
  4. Career problem solving requires a good deal of memory skills
  5. Someone must be motivated
  6. Career development relies on someone continuing to grow and change their knowledge
  7. Career identity depends on self-knowledge
  8. Maturing in a career depends on the ability to solve career problems
  9. The goal of career counseling is achieved by helping people grow their information-processing skills
  10. The aim of career counseling is to help people solve career problems and become better decision makers

One main critique of this theory is that it really only works with people who have full cognitive ability. You could not do this type of career counseling with someone who has a developmental or learning impairment because they probably would not be able to do this kind of thinking. Another issue that it assumes that even people who do have full cognitive abilities are totally rational. As we know from psychology research people rarely make decisions rationally. Rather they rely on a combination of cognition, emotion, and environmental circumstances when making decisions.

Career Counseling Assessments

There are many different assessments used by career counselors. Some assessments focus on finding your personality type and then matching that type of personality with a career. Others are more like aptitude tests. These test your abilities and match you with careers based on skills. Still others attempt to assess values and then pick careers for you based on these values. Each theory has different assessments that it uses.

The Self-Directed Search was developed by John Holland and is one of the most widely used career counseling measures. It has been translated into 20 different languages and can be administered online. If you are interested you can take the assessment here. You can also view a copy by clicking the button below.

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is an assessment that attempts to understand your personality type by looking at individual preferences. After answering the questions it gives you a personality type based on extraversion or introversion, sensing or intuition, thinking or feeling, and judging or perceiving. There are 16 possible personality combinations and each one is described on the scoring sheet for your convenience. You can read more about this assessment on the official MyersBriggs.org website. You can view or download a pdf copy by clicking on the button below.

Temperament and Values Indicator is a measure assesses how someone’s values might relate to career choice. The test has two parts, the first are temperament questions that relate to personality and career choice, the second part is related to values and work rewards. The scores help you figure out if your career goals are congruent with your values and temperament. This test was specifically developed for people who are high school aged or older. This assessment is not publicly available.

Kuder Occupational Interest Survey consists of 77 occupational scales and 29 college majors. It usually Takes about 30-40 minutes to complete and is best used for helping people with job placement. It is generally used with college aged students. This measure is not publicly available. Many career counselor or career centers will have access to it.