When Did You Last Think About Theory?

By Deirdre A. Pickerell

Whether related to individual development, matching traits and factors, or navigating complex systems, career theories offer a framework for our work, helping to guide our approach and conceptualize clients’ career concerns. Recent research, however, identified that some career development practitioners (CDPs) don’t consider the use of theories as important to their practice, nor do they seem to feel well-equipped to draw from a theoretical framework when working with clients. This article offers a brief glimpse into the world of career theory with the goal of inspiring CDPs to pause to reflect on how, or perhaps if, career theory is embedded in their practice. The 2013 NCDA conference panel presentation, Thoughts on Theories: Building Theoretical Foundations, Exploring Future Directions is also briefly highlighted; panelists included Norm Amundson, Nancy Arthur, Jim Bright, John Krumboltz, Roberta Neault, Deirdre Pickerell, Mark Pope, and Robert Pryor.


Career Theories Provide a Framework for Understanding Career

Some theories attempt to explain how careers develop; others relate more to career choice, or the importance of considering career within a broader life context. Some theories are foundational to our practice, remaining important to our work decades after first being conceptualized. Others are emerging, perhaps more relevant within our current constantly changing and complex global world. Regardless, career theories offer a framework for our work, helping to guide our approach and conceptualize clients’ career concerns. Similar to trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle without the corresponding picture as a guide, working without a theoretical framework can result in uncertainty and wasted time. Yet, recent research revealed that career development practitioners (CDPs) rated the importance of using career theory in their practice as low and rated their competency in using career theory as similarly low (Life Strategies, 2013). Making this result somewhat surprising is that most respondents held the BC Certified Career Development Practitioner Credential; these individuals would have recently completed a career theories course.


When exploring the data further, some respondents commented that it wasn’t appropriate to explain theory to clients. They noted that clients needed help with their career issues, not lessons in career theory. Others acknowledged they could envision explaining career theory to parents, but not to the young clients accessing services. Still other CDPs seemed to be working from a theoretical framework without even realizing it. Possibly CDPs can be clustered into two separate, and distinct, stages of a 4-stage learning model (Business Balls, n. d.). Those who aren’t working from a theoretical framework, and state that theory shouldn’t be used with clients, may be in the first stage – unconscious incompetence. This is a place where they don’t know what they don’t know. Although these CDPs may be able to explain various theories to colleagues, or course instructors, they have yet to understand how to apply those theories in their everyday practice. Theories have become interesting knowledge to have, but serve no purpose in their work.


Others may be in the final stage of the learning model – unconscious competence. This is the place where the way of working has become so comfortable and fully integrated that CDPs don’t even recognize they are using theory. As an example, Parsons’ trait-factor model and Holland’s RIASEC model are designed to facilitate matching clients to appropriate jobs. These approaches are still widely used today and are the foundation of many assessment tools (e.g., Holland’s Self Directed Search, Strong Interest Inventory). CDPs taking a “matching” approach to their work are likely working within this theoretical framework, even if they don’t recognize it as such. Both Super and Ginzberg, on the other hand, considered the developmental nature of careers, describing a fairly predictable and linear path to how careers develop over one’s lifespan. Super introduced the notion of “recycling,” reminding us that life’s circumstances may result in a need to revisit earlier stages. As with a matching approach, CDPs considering the developmental aspects of a client’s career may have integrated Super’s theoretical framework into their practice.


There is an unconscious component to each of these stages, perhaps implying that CDPs are blissfully unaware of the world of career theory or aren’t paying attention to the more recent developments. Many new theories and models have emerged because of the changes in the world of work; as people and work structures today are fundamentally different than in the 1950s, career theories must adjust to accommodate those changes. However, if CDPs aren’t paying attention to theory and/or don’t understand its applicability in their work, then they may miss key thinking about how to better understand and support clients in the 21st century workplace.


Recent Developments in Career Theory

More recent career theories recognize that the world of work is changing at an unprecedented rate. Krumboltz’s Happenstance Learning Theory tells us that “the goal of career counseling is to help clients learn to take actions to achieve a more satisfying career and personal life—not to make a single career decision” (Krumboltz, 2009, p. 135). Bright and Pryor’s Chaos Theory of Careers (2011) introduces four key concepts: complexity, change, chance, and construction. Both of these theories are grounded in the need for clients to understand that countless, unpredictable factors can impact career success and emphasize the need for clients to learn to actively manage their careers.


From age, ethnicity, and race to gender, sexual orientation, religion, and socio-economic status, Arthur and Collins (2011) and Pope (2011) remind us that the 21st century workplace is incredibly diverse. CDPs are encouraged to remain aware of their own cultural beliefs and influences and how these may impact their work with clients. They are also encouraged to be aware of clients who may be transitioning into work where they’re part of the underserved or underrepresented population. These clients and their associated workplaces may need additional support.


The need to be aware of a constantly changing environment and its impact on individual career choice and success is also reflected in Neault’s career responsiveness. This concept reminds us that there is constant interaction between individuals and their environments. Regardless of the specific situation, people want to be engaged in their careers. Amundson’s active engagement approach encourages counsellors and CDPs to also engage clients in their career development activities (Amundson, 2011). In my recent doctoral research I explored the notion of career engagement (Neault & Pickerell, 2011), which is realized through the interaction of challenge and capacity. To remain in the zone of engagement, individuals must ensure there is a sufficient amount of challenging and stimulating activities for the available capacity.



Thoughts on Career Theories

Given the advances in career theory over the last two decades, and that CDPs may not be drawing from a theoretical framework when working with clients, it seems timely that the 2013 NCDA conference had a Thoughts on Theories session, exploring recent developments in career theory with a number of panel members who contributed to the December 2011 “Thoughts on Theories” special issue of the Journal of Employment Counseling. In addition to briefly summarizing their work, Jim Bright, John Krumboltz, Mark Pope, Nancy Arthur, Norm Amundson, and Robert Pryor joined me on a panel moderated by Roberta Neault to reflect on the next 100 years. We explored such topics as how each theory/model will support CDPs working over the next century, changes that may impact the usefulness of each model or theory, and directions for future research. It was exciting to see the room filled beyond capacity; clearly conference attendees were very interested in pausing to think about career theory.



Amundson, N. E. (2011). Active engagement and the use of metaphors in employment counseling. Journal of Employment Counseling, 48(4), 182-184.


Arthur, N., & Collins, S. (2011). Infusing culture in career counseling. Journal of Employment Counseling, 48(4), 147-149.


Bright, J. E. H., & Pryor, R. G. L. (2011). The chaos theory of careers. Journal of Employment Counseling, 48(4), 163-166.


Business Balls. (n.d.). Conscious competence learning model. Retrieved from http://www.businessballs.com/consciouscompetencelearningmodel.htm


Krumboltz, J. D. (2009). The happenstance learning theory. Journal of Career Assessment, 17(2), 135-154. Retrieved from http://vcc.asu.edu/vcc_pdfs/Happenstance%20Learning%20Theory%202009.pdf


Life Strategies Ltd. (2013). Skill requirements for BC’s career development practitioners: An exploratory study. Report submitted to CfEE - available at http://www.cfeebc.org/reports/skill-requirements-for-BC-career-development-practitioners.pdf


Pope, M. (2011). The career counseling with underserved populations model. Journal of Employment Counseling, 48(4), 153-155.





Deirdre PickerellDeirdre A. Pickerell, PhD, CHRP, GCDF-i, has over 20 years experience in the career development sector as an educator, coach, and organizational career development consultant. She has recently completed her doctoral dissertation – Examining the Career Engagement of Canadian Career Development Practitioners – and was an invited panelist for the “Thoughts on Theories” presentation at NCDA’s 2013 Conference. Feel free to contact Deirdre at deirdre@lifestrategies.ca or visit www.lifestrategies.ca


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Ellen Weaver Paquette   on Saturday 11/02/2013 at 04:40 PM

Let's consider an encore performance soon, and congrats on your doctoral dissertation. See you at Cannexus!

Deirdre Pickerell   on Sunday 11/03/2013 at 11:06 AM

Would love that Ellen! I think we may be doing a similar presentation at IAEVG (June 2014 in Quebec City); not sure yet. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! See you in Ottawa.

Diana Abath   on Sunday 11/03/2013 at 02:32 PM

Wonderfully salient article! As career practitioner-educator who teaches career theory, I have seen the light blub go off in new and veteran practitioners when they realize how career theory will or could have given their client case conceptualizations much clearer context(s) to work in. I’ve only discovered this myself four yrs. ago after 10 in the field as a result of GCDF training to gain certification!

Until then, like many practitioners I’ve encountered, career theory was not part of my training. During GCDF training, I found I’d been an “unconscious competent” as you’ve described. Since then, I write up my cases incorporating applicable theories/interventions in the margins after sessions and subsequent results. This provides a context for my work with a client and reminds me of what’s working and not as we proceed in the careers process.

During my own current doctoral research I’ve recently discovered the concept “Conscientization of the Career Counseling Process” through a study conducted in Japan by Kayano and Nishimura (2009). Through practice and analysis of their word-for-word transcript sessions, this theory allowed career practitioners to gauge their conscientiousness in their activities and client engagement throughout the career counseling process and gain skill to control those activities in accordance with how it is proceeding. One aspect of this research “plac[es] more importance on making career counselors conscious of various techniques” (p.5) to provide better and appropriate career service delivery.

So too, does your article. It serves as a crucial and vital wake up call for career- practitioner educators to impart and encourage the use of career theory to trainees in the importance of “conscientiousness in practice” in their work.

Thank you!

Deirdre Pickerell   on Monday 11/04/2013 at 06:40 PM

Wow, Diana; what a fantastic comment. Thank you so much for posting and sharing your story. I love the ah-ha moments that happen when teaching career theory.

Sue Motulsky   on Monday 11/04/2013 at 07:34 PM

Thank you for a great reminder of the importance of career theory to practitioners. I teach mental health and school counselors vocational development and career counseling and also have a private practice. Recently I gave a presentation at the Career Counselors Consortium New England for career practitioners, many from colleges or non-profts. Most of them do not have a counseling or background in career theories and were surprised at how helpful it was to learn about new theories. I briefly discussed cutting edge theories--career construction, narrative, relational career counseling, chaos theory and happenstance learning theory--and had participants do quick exercises to illustrate how they could be used with students or clients. We followed it with a break out group applying these theories to cases and got lots of great feedback.

I applaud you for getting the word out about this important need for career practitioners; I hope that NCDA does this kind of program again. Thanks for your article.
Sue Motulsky

Sue Aiken   on Monday 11/04/2013 at 08:21 PM

I am delighted to see so much interest from readers on the topic of this article. I am the editor for the independent section of Career Convergence. I would love articles for next year on cutting edge theory and putting them into practice. Also how to train career practioniers who have no background in career development theory.
See how to submit on web site. Thanks...

Ellen Weaver Paquette   on Tuesday 11/05/2013 at 08:54 AM

Theories in Career Development is an important component of the CDF curriculum, for individuals with no background, here is a place to start.

Deirdre Pickerell   on Tuesday 11/05/2013 at 08:59 AM

Really appreciate the comments; totally agree with the importance of career theory and think Sue's idea of more articles on this topic is fabulous! Let's get writing :-)

Ellen Weaver Paquette   on Tuesday 11/05/2013 at 09:48 AM

Yes, let's get writing!

Deb Osborn   on Tuesday 11/12/2013 at 11:00 AM

Thank you for highlighting such an important topic. I noticed, however, that two theories that have substantial research behind them, i.e., Cognitive Information Processing Theory (Sampson, Reardon, Peters, & Lenz) and Social Cognitive Career Theory (Lent, Brown, & Hackett), as well as the more recent vocational/life design emphasis (Savickas) were not mentioned in the manuscript. Also, while I agree that career professionals should be helping individuals “achieve a more satisfying and personal life,” in reality, many people do have to make a single career decision, even if only for the time being. Helping people make effective career decisions and planning for how to implement those decisions are also key aspects of what career professionals do. With that in mind, Cognitive Information Processing (CIP) theory has been used with great success internationally and across age levels. Personally, I have used CIP theory with at-risk middle school and high school students and found it to provide an easy way of helping them making sense of a very complex decision. There is a website with client-friendly forms for applying CIP theory (http://www.career.fsu.edu/techcenter/designing_career_services/basic_concepts/index.html), as well as a 23 single-spaced page bibliography of conceptual and empirical support (http://www.career.fsu.edu/techcenter/CIPBibliography.pdf).

Finally, I think that it’s important to keep in mind what qualifies a set of ideas as a theory. Criterion for evaluating theories include falsifiability, utility & practicality, preciseness & clarity, parsimony, importance, empirical validity or verifiability, internal consistency, operationality, comprehensiveness, and fruitfulness/generativity. We must keep in mind these criterion and be critical consumers when examining past, current, and emerging approaches. Our clients expect and deserve to receive best practices, especially when it comes to a decision that has such tremendous personal and social consequences.

Deirdre Pickerell   on Tuesday 11/12/2013 at 01:24 PM

Thanks for the comment Deb. You are, of course, correct - there are many important career theories (CIP and SCCT included) that were not included in the article. My focus was on the specific theories that were included in the Thoughts on Theories special issue of the JEC, and the panelists within the session in Boston. The brief Career Convergence article was not meant to encapsulate all theories; though, in hindsight, noting that in the article may have been a good idea :-)

Absolutely, many of our clients have to make decisions now; often they do not have time to reflect on a "more satisfying and personal life." The theories presented are certainly relevant in those instances as well. The broad goal of the article was to ensure CDPs are thinking about theories that can help them in their practice and to encourage CDPs to recognize the important work that has been done, and continues to be done, in theory (and I use this term quite broadly; certainly some of what I mentioned could be more accurately described as models).

I think that goal has worked - we're having some amazing conversations on this topic and I so appreciate your input. CIP, and the other theories you mentioned, are definitely important to our practice so very glad you raised them here.

As noted by Sue, she'd love more writing on this topic. Perhaps a great follow-up would be introducing CIP and SCCT to Convergence readers.

Sue Aiken   on Tuesday 11/12/2013 at 01:55 PM

I so appreciate the high level of comments received to date on this article. Just a reminder that there is a word limit so such short articles cannot pretend to be complete on a topic...just enough to tweak the interest of readers...which this article has done. Also, these articles are meant for the individual practicing their craft on a daily basis. Our goal in general is to provide practical tools and tips as part of the presentation. What can I put right to use with my clients or I should look into this subject further or read a suggested book. This leaves the door open for others to take up where one article left off and continue the discussion from their perspective. Practical application of theory is so needed in our professional community and this venue is just the right one to do that. Thanks again for everyone's interest and commitment to this amazing profession!

John Manning   on Friday 07/15/2016 at 07:29 PM

I think, that all these programmes involving career and competences development within employees, are only a mean to improve https://ceopedia.org/index.php/Human_capital effectiveness.

Summing up, they are not "for the people" they are for the "company owner" who wants better, more effective employee.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.