October 04, 2013

Career decision making styles

Extracts from a new publication - for examples and a much fuller argument, see:

Bimrose, J. & Brown, A. (2013). Navigating the labour market: transitioning styles of adults receiving career guidance. In Wuttke, Eveline & Seifried, Jürgen (eds.). Transitions in Vocational Education and Training. Stuttgart: Barbara Budrich Publishers.

This chapter explores how individuals who participated in career guidance processes as adults navigated their subsequent career pathways over the subsequent four years. The labour market transitions of these adults were investigated through annual interviews over five years and the transitioning ‘styles’ (strategic, evaluative, aspirational and opportunist) they used as they approached, then dealt with, career transition and progression issues were examined.

The ‘matching model’ of career transition is dominant in the policy rhetoric around skills supply and demand. It assumes that optimal job choices are made when individuals have an understanding of their individual traits (e.g. abilities, aptitudes, interests, etc.); acquired knowledge of jobs and the labour market; and made an objective judgement about the best fit between these traits and factors. When individuals are in the ‘right’ jobs in this model, the jobs match their aptitudes and abilities. However, the value of the matching model (developed over a century ago) is increasingly questioned.

Individuals do not always engage in technically ‘rational’ behaviours, often making decisions based on their own ‘pragmatic rationality’ (Hodkinson/Sparkes (1997), including responding to randomly occurring opportunities (Mitchell et al. 1999; Hambly 2007) in an ‘intuitive’ way (Harren (1979). Additionally, even if individuals wished to adopt a technically rational approach to career choice they are faced with the realities of the ‘opportunity structures’ available at specific times in particular places (Roberts, 2009). The constraints on career choice are particularly marked for socially disadvantaged groups facing significant social, psychological and economic barriers to their progress (Leong et al. 1998). Further, it assumes a degree of labour market stability, with jobs and sectors having predictable requirements, to which the objectively measured abilities of individuals can be matched. Whilst this view may have had some validity fifty years ago, it is no longer true – with volatility and fluidity being defining characteristics of global labour markets.

This chapter is based on the findings of a five year longitudinal study of labour market transitions, which examined the effectiveness of career guidance, initially involving 50 individual cases. Characteristic patterns of behaviour associated with four distinct transitioning ‘styles’ (strategic, evaluative, aspirational and opportunist) were identified in how individuals approached, then dealt with, career transition and progression issues. The research highlights the range of goals, aspirations, achievements and identities that shape how adults interact with, and move through, labour markets. It emphasises the dynamic ways many adults engage with vocational learning and development pathways, sometimes with transformational shifts in perspective as their careers unfold, often involving up-skilling and/or re-skilling (Brown et al. 2010). How individuals navigate career pathways was explored, with concepts of transitioning styles used to investigate how individuals coped with stressful labour market transitions. The chapter concludes with a critique of the dominant career transition paradigm that currently underpins the practice of formal career support of individuals navigating their labour market transitions.

Evaluative careerists

Evaluative career decision making is reflected in the psychological literature on emotional intelligence, whereby individuals can possess a range of social and emotional competences. This approach exemplifies the notion that self-appraisal through the identification and evaluation of individual needs, values and abilities is central to career planning for some individuals (Ball 1996). Individuals using this decision making style are undertaking a process of learning about themselves and the consequences of their decisions. Through a process of self-reflection and evaluation, individuals become: more comfortable and confident in their decisions; aware of their particular skills; and are able to identify preferred outcomes and goals (Gati/Saka 2001). The career narratives of six of the 29 research participants in the final phase of the longitudinal study demonstrate strong elements of this approach to career decision making. They had engaged with a process of critical self-reflection and self-evaluation that comprised periods of (sometimes prolonged) review and reflection, where career decisions were often seen as provisional, although they could also potentially contribute to a longer term career goal. A degree of uncertainty and ambiguity about career plans and how to enact then was evident throughout, partly because there was always the possibility that the process of reflection might indicate the value of a change of direction and a different future. Interestingly review is often seen in positive terms (ensuring career plans are current), but if review occurs too frequently and/or does lead to changes of direction, the process could easily be construed negatively as prevarication or indecision.

Strategic careerists

A strategic approach represents a more focused career decision making style, based on cognitive processing. Here, individuals base their choices on a process of analysing, synthesizing and weighing up advantages and disadvantages, then setting plans to achieve goals. Through this process, decisions are primarily based on rational considerations (Baron 2000). Individuals using this style of processing information and making decisions are competent in understanding a problem, considering and reflecting on options, and, perhaps more importantly, focusing on one particular solution (Sampson et al. 2004). This approach is essentially the same as the ‘rational’ style identified by Harren (1979) and was used by six . The term ‘strategic’ was used in an earlier relevant study of the development of engineers’ work-related identities which identified four forms of strategic action in which those in work may engage: identification; adjustment; strategic career; and redefinition (Brown 2004). Those individuals following a strategic career have initially committed to a particular occupation, and can be single-minded in achieving that initial goal even if a number of other steps are required. However, once the initial goal has been achieved, they are subsequently likely to continue to be interested in career progression, if avenues are available that build on their existing skill set in new ways. They are seeking to build their career strategically, enhancing their existing skill set, often following accepted progression pathways (for example, becoming a team leader, specialist, tutor, manager etc.).

Aspirational Careerists

A small number of research participants (three out of the 29 in the fifth year of the research study) were pursuing interim career goals which seemed almost tangential to their ultimate career aspiration, yet for them either represented relevant preparation or were regarded as unavoidable. Aspirational careerists adopt a style of career decision making based on focused but distant career goals and their career decisions are inextricably intertwined with personal circumstances and priorities. The aspirations may be career or personal and relate to performing, self-employment or any ‘dream’. They will take jobs to ‘get by’ – that is, provide the necessary finance to keep the aspiration alive, work becomes a means for striving for a distant goal. Interim goals are sometimes, but not necessarily, related to formal employment and achieving their ultimate career goal is definitely a ‘work in progress’.

Opportunistic Careerists

The fourth style of career decision making identified describes those individuals who have taken opportunities that have presented themselves, however unexpected, and tried (sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully) to turn them to their advantage. This was the largest group in the research sample, with eight out of 29 illustrating this style in the final phase of data collection. Opportunist careerists have a very different approach to career decision-making compared to the other three styles explored above. They exploit available opportunities rather than make active choices about work (see, for example, Banks et al. 1992, for further examples of this approach). Participants’ career plans could seem vague, undecided and uncertain. This resonates with the concept of ‘planned happenstance’ that encourages us to be receptive to randomly occurring opportunities that could be critical in shaping our careers (Mitchell et al. 1999; Hambly 2007) and the need for practitioners to place greater importance on context. This type of decision making behaviour has certain similarities with Harren’s (1979) ‘intuitive’ decision making style.


Findings from the longitudinal study challenge, fundamentally, the notion that a matching approach is generically suitable. For some (perhaps even a minority) – of those who use a strategic career decision-making approach – this paradigm is, indeed, entirely suitable. However, for others (possibly a majority) it is not. For policies designed to support the up-skilling and re-skilling of the labour force to be successfully implemented, these differences will need to be accommodated.

Only a minority of adults make use of formal career guidance provision so a question may be raised about the generalizability of the findings to all adults. However, the point which is clearly generalizable is that there are a range of career decision-making styles other than the career decision-making approach around which much career guidance is still organised. Additionally, however, specifically to address this question, two follow-up studies are being conducted in Ireland and China.

The longitudinal investigation of adult career trajectories has revealed a multiplicity of factors combining to produce complex patterns of movement. Effective careers guidance aims to support individuals at all stages of their career, to reflect on their skills, consider various options and embrace career change. It needs to ensure that it incorporates research findings, including those relating to career decision-making styles, which will enable it to enhance its effectiveness. A substantial evidence base now exists that indicates the positive impact of careers guidance on the working lives of adults. Reshaping careers, learning and identities is a daunting challenge for everyone and careers guidance can play a major role in helping adults construct new coherent career narratives, if it takes account of differences in career decision making styles, when considering how learning can help drive these processes.


Ball, Ben (1996): Assessing Your Career: Time for Change? Leicester: British Psychological Society.

Banks, Michael; Bates, Inge; Breakwell, Glynis; Bynner, John; Emler, Nicholas; Jamieson, Lynn; Roberts, Ken (1992): Careers and Identities. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Baron, Jonathan (2000): Thinking and Deciding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brown, Alan; Bimrose, Jenny; Barnes, Sally-Anne; Kirpal, Simone; Grønning, Terje; Dæhlen Marianne (2010): Changing Patterns of Working, Learning and Career Development across Europe, Coventry: Warwick Institute for Employment Research.

Brown, Alan. (2004): Engineering identities. In: Career Development International, 9, 3, pp. 245-273.

Gati, Itamar & Saka, Noa (2001): High School Students’ Career-related Decision-making Difficulties. In: Journal of Counselling and Development 79, 3, pp. 331-340.

Hambly, Liane (2007): New theory: Implications for Guidance Practice. In: Career Guidance Today 15, 3, pp. 30-33.

Harren, Vincent (1979): A Model of Career Decision Making for College Students. Journal of Vocational Behavior 14, 2, pp. 119-133.

Hodkinson, Phil & Sparkes, Andrew (1997): Careership: a Sociological Theory of Career Decision Making. In: British Journal of Sociology of Education 18, 1, pp. 29-44.

Leong, Frederick; Austin, James; Sekaran, Uma; Komarraju, Meera (1998): An Evaluation of the Cross-Cultural Validity of Holland’s Theory: Career Choices by Workers in India. In: Journal of Vocational Behavior, 52, 4, pp. 441-455.

Mitchell, Kathleen; Levin, Al; Krumboltz, John (1999). Planned Happenstance: Constructing Unexpected Career Opportunities. In: Journal of Counseling and Development 77, 2, pp. 115-124.

Roberts, Ken (2009) Opportunity Structures Then and Now. In: Journal of Education and Work 22, 5, pp. 355 – 368.

Sampson, James/ Reardon, Robert/Peterson, Gary/Lenz, Janet (2004): Career Counseling and Services: A Cognitive Information Processing Approach. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

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