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How do you make career choices?

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Many nurses nowadays feel that they are not sufficiently valued as professionals, and are thinking about whether they need to take a fresh look at the sort of career they have chosen.

Many nurses nowadays feel that they are not sufficiently valued as professionals, and are thinking about whether they need to take a fresh look at the sort of career they have chosen.

Something interesting to consider is: How did you, as a nurse, get to where you are now? What sort of things influenced your career decision-making in the first place?

The emerging field of career theory can throw some light on how we all make choices, and by extension can help us think about what we might want to do next.

What do we mean by career?
A widely accepted definition of a career is ‘the sequence of employment-related positions, roles, activities and experiences encountered by a person’ (Arnold, 1997).

It’s important to note that this is quite a broad definition – for example, it can include voluntary work, and work experience. The various theories of career decision-making fit with this.

Making choices: how it happens

There are four main theoretical approaches to understanding how we make career choices:

  • Person-environment fit

  • Developmental approaches

  • Structural theories

  • Interpersonal theories

The person-environment fit has been the dominant approach over the last eighty years. It’s probably the sort of tactic used by your careers guidance officer, if you had one.

Essentially, it emphasises testing and assessment, and assumes that you have all the facts and answers at your disposal – it’s just a matter of pulling it all together and matching you with a suitable job.

The second main theory of understanding career choices is the developmental approach.

This is a much more dynamic view than the person-environment fit, as it takes account of the processes leading up to a career decision.

A key idea is that we all go through a series of stages in establishing our career identity, namely: exploration, establishment, maintenance and disengagement.

It’s like a life map, taking into account all the life experiences that can feed into our career choices.

So when we take time off work to have our children, or have a major illness or injury, what we experience as part of that personal development and change can have an influence on what we want from the sort of work we go back to.

A third way of looking at this subject is to take a structural view.

This theoretical approach explains careers in terms of social environments: in other words, it uses a societal level of analysis rather than a psychological (individual) one.

It takes into account segregation or discrimination, and such things as the socio-economic sectors of the labour market.

For example, if you were born into a very poor family with few educational opportunities, in a very depressed area of the country, you might not have the same number of choices as someone in different circumstances.

Finally, one can look at career choices at an interpersonal level of analysis.

By this I mean that we can attempt to marry the social with the psychological in order to create a more rounded approach.

One key area is that of self-efficacy, which is derived from the following: experiencing success in particular behaviours, learning from or modelling others, low levels of anxiety, and encouragement and support from others.

Many readers will have had experiences of their self-confidence being undermined at work, and this can have a direct impact on self-efficacy.

The theory applied

In the company I work for, we are keen to use an informed and supportive approach to help career changers – usually people who have had an injury or illness - to either stay in the job they have, or find another role that they like.

We are most often paid by the insurers against whom the person is claiming, but we are equally keen to work directly for employers and individuals to help them assess their vocational aptitudes and interests.

Even when the person has had a life-changing accident or period of ill-health, getting back to work can be a catalyst for feeling better and building self-efficacy and feelings of self-worth.

It follows that choosing the right career or job to suit the individual is essential.


In my view we need to take account of all the factors that most impinge on how a person makes sense of their life experiences and how they choose to thread them together into the notion of a career.

The theories outlined above all help to throw light on how we make career choices.

Which do you feel most chimes with how you see the evolution of your career? And how could you delve further into them to help you decide where to go from here?

References and further reading

Arthur, M et al (1989) Handbook of Career Theory. Cambridge: CUP

Kidd, J M (2006) Understanding Career Counselling. London: Sage

Sugarman, L (2001) Life-Span Development. Hove: Psychology Press

Jean Brading, Employment Services Director for HCML on 07881 896 692

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