Career decisions from the decider's perspective.

Author:Amundson, Norman E.

The authors used a phenomenological research method to investigate the career decision-making experiences of 17 employed adults. Thematic results from interview data analysis were organized within 3 overarching themes: decisions centered on relational life, decisions centered on personal meaning, and decisions centered on economic realities. Study results supported and extended contentions that career decisions are embedded in relational life and have contextual meaning. Belonging and the potential for meaningful engagement were integral to career decisions. Implications for the role of career counselors and career counseling are discussed. Recommendations for counseling that facilitates the consideration of belonging and personal meaning in career decisions are offered.


Recent career literature has delineated the central role of work in human experience (Axelrod, 1999) and has demonstrated that career decisions and personal issues (Amundson, 1995; Borgen, 1997) are inextricably intertwined. The extension of relational perspectives to the study of career decision making and development (Blustein, Schultheiss, & Flum, 2004) has indicated that career theory needs to take into account emerging evidence that human experience within work and nonwork domains intersects within and across relationships. Career counseling approaches that have focused on Super's life career development approach (Niles, 2003) and existentialism (Cohen, 2003) have offered alternatives to practice based on more traditional theory. Yet, despite an emphasis on more relational, contextual, and meaning-based perspectives in the professional literature, current career counseling practice often continues to reflect traditional matching and information-giving approaches (Dagley & Salter, 2004).

This reliance on traditional trait-factor approaches mirrors the limited attention to the career decider's perspective in the career decision-making literature. Although people choose and are satisfied with occupations for reasons other than congruence, the majority of research in career choice has centered on person-environment fit models (Phillips & Jome, 2005). Newer models of career decision making (Gelatt, 1989, 1995; Mitchell, Levin, & Krumboltz, 1999) have focused on decision-making strategies but have not explicated factors that persons consider in making decisions. Subjective perspectives reveal that decisions have a wide variety of meanings (Blustein et al., 2004) that depend on the unique psychological experiences of the individual situated within cultural, social, historical, and economic contexts. Recent studies focused on the decider's experience have suggested that career decisions are made within contexts that are nonreflective of traditional career development theories and models (Blustein, 2001). Instead, an individual's career decisions tend to be relational (Phillips, Christopher-Sisk, & Gravino, 2001), emotional (Iaquinta, 2007), and in service of the whole person (Hall, 2004). Career decision-making research that gives priority to the decider's subjective experience can foster a more relational, contextual, and meaning-based career development theory and practice.

Within the current context of rapid changes in the labor market and uncertainty (Borgen, 1997; Trevor-Roberts, 2006), people may be making career decisions differently from how they had in the past. In our review of the literature, we did not find any qualitative studies that examined the criteria that people consider when they make career decisions. In a quantitative case study investigation of factors influencing job choice under conditions of uncertainty, Athanasou (2003) concluded that there is a greater degree of individuality in career choice than that suggested by traditional theories of choice. Phillips et al.'s (2001) investigation of the relational context in which career decisions were made depicted decisions as community events in which participants actively involved others. Phillips et al. identified three overarching themes in which others are involved in the decision-making process: actions of others, recruitment of others, and pushing others away. Nevertheless, they excluded the decider's consideration of life roles, such as being a parent, in their classification. A focus on the subjective career (Young, Valach, & Collin, 2002), which places an increased emphasis on meaning making, social participation, and life planning, is of primary importance in understanding the criteria that people consider in making career decisions. The purpose of this study was to investigate career decision making from the decider's perspective, thereby addressing the career counselor's need for a subjective and nuanced understanding of career decision making.


We used a phenomenological research method (Colaizzi, 1978; Osborne, 1990; Wertz, 2005) to elucidate participants' experiences of career decision making. Phenomenological psychology views all knowledge as perspectival and meaningful experiences as providing the basis for all knowledge and behavior. In a phenomenological study, the researcher attempts to put aside preconceptions and empathically enter, free of value judgment, the life world of the participants, through interview transcripts, to understand a phenomenon of interest. In this study, we emphasized reflection on participants' experiences as described in their own words and on the meaning and commonality that were present in the phenomenon of career decision making. This emphasis has been categorized as a more empirical (Hein & Austin, 2001) or descriptive (van Manen, 1990) phenomenology. Within a philosophy of science, the ontology, epistemology, and methodology of this method is influenced by constructivism. The method stresses the socially constructed nature of reality and of trustworthiness and credibility rather than the truth value of the results. Respectful listening and description replace observation and measurement, and openness to participants replaces theory and measurement.

The participant's ability to articulate the experience and meaning of career decision making is critical to phenomenological research (Colaizzi, 1978; Osborne, 1990). We used purposeful sampling for information-rich cases (M. Q. Patton, 1990) to select the 17 volunteer participants. We adopted a snowball method and recruitment poster to recruit volunteer participants and conducted telephone screenings to select participants from among those who responded to the recruitment poster. We placed recruitment posters on bulletin boards at community centers, church meeting rooms, community counseling centers, university and colleges, and community cafes. Some participants also distributed posters to other persons who they thought might have an interest in the study. The study participants were employed, either as full-or part-time employees or as self-employed workers, and self-identified as having contemplated and made at least three career decisions, some of which involved career changes. Participants were eight men and nine women, ages 21 to 40 years, whose education levels ranged from high school diploma to master's degree. Eight participants, ages 21 to 35 years, were also postsecondary students. Participant employment included cartographer, hospital services worker, retail sales worker, hairstylist, server, manager, youth worker, lifeguard, actor, small business owner, and clerical worker. Participants volunteered for the study with the understanding that the information shared would be kept confidential.

In this study, we adopted an expanded definition of career, which we defined as activities done over time, including work and other life activities. We conducted 1- to 2-hour phenomenological interviews with 17 volunteers to obtain contextually rich descriptions of career decision-making experiences. The interviews focused on two broad questions: (a) What is your experience of making career decisions? and (b) Describe any issues that might have influenced a career decision to stay or to leave. We asked participants to mark key career decision points on a lifeline (Heppner, O'Brien, Hinkelman, & Humphrey, 1994) and asked the two broad questions with the aim of encouraging participant self-reflection and to facilitate a deeper exploration of career decision-making experiences. Participants described varying career decisions, such as relocating to seek employment, leaving employment after being downsized or because of job dissatisfaction, pursuing postsecondary studies to retrain for new employment, closing a successful business to parent, continuing in a workplace in a temporary contract position when full-time positions were eliminated, and working at day jobs to support other life endeavors.

We audiotaped, transcribed, and analyzed participant interviews according to the procedural guidelines described by Colaizzi (1978) and Osborne (1990). Transcript analysis within individuals culminated in the creation of individual intraparticipant themes, idiographic psychological structures (Wertz, 2005), of the experience of career decision making for each participant. Following validation of the individual themes by each respective participant, we analyzed transcripts across individuals and compared individual themes to delineate common themes across multiple cases. We delineated common themes when individual themes from five or more participants denoted a commonality of one aspect in the experience of career decision making.

We incorporated strategies specific to phenomenological research (Colaizzi, 1978; Osborne, 1990; Wertz, 2005) and that are general for qualitative research (Morrow, 2005; Stiles, 1993) to establish trustworthiness of method and findings in this study. The research team, composed of a coordinator (third author) and trained researchers (including fifth author) who were involved in recruitment, interviewing, and data analysis, identified and...

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