The Psychology of Career Choices: Why Personality Matters

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The study of vocational interests has preoccupied Psychologists for ages. The reasons are obvious: first, work constitutes one of the most important activties in our lives (i.e., most adults spend more time working than sleeping and having fun); second, even in the era of “flexi-workers” and career mobility, most people stick to the professional area of job sector they first select; third, just like with romantic partners, most people have difficulties choosing jobs or careers they really like (and they often regret their choices). Thus vocational interests is a highly applied area of Psychology because it has implications for educators, employers, and counselors, as well as every individual hoping to improve their understanding of their “occupational fit”.
One interesting thing about the Psychology of Career Choices is that research was almost concluded after the 1980s, and the reason for it is even more unusual: John Holland’s contribution, which practically “killed” research in this area. The extraordinary reason is that his theory was just too good.
How you chow affects mood, memory, sleepiness—and even whether you can crack a good joke.
Indeed, Holland’s theory was so predictive that there was little room for anything else after it. He speculated correctly about the “taxonomy” (classification domains) of work environments, which effectively enabled him to organise all the existing jobs (in the 60s, 70s, and 80s) into wider families of jobs – just like you do with personality traits (via a method called factor analysis). Admittedly, the job types then where much simpler (and scarce) than now, but Holland’s taxonomy is still very much valid. If you visit current web-sites like O*NET you can find hundreds of thousands of occupations but they all still cluster under Holland’s major “types”; these are Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional. And a really smart aspect of this taxonomy is that it can be applied not only to profile occupations, but also work environments, organisations, teams, and individuals — in effect, this makes Holland’s theory a personality theory for everything.
In recent years, the topic of Vocational Interests has received re-newed attention from mainstream personality researchers. One reason is that, although Holland’s model is well established for profiling jobs, it has not really survived the “personality war” between the many taxonomies proposed to profile people. Instead, most people think of personality in terms of the Big Five (OCEAN), so a lot of research has been done, in recent years, looking at how personality links up to Holland’s career choices. My colleagues Patrick Armstrong in the US and Filip de Fruyt in Belgium have done great research in this area.
But, just how malleable are vocational interests? We know that people don’t change careers very often (in fact, the need to change careers is an individual difference variable, with only a few people being prone to frequent changes, probably because of their higher Neuroticism and Openness levels). Evidence from twin studies indicates that vocational interests – contrary to what someone would expect – are even more stable than personality characteristics! Indeed, you are more likely to change your personality than your job preferences, even though both are far from independent.
One of the few topics Psychologists are yet to explore in relation to vocational interests is why certain people choose to work outside well-defined careers. Indeed, current figures (see a great book by Shane called “The Illusion of Entrepreneurship”) suggest that up to 40% of people choose to work for themselves at some point in their lives, and some forever. What are the psychological reasons for this?

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