Donald Super Career Counseling Theory

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Donald Super created a useful framework for conceptualizing the constantly evolving nature of career development. The theory presents the career process as one in which a person is confronted with various stages that he or she must undergo and complete before moving on to the next stage.

This theory, which will be explained below, is valuable for a few reasons. It lets us do away with the dubious proposition that your interests, values, and beliefs remain static throughout a lifetime. People grow and change throughout their lives and this theory respects that.

The career developmental stages roughly coincide with numerical age, but what I like about using this framework is that we avoid the temptation to let your numerical age guide where you should be in your career process.  We instead focus on where you are psychologically, where you actually are in the career development stages instead of where your age tells you to be. Counseling is much more effective because the conversations and interventions meet you where you are and have real applications to your life.

The first step is the Growth stage. It roughly coincides with the 7-14 age range. During this time children begin developing a self-concept based on many factors like actual and perceived physical and mental abilities, roles within the family, and relationships with peers. They begin to develop attitudes and beliefs about the world of work, although these are usually based on limited information. Rediscovering some of these early attitudes can be valuable for clients and uncover hidden information about how they relate to others and the world.

The next step is the Exploratory stage. This stage roughly coincides with the 14-25 age range. People begin to more clearly understand various occupations and start to envision themselves in different careers. They are aware of factors like prestige, levels of income, and how their interests and values will fit within a given profession. This stage is kind of like dipping your toes in the bathtub to make sure the water is not too hot. You are not ready to dive in because you do not yet have enough information, so you try on various options to see which one seems to fit the best.

The reality in our culture is that people usually do not have much of an opportunity to fully explore their options. Many do not even consider an ideal career choice because it does not fit within their cultural biases. If you went to college, remember how quickly you were asked to make a decision about your major? This is where you get your money’s worth in career counseling because the process of self-discovery lets you learn a great deal about yourself along with what career you want to pursue.

The next step is the establishment stage, which roughly coincides with the 25-45 age range. During this phase a person selects a job and starts working. He compares his self-concept to the job he is at and either decides it is a good fit or looks for alternatives.

The first thing for you to notice, which will probably be a source of relief, is that this stage lasts about twenty years. When someone decides to come to therapy, it usually means that he or she is searching.  Most people express frustration and concern that their colleagues, friends, or family members seem to get it while they feel lost and adrift.

Searching is a vital part of the human condition and needs to be fostered, not suppressed. Consider yourself lucky if you are searching. Many people who on the exterior seem to have it all together have actually given up. They let life happen to them instead of actively trying to develop.

There is always a healthy amount of anxiety that accompanies uncertainty and the process of searching. What people usually want when they start all forms of counseling, including career counseling, is for their anxiety to go away. They are hopeful that a quick, decisive answer about what direction they should take is all they need.

The next step in the process is the Maintenance stage. It roughly coincides with the 45-65 age range. During this time most people have settled upon a job or industry that fits them, and usually continue to develop skills and interests as they advance through their lives and careers. It is important to note that many people grow dissatisfied during this stage and also that it lasts twenty years. The process of growth and searching lasts a lifetime.

You are probably beginning to see that regardless of the stage you find yourself in, the challenge is to increase your awareness and sense of self to a point that you can make a fully informed decision about who you want to be and what you want to do with your life. If you are between 45 and 65 you will probably feel relieved to know that you do not have to be stuck forever in the career you chose, and that changing jobs or even careers is quite common..

The final stage is disengagement, which occurs prior to retirement. Focus on work begins to diminish and this focus moves to concerns about other areas of life. This step does not really fit within the realities of the 21st century or current understandings about careers, however. People who do not retire tend to have better health, live longer, and report higher levels of happiness. Also, the threat of social security running dry makes retirement less of an option for many. The goal has to be to find a career from which you do not want to retire because you love it so much.

In any event, the ability to visualize these stages lets people talk about issues that feel real to them because conversations fit where they actually are in the life journey. This is the value of Super’s stages and what makes them useful for career counseling.