Self-Directed Search

The Self-Directed Search (SDS) is an interest inventory based on John Holland’s RIASEC theory that people, work, and educational environments can be classified according to six basic types: Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional (RIASEC). According to the SDS’s publisher, Psychological Assessment Resources, Inc., the SDS is the most widely used interest inventory in the world and has been translated into 25 languages. The SDS helps individuals identify occupations and fields of study that best match their self-reported interests and abilities. The SDS is based on the assumption that individuals whose job and work environments closely match their personality and interests usually consider themselves satisfied and successful with the career choices they have made.

The most commonly used version of the instrument is the SDS Form R (SDS R). In the Form R Assessment Booklet, individuals list their occupational aspirations in the Daydreams section, which can be scored separately to generate a daydreams summary code, or expressed interest code. Users are initially asked to review the Occupations Finder to locate a three-letter RIASEC code for each occupation listed, which immediately engages them in an occupational exploration activity. Additional sections include self-ratings of activity preferences, competencies, and occupations. In the last section, users rate their abilities across the six RIASEC areas. The SDS R has a self-scoring system that produces a three-letter summary code. The summary code, also called the assessed code, reflects the three RIASEC personality types an individual most closely resembles.

The SDS is a stand-alone career planning simulation that imitates an interest inventory, as well as a psychological test. The original paper and pencil SDS R has been revised 4 times, most recently in 1994, and includes the Assessment Booklet, the Occupations Finder (1,335 occupations employing 99% of U.S. workers and updated with additional information technology and Internet occupations in 1999), and the You and Your Career booklet, which includes a brief review of scientific ideas supporting the SDS, guidelines for interpreting scores and codes, the personality characteristics associated with each RIASEC type, and some suggestions for successful career planning. Normative data for the 1994 edition of SDS R can be found in the Professional User’s Guide and Technical Manual available from the publisher.

Although most counselors are familiar with the SDS R paper version, the other varied SDS formats and versions are less widely known. A computer-based version of SDS R provides for faster administration and more efficient use of the inventory. The computer generates a 10- to 12-page Interpretive Report for users based on SDS summary scores and a 1- to 3-page professional summary for counselors that includes additional diagnostic information. A sample report is available at

Besides these various formats of SDS R, other versions of the SDS include Form E (Easy) for persons with poor English language or reading skills, Form CP (Career Planning) used with adults working in organizations, and Career Explorer designed for middle school students. These alternative formats of the SDS have the same basic features of SDS R. An Internet version of the SDS is also available, but it omits the Daydreams section, and there is no professional summary generated. The Internet version can be accessed at In addition, as noted previously, the SDS is available in many other languages including French, Icelandic, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Vietnamese—to name a few.

Using the Self-Directed Search in Practice

Expressed Interests

From the very beginning, Holland urged counselors to pay close attention to what persons say about the occupations they are considering. Specifying occupational goals has been shown to be very predictive of a person’s future occupational activity, in some cases achieving the prediction rate of assessed interests obtained from various standardized inventories.

An important innovation in the measurement of aspirations in the SDS Daydreams section was the coding of a person’s occupational daydreams using the RIASEC typology. This procedure enables a counselor to examine not only the occupation named, but also its RIASEC code. When the first two or three aspirations belong in the same RIASEC category, the predictive power of the first aspiration equals or exceeds the efficiency of an interest inventory.

Assessed Interests

The SDS has been described as a simulated career planning experience because it reflects what might actually happen when a person is interviewed by a career counselor. For example, it is not uncommon for career counselors to ask individuals seeking career assistance, “What do you enjoy doing?” “What kinds of things do you do well?” and “What occupations have you thought about?” The SDS Assessment Booklet sections provide a way for counselors to observe how persons view themselves and their prior experiences in relation to their current educational and career decision making. The SDS is also a standardized career assessment instrument. The items in the Assessment Booklet have desired psychometric properties and are based on Holland’s RIASEC theory. The SDS has been subjected to the same rigorous test development standards as other professionally published tests, and the SDS manuals describe a complex, theory-based test development process begun in 1970.

The Activities section of the SDS R Assessment Booklet has 11 items for each of the six RIASEC types. The items cover activities and hobbies that are done for fun or leisure, and users can endorse them as like or dislike. These items are included in the SDS because they effectively measure interests in relation to RIASEC theory.

In the Competencies section, users describe their skills, the kinds of things that they learned to do in the past, and indicate the skills they might want to develop in the future. This kind of information is practically important because it is reasonable to assume that persons completing a career assessment will want to consider their prior skills and accomplishments, as well as future skills they hope to develop. The Competencies section of the SDS R includes 11 items that are marked yes or no for the six RIASEC areas.

The next section of the SDS R is Occupations. It is longer than the previous two sections and includes 14 items (occupational titles) that are endorsed yes or no for each RIASEC area. Holland included this section because he wanted to make sure he obtained a good measure of the person’s RIASEC typology and because he wanted to get a sense of a person’s likes and dislikes with respect to various occupational titles.

The final section of the SDS R Assessment Booklet is Self-Estimates. It includes the six RIASEC scales, which are rated twice (from 1 to 7) with respect to ability and skill. Users are asked to rate themselves “as you really think you are when compared with other persons your own age.”

Self-Directed Search Implications

When the SDS was initially introduced, some critics scoffed at it and called it simplistic. More recent reviews have noted that the use of Holland’s inventories is extensive. The SDS is unique in several ways: (1) it is self-administering, self-scoring, and self-interpreting; (2) it is based on Holland’s theory; and (3) it is supported by extensive research studies numbering more than 500. The SDS is an inventory with well-documented psychometric characteristics that incorporates a person’s history of vocational daydreams or expressed interests, which in comparison to the assessed results can be used to increase predictive validity about the person’s future occupational choices. Because it is self-scored and can be easily interpreted by most users, it encourages a person’s active participation in the resolution of career problems and questions. After completing the SDS, individuals know more about themselves, more about occupations, and more about how to think about occupations in relation to their personal characteristics, thus gaining a framework for immediate career decisions and future occupational exploration.


  1. Holland, J. L. (1997). Making vocational choices: A theory of vocational personalities and work environments (3rd ed.). Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
  2. Holland, J. L., Powell, A., & Fritzsche, B. (1994). The Self-Directed Search: Professional user’s guide. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
  3. Lumsden, J. A., Sampson, J. P., Reardon, R. C., Lenz, J. G., & Peterson, G. W. (2004). A comparison study of the paper and pencil, personal computer, and Internet versions of Holland’s Self-Directed Search. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development, 37, 85-94.
  4. Osborn, D. S., & Zunker, V. G. (2006). Using assessment results for career development (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
  5. Reardon, R. C., & Lenz, J. G. (1998). The Self-Directed Search and related Holland career materials: A practitioner’s guide. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
  6. Spokane, A. R., Luchetta, E. J., & Richwine, M. H. (2002). Holland’s theory of personalities and work environments. In D. Brown & Associates (Eds.), Career choice and development (4th ed., pp. 373-126). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

See also: