Career Exploration

Career exploration has been a focus of vocational development research since the inception of the field. The concept was originally invoked to explain the process by which a person examines opportunities and constraints in the labor market in order to choose a job or career. The conceptual definition has been significantly expanded to become an ongoing complex developmental process that is a central mechanism propelling the transition from school to work and career pathways.

Brief History of the Career Exploration Concept

Donald Super cast the career exploration concept into life-span terms and identified adolescence as the period when a person begins to employ a dynamic form of exploration that involves aspects of the vocational self (e.g., emerging awareness of career interests, values, and related abilities) that guide a person’s exploration of the world of work and aspects of the outer world (e.g., feedback on school and work performance) that guide self-exploration. Central to the issue of children’s vocational development, Super and others suggested that most preadolescent children were preoccupied with career fantasies because they were incapable of career exploration that involves the integration of psychological, physical, and social structures into an understanding of how a person fits within the working world.

In an effort to expand a life-span theory of career development focused on adolescents and adulthood, Super employed the curiosity and exploratory behavior research on humans and animals to arrive at a developmental model with childhood curiosity being identified as the fundamental antecedent characteristic driving early career exploration. While the construct of curiosity has not received much attention in the career literature, career exploration has become a bedrock construct explored within several popular content domains including work values, self-concept, occupational learning, vocational aspirations, interests, and identity.

A Conceptual and Propositional Model of Career Exploration

Career exploration involves the dynamic interplay between self-exploration and exploration of the world of work that yields a relatively stable sense of the occupational self-identity and with it a suitable and satisfying occupational choice. Jean Pierre Jordaan, working with Super during the 1960s and 1970s, defined vocational exploration as conscious and unconscious activities conducted with an aim toward learning about the self and the work context and how the two fit together. John Holland supported the position that occupational exploration is a fundamental aspect of career development and asserted that the development of occupational interests through exploration is a critical aspect of the process of moving from an undifferentiated sense of the world of work and toward an occupational choice. Hanoch Flum and David Blustein later extended the exploration construct to include exploratory competence, which presumably develops from the act of exploration over time and involves the belief that a person can effectively explore his or her environment (i.e., seek and gain information and insight that will be beneficial).

As career researchers and theorists employed the career exploration construct, they grew convinced that it was a critically important aspect of vocational development, but they also became relatively disconnected from the broader literature on human exploration. Super referred to this literature (e.g., D. E. Berlyne’s work), but did not discuss it at length in later reviews of the exploration literature. Moreover, this broader exploration literature enjoyed a major resurgence during the 1980s that went relatively unreported in the career literature

The Broader Literature on Career Exploration

The definition of exploration in the human exploration literature is similar to the established definition in the career literature, but the definitions differ in terms of when children develop a capacity for exploration. Hans-Georg Voss and Heidi Keller defined exploration as the coordination of perception, behavior, and elements of the self such as interests and values that are motivated by a desire or need to acquire new knowledge. Distinct from the career literature, they contended that such exploration occurs in concert with play behavior during infancy and late childhood. This definition suggests that children may engage in career exploration involving the coordination of personal values, goals, and interests and vocationally related or relevant experiences and information.

The human exploration literature further distinguished between two interrelated types of exploration. Children presumably employ combinations of diversive and specific exploration to learn about their environment. Diversive exploratory behavior is presumably driven by stimulation and excitement and much less affected by psychological structures of the self or social forces. The definition of specific exploration is consistent with the definition of human exploration discussed above and is motivated by learning more about a situation or object in reference to the self. A child presumably enters a novel situation in a diversive exploration mode, scanning the situation to assess the lay of the land. Situations may afford more or less opportunity for a child to employ diversive exploration, and a child may be more or less motivated to do so. During a period of diversive exploration, specific features of the situation are defined as being more or less enticing, exciting, threatening, or inviting. Having identified or been confronted with the most salient features of the situation, the child may employ a specific exploration behavioral pattern to elicit more information and/or an affective response from those features that are most salient to the child, and this behavior will influence and be influenced by elements of the self such as interests, values, and goals.

Integrating the Broader Literature on Exploration with Career Exploration

The vocational exploration of children may be described as diversive in nature. Young children explore the world of work attempting to comprehend its elements in more or less enticing, exciting, or threatening terms. As children begin to develop vocationally related interests and values through sequences of diversive career exploration, particular aspects of the world of work (i.e., occupations) may become the target of specific exploration, which is commonly known as career exploration. This shift from diversive to specific career exploration is supported by research suggesting that children shift from glamorous career aspirations (e.g., movie star and astronaut) to more realistic aspirations during the later grade and middle school years.

The integration of the human and career exploration literatures suggests that the developmental course of career exploration is to begin the process of career exploration employing diversive exploration until attention coalesces around a broad class of exciting or glamorous occupations and a sense of self emerges. This period of diversive exploration eventually gives way to a period of specific exploration spanning the adolescent and young adult years. Career theorists have generally assumed that the shift from diversive to specific career exploration occurs during adolescence, but a growing body of research in the career literature suggests that this transition may begin during the middle to late childhood period. Future research efforts could be committed to developing measures of diversive and specific career exploration and ascertaining the typical and atypical timing of the exploration transition during the childhood and adolescent periods.


Career theory characterizes early to middle childhood as the period when children physically and psychologically explore the outer world and organize this information into increasingly complex categories and associations. The late childhood and early adolescent period has been theoretically distinguished from the earlier periods within the career literature by the use of a dynamic form of exploration that involves a transaction between aspects of a person’s inner and outer world in the pursuit of career goals of varying degrees of specificity. The broader literature on human exploration suggests that exploration as a complex interplay between the inner and outer world occurs during the childhood period, and this may have significant implications for future career research. Regardless of the timing of the process, the developmental course of diversive and specific career exploration is predicted to yield a set of career pathways that are consistent with a child’s emerging interests, needs, aspirations, and values on the one hand and his or her environmental opportunities and social pressures (e.g., parental wishes and expectations) on the other. Career exploration is, therefore, a critical aspect of child and adolescent career exploration, and parents, counselors, and educators should aim to promote this process in adolescents and at least consider efforts to do so during the grade school years.


  1. Berlyne, D. E. (1960). Conflict, arousal, and curiosity. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Flum, H., & Blustein, D. L. (2000). Reinvigorating the study of vocational exploration: A framework for research. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 56(3), 380—104.
  3. Hartung, P., Porfeli, E. J., & Vondracek, F. W. (2005). Child vocational development: A review and reconsideration. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 66(3), 385—U9.
  4. Jordaan, J. P. (1963). Exploratory behavior: The formation of self and occupational concepts. In D. E. Super (Ed.), Career development: Self-concept theory: Essays in vocational development (pp. 42-78). Princeton, NJ: College Entrance Examination Board.
  5. Keller, H., Schneider, K., & Henderson, B. (Eds.). (1994). Curiosity and exploration. Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag.
  6. Super, D. E. (1957). The psychology of careers: An introduction to vocational development. New York: Harper & Row.
  7. Voss, H. G., & Keller, H. (1983). Curiosity and exploration. New York: Academic Press.
  8. Watson, M., & McMahon, M. (2005). Children’s career development: A research review from a learning perspective. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 67(2), 119-132.

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