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Kyle W. Ross, Washington State University

Kyle Ross.jpgMany advisors work with students who are exploring, either initially or after a first (or second) choice of majors doesn’t work out; other advisors work with students who have chosen their major.  It is common that both of these types of students don’t know what career they wish to pursue.  How can advisors adequately help students explore and commit to a major or career choice?

Career and counseling theories can generate practical approaches that can be used by advisors.  Although many advisors do not have a counseling background, they can nevertheless draw on techniques developed from counseling theories to guide students in their exploration and commitment processes.  This article provides foundational knowledge of Marcia’s (1966, 1980) identity status theory and Gottfredson’s (1981) theory of circumscription and compromise, and explores how they intersect and how advisors can employ techniques derived from them when working with major- and career-exploring students.

In her 2006 text on child development, Laura Berk discusses the importance of identity in the decision-making process and highlights James Marcia’s theory of identity development based on exploration and commitment.  Marcia’s four identity stages are diffusion (low exploration, low commitment), foreclosure (low exploration, high commitment), moratorium (high exploration, low commitment), and achievement (high exploration, high commitment).  Using this matrix, advisors can recognize whether students have or have not explored a great deal, and whether they are committed to their choices.

In the identity diffusion stage, students are unmotivated to even begin the exploration process.  They may be overwhelmed by the sheer number of major and career choices, resulting in having no idea on where to start.  Further, they may not understand how critical it is to their success to decide on a major/career.  Students may also be completely unaware of the number of realistic choices they have, and believe they must choose the major/career path they have previously identified. 

To help students with this process, advisors can discuss a timeline for choosing a major/career pathway and highlight the difference between majors with a very prescribed or structured four-year plan and majors with more flexibility.  This can serve two purposes.  For students who need to understand there are more choices, the more flexible majors can help them see they have time to decide.  For students who have no motivation to explore, more structured majors highlight the need to make a decision more quickly before they risk longer time-to-degree.  Linda Gottfredson (in Brown & Lent, 2005) summarized this perfectly: “Vocational understanding and decision-making tends to garner attention only when its demands crescendo, that is, when adolescents simultaneously realize the full complexity of making life decisions and the imminent need to do so” (p. 74). This also provides an excellent opportunity to ask open-ended questions about a student’s future career aspirations.

While the moratorium stage may sound negative, it demonstrates clear advantages over identity diffusion and foreclosure (Berk, 2006).  By the time they have explored a variety of options yet still cannot commit to one or two choices, students have obtained the knowledge and the resources sufficient to continue actively inquiring into these choices until a decision is made.  These students are motivated and will eventually reach the identity achievement stage.  Advisors working with these students can foster confidence in their choices.  Even if a major/career is suitable, students are typically anxious about committing to it because they are not confident it is the absolute best choice.  One way advisors can help with this anxiety is to suggest conducting informational interviews, internships, and other forms of experiential learning in the career or major areas under consideration.

An additional theory on which advisors can draw is Gottfredson’s theory of circumscription and compromise (in Brown & Lent, 2005).  The “circumscription” piece of this career development theory is centered on the process of eliminating choices not suitable for the student until only a list of ideal choices remains.  For students, it may seem simpler and less stressful to choose what they don’t want to major in or consider as an occupation, rather than what they do want to pursue.  Gottfredson theorized that in student development, students start eliminating possible career choices when they are quite young, but not necessarily for accurate or suitable reasons.  As children, they may eliminate career choices based on perceived gender roles and authoritative figures, whereas students in college are better able to use critical thinking skills to evaluate each choice based on interests, skills, values, or personality traits. 

Advisors can help students see patterns in the process of elimination and inquire about eliminations made for a seemingly trivial reason.  The overwhelming number of choices then is narrowed down to a select few, with the student more able to research those areas to find their ideal major or career path.  This strategy worked well in our University “college majors and career choice” course for exploring students.  Guiding students through the process of elimination, they were asked to research the list of all available majors to determine their interest in each major.  Student evaluations showed that they highly valued this process and recommended the activity be continued in future semesters.

Typically, the most difficult population advisors can work with is students in the foreclosure stage.  These students have committed to a decision/major without much exploration.  If the foreclosed student is not successful in the chosen major, they are often closed-minded about a suggestion to study something else (Berk, 2006).  Moreover, once they realize they need to choose a different major, they typically conduct a “truncated search” and will jump to another major, again without much exploration (Gottfredson, 2004).  Gottfredson’s theory is an excellent framework to help us understand and advise these students.  The “compromise” process is a helpful second phase of this career development theory.  Students may open up toward a zone of acceptable alternatives if the ideal major or career path is unrealistic (Gottfredson, in Brown & Lent, 2005).  Usually, foreclosed students have a focused set of reasons for their choice, and Gottfredson suggests removing some of the less impactful reasons so that other majors and career paths will be open to them.  This may help prevent the student’s truncated search.  Importantly, advisors should also emphasize that there are different majors and paths that will still allow the student to pursue their ultimate career goal.

Finally, according to Josselson (1994) and Marcia, Waterman, Matteson, Archer, & Orlofsky (1993), students who have reached the identity achievement phase exhibit higher self-esteem, higher critical thinking skills and self-insight (as cited in Berk, 2006, p. 458).  Even if a student has decided on a major and is successful in that major, advisors can still help with their career exploration.  Another benefit to these two theories is that the techniques developed from them can be utilized with all advising styles.  With knowledge of these theories, advisors can feel more confident in career advising and know that they are helping students accomplish realistic and ideal goals.

Kyle W. Ross
Academic and Career Advisor
Center for Advising and Career Development
University College
Washington State University
[email protected]


Berk, L. E. (2006). Child development (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.

Brown, S. D., & Lent, R. W. (2005). Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Gottfredson, Linda S. (1981). Circumscription and compromise: A developmental theory of occupational aspirations. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 28(6), 545-579.

Gottfredson, L. S. (2004). Using Gottfredson’s theory of circumscription and compromise in career guidance and counseling. Retrieved from http://www.udel.edu/educ/gottfredson/reprints/2004theory.pdf

Gottfredson, L. S. (2005). Applying Gottfredson’s theory of circumscription and compromise in career guidance and counseling. In S. Brown & R. Lent (Eds.), Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work (pp. 71-100). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Josselson, R. (1994). The theory of identity development and the question of intervention. In S. L. Archer (Ed.), Interventions for adolescent identity development (pp. 12-25). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Marcia, J. E., (1966), Development and validation of ego identity status, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 3, 551-558.

Marcia, J. E., (1980).  Identity in adolescence.  In J. Adelson (Ed.), Handbook of adolescent psychology. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Marcia, J. E., Waterman, A. S., Matteson, D. R., Archer, S. L., & Orlofsky, J. L. (1993). Ego identity: A handbook for psychosocial research. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Cite this article using APA style as: Ross, K. (2013, June). Applying career and identity development theories in advising. Academic Advising Today, 36(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]
Posted in: 2013 June 36:2


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