Why Does Theory Matter?


Career development practitioners are, as their title implies, “practitioners.” They do things with and for people, to help their clients set and achieve career and employment-related goals. They are not primarily engaged as researchers, theorists, scientists, or philosophers. Past surveys have revealed that many don’t understand the relevance of studying about career theories and/or don’t understand how to practically integrate theoretical knowledge into their day-to-day work.

In contrast, professional associations, training programs, and certification requirements typically specify at least a 20-hour theories course as an essential foundation for career development practitioners, situating theoretical knowledge as a core competency for practice. Why might that be?

Theory is defined in Oxford dictionaries as, among other things:

  • a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something . . .,
  • a set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based, and
  • an idea used to account for a situation or justify a course of action.

Together, these three tasks explain why theory matters to career development practitioners:

  • it provides a foundation for “case conceptualization,” explaining what’s going on for a client,
  • it guides the choice of appropriate interventions, ensuring that practice is not random, and
  • it provides a convincing rationale to support action plans and serves as a framework for subsequent evaluation.

As theory is so inextricably connected to practice and action planning, staying current with knowledge about theory is crucial. Many certified career development practitioners completed a 20-hour theories course (or 30-hour, depending on their region) years ago, but haven’t intentionally integrated their theoretical knowledge into their practice; many uncertified career development practitioners don’t even have that minimal grounding in career-specific theory.

Whether you are new to the sector, have been certified for years, or completed a 20-hour course but need 30 hours for certification, you may be recognizing a need to brush up on theory. Here are a few options to get you started:

  1. A quick reminder: 10 Key Concepts in Career Theory tip sheet and relevant links
  2. A summary chapter: Theoretical foundations of career development
  3. A 10-hour directed studies supplement: Career Theories Supplement
  4. A 20-hour course: Career Development Foundations, Emerging Theories, and Models

Having a theoretical understanding of what’s going on and how to change it is what sets professionals apart. Yes . . . theory really does matter!

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