Career and Career Development: Personal Goals, Effort, Commitment

David Starr-Glass MBA, M.Sc., M.Ed.

Mentor, International Programs (Prague), State University of New York - Empire State College

Career has multiple meanings and multiple perspectives. Traditionally, a career has been defined as the progression of accomplishments and advancements through which an individual progresses in his or her work-life. 

In this traditional understanding, a career was usually linked with long-term associations with stable organizations: people progressed from one level of the organization’s hierarchy to a higher one. Several issues were important:

  • Organization-person fit: In psychological, social, and cultural terms there had to be a good match between the individual and the firm. Those who did not fit into the culture of the organization – or who could not adapt to it – could not anticipate any development of their careers: they would either find themselves permanently stuck in a low-level position, or encouraged (actively or passively) to leave.
  • The psychological contract: The psychological contract (in the American management literature referred to as the “social contract”) is the unwritten but expected set of promises and obligations that come into play when someone is hired by a firm. It is important to note that this is not a legal contact – it is simply the accepted ways in which the employer and employee are expected to act so that the employment is mutually beneficial.
  • Human capital: The investment in people – in their useable skills, advanced competencies, and increased productivity – provides advantages for both employee and employer. For the employer the reason for investment is obvious: it yields organizational dividends in the future. For the employee the investment contributes to his or her career development by providing new experiences and capacities – but, of course, these are directly connected to the specific needs and expectations of the organization, not the individual.

This was the framework within which career development took place; however, the traditional model has been seriously disrupted in the last twenty years. Business organizations are facing considerable turbulence and rapid change. They appreciate that things change quickly and are constantly in the process of redefining themselves in ways that provide strategic advantages. They are no longer interested in people successfully fitting into their cultures and operations, because they are preoccupied with short-term goals – people can be easily disposed of, or replaced. Downsizing and lean organizational structures have become the norm. Organizations have also increasingly defined psychological contracts in ways that give them maximum advantage – they are (and always have been) the dominant partner in the employee relationship. Organizations are increasingly unwilling to invest in human capital, because the time horizon and anticipated returns of those investments are no longer predictable.

The shifts in the ways in which businesses do their business are hardly surprising: everybody in the work-world – or unable to enter the work-world – is acutely aware of the changes. We have entered an era where high levels of marketplace instability, increased levels of unemployment, and economic instability are evident. This is not likely to change in the near future. These significant changes in the external environment of business – and in the reconfiguration of their internal dynamics – have completely changed the notion of the career. Traditional careers and career development no longer make sense; indeed, some have spoken of the death of the career job.

Two alternative visions of career have emerged. These have been around for some time, but in the current climate they are now seen as much more appealing, realistic, and necessary.

  • Boundaryless careers: The boundaryless career does not develop within one organization. It is not limited to – or bounded by – a single employment setting and it is independent of the employer. This career approach requires the individual to define his or her professional interest and to develop that identity. It requires a sense of independence, but also the ability to work well with others in organisations that provide the individual with advantages. It requires the targeting of new short-term jobs that will provide the individual with long-term learning, competency benefits, and transferable skills. It requires an entrepreneurial way of thinking about employment. Although employers will benefit – otherwise they would not hired the person – the focus is on providing higher benefits and returns for the individual. Internships, short-term work contracts, employment lasting only a few years (instead of for life), active social networking, and a clear vision of the future are all part of the boundaryless career. There is no long-term commitment to the firm, only to self; however, that is not the same as being selfish, or of not being an excellent organizational participant.
  • Protean careers: The word “protean” is derived from the mythical deity Proteus, who was understood to be a god of the sea and rivers. Mirroring the characteristics of Proteus, “protean” now refers to being fluid, versatile, and able to take on different shapes. Those who pursue protean careers manage their own development and advancement. They are self-directed and self-assured, driven by personal values, not afraid to make dramatic changes in what they do, and they are mobile – physically and mentally – in reaching their career goals. They are not unlike those who are pursuing boundaryless careers, but they tend to have a much wider and more fluid perspective. They may move from one industrial sector to another and they may see strategic advantages in working in different countries. They are willing to explore new opportunities and to find employment that will expose them to difference. They may also be more centered on their own personal values, on personal fulfillment, and in realizing dreams that go well beyond the work-place. They are self-directed and strive to be self-fulfilled and self-actualized. They often redefine themselves; indeed, they may re-invent themselves in ways that others consider dramatic.

Those who pursue either boundaryless or protean careers pathways have taken charge of their work-world and personal progression. They have drawn the maps, they are navigating the new territory, and they are explorers. Research on the origins and results of these newer approaches to career are divided: some see them as being personally assumed, others as being forced onto people because of the decline of traditional career opportunities.

So what should we take away from any discussion on careers and career development?

  • A career is not something that naturally takes place when you graduate and enter the work-world – it starts now with the goals that you have, the undergraduate courses you select, the part-time work that you perform, and the internships that you seek.
  • Be honest and realistic about your present work-place skills – recognize your weaknesses and decide how you will improve them; recognize your strengths and decide how to leverage them.
  • Develop a personal vision for the future, a future in which you do not “have” to do things but in which you “want” to do things – a future colored by your own values, interest, aspirations, and passions. Then follow your vision.
  • Make effective use of all the career planning and career development offerings provided by UNYP – discover, learn, and make the connections that might possibly help you shape your career trajectory.
  • Consider the advantages of both the boundaryless and protean career models – explore them, read the relevant literature, discuss these approaches with your friends and with your professors. Consider how and why these models might help you in your career path.

Developing career has always been important, but it is even probably even more critical in the highly competitive world in which we live. Developing a career pathway that will be satisfying and fulfilling is one of the most significant challenges that we face. Naturally, it does not just depend on the individual – by definition career involves an interaction with a surrounding world that is neither fully predictable nor totally within our control. The challenge is to understand what we want and to move in that direction. Begin by thinking about your future and then start taking charge of your own career. The time to start thinking is today, not tomorrow; the time to start taking charge is now, not later. The attached bibliography provides a selection of essential reading that will be useful.


Arthur, M. B., Khapova, S. N., & Wilderom, C. P. M. (2005). Career success in a boundaryless career world. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26, 177-202.

Arthur, M. B., & Rousseaue, D. M. (1996). The boundaryless career: A new employment principle for a new organizational era. New York: Oxford University Press.

Briscoe, J. P., Hall, D. T., & Demuth, R. L. F. (2006). Protean and boundaryless careers: An empirical exploration. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 69(1), 30-47.

Hall, D. T. (2004). The protean career: A quarter-century journey. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 65(1), 1-13.

Hall, D. T., & Chandler, D. E. (2005). Psychological success: When the career is a calling. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26(2), 155-176.

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