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The systems theory framework of career development.

The Systems Theory Framework (STF; McMahon & Patton, 1995; Patton & McMahon, 2006) of career development was proposed as a metatheoretical framework that accommodates the contribution of all theories and offers an integrative and coherent framework of career influences. In this article, the author provides an overview of the STF, outlines its applications for employment counselors, and considers future directions.


The Systems Theory Framework (STF; McMahon & Patton, 1995; Patton & McMahon, 2006) of career development is a metatheoretical framework, first published in response to the convergence debate of the early 1990s, that has been described as a significant innovation in career theory (Amundson, 2005). The purpose of this article is to provide a brief overview of the STF, outline its applications for employment counselors, and consider future directions.


Consisting of a multifaceted range of content and process influences, the STF illustrates the dynamic and complex nature of career development. Content influences depict the holistic nature of career development through three interconnecting systems (i.e., individual, social, and environmental--societal). The process influences, recursiveness (i.e., interaction between influences), change over time, and chance, depict career development as a dynamic and complex interplay of influences.

I found it difficult to make a decision about retirement but ... I made the decision that I retire at the end of next year ... I don't want to go past my use by date ... it's a very physical job ... I do get very, tired and I think well maybe that's my body telling me ... you can't keep doing this for much longer. (Janice, age 62 years)

These comments are illustrative of the intrapersonal influences of the individual system that are central. (The individuals' names are pseudonyms of research participants from projects related to the STF.) Such influences include age, ability, personality, gender, and sexual orientation.

When I was originally going to be a vet nurse, one of my teachers said, "You can do better than that. You can be a vet." And that sort of changed nay mind a bit. (Alice, age 16 years)

September last year I did work experience, and then I got work, like actual paid work out there again on Christmas holidays and that, and last holidays and they offered me an apprenticeship. (Tom, age 17 years)

As these stories illustrate, individuals do not live in isolation. Rather, they exist as part of an influential social system of family, friends, peers, media, schools, and workplaces. Alice told a story of her teacher's influence, whereas Tom told how his schoolwork experience eventually resulted in his being offered an apprenticeship.

I'm probably going to try and go to college in America, but I've got to find out how. (David, age 17 years)

More broadly, individuals live as part of an environmental--societal system containing influences such as socioeconomic circumstances, geographic location, political and

historical influences, as well as that of globalization. For example, David, an Australian student, was considering the possibility of studying in America.

A particular strength of the STF is its emphasis on process influences. Although each of the previous stories provides examples of content influences, it is through such stories that recursiveness comes to life, revealing career development as a dynamic, sometimes unpredictable, process that may be influenced by chance. The third process influence, change over time, is also evident in the previous stories and includes microprocesses such as decision making and macroprocesses of ongoing and incremental change reflected in adaptability and transition over time. For example, Janice described coming to terms over a period of time with her decision to retire, and Ruth explained a growing dissatisfaction with her job in the following story:

I got bored and I was developing that last project, I could do it with my hands tied behind my back it was so easy. Everyone thought what I was doing was absolutely amazing and I was bored with it, I was no longer excited. (Ruth, age 54 years)

Throughout life, individuals amass stories of their experiences within which life themes are embedded that contribute to the construction of vocational identity. Although each influence is present in the life of every individual, they differ in nature. In the STF, the unique nature and constellation of influences is considered.

A criticism of the STF is that it does not offer detailed accounts of specific influences. As a metatheoretical framework, however, such detail is not its intention because detailed accounts are provided by extant career theories. In practice, detail is provided by individuals as they narrate their stories and construct personal meaning around their career influences.

The STF is philosophically informed by constructivism, and a question asked of constructivist theories is how they may be applied in practice (Patton & McMahon, 2006). Consequently, great emphasis has been placed on developing practical applications of the STF for diverse client groups and settings (McMahon & Watson, 2008; Watson & McMahon, 2009).


The process of narrating career stories goes to the heart of practical applications of the STF and a storytelling approach being developed (e.g., McMahon, 2006; McMahon & Watson, 2010). For career counselors, McMahon (2005) suggested attention be focused on three levels. First, at a theoretical level, the constructs of the individual, systemic thinking, story, and recursiveness are essential conceptual understandings. Second, at the level of the career counseling interaction, facilitating multileveled connectedness (e.g., between career counselor and clients and their respective systems of influences) through the use of story and the construction of a quality counseling relationship is necessary. Third, at the level of the career counseling process, facilitation of the recursive dimensions of connectedness, reflection, meaning making, learning, and agency (McMahon, 2005) through storytelling is critical to the construction of a future story. These dimensions are illustrated in Ruth's story about why she liked her job as a parcel delivery driver:

I don't know what it was about the parcel delivery. I think it was probably the first time I worked autonomously. It was a lot of responsibility, there was no one working with me, just me. So l was totally responsible for how it went and how I did it. (Ruth, age 54 years)

It is important to note that life themes are foregrounded through storytelling. Ruth's story illustrates how the life themes of autonomy and responsibility may constitute ingredients of her future story.

The STF also has been applied to career assessment (e.g., McMahon, Patton, & Watson, 2005). The qualitative career assessment instrument, My System of Career Influences (MSCI; McMahon, Patton, & Watson, 2005), was developed after a rigorous and lengthy research process in Australia and South Africa. Savickas (2005) described the MSCI as a "straightforward counselling method accompanied by coherent counselling materials" (p. iii). The MSCI was first published for use with adolescents, and it has been used in individual and group career counseling (e.g., McMahon & Watson, 2008). Subsequently, an adult version has been developed and tested in South Africa, Australia, and England (McMahon, Watson, & Patton, 2010) in settings such as large public sector organizations, corporations, and private practice, with clients of diverse cultural backgrounds including men and women, blue-collar workers, and managers. The MSCI is a guided reflection process in which individuals construct their own systems of influence diagram, reflect on it, and tell their career stories (McMahon, Watson, & Patton, 2005) through which they come to better understand the uniqueness, wholeness, and interconnectedness of all facets of their lives and to identify the life themes integral to the construction of future stories.


In conclusion, consideration of the STF's future is warranted. Ideally, further applications of the STF will provide a range of evidence-based strategies that facilitate the narration of career stories with a diverse client groups.


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McMahon, M. (2006). Working with storytellers: A metaphor for career counselling. In M. McMahon & W. Patton (Eds.), Career counselling: Constructivist approaches (pp. 16-29). London, England: Routledge.

McMahon, M., & Patton, W. (1995). Development of a systems theory of career development. Australian Journal of Career Development, 4, 15-20.

McMahon, M., Patton, W., & Watson, M. (2005). My System of Career Influences Adolescent version (MSCI): Reflecting on my career decisions. Camberwell, Victoria, Australia: ACER Press.

McMahon, M. L., & Watson, M. B. (2008). Systemic influences on career development: Assisting clients to tell their career stories. The Career Development Quarterly, 56, 280-288.

McMahon, M., & Watson, M. (2010). Story telling: Moving from thin stories to thick and rich stories. In K. Maree (Ed.), First steps in choosing your career (pp. 53-63). Pretoria, South Africa: Van Shaik.

McMahon, M., Watson, M., & Patton, W. (2005). Qualitative career assessment: Developing the My System of Career Influences reflection activity. Journal of Career Assessment, 13, 476-490.

McMahon, M., Watson, M., & Patton, W. (2010). My System of Career Influences Adult version (MSCI Adult): A reflection process. Unpublished manuscript.

Patton, W., & McMahon, M. (2006). Career development and systems theory: Connecting theory and practice (2nd ed.). Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Savickas, M. L. (2005). Foreword. In M. McMahon, W. Patton, & M. Watson, My System of Career Influences Adolescent version (MSCI) facilitators' guide (p. iii). Camberwell, Victoria, Australia: ACER Press.

Watson, M., & McMahon, M. (2009). Career counselling in South African higher education: Moving forward systemically and qualitatively. South African Journal of Higher Education, 23, 470-481.

Mary McMahon, School of Education, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Mary McMahon, School of Education, The University of Queensland, Social Sciences Building, Room 617, Brisbane, Queensland, 4072, Australia (e-mail:
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Author:McMahon, Mary
Publication:Journal of Employment Counseling
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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