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What is Career? | Definition, History and Choices

The term ‘Career’ is ordinarily used to refer to a person’s working life. 


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However, the Oxford English Dictionary provides two different definitions of the word ‘Career.’ 

  1. Profession or occupation.
  2. The course of life, especially in a profession.

The first definition gives a narrower definition of the term ‘Career’ with the focus mainly on the work or sector or industry a person is involved in for livelihood and all the related specialised pieces of training and formal education—for instance, a career in law, sports, medicine, administration, management and so on.

The second definition, on the other hand, is a broader and more inclusive one. It mainly focuses on the ‘journey’ or ‘progress’ a person makes to enter and remain in a field or profession or occupation in general.

Accordingly, aspects like education, training, experience, involvement in different jobs, achieving various awards and rewards and so on form an integral part of the second meaning. 

What distinguishes the first definition from the second definition is that the former concentrates more on the profession or the occupation. In contrast to that, the latter’s focus is more on the individual and their working life history in general. However, two critical points lead these two meanings to converge.

  1. The aspect of metaphorical ‘progress’ or ‘journey.’
  2. The ‘goal to achieve‘ something, say, power, position, money or just success.

Origin and History of the term ‘Career.’

The word ‘Career’ traces its origin in the Latin term ‘Carrus’, meaning a ‘wheeled vehicle’ or ‘chariot.’ It was Anglicised from the French word ‘carriere‘ in the mid 16th century to refer to a road or a racecourse.

Eventually, from the late 16th century, specifically the 1590s, the meaning of the term expanded to refer to any sense of ‘progress’ or ‘course of action.’

The word began to be specifically used to imply one’s progress in public or professional life from 1803 and ultimately acquired its explicit reference to one’s profession or occupation from the 20th century.

Career Choice

As stated by Behling and others, an individual’s choice of firm or career depends on the following three factors:

  1. Objective factor: It entails assessing the material benefits of a particular occupation or profession objectively. For example, considering the salary, career growth, location etc. before venturing into a job.
  2. Subjective factor: Here, the decisions of an individual are coloured by the psychological and social aspects of the job. For example, a person may choose to venture into an occupation, keeping in mind its social status, overall reputation and the like.
  3. Critical contact: Here, an individual’s decision depends on their experience with a particular organisation involved in a specific field. For example, a person may choose to join a profession based on the recruiters’ overall behaviour towards their employees.

Patterns of Career Path

Nature of Career PathDescriptionKey Individual Motivations
SpiralPeriodically shifting and spending a substantial amount of time, say 5-10 years in related fields and occupations to achieve higher skills and more significant experience before moving on.Personal growth and creativity.
LinearAlso referred to as the ‘primary traditional view of career’, this pattern follows an approximate vertical journey along the organisational hierarchy—a course in which an individual is promoted to positions of higher authority and greater responsibility.Authority, achievements and other rewards.
TransitoryFrequently shifting, say within one to five years to unrelated fields or occupations.Autonomy and variety.
ExpertAlso known as the ‘secondary traditional view of career,’ it focuses on gaining knowledge and developing skills within a particular field or occupation.Stability, status and competence.

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Advantages of a Career

The following are some significant advantages of a career:

  1. The act of career planning enhances a person’s decision-making abilities.
  2. ‘Career’ by nature is goal-oriented. Consequently, an individual pursuing a career acquires a zeal to achieve.
  3. ‘Career’ is not merely about making decisions. It is about acting on those decisions as well. Consequently, an individual pursuing a career eventually becomes action-oriented.

Disadvantages of a Career

Here are some principal disadvantages of a career:

  1. There is no fixed path to pursue a career. The direction and pattern of a career path differ based on an individual’s motivation.
  2. The choice and course of a career are often restricted by external factors, namely social, psychological and material.
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