Crossing internal career boundaries: the state of research on subjective career transitions

Crossing internal career boundaries: the state of research on subjective career transitions

Gregory K. Stephens

Simon, H. A. (1961). Administrative behavior. New York: MacMillan.

Spenner, K. I. & Rosenfeld, R. A. (1990). Women, work and identities. Social Science Research, 19: 266-299.

Starker, J. E. (1990). Psychosocial aspects of geographic relocation: The development of a new social network. American Journal of Health Promotion, 5: 52-57.

Stephens, G. K. & Black, J. S. (1991). The impact of spouse’s career-orientation on managers during international transfers. Journal of Management Studies, 28: 417-428. Today’s dynamic and constantly changing business environment is a catalyst for change in the subjective career. These subjective career transitions are an important aspect of career development, and failure to manage them effectively carries profound consequences for both the individual and the organization. This review examines the current status of research on subjective career transitions, and seeks to encourage ongoing research by: (1) identifying gaps in current understandings of subjective career transitions; (2) integrating existing theory on work role transitions with a model of career stages as an illustration of theory-based research on subjective career transitions; and (3) developing research propositions based on this integration as a partial guide for future research.

“Not in his goals but in his transitions man is great.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Today’s social and business environment is dynamic, rapidly changing, and chaotic, with accompanying fundamental changes in the nature of careers. Most Americans change careers at least once in their lifetime; indeed, one in ten American workers changes occupations each year (Mergenhagen, 1991). Layoffs and other forms of involuntary career transitions increase during periods of recession, while promotions and other forms of voluntary career transitions increase during periods of economic growth (Mergenhagen, 1991). Domestic and international job transfers, with accompanying benefits like cross-fertilization (Pinder & Das, 1979), organizational learning (Edstrom & Galbraith, 1977), and staffing options (Feldman & Brett, 1985), are likely to remain a valued and frequently experienced form of career transition. The occupational mobility of the baby boomer population will likely decline as they age, possibly leading to a decline in what has been a relatively stable occupational mobility rate (Mergenhagen, 1991). Nevertheless, subtle, more subjective types of transitions in the internal career must continue to be expected (Bailyn, 1989). For example, many older workers experience significant mid-life transitions, in which their career-related needs, desires, and goals change, often dramatically (Buonocore, 1992). Similarly, change in the subjective (or internal) career must be anticipated given that career anchors and orientations often change over the course of a career (Derr, 1988; Schein, 1978).

Because of these conditions, most people can expect increasingly discontinuous and unstable work lives. Therefore, individuals and organizations must understand and be prepared to cope with the transitional nature of both the internal and the external career. Careers are dynamic, and there is widespread agreement that research should explore the discontinuous, transitional nature of careers as well as the continuous, stable aspects of careers (Betz, 1991; Hall, 1992; London & Greller, 1991). Yet, until recently, research on careers and career transitions has emphasized continuity over discontinuity, and the external, objective career over the internal, subjective career (Bailyn, 1989). Therefore, the purpose of this article is to review the current state of research on subjective career transitions, and to suggest directions for future research in this critical area.

Understanding Career Transitions

A career is widely understood to be the sequence of attitudes, activities or behaviors associated with work roles experienced throughout a person’s lifetime (Arthur & Lawrence, 1984; Hall, 1976). That careers have both subjective (or internal to the individual) and objective (or external) aspects is inherent in this definition. The objective career refers to the externally defined reality of the career, the visible, observable activities, behaviors, or events that comprise a person’s work history. The subjective career is typified in the attitudes, orientations, and perceptions about the career that are held by an individual. Recognition of the necessity for exploring internal, subjectively-held constructions of reality as well as external, objective realities is an enduring contribution of the social and behavioral sciences (see for example, Berger & Luckman, 1966). Nevertheless, the need remains to explore the subjective career, as well as to link it to the objective career (Bailyn, 1989) in the study of career transitions.

Career Transitions

Ten years ago, Louis (1980a&b) proposed a typology and a process model of career transitions, and reviewed the literature, asserting the need for research on both objective and subjective career transitions. Subsequently, a model of adjustment to work role transitions was proposed and tested (Nicholson, 1984; Nicholson & West, 1988), focusing explicitly on objective career transitions, and again reviewed the literature in this area. The social and business trends discussed above demonstrate the ongoing critical need for well-designed, theory-driven investigations of career transitions, and calls for research in this area have appeared in recent reviews of research on careers (Betz, 1991; London & Greller, 1991; Osipow, 1990). While objective career transitions (e.g., promotions, layoffs, or geographical and functional transfers) have been extensively studied, research on subjective career transitions is sparse. Therefore, this study has three primary goals: (1) to review the literature extant on subjective career transitions; (2) to adapt the model of adjustment to work role transitions (Nicholson, 1984; Nicholson & West, 1988) to career stage transitions; and (3) based on this adaptation, to develop research propositions regarding adjustment to career stage transitions.

According to Louis (1980a, b), a career transition occurs when an individual either moves from one role to another (taking on a different objective role) or changes orientation to a role already held (altering a subjective state). This definition not only encompasses the traditional view of job transitions (e.g., job transfers, promotions, functional changes, layoffs, intra-and inter-organizational job changes), but also incorporates changes in the individual’s subjectively-held view of the career (e.g., career stage transitions, shifts in career orientation, altered career expectations). Career transitions, also known as work role transitions (Nicholson, 1984; Nicholson & West, 1988), differ from other role transitions in that they are specifically related to the work roles a person holds throughout the life span. Nevertheless, other theoretical approaches to understanding role transitions, such as life stage transitions (e.g., Levinson, 1986; Levinson, et al., 1978; O’Connor & Wolfe, 1987), organizational socialization (Feldman, 1976; Louis, 1980a, b; Van Maanen & Schein, 1979), cultural shifts (e.g., Oberg, 1960; Torbiorn, 1982), and social role transitions (Allen & van de Vliert, 1982) have made important contributions to research on career transitions.

Louis’ (1980a) typology of career transitions encompassed two primary classifications. Inter-role (objective) transitions are those in which an existing role is exchanged for a role that is substantively different in some way. Five types of inter-role transitions were identified: (1) workforce entry or re-entry; (2) intra-organizational transitions; (3) inter-organizational transitions; (4) inter-profession transitions; and (5) workforce exit. Extensive research has been conducted on these objective career transitions in numerous broad-based and well-researched fields of study. For example, important contributions to our understanding of workforce entry transitions have been made through investigations of career counseling and guidance (see for example, Phillips, 1992), career choice (see for example, Osipow, 1990), organizational socialization (see for example, Hall, 1987; Feldman, 1976; Jablin, 1987; Van Maanen & Schein, 1979). Similarly, research on voluntary (see for example, Bycio, Hackett & Alvares, 1990; Lee & Mitchell, 1991; Mueller & Price, 1990) and involuntary employee turnover (see for example, Leana & Ivancevich, 1987), labor force mobility (see for example, Hui, 1988), temporary employment withdrawals (see for example, Jarecky & Sandifer, 1986), and retirement (see for example, Ruhm, 1989) offer insight into exit transitions. Despite the contributions of such research to understanding objective career transitions, it is not within the scope of the present discussion to review these extensive literatures; rather, as noted earlier, this discussion focuses on the relatively underdeveloped area of subjective career transitions.

Intra-role (subjective) transitions occur when an individual adopts a new and different orientation to an existing role (Louis, 1980a). Four types of intra-role transitions were identified by Louis (1980a). These classifications include: (1) intra-role adjustment; (2) extra-role adjustment; (3) career-stage transitions; and (4) life-stage transitions. Definitions of these four types of subjective transitions are presented in the following section, as well as a representative review of the empirical literature during the past ten years regarding each transition type.

Research on Subjective Career Transitions

Published empirical articles about subjective career transitions were identified by means of a computerized literature search (PsycLIT), and this search was augmented by a review of the tables of contents of several journals. This literature review is not exhaustive because it does not include technical reports, dissertations, textbooks, or chapters. However, it serves to indicate the coverage, focus and extent of empirical research on subjective career transitions during the last decade.

While research addressing the types of objective career transitions is extensive and broad-based in the social sciences literature, research centering specifically on subjective career transitions is sparse. Research in each of the four types of subjective career transitions identified above was explored, and is reviewed below. The first two of these involve adjustments to work-role or career orientations as a result of changes in the work role or in non-work roles. Career orientation is defined as the collection of features of an occupation selected by an individual for investment according to the motives, interests, and competences resulting from the individual’s personal history (Zaleznik, Dalton & Barnes, 1970). Career orientation transitions are distinct from objective transitions in that they entail a change in the amalgam of facets of the career that are salient to the individual, whereas objective career transitions result in change to the visible, external character of the work role (e.g., location, responsibilities, or physical facilities), and may occur without a concomitant change in the career orientation of the individual. While career orientations are generally thought to be relatively stable, they are not immutable, and may change as the individual encounters new experiences in work and non-work roles (Derr, 1988; Schein, 1978).

Intra-role Adjustment

According to Louis (1980a), intra-role adjustments involve modifications in orientation to an existing role over time as the role is experienced. For example, in the absence of a realistic job preview, inflated job expectations may be acquired, and when the realities of the job are encountered, adjustments to these expectations will necessarily occur (Vandenberg & Scarpello, 1990). Such intra-role adjustments may be accompanied by diminished job satisfaction, trust, organizational commitment, and ability to cope with job demands, as well as by increased turnover (Meglino, DeNisi, Youngblood & Williams, 1988; Suszko & Breaugh, 1986) Indeed, these outcome variables are frequently used as surrogates for work role adjustment.

A valuable theoretical perspective on intra-role adjustment was set forth by Nicholson (1984), and provides a means of structuring this review of intra-role adjustment at work. Nicholson’s (1984) conceptualization suggests that factors influencing intra-role adjustment may be found within the role (e.g., role requirements or job characteristics), within the person making the transition (e.g., coping behaviors or personality variables), or external to the person and the work role (e.g., social support or culture).

Within-role factors. Nicholson (1984) suggested that two characteristics of the work role, novelty (i.e., the similarity of the new role to previously held roles) and discretion (i.e., the susceptibility of the role to change by the individual) would affect intra-role adjustment. In general, research has demonstrated a significant relationship between role similarity (or alternatively, role novelty) and intra-role adjustment (see for example, Hays, 1971; Majchrzak & Cotton, 1988; Pinder & Schroeder, 1987), suggesting that the more similar the new role to previous roles, the more likely it is that a successful adjustment will take place. Conversely, research on culture shock suggests that the less similar a new role is to previous roles, the more adjustment will be hindered (see for example, Zapf, 1991). However, some studies have found no evidence of a significant relationship between role similarity and work role adjustment (see for example, Black, 1988).

Research indicates that a second aspect of the work role, discretion, may facilitate intra-role adjustment. Adjustment appears to be enhanced by work roles which allow the incumbent high discretion (Black & Gregersen, 1990; Black & Gregersen, 1991; Gregersen, 1992; Hesketh & Shouksmith, 1986), and hindered by low discretion work role environments (West, 1987; West & Rushton, 1989).

Finally, the actual characteristics of the work role have also been shown to predict intra-role adjustment (Majchrzak & Cotton, 1988). Furthermore, individuals anticipating a work role transition develop expectations about the new role, and research shows that the extent to which the actual work role characteristics meet or exceed the expectations of the individual is also a significant predictor of intra-role adjustment (Black, 1992).

Within-person factors. Nicholson and West (1988) found that high desire for control was associated with more proactive coping. When high need for control was coupled with low need for feedback, coping behavior focused on role change. When high control needs were coupled with high feedback needs, both role change and personal change were enacted. Under conditions of low control and high feedback needs, significant personal change was experienced by the individual, and where low control needs were coupled with low feedback needs, little change occurred in either the individual or the work role. Ward and Kennedy (1992) found that locus of control was a predictor of psychological adjustment following a cross-cultural work-role transition, such that an internal locus of control was positively associated with adjustment.

In addition to control and feedback needs, several variables intrinsic to the person have been explored for their relationship to intra-role adjustment, among them coping style, affect, and well-being. Research on behavioral styles and coping strategies chosen by individuals suggests that adjustment may be enhanced for those who engage in proactive (Ackerman, 1990; Feldman & Tompson, 1993; West, Nicholson & Rees, 1987) and flexible (Pliner, 1990) coping behaviors. Additionally, adjustment appears to be facilitated when the coping strategies or behaviors taken by the individual are culturally appropriate (Dunbar, 1992). A specific style of behavioral coping, feedback-seeking behavior, reflects Nicholson’s (1984) concept of need for feedback, and has been shown to enhance intra-role adjustment. Pliner (1990) found that individuals who were most successful in managing mid-career transitions were active information-seekers, and Brett, Feldman and Weingart (1990) found that active feedback-seeking behavior was associated with adjustment for both new hires and job changers in an organization, although in different ways.

Both physical and mental health have been hypothesized to predict intra-role adjustment, with mixed empirical support. Emotionality was found by O’Connor and Wolfe (1987) to play an important role in midlife career transitions. Watson and Clark (1984) argue that negative affectivity as a dispositional mood causes individuals to accentuate the negative in life, which can result in higher levels of distress and maladjustment. Empirical support for this hypothesis has been found, showing that negative affectivity hinders intra-role adjustment, (Braithewaite, Gibson & Bosly-Craft, 1986), and is associated with low activity and involvement following a transition. Negative affectivity and poor physical health have also been linked (Watson, Pennebaker & Folger, 1986), suggesting that physical health may be related to intra-role adjustment. Bonnet (1990), however, found that physical conditioning did not facilitate adjustment to shift work.

Paradoxically, some factors that might otherwise be thought desirable may impede intra-role adjustment under certain circumstances. In this vein, Cude and Jablin (1992) found that high levels of organizational commitment and shared organizational values impede effective adjustment to retirement. In a similar vein, Black (1988) found that prior knowledge of the conditions of a foreign work assignment was negatively associated with work role adjustment for expatriate managers and professionals.

Other factors. Characteristics external to the work role and the person may also facilitate or hinder intra-role adjustment. Goffee and Scase (1992), for example, found that during organizational restructuring managers psychologically readjusted their work orientations in a variety of ways, including limiting their dependency on any single employer, changing jobs to further career goals, and beginning self-employment. For many, work roles became less salient and family life played a greater role in the managers’ satisfaction and sense of personal identity.

Work-based social support, such as that received from mentors, supervisors, peers, and other colleagues, has also been found to facilitate adjustment to work roles (Doehrman, 1984; Feldman & Brett, 1985; Gerpott, 1991; Kram & Isabella, 1985; Latack, Josephs, Roach & Levine, 1987; Pinder & Schroeder, 1987). Similarly, the presence or absence of social support from important non-work sources, such as the spouse and other family members may also facilitate (Black & Stephens, 1989; Holahan & Gilbert, 1979; Munton, 1990; Starker, 1990) or hinder (Hays, 1974; Ridley, 1973; Savich & Rodgers, 1988; Torbiorn, 1982; Tung, 1981) adjustment to work roles. However, some research has found evidence of negative effects on intra-role adjustment from involvement in multiple non-work roles. Nelson, Quick, and Eakin (1988) found that role stress was associated with the work role adjustment of newcomers to an organization. Leslie (1989) indicated that, although family relationships may provide a supportive function, they may also result in role overload, thus hindering work role adjustment.

Research on cross-cultural transitions suggests that intra-role adjustment to a work role may also be hindered by the extent to which the environment in which the work-role is embedded differs from that of previous work roles (Zapf, 1991). Research has shown, for instance, that general cross-cultural adjustment is correlated with work role adjustment (Black, 1988; Cui & Awa, 1992) and that cross-cultural training can help to overcome culture shock (Black & Gregersen, 1991; Deshpande & Viswesvaran, 1992) as well as contribute to work role adjustment (Black & Mendenhall, 1990; Deshpande & Viswesvaran, 1992). Furthermore, Black and Stephens (1989) found that the novelty of a foreign culture was negatively related to spouse adjustment, which in turn was negatively related to the expatriate’s work role adjustment.

While much research has been conducted investigating how changes in work roles result in adjustments to career and work role orientations, the influence of the non-work role is no less important. Unfortunately, far less research has been conducted to examine the part played by non-work events and experiences in transforming career and work-role orientations.

Extra-role Adjustment

Louis (1980a) defines extra-role adjustment as the adjustment in orientation to a work role occurring as a result of a change in a non-work role. Extra-role adjustments may be reflected in alterations in the importance or salience of work roles relative to non-work roles, or in the involvement or commitment invested by a person in work roles relative to non-work roles. Such alterations may be seen in shifts in the career and work role orientations of individuals as they change over time in response to non-work events and experiences.

Perhaps the most visible non-work domain that impinges on work roles is the family, where marriage or divorce, arrival and growth of children, serious illness or death of a family member, employment (or unemployment) of a spouse, and other such significant life changes may precipitate re-adjustment and re-orientation to the work roles held by an individual. Unfortunately, while much research has been devoted to understanding the effects of work roles on family adjustment, and of the interaction and conflict among work and non-work roles, little attention has been given to the part played by non-work roles in adjustments to career and work role orientations. While related literatures, (e.g., stress, productivity, or satisfaction) suggest that changes in non-work roles such as those noted above may have important implications for work orientations, with few exceptions the effects of changes in the non-work domain on work role adjustment have not been specifically addressed.

Family composition (i.e., the number and arrangement of family members) would seem to be an important factor in extra-role adjustment. Indeed, at least one study has found that divorce appears to change the traditional elements of the work role for both men and women, although their productivity was not affected (Huddleston & Hawkings, 1991). Likewise, the presence and number of children is a likely source of influence on work-role orientation, but while some researchers have found that the arrival of children may bring about re-adjustment or re-orientation to work or career (Mercer, Nichols & Doyle, 1988; Moen & Smith, 1986), others show little evidence of work role adjustment being influenced by the arrival of children (Lewis & Cooper, 1988). In at least one study, women’s responses to situational scenarios appeared to indicate inconsistency in their beliefs about whether non-work issues like childrearing constrain their participation and effectiveness in work roles (Covin & Brush, 1991). In the same study, men expressed understanding of the need to take care of sick children, and were accepting of part-time work for women to do so, but were unwilling to work part-time themselves, suggesting possible gender differences in responses to work role adjustment after changes in the non-work domain.

While early research on dual-career couples found that wives’ careers tended to take a back seat to involvement in marriage and motherhood (Epstein, 1970; Heckman, Bryson & Bryson, 1977; Poloma & Garland, 1971), more recent research has seen increasing unwillingness on the part of women to reduce career involvement for these reasons (Lichter, 1980; Marsh, 1981; Rank, 1982; Sekaran, 1982). Indeed, while relocation of one spouse has been shown to have a disruptive effect on continuity of employment for the other spouse in dual-earner families (Lichter, 1980; Long, 1974), Stephens and Black (1991) found that among dislocated spouses in a foreign assignment, career-oriented spouses were significantly more likely to find continued employment in the foreign location than were non-career-oriented spouses. Nevertheless, in some cases career transitions have been avoided in order to maintain the status quo of the non-work domain (Magnus & Dodd; Mangum, 1982).

The remaining two types of subjective career transitions, career and life stage transitions involve the passage from one work or non-work role to another, and research in these areas is discussed below.

Career Stage Transitions

Career stage transitions are described by Louis (1980a) as movement between identifiable career or role stages. This is not a response to change in a work or non-work role, as are intra-and extra-role adjustment, but rather entail passage from one career stage to another. While such transitions may be accompanied by objective career transitions (e.g., promotions or transfers), they differ from objective transitions in that: (1) they are internal to the transitioner and subjectively perceived (and may even be less visible to the transitioner than objective transitions); (2) they may occur in the absence of objective transitions; and (3) they invariably represent passage through important career milestones. Unfortunately, the majority of research on career stages since 1980 has focused on within stage issues (see for example, Cox & Harquail, 1991), or across stage comparisons (see for example, Cohen, 1991), rather than on the transition process from one stage to another.

One exception is found in research conducted by Dalton and Thompson (1986). They identified four career stages (apprentice, independent contributor, mentor, director) which depart from other conceptualizations of career stages in that: (1) not everyone progresses through all four career stages; (2) it is possible, though not usual, for individuals to regress to an earlier stage, or to skip stages; and (3) the stages do not necessarily reflect age groupings or life cycle stages. Dalton and Thompson’s (1986) research on managers and professionals indicates that in order to successfully make the transition to another career stage, an individual must learn and perform the critical behaviors and activities necessary to fulfill the requirements of the new stage, build and maintain relationships that are key to the stage, and confront and resolve psychological issues unique to each stage that act as barriers to entering the new stage. For example, in order to successfully make the transition from Stage I (apprentice) to Stage II (independent contributor), an individual must demonstrate technical competence, establish supportive peer relationships, and assert independence in work relationships. Difficult or unsuccessful transitions result from failure to accomplish the relevant and necessary tasks in these three areas. Consistent with the issues identified by Dalton and Thompson (1986), Kets De Vries (1988) has noted that in CEO succession (the transition into and out of stage four) the exiting CEO must confront hidden fears (psychological issues), select and prepare a successor (relationship issues), and yield to the successor (behavioral issues). Levinson (1993) has also highlighted the dangers of failing to accomplish these necessary tasks in his recent discussion of CEO succession.

Life-stage Transitions

Life-stage transitions are the non-work counterpart of career stage transitions, entailing movement between stages of the life cycle. While Louis (1980a) placed life-stage transitions in a separate category, as defined they are in fact a subset of extra-role adjustment, wherein life stage transitions interact with work, resulting in adjustment to career or work role orientations. Indeed, Erikson’s (1959) work indicates that careers and life stages are intertwined such that a life stage transition may accompany or precipitate an individual’s re-orientation to a career or work role, and vice versa. Some support for this view has been found in an examination of women’s work histories (Spenner & Rosenfeld, 1990), but further research specifically examining the intersection of life stage transitions and career or work role orientations was not found in this review of the recent literature.


The foregoing review of the literature has highlighted existing research on subjective career transitions, and several general conclusions may be drawn regarding needed contributions. First, it is clear from this review that research on all aspects of subjective career transitions is wanting, and that only limited understanding of such transitions has been achieved. Second, the preponderance of research in this area has been devoted to intra-and extra-role adjustment, while investigations of career and life stage transitions have largely been neglected. It may be that measurement and conceptual problems make the study of subjective career transitions in general, and stage transitions in particular, difficult, but whatever the reasons, it is apparent that further research is needed in these vital areas. Third, with some exceptions, most investigations of subjective career transitions appear to have been conducted without the benefit of overarching theory or conceptual grounding. Research productivity in this area would be enhanced with further conceptual and theoretical development.

A Model of Adjustment to Subjective Career Transitions

From the foregoing review, it should be clear that, while much remains to be understood about all types of career transitions, relative to intra-and extra-role adjustment the study of career and life stage transitions has been neglected. A limitation that may underlie this neglect in the area of career stage transitions is the lack of guiding theory. Accordingly, the remainder of this discussion describes a theoretical approach to understanding adjustment to career stage transitions, involving a modification and application of existing theory on work role adjustment (Dawis & Lofquist, 1984; Nicholson, 1984; Nicholson & West, 1988). Theoretical models in this area have functioned primarily as guides for empirical research on adjustment to objective career transitions, and to a lesser extent on intra-role adjustment, but are explored here for their potential contribution to understanding career stage transitions. To this end, a brief discussion of the main points of the relevant theories is important.

Work Role Transition Theory

The theory encompasses four categories of predictor variables and two criterion variables. The first of the dependent variables, mode of adjustment, is the primary focus of the theory, while degree of adjustment receives attention only by implication. Four different modes of adjustment are postulated. Replication involves few adjustments to either the individual’s personal identity or to the requirements and constraints of the role. Absorption suggests an individual will make little attempt to change her role, but instead will mold herself to fit the role requirements. Determination involves significant attempts to change the boundaries of the role, with little change in the individual’s own identity. Exploration involves substantial changes in both the individual and the role requirements.

Degree of adjustment is the second dependent variable incorporated in work-role transition theory. While degree of adjustment is not explicitly integrated into the theoretical framework, it is implicit in the model. Degree of adjustment may be thought of as the level of comfort associated with involvement in a role. While adjustment modes appear to mediate the degree of adjustment felt in a role, this theory does not explicitly discuss the relationship or its implications for role transitions.

Four independent variables are postulated to influence mode and degree of adjustment. Role requirements include discretion (the individual’s perceived ability to alter the requirements of the role) and role novelty (the extent to which the new role is different from previous roles). Nicholson hypothesizes that both role novelty and discretion are positively associated with the use of innovative adjustment mechanisms.

Past occupational socialization addresses the level of influence the individual experienced in previous work roles. Individuals accustomed to high discretion in past roles are thought likely to make use of modes of adjustment that involve changing the role, while individuals accustomed to low role discretion are more likely to adjust to the new role by changing themselves.

Desire for control and desire for feedback are two individual characteristics incorporated into this theory. Desire for control is positively related to the use of role change adjustment mechanisms. Desire for feedback is associated with the use of personal change adjustment mechanisms.

Three aspects of Van Maanen and Schein’s (1979) framework of organizational socialization form the final independent variable. Personal change is theorized to be more likely when organizational socialization processes are sequential, serial, and involve divestiture. Role change is thought to be more likely when socialization processes are random, disjunctive, and involve investiture (strengthen previously learned coping behaviors).

Work-Role Adjustment Theory

Work adjustment theory (Dawis & Lofquist, 1984) focuses on the “correspondence” or equilibrium between the needs of the individual and the demands of the organization (role requirements). This theory argues that individuals attempt to achieve and maintain a good match between their own needs and those of the organization. In terms of the inducements and contributions model (Simon, 1961), skilled behaviors are the contribution of the individual to the organization, and are ideally matched with desired rewards which are the inducements offered by the organization. Sufficiency of experienced rewards is manifested as individual “satisfaction”, and individual effectiveness is seen as “satisfactoriness.”

Work adjustment theory overlaps work-role transition theory (Nicholson, 1984; Nicholson & West, 1988) in that both the individual and the organization are presumed to make adjustments in seeking correspondence. Dawis and Lofquist (1984) specify two ways in which individuals adjust to work. Individuals may react to the work environment, in a manner similar to Nicholson’s replication or absorption modes of adjustment. Conversely, an individual may actively respond to the new role, attempting to change the work environment, akin to Nicholson’s determination or exploration modes of adjustment. Flexibility in both the individual and the work environment (similar to desire for control and role discretion in work-role transition theory) are seen as moderating the response mechanism chosen by the individual. Specifically, an individual who is pre-disposed to be flexible or who is moving into a flexible role will be more likely to employ active adjustment mechanisms.

While each of these theoretical frameworks have been useful in understanding the role transition process in organizations, work-role transition theory incorporates the central concepts and variables of the theory proposed by Dawis and Lofquist (1984), such as the notion of active and reactive adjustment modes, and explains in greater detail, and with greater attention to the operationalization of important variables, the process of role transitions. The scope of research on work-role transition theory is small, but growing, and supportive empirical evidence has been found for related concepts in work adjustment theory (Dawis & Lofquist, 1984). For purposes of understanding and studying career transitions, then, work-role transition theory offers an excellent base for theoretical extensions.

Career Stage Transitions-An Application

Careers have been described as a sequence of stages in a person’s work life, each associated with different attitudes and behaviors (Hall, 1976; Feldman, 1988). One such concept of career stages is particularly relevant to the present discussion. Dalton and Thompson (1986) characterize career stages in three important ways–in terms of the central behaviors, relationships, and psychological issues associated with each of four career stages–Apprentice, Independent Contributor, Mentor, and Director.

Dalton and Thompson’s view of career stages is compelling in the context of career stage transitions for several reasons: (1) virtually everyone with a career will at some point experience at least one career stage transition; (2) different career stages present organizational members with different role-related challenges, requirements and opportunities; (3) transitions to succeeding stages are seen as important aspects of career development; (4) failed transitions between career stages have negative consequences for both individuals and organizations; and (5) successfully completing career stage transitions presents challenges that are representative of all subjective career transitions. The career stages model proposed by Dalton and Thompson (1986) can help to clarify and define the potential contributions of work role adjustment theory to understanding career stage transitions by laying a foundation for further research and study.

The Career Stages Model

Dalton and Thompson (1986) have identified four stages in the typical professional or managerial career, not all of which will necessarily be experienced by a given individual. The stages are generally, although not always, sequential, and are not necessarily bounded organizationally or geographically. Each succeeding stage increases the individual’s independence, scope of involvement, and breadth of influence in the firm.

Stage I: Apprentices. Individuals in the first career stage are generally not given a great deal of responsibility or latitude in the work they do. Behaviors expected of Apprentices center on job-relevant learning, helping others and following directions. The primary psychological issue facing people in this stage is dependence on others (e.g., supervisors or mentors), and their central relationship is that of apprenticeship. Apprentices are expected to willingly accept direction and supervision; they seldom have independent responsibility for projects. Rather they work on small pieces of larger projects under the supervision of a senior professional or manager.

Stage II: Independent Contributors. Movement into the second career stage is achieved by establishing a reputation for credibility and competence in the organization. Independent Contributors are given responsibility for a definable portion of projects, processes, or clients. In this stage, individuals redefine their relationships with their Mentors, and others upon whom they were dependent in Stage I, and are expected to work more independently than Apprentices. Their central relationship is colleagueship, or working effectively with peers as well as superiors. In this stage, peers may become an important alternative to Mentors for psychosocial support and career enhancement (Kram & Isabella, 1985). Psychologically, Independent Contributors must confront and satisfactorily resolve the issue of acquiring independence.

Stage III: Mentors. Individuals in the third career stage take responsibility for more than just their own performance. In addition to their independent job-related contributions to the firm, they act as Mentors for employees in the first two stages. Mentors offer a career-enhancing function and provide psychosocial support to their proteges (Kram, 1985; Kram & Isabella, 1985). The central relationship, which more than anything else distinguishes people in Stage III from those in Stage II, is this mentor-protege relationship. The major psychological issue Mentors must confront is that of assuming responsibility for others’ work activities and career development in addition to their own.

Stage IV: Directors. The role of Director is not confined to top management, but may include, for example, creative researchers or divisional or department heads. Any individual who exerts significant and sustained influence on the strategic direction of the organization falls in this classification. Individuals in this fourth stage are more detached from personal contact with people in the other stages. Instead, their relationships center on representing the firm across significant internal and external organizational boundaries. They take greater responsibility for shaping the overall direction and strategy of the firm through their overarching perspectives and contributions. This is accomplished through “mapping” the environment, identifying and strengthening the distinctive competencies of the firm, and managing the decision-making process. Directors develop, implement and oversee the broad strategic programs and directions of the organization and may also identify and sponsor promising individuals for key roles in the organization. This sponsor relationship is different from the mentor-protege relationship in that it focuses on providing developmental opportunities and increasing responsibility for people who have already established a reputation for excellence in earlier stages. The major psychological issue that must be resolved by Directors is that of exercising power in the organization, with the objectives of setting new directions, initiating action, influencing decisions, and obtaining needed resources.

In summary, the Dalton and Thompson (1986) model of career stages indicates that normal or expected career progression may be distinguished in three ways. First, over time, organization members become capable of contributing and are expected to contribute in increasingly broad and significant ways to the performance of the organization. Second, the focus of responsibility progressively broadens from dependence, through independence, to responsibility for the progress of others, and finally to responsibility for the strategic direction of the organization. Third, the central interpersonal relationships of each stage are consistent with the responsibilities and psychological issues relevant to each stage.

Change is inherent in a career, and examining the Dalton and Thompson (1986) career stage model in light of current understandings of work role transitions should help to identify where such career transitions are likely to be possible or impossible, easy or difficult, desirable, or undesirable. Louis (1980a) has suggested that career stage transitions represent significant career passages, and Dalton and Thompson (1986) have identified serious individual and organizational consequences for difficult or unsuccessful career stage transitions. Understanding what facilitates adjustment to career stage transitions is an important goal of the present discussion. It is the purpose of the next section of this paper to provide a framework for investigating these issues.

Integrating Career Stages and Role Transitions

As noted previously, the focus of study on career stages has been identification of the boundaries and content of stages, and has largely neglected the process of moving from one stage to another. Career stage transitions are an important area of study, however, since both organizations and individuals experience a variety of problems when employees fail to make the transition from one stage to another, or when the transition is overly difficult (Dalton & Thompson, 1986; Dalton, Thompson & Price, 1977).

The remainder of this study will present an expanded model of professional career stages that will direct attention to the problematic area of adjustment during career stage transitions, and will provide a guide for research. The discussion will conclude with the development of theory-based propositions for future research in this area.

Career Stage Transitions

It is proposed here that career stage transitions, pursuant to the relationships exhibited in work role transition theory (Nicholson & West, 1988), will be affected by four independent variables in unique ways.

Stage requirements. Each of Dalton and Thompson’s four stages present distinctive challenges to transitioning individuals, related to behavioral, psychological and relationship components of the stage. Each stage may be characterized by high or low discretion, and high or low novelty. Dalton and Thompson (1986) also point out that individuals may regress from one stage to another, a situation characterized by both decreased novelty in the stage and reduced discretion. For example, the psychological issue relevant to Stage I is dependence, plainly involving low discretion. The behavioral component, however, is presumed to carry high novelty, reflected in the fact that individuals in Stage I have usually been thrust into new situations requiring the learning of new behaviors.

Socialization in past stages. Work roles, coping mechanisms and behaviors learned in previous career stages should have a substantial effect on modes of adjustment used in newly entered career stages. As discussed by Nicholson (1984), level of discretion experienced in past career stages is expected to influence the choice of mode of adjustment in the current stage. For example, individuals accustomed to high discretion in past career stages will be more likely to attempt role change as an adjustment mechanism in transitioning to later stages.

Individual attributes. The relative strength of desires for control and feedback in the individual will influence choice of mode of adjustment to the demands of new career stages. Research on locus of control (Rotter, 1966) supports the idea of need for control as an influence on choice of mode of adjustment. Individuals with an external locus of control will likely be more attuned to differences in the new stage than will internals, and may be more likely to adapt themselves to the situation than to try to change the requirements of the new stage. An individual with an internal locus of control and accompanying high desire for control, then, may choose inappropriate modes of adjustment for Stage I, and thus experience a painful, and possibly failed transition from pre-career experiences to Stage I. The same person might experience a relatively easy and successful transition, using a similar mode of adjustment in entering Stage II, with its greater latitude for individual input.

Current stage socialization tactics. Van Maanen and Schein (1979) offer a typology of socialization tactics that are directly related to Nicholson’s themes of level of discretion and personal change versus role innovation. Role innovation involves adapting the characteristics and requirements of the new role to fit the personal style and attributes of the individual, and is associated with individual, random, informal, fixed, and disjunctive socialization tactics, as well as tactics involving investiture. Personal change, or adaptation of the individual to the new role requirements, is more likely when collective, sequential, formal, variable, and serial socialization tactics, and tactics involving divestiture are used. Nicholson argues that where levels of discretion are perceived to be high, role innovation will be the preferred mode of adjustment, and where discretion is perceived to be low, personal change will be more likely. These relationships should persist for career stage transitions, and socialization tactics employed in each new stage are expected to directly influence the mode of adjustment adopted by the individual.

From the foregoing application of work role transition theory to career stages, a model of career stage transitions may be derived. In this model, four conditions precede the choice of adjustment style, including: (1) individual differences in needs for control and feedback; (2) expected or perceived role requirements in the new career stage; (3) experienced levels of discretion in previous stages; and (4) anticipated levels of discretion in the new stage. The tactics used by the organization to socialize the individual upon entry to the new role interact with the antecedent conditions in determining the mode of adjustment that will be adopted by the individual. The success or failure of the transition is then a function of the adjustment style employed by the individual and the actual role requirements of the new stage.

If the choice of adjustment mode is appropriate to the actual requirements of the new stage, the transition should be smooth and complete. With an inappropriate choice, the transition is likely to be more difficult or even interrupted. In either case, the events associated with the inappropriate transition attempt will become a part of the individual’s store of experience. In the case of a difficult transition, the individual may eventually regress to the previous stage. A failed transition would likely result either in avoidance of another transition attempt, or choice of a different mode of adjustment for the next transition attempt.

Directions for Future Research

Based on the preceding model a set of four propositions was developed for this discussion as an illustration of the manner in which this model may be used to guide future research. The four propositions concern choice of adjustment mode and specific career stages.

According to Dalton and Thompson (1986) Stage I is characterized by behaviors such as learning, helping and following directions, and the associated psychological issue is dependence. Clearly, the individual’s level of role discretion upon entering Stage I will be low. Since Stage I is usually associated with beginning a career or occupation, it is expected that role novelty will be high. Therefore, the first proposition is stated as follows:

Proposition 1: Successful transitions to Stage I will be associated with low desire for control on the part of the individual, low experienced discretion, and organizational socialization tactics leading to personal change rather than role innovation. Replication as the mode of adjustment will predict a successful transition to Stage I.

Stage II is characterized by increasing latitude for the individual to act independently of supervisors and increased responsibility for significant organizational tasks, leading to moderately greater experienced discretion in this stage. However, the focus of this stage is still on establishing a reputation for technical competence, and therefore novelty is expected to be somewhat low.

Proposition 2: Successful transitions to Stage II will be associated with moderate desire for control on the part of the individual moderate experienced discretion in the previous stage, and organizational socialization tactics leading to personal change. Absorption as a mode of adjustment will predict a successful transition to Stage II.

In Stage III the individual begins a substantial shift away from the psychological issues and behavioral activities of the previous stages. In this stage, mentoring becomes a dominant activity, and the major psychological issue for entrants to this stage is dealing with responsibility for other people as well as oneself. Individual discretion and opportunities for role innovation in this stage are expected to be high, while stage novelty is expected to be relatively moderate. The following proposition applies.

Proposition 3: Successful transitions to Stage III will be associated with high desire for control on the part of the individual, high experienced discretion, and organizational socialization tactics intended to encourage role innovation. Determination as a mode of adjustment will predict success in the transition to Stage III.

Finally, for individuals making the transition to Stage IV, another shift becomes salient, from responsibility for other people to responsibility for the organization as a whole. Exercising power on behalf of the organization is the primary psychological issue, and the ability to be innovative in a new role that is continually changing in response to a dynamic environment is therefore even more important than before. Novelty is expected to be very high consonant with substantial changes in job duties and responsibilities, and the demands of a constantly changing environment.

Proposition 4: Successful transitions to Stage IV will be associated with high desire for control in the individual, high experienced discretion, and organizational socialization tactics that emphasize role innovative behaviors and attitudes. Exploration as a mode of adjustment will predict success in the transition to Stage IV.


Under current conditions, most people can no longer expect the stability of a single career with a single organization that was the perceived norm in past years. Instead, individuals and organizations must be prepared to cope with transitions, both in their subjective and objective careers.

This study has accomplished three goals directed toward guiding research in this critical area. First, the current state of research on subjective career transitions has been reviewed, and gaps in the literature have been identified. A pivotal conclusion of this review is that while objective career transitions have been studied extensively, subjective career transitions have been largely neglected in research on careers and career transitions. In particular, a critical void exists in research on career and life stage transitions.

Second, a theoretical approach to work role transitions was briefly reviewed, and integrated with career stages as an illustration of the application of current conceptual understandings of work role transitions to the subjective career. This integrated model forms a basis for future research on career stage transitions.

Finally, based on the integrated model of career stage transitions described earlier, four research propositions were developed. These research propositions focus on adjustment mode as a predictor of the success or failure of career stage transitions. In these propositions, each of the four adjustment modes proposed by Nicholson and West (1988) is linked with the role characteristics of each of the four career stages identified by Dalton and Thompson (1986). Further research will be necessary to understand the environmental, organizational, and individual contingencies which influence not only career stage transitions, but all subjective career transitions.

Acknowledgement: Many thanks to Stuart A. Youngblood and Charles R. Greer for their encouragement and helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article. An earlier version was presented at the Western Academy of Management Meeting, March, 1989. Financial support for this research was provided in part by a grant from the Charles Tandy American Enterprise Center at Texas Christian University.


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