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College Majors and RIASEC Types (Part 1)

The six personality types described by John L. Holland and often referred to by their abbreviation, RIASEC, are used by many assessments and other resources for career development. I find the RIASEC approach useful because it offers to those exploring the world of work a view from 40,000 feet. It summarizes certain patterns of interest and skill so that someone can quickly identify a limited number of occupations that are a good fit for the kinds of activities and knowledge that the career explorer wants to use on the job. But how useful is this model in academic advisement?

The six personality types described by John L. Holland and often referred to by their abbreviation, RIASEC, are used by many assessments and other resources for career development. I find the RIASEC approach useful because it offers to those exploring the world of work a view from 40,000 feet. It summarizes certain patterns of interest and skill so that someone can quickly identify a limited number of occupations that are a good fit for the kinds of activities and knowledge that the career explorer wants to use on the job.

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But how useful is this model in academic advisement? Specifically, can it help college students choose the right major? I had reason to investigate this issue when I was researching 10 Best College Majors for Your Personality (JIST Works).

Most discussion of the Holland theory focuses on its basis in the career development principle of congruence, which posits that people will be happiest, be most productive, and persist longest in a work environment that is consistent with their personality. For example, someone who enjoys work that requires routine tasks according to established rules will be more likely to flourish as a bookkeeper than someone who prefers work that encourages creativity and new ideas. The six Holland types are defined in terms of work activities and work environments, and the RIASEC-reporting assessments typically use work-related items asking users whether they would like to (for example) lay brick or tile, teach children how to read, or perform office filing tasks. The RIASEC assessments, therefore, determine what work situations a person might be congruent with, but do they also suggest what college majors a student might be congruent with?

I’ve suggested elsewhere that we don’t really know much about the environments of college majors. For example, we have detailed data on the skills required by occupations, but apart from such big-picture, SAT-level categories as “verbal” and “math,” we don’t have much data about the skills required by college majors. However, Holland and his colleagues have assigned RIASEC codes to majors (for example, in The Educational Opportunities Finder). Others have made similar linkages–for example, the Career Planner & Major Finder.

Therefore, I was interested to find some research that addresses the relationship between the Holland types of students and of their college majors. (I thank Robert Reardon of Florida State University for alerting me to this body of research.)

The research (pdf), summarized in 2006 by John C. Smart (University of Memphis), Kenneth A. Feldman (SUNY at Stony Brook),  and Corinna A. Ethington (also University of Memphis), looked at the degree of congruence, in terms of Holland types, between students and their majors when the students entered college and again when they completed their majors. The researchers found that in students who showed a high degree of congruence with their majors upon entering college, the personality aspects that matched the environment were reinforced by the experience of being in the major. And this may be considered a sign of success.

But Smart et al. found a different pattern of success for those students who entered a major that was not congruent with their RIASEC type. The experience of being in the major for four years caused these students to have increases in the abilities and interests that were congruent and to show stability or decline (sometimes dramatic) in the abilities and interests that were not congruent. Although the incongruent-upon-entry students did not end up as fully congruent as those who started out that way, the researchers noted that the changes in attitudes that did occur should also be considered measures of success. Incongruence with a major did not mean inability to learn in that major. The researchers used these findings to call attention to an oft-neglected aspect of Holland’s theory: the socialization assumption, which posits that an environment (whether at work or in college) reinforces certain attitudes and discourages other attitudes.

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Popular writers tend to oversimplify Holland’s approach by reducing it to the image of pegs fitting into holes. But this study is a reminder that people are not pegs, that their interests and abilities are not frozen into one profile. Of course, the socialization assumption is probably more relevant to college than to the workplace. College is about learning. In the workplace, there is much less tolerance for incongruent skill sets and attitudes.

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