Successful career transition: current research
31 Jan. 2018

Been through a career transition, retrenchment or restructure lately? If you answered yes, you are in good company. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that in 2013 just over 380,000 Australians left their last job due to retrenchment or restructure, while over 1 million people left their job of their own accord.

Whatever the reason, almost all of us will find that career transitions are a part of life. So can career transitions be done well? And can career transitions really be a positive experience?
At PeopleScape we believe the answer to both these questions is yes, and this is more than opinion. As psychologists and organisational development specialists, we build our approach and practice on the best available research. And there is much strong evidence and research in the area of best practice career transitioning. The following research studies focus on effective career transition approaches and underpin our work in this area.

Career transitions: foundational research

In an overarching sense, the research into positive and successful career transitions highlights the link between psychological wellbeing, job performance and job satisfaction. The most well established research strongly supports the importance of developing a protean career and a boundaryless career mindset, as the foundations of both perceived and tangible career success.

The protean career

Douglas T Hall coined the term ‘the protean career’ in 1976, defining it as, ‘a career orientation in which the person, not the organisation, is in charge, where the person’s core values are driving career decisions, and where the main success criteria are subjective (psychological success).’

A protean career requires an individual to decouple their career identity from a specific job or organisation, instead representing an individual’s personal values, motivations and broader career interests.

Several large studies including Ans de Vos & Soens (2008) and a range of Hall’s own research suggest that those with a protean career mindset are characterised by greater mobility, a more whole life perspective and developmental progression, and display two career ‘meta-competencies’ that help equip them to be more protean: adaptability and self-awareness.

These studies focus on the importance of reflecting on career identity and gaining career insight, in order to achieve greater career satisfaction and perceived employability.

The boundaryless career mindset

In 2003, Eby and Butts developed their boundaryless career model in which they demonstrate the link between career insight and both internal marketability (belief that one is valuable to his or her current employer) and external marketability (belief that one is valuable to other employers).

Insight is the process of reflecting on the components that make us who we are. It is a review of experiences, knowledge, skills, behaviours, personalities, needs, values, motivations and aspirations that govern our decisions and the way we interact with others.

A person with a boundaryless mindset believes that his or her psychological traits, psychological tools and physical circumstances hold no bounds. (Sullivan and Arthur 2006). They demonstrate better career insight and are more likely to thrive in an unstable and ever-changing work environment.

Many people have an emotive reaction to job-loss and rush straight into job-search in order to alleviate the associated uncertainty. Yet those who are able to pause to spend both time and focus on developing their own career insights will significantly improve the possible outcomes in almost all career transitions.

Much of our work at PeopleScape involves guiding executives through a process of proper reflection including a detailed introduction to the protean career and the boundaryless career mindsets. Through this experience executives gain valuable career insights, and in the process set a much more meaningful strategic career direction.

The right mindset…then what?

So you are on the path towards developing the foundation blocks of a protean career orientation and a boundaryless career mindset. Then what’s next? How should executives then translate these career insights and their new-found mindset into practical approaches and actions?

In terms of career transitions, the foundational evidence is complemented by a range of more practically-based areas of research which provide valuable guidance in terms of tangible actions and initiatives that have been shown to assist the achievement of successful career transitions.

These additional research-identified areas include the development of a personal career strategy, a focus on your personal brand, an organised approach to opportunity sourcing and management, a review and focus on leadership style and skills, and the undertaking wellbeing routines.

In a sense, both leadership focus and wellbeing routines relate to a more personal exploration and have a more internal view, whereas developing a career strategy, a personal brand and your approach to opportunity sourcing are all more externally focused, linking more closely with what you project and communicate. Each of these is introduced briefly below.

Career transitions: action-based research and evidence

Career Strategy

A significant number of people have never considered the concept of developing their own personal career strategy. Many have followed a set path without understanding all of the options open to them, particularly those in mid to later career who have already developed a wide range of professional tools. And others feel disempowered to create a career strategy, believing it is futile.
Eby and Butts’ 2003 research showed that ‘Knowing Why’ is more important than ‘Knowing Whom’ and ‘Knowing How’ in perceived successful outcomes. ‘Knowing Why’ is defined as the willingness to try new things, create opportunities, and set realistic goals. Those who seek out new learning experiences report more satisfaction (Arthur et al 1999, 1996, Bird 1994). ‘Knowing Why’ should be a core element developed as part of a career strategy.

Personal brand

At the heart of the concept of branding is the idea of distinguishing a product or service versus its competitors, so that potential consumers can identify and find an offer that meets their needs. Extending from this, the personal brand should incorporate what makes an executive unique and what makes that person stand out from the crowd.
As Chaney, Lair and Sullivan articulated (2005), ‘success is not determined by individuals’ internal sets of skills, motivations, and interests but, rather, by how effectively they are arranged, crystallized, and labelled—in other words, branded.’

Opportunity sourcing and management

The value of networking is well established in the research as well as more informally, and has an obvious role in times of career transition. Many positions are never advertised and are found via an individual’s network.

Networking is associated with re-employment (e.g., Granovetter, 1973; Lin & Dumin, 1986) and traditional indicators of career success such as promotion rates, bonuses, and job mobility (e.g., Burt, 1997). Eby and Butts (2003) found that having extensive networks within the organisation was associated with perceptions of external marketability and vice versa (external networks are associated with perceptions about internal marketability).


The research around leadership is extensive, with strong associations between for example, coaching and improved leadership performance. Of particular note is the high correlation between the Boundaryless career mindset and Carol Dweck’s theories on mindset.

Career transitions provide a unique opportunity for leadership self-reflection and growth. Executives have the space to explore and develop leadership styles and skills without the organisation outlining preferred leadership styles, values and competencies to which you must adapt.

By decoupling your identity from an organisation, you are freed up to consider your leadership skills and style through your own lens, and to apply a ‘growth mindset’ to your own leadership practice. The more aware you are of your own leadership style, the more able you are to understand how your leadership competencies may be suited to the next role and and what areas you may need to develop.


Research in the area of wellbeing in relation to career transitions particularly focuses on routines and initiatives that improve mental health. The research recommendations include developing a positive mind frame and addressing coping mechanisms.

Maintaining daily routines, remaining active and using time in a structured way are all associated with better mental health for those going through career transition. (McKee-Ryan et al 2005) And maintaining leisure activity (particularly social activities) improves your ability to cope well. (Waters and Moore 2002)

Effective career transitions

Going through a career transition can and should be a positive, empowering time, providing the opportunity to reflect, review priorities, redefine goals, hone broader business and career development skills and build greater career satisfaction. The time, space and guidance to develop a protean mindset, to consider your own personal career identity and to gain career insights can set you up for far greater professional satisfaction in your next role.

Significant quality research exists relating to career transitioning. At PeopleScape we believe that this evidence should form the foundations of professional practice and service provision in the area of career transitioning.

We understand that by basing our practice on this strong foundation, our clients have the confidence to know that career transitions can and will be done well and that they can and will be a positive experience.

Get in touch today to discuss how you can ensure better career transitions for yourself and your staff.