Relating Interests to College Majors, Career Clusters, and Career Pathways

By Lawrence K. Jones and Juliet Wehr Jones

Career professionals use a variety of ways of organizing occupations to help clients identify career options.  Many of us use career interests, like Holland's six types, to help people identify occupations that match their personality.  According to Holland (1997), "Different types require different environments.  For instance, Realistic types flourish in Realistic environments . . . (p. 5)."  In Holland's theory this matchup is called congruence, and there is evidence that greater congruence predicts job satisfaction and success. 

The same relationship holds for interest-major congruence.  A good match between students' interests and the courses they take affects the grades they earn, how much they enjoy school, and how satisfied and successful they are after graduation. Research backs this up.  For example, in a longitudinal study involving 80,000+ students at 87 colleges, greater interest-major congruence was associated with a higher GPA and rates of retention. (Tracey & Robbins 2006). 

The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) has published two ways of organizing instructional programs that are not grouped according to Holland types or interests. One has 16 Career Clusters (broad groups of occupations and industries) that are further divided into 70+ Career Pathways (a series of courses that prepare a student for an occupational field). Most states have adopted it.  The other system is the Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP).  It is a list of 1300+ post secondary instructional programs - training programs and college majors found in the U.S. and Canada.

Because neither of these classification systems is organized by interests or Holland types, it can be a challenge to help people match their interests to educational options. For example, the list of occupations in USDE's  "Law Enforcement Services" Career Pathway includes some occupations for which the primary Holland type is Enterprising, others are primarily Social, others are Investigative, and still others are Realistic.

We wanted to develop an easy way to match interests to instructional programs.  In 2008, we began the project using a new USDE crosswalk that relates all 900+ O*NET occupations to the CIP and Career Clusters and Pathways. We analyzed each of these occupations to determine their placement in The Career Key's classification system (see online manual for details).

This system first organizes occupations into the six Holland types and then subdivides the occupations in each Holland type into "Work Groups" -- groups of jobs where workers share similar traits: interests, aptitudes, temperament, skills, and abilities.  Using the USDE crosswalk, we then related each instructional program to a Work Group. The final result was a classification system of majors and training programs by Holland types and Work Groups, which students can use to identify programs that match their interests.

Take the Holland Social personality type as an example.  Its occupations are organized into five Work Groups.  One group, "Social Services" includes occupations like: 

Using the USDE crosswalk, we found that 38 postsecondary majors and training programs are associated with this occupational Work Group. So individuals having a primary personality type of Social who are attracted to this Work Group can identify 38 matching majors and training programs.

An interactive web article, Choose a Major or Training Program, enables visitors to match their Holland type to a sample of instructional programs, each with a description like this: 

Juvenile Corrections

A program that prepares individuals to specialize in the provision of correction services to underage minor populations.  Includes instruction in corrections, juvenile delinquency, juvenile development and psychology, juvenile law, and justice administration, social services, record-keeping procedures, and communication skills.


There is also a 348-page book, available for download as a PDF file, called The Education Key that enables readers to use this classification system to match their Holland type to all CIP programs.

Similarly, the article Choosing a Career Cluster, Career Field, or Career Pathway enables students to,

 A 117-page book called 5 Steps to Choosing the Right Career Cluster, Field, or Pathway, available as a PDF file, gives more detailed information.

In practice, there are many ways our work can be used.  We recommend using our ACIP decision-making model, described in the web article High Quality Decisions.  It is practical, research-based, and includes a Decision Balance Sheet for download.  It provides a positive decision-making framework for young people and adults choosing an instructional program that matches their interests.    Please share with us any suggestions for improving our work.



Holland, J. L. (1997).  Making vocational choices (3rd ed.).  Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources. 

Tracey, Terence J.G., Robbins, S.B. (2006).  The interest-major congruence and college success relation: A longitudinal study.  Journal of Vocational Behavior, 69, 64-89.

Larry Jones Lawrence K. Jones, Ph.D., NCC is Professor Emeritus at North Carolina State University and the author of several professional career measures. He served on the editorial boards of the CDQ and JCD.  Larry received ACA's Professional Development Award in 2001.  He is President of Career Key, a philanthropy and business devoted to helping people make good career decisions.  He launched The Career KeyTM website in 1997 (described in a 2005 Career Convergence article); approximately 5,000 people visit daily.  He can be reached at lawrencejonesphd@earthlink.net.


Juliet Jones Juliet Wehr Jones, J.D., is Vice President of Career Key and author of the popular Career Key Blog, featured on Alltop Careers. She is working on her CDF certification. In 2006, she joined Career Key after 10 years practicing labor and employment law, last serving as the Legal Officer for the Washington State Patrol.  To contact Juliet: julietjones@careerkey.biz.


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