Review of the SDS Handbook

Handbook for Using the Self-Directed Search : Integrating RIASEC and CIP Theories in Practice by Robert C. Reardon, PhD and Janet G. Lens, PhD, PAR, Lutz, FL, USA. 236 pages.

by Dr. Janet E. Wall, Founder

I thought of myself as rather well informed on the Holland theory, the Self-Directed Search (SDS) and similar instruments, and how to use the results with clients and in career guidance systems.  After all, I was responsible for creating a Holland based instrument for the Department of Defense to use within the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) Career Exploration Program. What I discovered after reading this handbook is that I was probably not mining the richness of the assessment results to the extent that I could based on the research that had been done. This handbook will help show you how to better understand your client’s preferences, how interests relate to more depth in understanding careers and industries, and how to use the instrument as a counseling and coaching tool more competently and correctly.

The handbook begins in Chapter 1, John L. Holland, a Personal Introduction, by getting into the mindset of John Holland and how Holland’s jobs and experiences led him to develop the theory to begin with and how he related the interest areas to careers, eventually developing various instruments that purported to measure an individual’s interest areas.  Throughout the handbook the authors explain some of Holland’s thinking based on John Holland’s actual RIASEC code which was a largely undifferentiated but elevated profile with all the codes high except for Conventional and Artistic being the highest code. Much of the chapter helps the reader understand Holland and his contributions through the comments of colleagues, friends and by means of comments related in obituaries. If you are interested in the origins of the Self-Directed Search and want to know more about Holland himself, this chapter is a good read, otherwise it can be skipped.

Chapter 2, RIASEC Theory: Past and Present, focuses on the evolution of the theory and the Holland initiated instruments that measure the six RIASEC codes. Clearly the creation of the hexagon as the explanation between and among the six interest categories takes precedent in the chapter as does the specific definitions of each of the six RIASEC areas. Much of the chapter focuses on rebutting the myths or criticisms typically associated with the RIASEC theory such as:

  • Relegating occupations to only six codes does not capture the complexity of today’s world-of work.
  • That the utility of using just three codes to explain interests and occupations requires the administration of more extensive and more complex assessment tools to gain a better picture of the client.
  • The SDS is not as useful with creative or intuitive types of individuals or with differing racial or ethnic types.
  • That new occupations in the US economy are not represented well within the RIASEC typology.
  • The SDS does not measure values or competencies.

I found the section on the assumptions behind the theory to be critical to the basic understanding of the theory and its use.  For example, that people and environments (occupations) can be described according to Holland’s six types, that people search for compatible environments, and that our behavior is associated with the interaction between ourselves and our environment. The chapter goes on to explain what the authors call secondary assumptions such as congruence, consistency, differentiation and identity. Other chapters will deal with these ideas in more depth.

Chapter 3, Types and Environments More Fully Explained, does a deeper dive into the theory and its relationship to the 5-factor theory, the Cognitive Information Processes theory (expanded on in a later chapter). What I found particularly helpful was the table 3.2 that outlined the best career and educational planning approaches for each RIASEC type. This information can be very helpful to practitioners as they use interest inventory results with students and clients.

I also appreciated figure 3.1 which plotted the percentage of jobs by RIASEC type in the US economy over a 60 year period from 1960 to 2010, figure 3.3 which shows the number of people employed in each kind of work over that same time period, and figure 3.4 which plots the annual salaries by RIASEC type each decade from 1990 to 2010.

For those of us with rare codes or for those who have difficulty finding a job compatible with our codes, the chapter provides some research on the extent of the incompatibility and possible remedies associated with these incompatible conditions.

Being higher education professors and researchers, the authors did focus on the relationship of the RIASEC typology and academic disciplines as summarized nicely in table 3.8 which is an abbreviated set of academic fields or majors organized by RIASEC categories. This chapter concludes with chart that plots academic levels of associate, bachelor, and professional degree programs against the codes showing career advisors and student where their educational aspirations might best be served.  For example, a person with a realistic interest might find more programs of interest provided by institutions offering associate degrees.

A description of the latest version of the SDS gets attention Chapter 4, Review and Use of the SDS Form R, 5th Edition, with a listing of the changes in the latest version from the previous one. Career practitioners who have relied on previous versions may find this information of some interest. The remainder of the chapter provides some thoughts about the daydreams, activities, competencies and occupations sections of the instrument and how to fold that information into the interpretation process with students and clients. The authors’ bias about the SDS comes clear as they compare the instrument to others typically used in career counseling.

Chapter 5, Comparing and Using SDS Forms, Formats, and Features, relates information on the various versions of the SDS while Chapter 6, Other Holland Based Program Materials, focuses on various related program materials such as the Dictionary of Holland Occupations Codes, the Vocational Preference Inventory, the Position Classification Inventory, Career Attitudes and Strength Inventory, and others. Chapter 7, Practicing with RIASEC and Cognitive Information Processing (CIP) Theories, begins to describe the Cognitive Information Processing Theory and how the SDS relates to that process.

I suspect that for most practitioners Chapter 8, Interpreting the SDS, might be the most useful and can help practitioners extract more information from the SDS helping a client reach beyond the simple use of matching a person’s interest to careers.  The chapter also helps a career practitioner understand that the SDS is an assessment and concurrently a career intervention.

Of particular use to career practitioners might be Figures 8.2 and Table 8.1 which outline and describe how to interpret SDS information using such ideas as congruence, personality, coherence, consistency, profile elevation, differentiation, and commonness of code. These ideas receive added attention in this chapter. Figure 8.4 and Table 8.3 provide a framework for how to implement various career interventions with different Holland interest types. This is somewhat similar to what was provided in Chapter 3.

Chapters 9, Using the SDS Diagnostic Signs and the CTI in Career Assistance, and 10, Four Case Studies, provide some case studies on how the SDS and other assessments and information can be used to help clients and students. Chapter 9 promotes another product, the Career Thoughts Inventory, developed by the Handbook authors and the publisher of the SDS. Chapter 11, Program Development Strategies, deviates to some extent from interpreting the SDS per se and concentrates on how to develop theory-based career services. The Cognitive Information Processing theory is a framework for the suggestions in this chapter.

Chapter 12, Evaluation and Future Trends, recounts what many other book authors, researchers, and assessment reviewers have said about the SDS. Of particular utility is the bibliographic listing of more than 2,000 references on the Holland RIASEC theory. Access it here at  (Check with Authors:  Why cannot I see all the references?)

The Handbook has some potentially useful appendices such as a matching exercise between RIASEC theory concepts, a match between undergraduate courses of study and the six RIASEC areas, a one-page Individual Learning plan, a self-test on SDS and RIASEC concepts, and some further exercises related to the CIP theory.

All is all, the Handbook is the single most comprehensive source and resource for John Holland and the RIASEC theory.  It covers much of the research and practical work of the Florida State authors and their colleagues and graduate students. It forced me to think about the Holland theory in more multifaceted and complex ways. I appreciate the power of the instrument, and the theory, as a career development and counseling tool.

I quibble with the authors on some of their biases.  For example, they do not like to recognize that other instruments have been constructed around the Holland theory.  In fact, they claim that none have been developed based on the theory.  This is not true and was not true at the time of the writing on the book. The Holland theory is not copyrighted and anyone can use it to develop an assessment or other resources. The authors claim that other instruments are “knockoffs” suggesting that they are not as good or useful as the SDS. One should look at the research to make that determination.

I found it somewhat frustrating to read some of the research and related findings without any substantiation as to whether it was the SDS that was used in the research or other instruments.

Also frustrating was that the book felt a bit “chopped up” with some of the same ideas appearing in several chapters without particular cause. I would have preferred that each chapter start with relevant learning objectives and then laser focused on providing the content necessary to achieve those objectives.  I guess that is the “I” in me.

I object to the author’s calling the instrument valid because validity deals with the research-based legitimacy of interpreting the results. Validity is an accumulation of research evidence, not a one time shot. The need for validity evidence never stops and it needs to be relevant in a multitude of situations. It is not an inherent trait of an assessment like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

The authors provide substantial information about the Cognitive Information Processing theory which is not surprising since it was inspired by them and their Florida State colleagues. I wish they would have also brought in other career development theories, but then those other theories were not developed by Florida State or supported by the publisher PAR.

I highly recommend this book for people who are using Holland based assessments to help them unravel the various facets of using interests in career decision making and the career development process and apply the results less superficially while working with students or clients. It is also great for career counseling graduate students who may be required to know the Holland theory in a more profound way.

I was glad to be reminded about the following:

  • The Holland theory is not copyrighted
  • The power of the theory is that it can be connected to occupations, majors, and jobs.
  • That it is an assessment and a career counseling intervention.
  • The rule of 8 matters when interpreting a person’s SDS results.
  • Interests are more stable after age 25.
  • That all permutations of the three-letter codes should be used when exploring careers.
  • Career aspirations and daydreams should not be discounted in career decision making and that the code represents the past which aspirations represent a direction for the future.


  • Reviewed by Dr. Janet Wall, Career Development Specialist, NCDA Fellow, and Founder, Contact her at 

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