The Power of Self-Determination Theory | Noelle M. Parra

With the semester beginning we wanted to provide you all with some motivation to refocus on why you do what you do! Just in case you are having trouble refocusing. What are some things that are reminding you of why you do the work that you do? -Michelle

This piece is written by Noelle M. Parra at Florida Atlantic University. 

As I was flossing a patient’s teeth for the eighth time that day, I thought to myself, “Why am I doing this?” I was unhappy being a dental hygienist and I felt trapped, but I did not know how to go about finding a gratifying career until I learned about the Self-Determination Theory (SDT). According to SDT, people have three fundamental needs: competence, relatedness, and autonomy (Deci & Ryan, 2002). The theory states that if these needs are fulfilled, people will develop and work at their optimum level. So, how do we identify a career that makes us feel competent, related, and autonomous? The purpose of this article is to share my own story as a way of demonstrating the importance of determining what makes you feel competent, related, and autonomous. My hope is that this will inspire student affairs professionals to self-assess whether they feel competent, related, and autonomous in their own careers and to share the theory with their students.

The removal of my braces at the age of fifteen was a pivotal event in my life. I grew up hating my smile and being called “Bugs Bunny.” However, after the braces were removed I was finally proud of my smile. Based on this encouraging experience, I made the decision to become an orthodontist so that I could positively impact other people’s lives.  I was so blindly determined to become a dentist that I completely disregarded the wise advice I received from my first college academic advisor, who instructed me to major in something I liked. Instead, I majored in Food Science and Human Nutrition solely because it fulfilled all of the requirements for admission to dental school. The combination of challenging courses and a lack of interest in the material was disastrous. I did not feel competent, related, or autonomous, and although I did not have the credentials to be admitted to dental school, I decided to become a dental hygienist instead. Sadly, it was not until I began working as a dental hygienist that I realized I had wasted my time and energy on a profession I was not passionate about. After spending nine years and thousands of dollars on my education, I realized that I had been following the wrong path.

Determined to not serve a life sentence doing a job I was not passionate about, I began to reflect and asked questions like: What am I passionate about? What do I want to spend the rest of my life doing? I spent a lot of time soul searching because I did not want to waste any more time pursuing the wrong career. To ensure that I chose the correct career path to sustain my well-being, motivation, and engagement, I had to first define and understand my psychological needs. Competence is a person’s need to feel effective when engaging in challenging tasks in their environment. Relatedness is a person’s need to feel a sense of belonging to a group and the ability to have loving and caring relationships with others. Autonomy is a person’s need to feel that they have psychological freedom and the ability to make choices for themselves (Van den Broeck, Vansteenkiste, De Witte, Soenens, & Lens, 2010). Once I understood my needs, I was ready to find a way to fulfill them.

I thought back on the different activities I had participated in throughout my life to determine if any of them had ever satisfied my psychological needs. My participation as an undergraduate in student affairs organizations, like serving as an ambassador for the Dean of Students Office and being an orientation leader, made me feel competent, related, and autonomous. Being a part of those organizations gave me the opportunity to challenge myself by being a resource of information about the university and helping students make the most of their college experience. In short, working in student affairs made me feel connected with students and with an institution. Therefore, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Higher Education Leadership.

Now that I have satisfied my competence and autonomy needs, I am able to easily sustain my intrinsic motivation.  Intrinsic motivation is part of autonomous motivation, where a person chooses to participate in a given task (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Intrinsic motivation has been known to lead to “greater psychological health and more effective performance on heuristic types of activities” (Deci & Ryan, 2008, p. 183). The fulfillment of my need for relatedness is crucial for internalization, which can lead to the integration of my sense of self (Deci, Eghrari, Patrick, & Leone, 1994).

Since joining the Ph.D. program, my psychological needs are being met and I have felt more accomplished than ever before. It took years of being unhappy and feeling inept to give me the courage to change my circumstances. By using SDT, I identified a career that would make me feel competent, related, and autonomous. Are you feeling competent, related, and autonomous in your job? If not, I challenge you to reflect on your psychological needs and make appropriate career choices so that you can function at optimum level. Also, consider using SDT to help your students reflect on their psychological needs when considering career options. We all want to feel competent, related, and autonomous – take steps to make sure your career allows you to meet these important psychological needs.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology, 49(3), 182-185.

Deci, E. L., Eghrari, H., Patrick, B. C., & Leone, D. R. (1994). Facilitating internalization: The self-determination theory perspective. Journal of Personality, 62(1), 119-142.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

Van den Broeck, A., Vansteenkiste, M., De Witte, H., Soenens, B., & Lens, W. (2010). Capturing autonomy, competence, and relatedness at work: Construction and initial validation of the work-related basic need satisfaction scale. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 83, 981-1002.


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