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Student career choices are not a simple A to B

Students’ career interests and plans often develop and shift in non-linear ways. Kathleen M Quinlan and James Corbin ring the changes
This article is more than 1 year old

Kathleen M Quinlan is Professor of Higher Education and Director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Kent

James Corbin is Head of Careers and Employability at the University of Kent

A significant and unavoidable part of going to university is that, at some point, students need to work out what to do next.

For universities, supporting this process is important. Not only is it the right thing to do, it also feeds our bottom line. Whether it’s metrics, frameworks, or league tables, career outcomes are being measured. To help ensure students are on track toward good outcomes, recent innovations such as Careers’ Registration (the inclusion of employability-related questions in student registration) try to understand and identify current students in need. We now have much more information about students’ career “decidedness” – the extent to which they have a clear plan – but not so much about the journey they go through.

It seemed the taste was not so sweet

In a recent study funded by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU), we asked 663 graduating students what their career interests were when they started university versus now. The majority (61 per cent) indicated that their aspirations had changed during their studies.

Consider these four students:

Alex: I started out wanting to be a cameraman but working on set made me realise I was stronger in the editing suite. (Arts)

Robin: I wanted to work in industry, and now I want to be a secondary chemistry teacher. (Physical sciences)

Charlie: I didn’t have any [career interest]. Now, I want to become an archaeological scientist after a masters. (European culture and languages)

Bobbie: I wanted to be a solicitor, but I’m not sure now. (Law)

Annual surveys often assume linear trajectories, such as the 18 per cent of students like Charlie who were initially undecided, but then settled on a career interest. They may also help us flag students like Bobbie, though we may not appreciate that they have lost certainty, as opposed to a student who never had a plan. While Bobbie is worrying and is likely in greatest need of immediate support for employability, only five per cent of our respondents overall fit that category.

But by focusing only on whether students have a clear plan or not, the sector overlooks the much more common, yet important, changes represented by students like Alex and Robin. Almost half (45 per cent) of those who reported a change were like Alex, who clarified their career interest within a standard industrial classification. Robin represents the 29 per cent of “changers” who shifted from one standard industrial classification to another.

As they try to change their worlds

Alex and Robin are success stories of higher education. Ideally, higher education should provide new experiences that allow students to stretch themselves, try out new activities and roles, and gain knowledge about a field and themselves to shape positive career trajectories. To help students build their employability, we need to understand the experiences of students like Alex and Robin and use that to shape our employability strategies and careers guidance.

It is notable that both Alex’s and Robin’s changes were still consistent with their degree course. In an earlier study, we found that most students reported choosing their degree course based on interest in the subject. Unsurprisingly, students with high interest in their subject wanted to continue to pursue that interest during their careers – and this helped fuel proactive exploration of related careers that led to clear career plans.

In Robin’s case, a chemistry degree is an equally good foundation for a career in pharmaceuticals as it is for teaching chemistry in secondary school. These two career interests, though, involve different combinations of interests and skills, as well as day-to-day activities.

Spending time in different work and study environments, reflecting on what they like and are good at, and appreciating the realities of different jobs related to their subject all help students identify careers in which they will be most interested and satisfied. It is likely that those students who have chosen careers knowledgeably and deliberately to align with well-developed interests will later subjectively rate their graduate outcomes as a success.

They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

In both studies, we found that curriculum was the most important factor in refining and redirecting students’ career interests. As one student put it, “certain modules have pushed me towards careers I didn’t know existed.” Placements, work experiences, and co-curricular activities were also important influences. Careers services ranked relatively low on the list in both studies.

Thus, the curricular and instructional design choices made by academics are central to students’ career interest development. Unfortunately, our data was short on specifics from students about exactly which aspects of the curriculum, such as examples used in class, guest speakers, employability modules, or authentic assessments, were most helpful to them.

In the full report for HECSU, we reported on interviews with students about how their interests developed during higher education. These interviews showed that we should not think of students as passive recipients of curricular or co-curricular interventions.

Rather, students proactively navigate the curriculum, placements, work experiences, and co-curricular opportunities to refine their interests. They have rationales for choosing certain pathways through their programme and particular work experiences. Many deliberately try out new things to rule in or rule out related careers, while others carefully select options in the curriculum that offer opportunities to grow their knowledge directly related to their career interests.

Considering career and interest development from a student perspective suggests that we should tap into their intrinsic motivations – both for pursuing their subject of study and for ensuring that they have a successful, satisfying career after university.

7 responses to “Student career choices are not a simple A to B

  1. I think this is a really interesting point. Our students grow and develop as learners so it seems reasonable to expect that their career plans may change during this process. The key is to give them confidence that it’s ok to change their mind, and it’s also ok to not have a specific career plan.

  2. “How do you know, what you don’t know?” – the fundamental conundrum in careers work. Great to hear students’ are testing out their theories both to progress in their chosen subject area and to ‘shop’ around to try other things.

  3. Moreover, the skills of exploration, assessment, analysis and adaptability will help them throughout their lives as further career changes become necessary or appropriate. Inculcating students with a sense of control over their futures and happiness in uncertainty is a very positive outcome of higher education!

  4. It’s unsurprising that Careers services ranked low on the list of interventions that impact students career thinking; the very best of Careers team work happens seamlessly within the curriculum with subject nuance. Delivered in collaboration with academic staff, it is indistinguishable from other subject specific module content. It’s a success for a Careers team if they are not seen as an external factor. Careers consultancy work which leads to strong curriculum design on the employability agenda is often invisible, and so it should be!

    1. I completely agree! There is also the question of whether students understand which work is delivered by the careers service – often we (purposefully) blur these lines for student experience.

  5. As a careers professional in HE, I just wanted to add that this is a cracking piece, and one that everyone in HE should read, learn and inwardly digest.

    I also particularly Lucy Cox’s comment – this is the ideal that we should all be working towards, in my opinion (even though curriculum design gives me the heebee-jeebees).

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