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.