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How and why do students' career interests change?

February 2021

This HECSU-funded report by researchers at the University of Kent explores how higher education influences students' career interests

Key findings 

  • Only 40% of graduates surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that they 'knew what they wanted to do for a career' when they started university. By the time of graduation this figure was 64%. 
  • Most graduates (61%) reported that their career interests had changed during their time at university.  
  • The most common types of change were clarification within a single Standard Industrial Classification (30%), shifts to a different SIC (19%), becoming more decided (12%), or rejecting a plan, leaving them unsure (5%). 
  • The most common influences on career interests were the curriculum (46%), placements (14%), work experiences (7%), and co-curricular activities (6%). 
  • Surprisingly, graduates who completed the survey rarely mentioned friends and never mentioned family as influential in their career interest development during university. 

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How and why do students’ career interests change during higher education?

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About the report

This HECSU-funded research report aims to explore how students' career interests develop and change during higher education. The research looks at answers to the following questions: 

  • To what extent and how do students' career interests change during UK higher education?    
  • What demographic and programme factors were associated with changes in career interest? 
  • Are there different patterns for students studying pure subjects versus those in vocationally-oriented applied programmes?   
  • What did students think influenced, shaped or prompted their changes in career interest? 

It is suggested that the results of this study raise concerns about relying solely on career decidedness measures such as Careers Registration. 

The authors are Kathleen M. Quinlan, James Corbin, Natalie W. Gentry, Lindsey Cameron. 

Funding for this research was awarded by HECSU prior to its merger with Jisc in May 2020.

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