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Understanding the factors that can influence student career decision making

January 2020

Graduate employability is often constructed in relation to the needs of employers and the economy - to the exclusion of graduates. This research by Sinead D'Silva and Samantha Pugh shifts the focus onto students' processes of decision-making about their futures

The employability agenda continues to be an area of focus for not just universities, but also within the broader economic objective to create a knowledge economy - not just a knowledge society. It is important to remember the political and economic situation under which HE and graduate employment and employability functions. A massified and marketised system under a neoliberal form of political economy has implications for how the past, present and future have, and will, pan out.

As a result of massification, we have a more qualified and knowledgeable society. Recent reports suggest that the proportion of people with a degree in the UK are 50%. Alongside the exponential advancement in science and technology, this is arguably positive. It is often assumed that a more qualified society would beget a more active citizenry. However, this arguably places too much importance on the role of formal education and may create a divide in the population, also privileging some forms of knowledge over others. Additionally, an increase in people accessing higher education implies stress on a limited resource.

Nevertheless, within this context of mass HE, more people feel compelled to go to university. However, this often does not imply people following a certain expected career trajectory – and possibly does not need to either. This project focused on the ways in which physics students engaged with and made decisions about their graduate employment futures. It considered this as a process of decision-making that takes place over time and can be transformed by aspects that are unique to the individual but equally by those aspects that are general and indicative of systemic factors of influence. The research re-focuses the discussion from the perspective of students experiencing the system, insofar as it is possible to represent some concerns raised by young people. In this summary, we provide a set of key points for consideration about graduate futures. The methodology for the research is presented below.

How can careers advisers best help students?

The results support an argument to view employability as a process of transitioning through a degree, with the individuals seen as existing between the structures in place (such as policy and other provision) and through their agency (including cultural particularities, and other personal aspects) and seeing it as more than just getting a job in line with qualifications. There are some key conclusions and implications that can be drawn from this research. These are listed below. Each of these has an impact on how the participants understood employability, their engagement with it and their trajectories of employment, presented in Table 1.

Table 1: Overview of the participants in the longitudinal study

PseudonymTheir thoughts about engagement with employability and activities undertakenGrade and graduate trajectory
TonyFocused on degree - said he was disengaged with employability. However, he had taken up school-based teaching placements through the curriculum and on own, engaged with student union societies, spoke to people in hometown about jobs.2.1, returned home, graduate job
IsaacFocus on degree content and employability equally. President of a student union society, modular industrial placement, part-time work, explored electives, career fairs and opportunity days, applied to graduate schemes during degree.2.1, stayed North, graduate scheme
AliceFocused on degree with aim to take a gap year. Study abroad, sport societies, variety of modules across departments for a varied degree, summer placement.First, returned home to prepare for 'gap year'
JaneFocused on mental wellbeing after struggling during university. Engaged with modules in other disciplines, explored academia options.2.2, returned home, entry-level admin jobs
AshFocus on employability. Student union societies, year in industry, part-time work, different modules for a varied degree, applied to graduate schemes during degree.2.1, moved south to London, graduate scheme
GeorgeInterest in academia. Study abroad-cum-placements year, part-time varied work to display variation in skills.First, Masters programme
LouiseFocused on employability. Part-time work, sport societies, career centre and academic skills-related activities, actively applying for jobs during final year.2.2 returned home, looked for entry-level jobs after not getting graduate scheme
ZacheryBalanced employability and studies. Cultural societies, academic skills. Did not work due to visa restrictions (international student).First, Masters programme

1. Appreciating the change in demands on 'the student'

As a result of more people undertaking a degree, there is an increase in competition for jobs. The employability agenda in HE has tried to support students to improve their chances of successfully acquiring employment in the job market. However, this has resulted in a considerable amount of pressure placed on students to socialise, participate in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, work, all on top of completing degree programmes with an expectation placed on them to achieve a 2:1 or above in order to secure a 'graduate job'. These expectations can often be overwhelming and counter-productive.

When providing employability support to students, it is important to be mindful of their individual journeys and the impact that employer and university expectations have on them. Furthermore, it must be understood that a pre-defined trajectory is irrelevant within the current economic and social context.

2. The subject dimension and differential returns in the employment market

The participants reported confidence in their degree as enabling their smooth transition from a degree, something that in the broader PhD research has been expressed as 'science ego'. Not only had employability statistics supported this belief, but also their experience in terms of reactions during the job application process backed it up. This belief that a physics degree makes them highly employable can have an impact of the perceived need to engage in co-curricular activities during their degree.

However, there were also concerns with the pressure placed on them by the degree programme. This included the sheer workload and difficulty of the course. However, once employed, compared to their degree experience, the young people were disappointed by the lack of challenge that the graduate role provided. This stood in stark contrast to the challenging and lengthy process of graduate recruitment in many cases.

It is important to manage the expectations of graduates and to work with employers to understand the impact these demands have, which coupled with a perceived lack of challenge once employed, impacts retention rates.

3. Lifestyle choices and desired geographical locations

Participant stories suggested that their lifestyle choices played an important part in how they made decisions about their futures. This included influence of family and close social network, societal expectations (including how to confront divergence from these), a desire to make a difference with their chosen career future and preparation for adulthood such as thinking of purchasing a house in the future or starting a family and planning finances for the same. From the individuals' stories in this research, it was evident that students made attempts to manage multiple demands. Yet their own concerns were crucial in influencing their eventual outcomes.

A second part related to geography. The stories revealed that deciding on a future location included practical reasons that must be incorporated into career support. Examples included knowing that London was close to home and had more finance-related jobs as in the case of Louise, or calculated decisions of not moving too far from family but not being too close either as in the case of Isaac. The idea of 'rural' had a different reaction from Tony in the South of England and Ash in the North of England. Tony was eager to return home to the countryside. On the other hand, Ash did not want to return home as he felt his deprived hometown lacked ambition, despite his family primarily living there. For Ash, it symbolised taking a step backward due to the lack of opportunities. For Jane, choosing to go home was an active attempt to put her health and wellbeing before choosing a job. Zachery also did not return home, but opted to do a Masters programme in Greater Manchester before applying for graduate schemes in the UK. He felt his status as a foreign national needed him to prove his capacity beyond that which the others did. International students need to be provided support that is tailored to their needs.

All students had strong views on where they wanted to locate to post-degree. This varied between wanting to live close to home or move away, or a rural versus an urban location. The location of the career opportunity was highly significant in their decision making. This aspect of career planning needs to be taken into account when providing advice to students.

4. Preparing for uncertainty

This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, students face the challenge of an uncertain future, where they know that the concept of a 'job for life' no longer exists. However, this can also be a positive feature in that they do not need to make a decision about what they want to do for their whole career, but just for the first step. Several participants talked of their short, medium and long-term career plans and were generally comfortable in doing so – though these plans too shifted as they experienced different things in their education and work. Their justification for taking up a physics degree also related to the fact that it was 'broad' and gave them access to a range of opportunities.

When supporting students, although it is beneficial to think of long-term plans, it is also important to consider how well-equipped students are for short-term roles and the precarious job landscape. In this sense, the employability agenda serves students exceptionally well in getting them to think of skills developed – the only thing missing is getting them to realise the breadth of opportunities and how to access various different sectors at different points in one's career.

5. Potential over-engagement in employability

This research echoes findings from other studies that show that young people are aware of the need to engage with employability opportunities to be able to influence their employment outcomes (Tomlinson, 2008; Appleby et al., 2012; Morrison, 2014; Wharton and Horrocks, 2015). However, the outcomes differ greatly, and while some may gain, other young people may eventually find themselves let down by the results as they may not always reap the fruits of their additional efforts. The process of transitioning may also be daunting (Hordósy and Clark, 2018) or time-consuming as the 'destination' is visible later on (Christie et al., 2016).

This research found that young people may also end up being excluded for not participating in some activities, which eventually has a negative impact on their mental health and future trajectories - which was the case of two participants who identified not fitting into student (drinking) culture and other things that affected their mental health. On the other hand, young people may also be rejected from posts due to having a degree and over-engagement with these activities as in the case of Louise who despite her participating in various opportunities and CV-building activities did not get offered a graduate scheme and had to look for entry level jobs. For Louise, perhaps getting a 2:2 after narrowly missing a 2:1 did affect this. However, here we may wonder why all degrees, with their differing knowledge content, are reduced to an overarching grade.

Conclusions and suggestions for the future

Based on the findings, the following considerations for HE policy-making can be made:

  1. An explicit consideration of the expectations of employers. For this, we suggest the development of a toolkit alongside relevant academic personnel to help employers understand the objectives and learning outcomes of programmes based on discipline. This will avert any problem with employers not understanding the skill set of individuals and making the landscape difficult for students to identify relevant career trajectories for themselves.
  2. Working with civil society groups, local governments and student groups, identify appropriate ways in which students can learn about the places to which they move. This sense of community can aid not just local areas but also the students' future transitions.
  3. Inclusion of young people from diverse backgrounds (including class and protected characteristics) on panels discussing HE policy. This will ensure that the policies incorporate the views of young people (rather than assume them).
  4. Reconsider tuition fees as they serve to hinder people from accessing HE.

There are also some implications for those working within the university sector.

  1. Career services may be able to mobilise the use of the notion of the 'science ego', and look for its equivalent in other disciplinary realms.
  2. While work on schools repeatedly shows the positive impact that teachers can have on uptake of science or a particular discipline, this narrative appears to be missing in HE. Most participants mentioned feeling like they had a professional yet personal relationship with their tutors which helped them gain confidence. Personal tutors should receive additional help to best support students including a significant amount of time set aside for the task and continuing professional development. Perhaps the careers service can aid this process.
  3. More and better mental health support, potentially extended to staff.

Many of the suggestions here stress a need for collaborative efforts, or efforts relating to wellbeing. If such policies and changes are not made in collaboration, they run the risk of failing or creating new problems.

A very basic underlying message here is to be mindful of the different concerns and personal life-projects people have for themselves. With more people undertaking degrees, the trajectories are not going to be straightforward or one-track. While some may be keen on a traditional route to relevant graduate jobs, others may very well be doing a degree with no intention to get a graduate-level or degree discipline-specific job.


This research used longitudinal, in-depth qualitative enquiry with a cohort of eight young people completing a physics degree at four points from their final year to six months after graduating between the years 2016 and 2018. The data was analysed through a narrative form of storying. It adopted Margaret Archer (2003, 2007, 2012), whose theoretical framing of decision-making in late modernity argues that young people perpetually negotiate their situations through a process of reflexive thought and action through 'Internal Conversations'.

The theory itself helped to understand decision-making as a process of balancing individual, personal agency and the impact of structural constraints and enablements while people make their way through the (social) world. The points presented are a reflection on the analysis of these processes of decision-making. Details of methodology and findings are available in the thesis, which can be accessed online through the repository White Rose eThesis Online.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects


This research is a longitudinal qualitative enquiry into the factors that influenced the process of decision-making of young people as they transitioned from their final year of their physics degree to their future pathways. It was a PhD funded through the Physics Education Research Group at the University of Leeds.

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