UON's Professor Jenny Gore explains that research demonstrates many students are developing clear career aspirations as early as primary school.

Students choose careers much earlier than currently thought

Thursday, 8 June 2017


Targeted higher-education recruitment that reflects school students’ aspirations for particular careers is likely to be more successful in attracting students than looking to “raise the aspirations” of students in disadvantaged groups, new Australian research shows.

Jenny Gore

Professor Jennifer Gore of the University of Newcastle’s School of Education said research undertaken with 6,492 students in Years 3 to 12 at 64 NSW government schools demonstrates that many students are developing clear career aspirations in primary school and early secondary school.

She said the research also shows that students from low socio-economic (SES) backgrounds have similar occupational interests to higher SES students, suggesting that campaigns aimed at “raising the aspirations” of lower SES students to undertake university studies could miss the point.

The study found that, when considered alongside a range of variables, SES was not a significant factor for any occupation except arts and science. Instead, gender, year level and academic achievement (as determined by NAPLAN results) were the strongest indicators of students’ career interests.

The influence of age in students’ developing career interests indicates that University strategies designed to attract students in their final years of secondary schooling were very likely “too late”.

The study - ‘Unpacking the career aspirations of Australian school students: towards an evidence base for university equity initiatives in schools’ published recently in Higher Education Research and Development - examined the characteristics of students aspiring to the 10 most popular careers requiring university qualifications.

The top 10 professions - creative and performing arts, teaching, veterinary science, architecture, science, engineering, medicine, social and welfare professions, law and nursing - accounted for 55 per cent of all occupations the students named, including those not requiring university qualifications.

Professor Gore said the evidence could be used to guide university activities targeting specific students or aiming to attract students to certain courses.

“Universities invest significantly in strategies designed to attract students but little is known about the effectiveness of these methods, or if there may be better ways to garner students’ interest,” Professor Gore said. “Mostly, activities have focused on overcoming known barriers to the participation of students from low SES backgrounds, who mostly have been treated as a homogeneous group.”

“An emphasis on raising aspirations among students from disadvantaged backgrounds – rather than nurturing existing, career-specific interests - could mean universities miss the mark in appealing to potential recruits.”

The research explored:

  • when, during schooling, career aspirations take shape
  • the influence of SES on students’ career interests
  • the impact of age, gender, cultural background, location and school achievement on the students’ career interests.

It found that among the 4,184 students who named at least one occupation requiring a university degree:

  • ‘Arts’ was named more than any other occupational category (1,306 mentions), with at least twice as many interested students as any other profession except teaching (1,029) and four times as many as nursing (257).
  • Interest in arts, architecture and veterinary science declines in the later years of schooling, while interest in engineering, nursing, and social and welfare work increases. Interest in teaching, medicine, legal and science careers is more stable across the school years.
  • Science was the only occupation in which gender was not a significant factor.
  • The most popular occupations for females were arts (18 per cent) and teaching (16 per cent) while for males engineering was most popular (7.5 per cent).
  • More students from the highest SES quartile chose the arts, architecture, science, medicine, engineering and law than students from the lower three SES quartiles.
  • For occupations other than arts, law and architecture, there were similar proportions of responses from each of the first three SES quartiles, indicating that students from low SES backgrounds have similar aspirations to those in the second and third SES quartiles.
  • Students in the higher NAPLAN quartiles were more likely to express interest in the arts, architecture, science, engineering, social/welfare work and law than those in the lowest quartile, signalling the importance of prior academic achievement.

If students are forming career interests at primary school, Professor Gore said, “earlier outreach” could be critical. Likewise, if a university is seeking more equal gender representation in nursing courses, for example, it could explore how to interest boys during their primary and early secondary years.

“While social norms about gender roles are powerful influences on students’ gender identity from a young age and not easily changed, our evidence suggests that new approaches might be needed if workforce patterns are to shift in the foreseeable future.”

Jennifer Gore, Kathryn Holmes, Max Smith, Leanne Fray, Patrick McElduff, Natasha Weaver and Claire Wallington, ‘Unpacking the career aspirations of Australian school students: towards an evidence base for university equity initiatives in schools’ Higher Education Research and Development.