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

Quinlan, Kathleen M. and Corbin, James and Gentry, Natalie W. and Cameron, Lindsey (2021) How and why do students’ career interests change during higher education? Project report. Prospects Luminate JISC, Bristol, UK (KAR id:95142)

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Given the increased emphasis on employability in higher education, there is an urgent need to better understand how higher education influences students’ career interests. Much of the vocational psychological interest literature has assumed that career interest is stable from adolescence through adulthood. Newer conceptions of interest, drawn from developmental-educational perspectives, instead emphasise the mutability of interest and the ways in which the environment can support its development. This study makes a novel contribution by extending a developmental-educational theory of interest to illuminate how students’ career interests develop during university and what students perceive influences those career interests. Upon completing their bachelor’s degrees, we surveyed the 2019 graduating class (n=663) at a mid-ranked UK university offering a blend of applied and pure programmes. Graduates indicated whether their career interests had changed during university, described their career interests ‘when they started university’ and what they were ‘now’, and explained what had affected their career interest during university. Most (61%) reported that their career interests had changed. Consistent with interest theory, 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%). In a follow up study, we interviewed fifteen students about their interest development during higher education. We used the interview results to illustrate and illuminate nuances in the way students experienced those influences. We suggest that the results of this study raise concerns about relying solely on career decidedness measures such as Careers Registration. We also conclude that career practitioners and academics need to consider the central role of disciplinary curricula in career learning, as well as continue to emphasise opportunities for work experiences in and outside the curriculum.

Item Type: Reports and Papers (Project report)
Projects: What shapes career interest during university?
Uncontrolled keywords: higher education, careers, career interest, career values, student development
Subjects: L Education
L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB2300 Higher Education
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Psychology
Divisions > Directorate of Education > Centre for the Study of Higher Education
Funders: Jisc (
Depositing User: Kathleen Quinlan
Date Deposited: 22 May 2022 08:37 UTC
Last Modified: 28 Dec 2023 23:09 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Quinlan, Kathleen M..

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Corbin, James.

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Gentry, Natalie W..

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Cameron, Lindsey.

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