Alison Yurchak will graduate from her five-year, dual-degree program at Illinois Institute of Technology this spring with a bachelor’s in biomedical engineering and a master’s in chemical engineering. She already has a postgraduation job lined up at Procter & Gamble as a baby-care engineer, which she thinks will be a good fit for her personality, interests and skill set.
Why the confidence? Yurchak says that she heeded the advice her parents gave her going into college directly from high school—to “take every internship you can and try everything.”
Although her academic program requires no internship due to its intensity, Yurchak completed summer internships at four different companies in four disparate industries in four far-flung parts of the U.S. during college, all of which has helped her understand what she’s looking for in a job and what she isn’t.
“It’s probably better early on to figure out what you do and don’t like,” she says, recalling more of her parents’ advice. “They’re very encouraging, very supportive.”
Yurchak says she was long interested in pursuing an interdisciplinary degree and working in industry. But—like many respondents to the most recent Student Voice survey on preparing for life after college—she also credits her parents (who work in engineering and finance, respectively), along with experiential learning, as major career influences.
Previously released data from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse’s most recent Student Voice survey on life after college shed light on how and when students are using their campus career centers and on student expectations for career preparation within the curriculum. In a new set of findings from the same survey of 3,000 four- and two-year students, students indicate how far along they are in choosing a career, plus who and what has most impacted their career aspirations. Read on for the insights.
Progress in Choosing a Career
Over all, few survey respondents—just one in 20—have no potential career track in mind. The vast majority of respondents are roughly split between exploring options within a broad career area, exploring options within a specific field, being somewhat decided on a specific career and, finally, being definitely decided on a specific career.
This is generally true across class years, except for the soon-to-graduate Class of 2024, where the share of students definitely decided on a career jumps to about one in three. Two- and four-year students in the survey are equally as likely to be definitely decided on a career, as are students at private nonprofit institutions versus public institutions (one in four each). By major, about one in five students studying the arts and humanities and the social sciences and one in four studying the natural sciences say they’ve definitely decided on a career, compared to one in 10 students who identify as having interdisciplinary majors. By age, about a quarter of students each, 19 to 23 and 24 to 29, say they’ve definitely decided on a career, compared to closer to half of students age 30 to 39 and 40 or older.
As for what influences students’ thinking about which careers to pursue after graduation, parents are the No. 1 choice from a long list across a variety of student subgroups and institution types, with some qualifications.
Continuing-generation students are significantly more likely to cite their parents as a top career influence than are first-generation students, at just about half versus a third, respectively. Traditional-age students are also likelier to cite their parents than are older students, at nearly half of those age 19 to 23 versus just over a quarter of those 24 to 29, for instance. And by field, students in the natural or social sciences are somewhat more likely than those in the arts or humanities and interdisciplinary programs to cite their parents.
Students’ own strengths and weaknesses, their professors, their peers, and their academic abilities round out the top five career influences, in that order, with about a quarter to one in five students over all citing each of these.
Students identifying as having learning disabilities or related conditions (n=410) are more likely than those who don’t to cite their strengths and weaknesses, at a third versus a quarter, respectively. The difference is the same for students who identify as having a mental illness or mental health condition (n=790) and those who don’t, but students with a physical disability (n=230) are no more likely than those without to cite their strengths and weaknesses.
Perhaps surprisingly, salaries linked to specific careers rank No. 8 as a top career influence, behind friends of parents and other relatives. The student’s sense of the job market also ranks relatively low, at No. 10. And while students attest to the value of internships elsewhere in the survey, internships rank No. 11 on this list, with just one in 10 students selecting this option. Even less popular career influencer options include social media, career center staff and alumni.
Impact of Internships
Despite not being a top career influence for most respondents, internships and other experiential learning opportunities do appear to positively impact students in the survey. Of the 2,348 who’ve participated in an internship or experiential learning, close to six in 10 say that it helped them realize they want a career in that field. Just over two in 10 say the experience made them realize they don’t want a career in that particular field.
Dale McLennan, dean of the Internship and Career Center at Endicott College in Massachusetts, who reviewed the survey results, says this last point resonates not because it’s surprising, but because the “value of students discovering what they don’t want to do or are not well suited for can be as beneficial as confirming a career choice or skill set.”
This process is particularly beneficial when it happens as early as possible in a student’s academic career, she adds, “because that allows them to pivot, whether that means changing majors or having additional time and opportunity to try other career paths.” Endicott requires students to complete three credit-bearing internships, including one semester-long internship. Students start preparing for this sequence in their first academic term with a pre-internship class, in which they develop a professional résumé and identify opportunities. Internships are scaffolded by curricular requirements and reflections.
McLennan adds that parents are indeed “huge” influences on students’ career paths, as well as “stakeholders in students’ careers.”
Some 53 percent of Endicott’s Class of 2022 report having received an employment offer from a past internship site. And employers responding to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ most recent job outlook survey rate internship experience, especially but not exclusively within their own organization, as a top attribute in a job applicant.
Back to Student Voice: more than four in 10 students say their internship or experiential learning helped them realize what tasks they enjoy, while close to two in 10 say it made them realize what tasks they don’t enjoy. Nearly three in 10 each say an internship or experiential learning helped them realize they’re suited to a particular field and that they want that particular job. These results are similar when narrowing the group down to just those students who have had internships specifically. This suggests that both internships and other kinds of experiential learning help inform students’ career preferences.
Michael Felix, director of career services and leadership programming at Franklin Cummings Tech, also in Massachusetts, says the institution has historically seen success with internships embedded in the curriculum of information technology and electronics programs. And within the last few academic years, the college has encouraged increased participation in additional career-exploration programs, including job shadowing, mentoring and site visits.
“The intention is for our students to gain further career exposure to prepare them for an internship or full-time opportunity within those companies or others within their field of study,” Felix says.
Class format seems to make some difference in what Student Voice respondents take away from experiential learning of any kind, however, with just under four in 10 students who took all their classes online in the fall (n=231) saying their experience made them realize they want a career in a given field, compared to more than five in 10 students who took a mix of online and in-person classes (n=916) and closer to six in 10 students who took all their classes in person (n=1,201).
Yurchak, of Illinois Tech, who refers to her own multiple-internship experience as “puddle-jumping,” says she’s very happy with where she’s landed. “I wouldn’t change anything.”
She also encourages other students to try at least one internship, even if it’s not a perfect fit.
“Just getting one thing on your résumé, even if it’s not glamorous, helps you so much more later on in getting a full-time job.”
Share an uplifting moment or conversation with a student, such as when you realized you played a key role in development of career goals or connection building to help with finding a first job postgraduation.