Beyond graduation: motivations and career aspirations of undergraduate chemistry students

Jared C. Ogunde *a, Tina L. Overton a, Christopher D. Thompson a, Ruth Mewis b and Suzanne Boniface c
aSchool of chemistry, Monash University, VIC 3800, Australia. E-mail: jared.ogunde@monash.edu; tina.overton@monash.edu; chris.thompson@monash.edu
bAcademic Quality and Development, Cumbria University, UK. E-mail: ruth.mewis@cumbria.ac.uk
cSchool of Chemical and Physical Science, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. E-mail: Suzanne.boniface@vuw.ac.nz

Received 18th December 2016 , Accepted 2nd May 2017

First published on 2nd May 2017


This study investigated undergraduate chemistry students' career aspirations and how these vary from one educational system to another in different geographic regions. The participants of this study were undergraduate chemistry students from various institutions located in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. The study took place in the form of an international cross-sectional survey. Findings of this study show that undergraduate students choose to study chemistry predominantly because they are interested in it or because they like it. This study also found that, whereas undergraduate students mainly have plans of pursuing a career that uses chemistry, they seem to be aware that a chemistry course can lead to many career options and as such only a few have chosen to study it as a route to a specific career. The findings of this study may be important in informing policies to attract and retain students in chemistry courses.


Introduction

In the past decades, there have been issues around retention of students taking science major degrees in tertiary institutions. Several studies such as Chen (2013) reported that science departments in universities were losing highly talented and academically able students to other units that were offering non-science-based courses, with some students opting to discontinue from college. Hence, the study of undergraduate chemistry students' aspirations is important as it may help policy makers and other stakeholders in coming up with interventions to aid retention of talented and academically able students who are aspiring to pursue science-based careers. Furthermore, in recent times, policy makers have had increased interest in the aspirations of young people as a way of shaping policies relating to education, skills, and social issues (Kintrea et al., 2011). In addition, aspirations have been linked to academic achievement (Khattab, 2015; Moore, 2014).

Factors that influence how students make choices of science-based courses and careers have been of interest to researchers (Astin and Astin, 1992; Arnold, 1993; Erwin and Maurutto, 1998; Australian Council of Deans of Science, 2001). Woolnough (1994) for example found that academic abilities, prior learning experiences, motivation by educators were important to students during the process of choosing science courses. Regarding career aspirations, Woolnough (1994) found that students' choice of science careers are influenced by the popularity of such careers in their neighbourhood. Learning experiences offered by institutions of higher education have some influence on students' level of interest in science courses (Holly, 2005). Astin and Astin (1992) found that involvement in activities such as faculty-led research or student-centred research, that are likely to give students higher satisfaction with science courses have a high potential for enhancing students' interest in science courses and careers. Hence, learning and social experiences may affect students' choice of science courses as well as their career aspirations.

Gender has also been identified as one of the factors that affect career aspirations of students (Arnold, 1993; Erwin and Maurutto, 1998; Fox and Stephan, 2001; Sadler et al., 2012; Kee, 2013). Fox and Stephan (2001) in their study of career inclinations as well as actual careers of research graduates found that in comparison to males, female students had more diverse career aspirations. The same study also found that females were more inclined toward teaching careers but had similar inclinations toward non-teaching careers as males. A later study by Sadler et al. (2012) found that females in high schools were aspiring to pursue health and medicine related careers whereas males were aspiring to pursue engineering-based careers. In his study of determining academic and career paths of female students, Arnold (1993) found that while academic performance is equal for both genders, the self-esteem of female students declined in their first year of university studies. The same study also found that future family obligations were one of the key factors that influenced female students' choice of courses and careers. Erwin and Maurutto (1998) studied how social status, educational experiences and career choices of female students relate to each other. They found that female students pursued science courses at university because of having had good learning outcomes in school science and mathematics, and earlier passion for learning science in school as well as previous encouragement by their teachers. These findings were not surprising since according to Bandura (1991) past achievements and experiences of individuals can influence their decisions of pursuing various tasks. Gender has also been identified as one of the factors that influence aspirations for higher studies. Sax (1996) investigated factors that predict enrolment of male and females into graduate programmes after their undergraduate studies. Sax found that students who were taking physical sciences were more likely to pursue graduate programmes in comparison to students from biological and mathematics and computer sciences. The study also found that male students are more likely to enrol in graduate science programmes in comparison to female students.

Apart from gender other factors such as schooling environment, family background and inspiration by family members (Schoon et al., 2007) have been found to affect career aspirations. Family background, for example, is important in providing access to resources as well as inspirations that enhance young people's beliefs about their capabilities (Schoon et al., 2007). Also, perceptions concerning jobs and opportunities for professional development have been pointed out as some other factors that influence university students' career aspirations (Kee, 2013).

Another factor that has been linked to career aspirations is self-efficacy beliefs of individuals. Bandura (1994) defined perceived self-efficacy as individuals’ beliefs on their capabilities of undertaking various tasks. Students' academic abilities have been associated with their self-efficacy beliefs (Zusho et al., 2003; Li, 2012) and hence, by extension, their career aspirations.

Academic abilities of learners have also been pointed out as one of the factors that influence learners' career aspirations. Woolnough (1994) investigated students' achievement and factors that determined their commitment to either pursue or not to pursue science and engineering courses. The study found that students whose intentions were to pursue science and engineering courses had academic abilities that were higher in comparison to those of students who intended to study art-based courses. This is related to perceived self-efficacy in course and career choices. Past experiences and achievements are able to influence a person's decision on whether or not to pursue a certain task (Bandura, 1991).

Apart from the factors affecting student choices of science courses and career aspirations mentioned above, students' attitudes towards chemistry have also been linked to their choice to study chemistry as well as their career aspirations. When students perceive science courses as less important they are likely not to opt to pursue science-based courses at tertiary level (Kathryn, 2012). In her review of various studies Kathryn (2012) pointed out that female students mainly opt not to pursue science-based courses because they feel that the courses are not relevant.

Whereas many studies have been conducted on course and career aspirations of individuals, there appears to be no study dedicated to investigating course and career choice motivations of undergraduate chemistry students across different educational and social systems. One's educational and social experiences can have a profound effect on one's career aspirations (David-Kasco et al., 2013). Also, the participants of most of the studies cited here have been high school students and graduates. The present study intends to fill this gap in the literature. By investigating the differences in motivations and career aspirations of undergraduate chemistry students across different educational and social systems, this study will be contributing to the knowledge of the causes of variation of career aspirations of undergraduate chemistry students across different regions. This may be important in informing policies that relate to higher education as universities in the countries of study and academics can use the findings as a basis for identifying interventions or reforms that can enhance undergraduate experience and lead to retention of students. In order to fill the gap in the literature, the following research questions were developed to guide this study.

(1) What are the career aspirations of undergraduate chemistry students and how do they vary across different educational systems in different geographic regions?

(2) What are undergraduate chemistry students' motivations for studying chemistry?

This study therefore aimed at investigating and comparing career aspirations of undergraduate chemistry students at several universities in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. The study has been designed as a cross-sectional international study. The study employed questionnaire surveys in data collection with sections on career plans, reasons for choosing chemistry, any help with career planning needed by the participants and the participants’ career preferences.

Methodology

This study was conducted in the form of a cross-sectional survey. Surveys are useful in producing data that can be processed by application of statistics and are useful in the identification of relationships between variables and in the formation of generalizations based on survey findings (Cohen et al., 2007).

A questionnaire with several sections was designed to capture participants' demographic data such as age, gender, study programme, and whether or not the participants studied chemistry in their final year in secondary education and the country in which that took place. The questionnaire used in this study had 33 questions that included 30 Likert scale questions and three open-ended questions. The Likert scale had closed questions in which the respondents were presented with five response categories ranging from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree’. In closed questions of this type, participants are expected to choose their answers from categories presented to them (De Leeuw et al., 2008).

Closed questions formed the bulk of the questionnaire since they are easy to administer, quick to answer and relatively easy to analyse (Dawson, 2002). Open questions in the questionnaire were used in order to capture a large variety of responses. Open-ended questions are useful whenever a large number of response categories cannot be accommodated using closed questions (Cohen et al., 2007). In the open questions, respondents were required to respond in their own words. The questionnaire had sections intended to collect data on undergraduate chemistry students' career plans, reasons for studying chemistry, the kind of help required with career planning, and their career preferences. See Table 1 for examples of questions. The three open-ended questions asked participants to give additional reasons why they chose to study chemistry, to identify other kinds of help with career planning that they would like from the university, and state their career preferences The three open-ended questions were used in order to give the participants opportunity to respond in their own words and also gain more insight from the participants (Kothari, 2004). In addition, open-ended questions provide a flexibility that enables participants to come up with topics that are relevant to the research that is being carried out (Roulston, 2008). Prior to being administered, the instrument was piloted. A pilot study is an important part of studies that make use of Likert type of scales (Cohen et al., 2007) and is instrumental in singling out the questionnaire's potential problems (Kothari, 2004). In the event that problems are identified, the instrument can be redesigned (Dawson, 2002) to ensure that study participants are able to interpret and respond to questions as expected. Hence some necessary improvement was made on the instrument before the actual study the wording of the questions and how the questionnaire was presented.

Table 1 Example of questions in the questionnaire survey
Please respond to the following statements by using the scale below

1 = strongly agree, 2 = agree, 3 = no opinion, 4 = disagree, 5 = strong

(career planning section)
1. Am planning a career in chemistry 1 2 3 4 5
2. It is important to find a graduate level job 1 2 3 4 5

Why do you choose to study chemistry (reasons for choosing to study chemistry section)
3. Career prospects/lead to better job 1 2 3 4 5
4. Interested in it/enjoy it 1 2 3 4 5
5. Others (specify here)

What help would you like from the university? Tick/check a box that applies to you (help with career planning section)
Yes No opinion No
6. Advice from previous graduates
7. Information about career options
8. Others (please specify here)
9. What is your preferred career? Please specify here


Data for this study have been collected in various geographic locations at different times. The first set of data was collected in the United Kingdom (UK) from three universities in 2014. The next set of data was collected in 2016 from three other universities, one from UK, another from Australia and the last one from New Zealand. In UK the data was collected in semester 2, in Australia data was collected in semester 1 of the academic year, while in New Zealand and UK the data was collected during the semester 2 of the academic year. In order to take part in this study, the participants were required to read an explanatory statement and then proceed to sign a consent form when they decide to take part in the study. This was in compliance with ethics regulations of participating universities, Monash Human Ethics Research (project No. CF16/243-2016113) and Victoria University Human Ethics (Ethics Approval 23087).

Description of the participating institutions

In order to preserve the identity of the participating institution, this study will use pseudo names to refer to the six universities that took part in this study as universities A, NZ, UK1, UK2, UK3 and UK4.
University A. Is a large, modern research-intensive university that is among the distinguished Group of Eight universities in Australia. Chemistry is offered at university A as part of a three-year BSc within which students can study a range of sciences and other subjects as electives or double degrees with disciplines such as law or arts. Students choose a major subject which comprises 30% of their BSc. Following the BSc, students can choose to study a research-based Honours year. University A also offers a 3 year Bachelor of Biomedical Science (BBMS) programme which is interdisciplinary in nature. BBMS at university A may provide a pathway to study medicine for some good students. The university also offers a one-year research-based honours programme.
University NZ. Is one of the oldest universities in New Zealand and is a research-focused institution. Students begin to specialize in their majors in their second year of study. They also have an option of choosing minor subjects or other elective subjects. The BSc course at university NZ takes three years. Students have an option of studying an honours programme for an extra one year after BSc course and exit with BSc (Hons) having gained skills necessary for graduate studies. The BSc (Hons) students in NZ have flexible options where they can combine chemistry with other optional courses such as biology and geology. NZ also offers a three-year BBMS programme in which students can major in human genetics, molecular pathology or molecular and medicinal chemistry.

Each of the UK institutions offer a three-year BSc chemistry degree and a four-year MChem integrated master's programme. Students typically study only chemistry across the three or four years and years 1 and 2 of the two programmes are usually very similar between institutions.

University UK1. Is a modern, leading research-intensive university and a member of the elite Russell Group. MChem students have an option of either extended lab research or industrial placement locally and overseas.
University UK2. Is a traditional mid-ranking, research-engaged university in the UK. MChem students have the option to spend a year in industry.
University UK3. Is a historic, leading research-intensive university and a member of the Russell Group.
University UK4. Is a modern university which has a history as a polytechnic institution.

Participants

The demographic information on the study participants from each institution are shown in Tables 2 and 3. Table 2 show that institutions A and NZ had higher percentages of female students than male students in comparison to the UK institutions. These differences may be due to different interests that male and female students have across different fields of science (Su and Rounds, 2015). Institutions A and NZ offer biomedical science program that is not offered in the UK institutions which may have attracted more female students.
Table 2 Number of participants from each institution and their gender composition
University A NZ UK1 UK2 UK3 UK4
Number of participants 972 88 73 125 109 72
Males % 46 38 49 60 72 56
Female % 54 62 51 40 28 44


Table 3 Percentage of students undertaking chemistry major study programmes across the three regions. The rows show percentage of students pursuing various study programs in each country
Study programme Australia New Zealand UK
Bachelor of Science (BSc) or MChem (UK) 46% 66% 100%
Bachelor of Biomedical Science (BBMS) 20% 34%
Other courses 24%


Data analysis

The quantitative data collected from the participants were subjected to Kruskal–Wallis test and Mann–Whitney U test using SPSS data analysis software and subjected to various statistical tests whereas data from open-ended questions were inspected and categorised into various categories that were given codes and then entered into the SPSS software programme for analysis.

Results

Career plans

This study investigated career plans of undergraduate chemistry students. The study sought to find if they were planning careers that use chemistry, their plans after graduation, and whether they needed help with career planning. All the institutions in the UK were combined. Fig. 1 shows career plans of undergraduate chemistry student respondents. It can be seen that over 80% of the participants in UK institutions, over 60% in New Zealand and about 55% in Australia are planning a career that uses chemistry. This higher percentage of participants from UK institutions may be a reflection of the education system in the UK that requires students to specialise on entry to university, whilst in Australia and NZ a broader education in science is provided and students will be studying subjects other than chemistry. Fig. 1 also shows that over 70% of participants from UK institutions want help with career planning within the course they are taking. This is in comparison to about 55% of participants from the Australian institution and 51% of participants from the institution in New Zealand. These differences between the UK and Australia and NZ may be indicative of different employment situations in the geographic areas or a difference in emphasis on employability in the curriculum in those education systems. However, participants from all the institutions in the three countries wanted help with career planning to be embedded within their course rather than from the careers services units of the institutions. From Fig. 1 it can also be seen that over 80% of participants from each UK institution think that it is important to find a graduate level job in comparison to about 67% for Australia and 54% for New Zealand. This may reflect the different economic situations in the three countries or differing attitudes to higher education. A high percentage of participants from each institution in the three countries (over 55%) reported that job satisfaction is more important to them than good salaries. In contrast, less than 30% of participants from each country think that good salary is more important than job satisfaction. The figure also shows that less than 30% of the participants from each country do not want to think about their future until after graduation. However, over 50% of undergraduate chemistry students in UK and Australia, and about 45% of New Zealand know what they want to do after graduation.
image file: c6rp00248j-f1.tif
Fig. 1 Career plans of undergraduate chemistry students.

Approximately 40% of participants in Australia and New Zealand intend to travel after graduation compared to less than 30% of participants from UK institutions. This could reflect cultural differences and the greater tendency for young Australians and New Zealanders to travel. A higher percentage of undergraduate chemistry students in NZ are considering doing some casual work after graduation compared to students from Australia and the UK.

Statistical analyses using the Kruskal–Wallis test and the Mann–Whitney U test were conducted to determine whether there were statistically significant differences between universities A, NZ and UK1 with respect to undergraduate chemistry students' career plans. The three universities were chosen as representative institutions in Australia, New Zealand and UK as data was collected from these universities within the same year. A Kruskal–Wallis test is a non-parametric test similar to one-way between groups analysis of variance that allows a researcher to determine statistically significant differences between different groups (Pallant, 2013). Post hoc pairwise test using Mann–Whitney U test with Bonferroni correction are usually done when statistically significant results are obtained from Kruskal–Wallis tests (Pallant, 2013).

It was found that country of study made a significant difference at the 0.05 level to the extent to which students were planning for a career in chemistry. Further follow up pairwise tests were conducted to identify significant differences among pairs of universities. Table 4 shows that UK1 students were planning for a chemistry career to a greater extent than were A students. The table also shows that for A students, it is important to find a graduate level job to a significantly greater extent than NZ students. Also, UK1 students thought it was important to find a graduate level job to a significantly greater extent than A students. In addition, the table shows that A students were planning their next career steps to a significantly greater extent than NZ, and UK1 students.

Table 4 Pairwise Mann–Whitney test analyses – career plan differences between A, NZ and UK1. The rows shows differences between a pair of institutions for each set of criteria
A – mean rank NZ – mean rank UK1 – mean rank P value Z value R - effect size
Am planning a career that uses chemistry 497.2 614.1 0.001 −3.390 0.11
It is important to find a graduate level job 517.5 424.7 0.003 −2.959 0.09
495.0 590.7 0.004 −2.848 0.14
65.65 99.51 0.000 −4.895 0.39
I will travel after graduation 90.83 69.15 0.002 −3.048 0.24
513.6 367.3 0.000 −4.291 0.14
I will do casual work after graduation 99.11 66.66 0.000 −3.648 0.29
Am planning my next career step 519.5 438.1 0.011 −2.531 0.11
513.4 397.4 0.001 −3.357 0.11


The study also sought to investigate the effect of programme of study on career plans. It was found that study programme made significant differences at the 0.05 levels to the extent to which BSc/MChem students were planning a career in chemistry, planning their next career steps, and having a feeling that it is important to find a graduate level job. BSc/MChem students in UK1 were planning a chemistry career to a significantly greater extent than were A students. It was found that for UK1 students finding a graduate level job was important to a significantly greater extent than it was for A students, and for NZ students. It was also found that A students were planning their next career steps to a significantly greater extent than NZ students, and also to a significantly greater extent than UK1 students.

The study investigated differences between Bachelor of Biomedical science programmes between institutions A and NZ. Pairwise tests were conducted on only these institutions as they are the only ones that offer Bachelor of Biomedical Science. Country of origin was found to make a significant difference at the 0.05 level to the extent to which Biomedical Science students were planning to do casual work after graduation. Country of origin also was found to make a significant difference at the 0.05 level to the extent to which Biomedical Science students did not know what to do after graduation. It was found that students in NZ were willing to do casual work to a significantly greater extent than it was for students in A.

Gender and career plans

The study sought to investigate whether career plans varied with gender between institutions A, NZ and UK1. It was found that gender made a significant difference at the 0.05 level to the students' career plans. Pairwise follow-up tests using Mann–Whitney U test with Bonferroni correction revealed statistically significant differences between universities A, NZ and UK1 on male career plans as shown in Table 5. The results show that male students in university A were planning their next career steps to a significantly greater extent than were male students from UK1 or NZ. However, the statistical differences were small. This implies that country of origin had a small effect on male students' planning of their next career steps. Also, male students in A were planning to travel after graduation to a significantly greater extent than UK1 male students. Pairwise follow up tests using Mann–Whitney U test with Bonferroni correction revealed statistically significant differences between the universities on female career plans as in Table 5. It can be seen from the table that UK1 female students were planning a career that uses chemistry to a significantly greater extent that were A female students. Table 5 shows that for females in A it was important to find a graduate level job to a significantly greater extent than for NZ female students. The effect size was found to be 0.39 suggesting that the statistical difference was medium, hence country of origin had a medium effect on female students' career plans of finding a graduate level job.
Table 5 Mann–Whitney test analyses – gender and career plan differences between universities. The rows in the table show differences between pairs of institutions on career plans by gender. In the table, the P value column shows the significance levels, and Z value column shows the test values
A – mean rank NZ – mean rank UK1 – mean rank P value Z value R – effect size
Male career plans – differences between universities
I don't know what to do after graduation 222.16 280.36 0.014 −2.455 0.11
Am planning my next career step 233.81 178.94 0.014 −2.449 0.11
232.02 167.95 0.006 −2.732 0.13
I will do casual work after graduation 42.98 26.26 0.000 −3.682 0.45
222.07 279.21 0.014 −2.449 0.12
I will travel after graduation 234.22 149.51 0.000 −3.843 0.18
41.05 26.68 0.007 −2.707 0.33
It is important to find a graduate level job 26.30 41.79 0.000 −3.583 0.43
Female career plans – differences between universities
Am planning a career that uses chemistry 260.89 336.28 0.003 −2.965 0.13
I don't know what to do after graduation 260.46 333.61 0.003 −2.965 0.13
It is important to find a graduate level job 279.99 217.4 0.005 −2.828 0.12
37.48 56.99 0.000 −3.678 0.39


Career plans – gender differences within A. In terms of career plans and gender differences within university A, it was found that gender made a significant difference at the 0.05 level (p = 0.014, Z = −2.445) to the need for career planning within the chemistry course. Female students (mean rank = 472.34) wanted career planning within the chemistry course to a significantly greater extent than were male students (431.31).
Career plans – gender differences within NZ. In terms of career plans and gender differences within NZ, It was found that gender made a significant difference at the 0.05 level (p = 0.019, Z = −2.253) to the opinion that good salary was more important than job satisfaction. Male students were of this opinion to a significantly greater extent than for female students. Also, female students wanted help with career planning within chemistry courses to a significantly greater extent than male students (p = 0.019, Z = −2.253).
Career plans – gender differences within UK1. It was found that male students were of the opinion that good salary is more import than job satisfaction to a significantly greater extent than were female students (p = 0.033, Z = −2.136). It was also found that female students wanted help with career planning from careers service to a significantly greater extent compared to male students (p = 0.023, Z = −2.267). Females also wanted help with career planning within chemistry course to a significantly greater extent compared to male students (p = 0.007, Z = −2.688).

Reasons for Choosing Chemistry

The reasons why undergraduate chemistry students choose to study chemistry were analysed and the results are presented in Fig. 2. All the UK universities were combined as UK.
image file: c6rp00248j-f2.tif
Fig. 2 Reasons for choosing to study chemistry.

From the figure it can be seen that students do choose to study chemistry for various reasons, the main one being that they are interested in it or that they enjoy it. The next reason of importance is concerned with careers. For participants from the institution in Australia and the three in the UK, career prospects came next after interest in chemistry. However, for the institution in New Zealand, a route to specific careers and range of jobs available came next. Fig. 2 shows that a higher percentage of participants in the UK (over 80%) compared to participants in Australia and New Zealand (less than 80%) chose chemistry because they enjoy it or are interested in it. Generally, over 50% of study participants from Australia, New Zealand and UK reportedly chose to study chemistry because of career prospects. Some respondents reportedly study chemistry because they have no choice (about 3% in UK, 18% in Australia and 32% in New Zealand). In Australia and New Zealand, there were students who were taking Bachelor of Biomedical Science degrees and who have to take chemistry as a pre-requisite course.

Further tests were conducted using Kruskal–Wallis and Mann–Whitney U test to find if there were statistically significant differences between universities on reasons for choosing chemistry. It was found that country of origin made a significant difference at the 0.05 level to the students' reasons for choosing to study chemistry. Table 6 shows that UK1 students chose to study chemistry because of career prospects or because of leading to better jobs to a significantly greater extent than NZ students. Also, the table shows that UK1 students chose to study chemistry because of being interested in it or because of enjoying it to a significantly greater extent than A students. The early specialisation in the UK system unsurprisingly seems to recruit students to chemistry who already have an interest or predisposition to it. Gender differences within institutions were also considered.

Table 6 Mann–Whitney test analyses – difference between institutions and gender differences between institutions. The rows in the table show differences between pairs of institutions on reasons for choosing to study chemistry. In the table, the P value column shows the significance levels, and Z value column shows the test values
A – mean rank NZ – mean rank UK1 – mean rank P value Z value R - effect size
Reasons for choosing to study chemistry – difference between A, NZ and UK1
Career prospects/lead to better jobs 72.16 91.66 0.004 −2.873 0.23
Interested in chemistry/enjoy it 490 617.3 0.000 −3.836 0.12
Valued by employers 484.1 678.8 0.000 −5.766 0.18
61 105.1 0.000 −6.392 0.50
Good at it/best subject 482.6 678.1 0.000 −5.786 0.18
66.83 98.08 0.000 −4.392 0.27
Range of jobs available 510.5 425.3 0.006 −2.788 0.09
481 678.1 0.000 −5.964 0.18
60.28 106 0.000 −6.508 0.42
Lack of choice/it was compulsory 506.7 335 0.000 −5.212 0.17
97.48 61.14 0.000 5.327 0.42
Male reasons for choosing to study chemistry – differences between A, NZ and UK1
Career prospects/lead to better jobs 28.39 39.93 0.009 −2.599 0.32
Valued by employers 219.13 305.17 0.000 −4.032 0.19
228 172.19 0.012 −2.507 0.12
Good at it/best subject 218.94 300.97 0.000 −3.764 0.18
Range of jobs available 217.18 314.68 0.000 −4.56 0.22
227.06 170.64 0.012 −2.526 0.12
39.08 30.44 0.000 −4.869 0.59
Lack of choice/compulsory 230.27 170.61 0.005 −2.819 0.13
Female reasons for choosing to study chemistry – differences between A, NZ and UK1
Interested in chemistry/enjoy it 267.21 159.26 0.000 −3.210 0.14
40.40 52.81 0.016 −2.409 0.25
Valued by employers 255.38 356.2 0.000 −4.151 0.18
36.2 58.82 0.000 −4.392 0.52
Good at it/best subject 254.06 366.23 0.000 −4.473 0.20
37.25 57.31 0.000 −3.695 0.39
Range of jobs available 254.25 349.26 0.000 −3.882 0.17
36.25 58.76 0.000 −4.246 0.45
Lack of choice/compulsory 267.21 159.26 0.000 −4.409 0.21
262.19 315.69 0.013 −2.481 0.11
55.58 31.05 0.000 −4.669 0.49


Reasons for choosing to study chemistry – gender differences within A. Mann–Whitney U test revealed statistically significant differences between male and female students on reasons for choosing to study chemistry variables: ‘interested in it/enjoy it’, ‘route to specific jobs’ and ‘being good at it/it is my best subject’, and ‘having no choice/it was compulsory’ as shown in the Table 7. The table shows that A male students chose to study chemistry because they are interested in or enjoy it to a significantly greater extent than female students. The effect size of 0.10 showed that the statistical difference was small. Also, male students chose to study chemistry because of being good at it or being one's best subject to a significantly greater extent than female students. The effect size of 0.17 showed that the statistical difference between males and females was small. Female students on the other hand chose to study chemistry because it is a route to specific jobs to a significantly greater extent than male students. The effect size of 0.06 showed that the statistical difference was small. It was also found that female students were studying chemistry because it was compulsory or because of having no choice to a significantly greater extent than male students. The effect size of 0.26 showed that the statistical difference was small.
Table 7 Gender differences within universities – Mann–Whitney test analyses. The rows show differences between male and female students on reasons for choosing to study chemistry. In the table, the P value column shows the significance levels, and Z value column shows the test values
Mean ranks P value Z value Effect size r
A
Male Female
Interested in it/enjoy it 480.39 428.72 0.002 −3.121 0.10
Route to specific jobs 431.89 447.27 0.04 −2.049 0.06
Am good at it/it is my best subject 497.61 410.37 0.000 −5.169 0.17
I had no choice/it was compulsory 420.02 472.08 0.002 −3.145 0.11

NZ
Male Female
Why study chemistry? Interested in it/enjoy it 49.67 38.97 0.04 −2.055 0.22
Why study chemistry? – I had no choice/it is compulsory 35.14 47.75 0.018 −2.367 0.26

UK1
There were no significant differences between males and females on the different variables of reasons for choosing chemistry.


Reasons for choosing to study chemistry – gender differences in NZ. Table 7 shows the result of Mann–Whitney U test analyses of gender differences on reasons for choosing to study chemistry. It was found that gender made a significant difference at the 0.05 level on reasons for choosing to study chemistry within university NZ. Male students choose to study chemistry because of being interested in it or enjoying it to a greater extent than female students. The effect size of 0.22 showed that the statistical differ difference was small. The table also shows that female students were studying chemistry because of lack of choice or it being compulsory to a significantly greater extent than males. The effect size of 0.26 showed that the statistical difference between male and female students was small.
Reason for choosing to study chemistry – gender differences in UK. There were no significant differences between males and females on the different variables of reasons for choosing chemistry.

Help with career planning

The study investigated whether undergraduate chemistry students felt that they were in need of help with career planning and the kind of help that they required. The results are shown in Fig. 3. Generally, the majority of undergraduate chemistry students in Australia and New Zealand across the participating institutions wanted help with career planning compared to students from UK. Less than 10% in each of the three countries required no help with career planning. About 90% of respondents from Australia wanted advice from previous graduates in comparison to about 71% of respondents from New Zealand and about 45% from UK. About 92% of respondents from New Zealand require placement and internship information or advice. Further tests were conducted using Kruskal–Wallis test to investigate significant differences between universities A, NZ and UK1. It was found that country of origin made a significant difference at the 0.05 level on help with career planning wanted by undergraduate chemistry students. Further tests were therefore conducted using Mann–Whitney U test to determine pairwise differences between universities A, NZ and UK1. The results are as shown in Table 8. The table shows that UK1 students wanted advice from previous graduates to a significantly greater extent than NZ students. Also, A students wanted advice from previous graduates to a significantly greater extent than NZ students. The effect sizes were small implying that the statistical differences were small. UK1 students wanted help with career options information to a significantly greater extent than A students, also NZ students wanted career options information to a significantly greater extent than A students. UK1 students wanted help with interview techniques, and writing of good CVs to significantly greater extents than A and NZ students. Once again, the effect sizes showed that the statistical differences were small.
image file: c6rp00248j-f3.tif
Fig. 3 Help with career planning wanted by undergraduate chemistry students.
Table 8 Differences between A, NZ and UK1 on help with career planning – Mann–Whitney test analyses. The rows show differences between pairs of institutions for each set of criteria. In the table, the P value column shows the significance levels, and Z value column shows the test values
A mean rank NZ mean rank UK1 mean rank P value Z value R effect size
Advice from previous graduates 77.77 88.52 0.002 −3.089 0.25
504.28 408.85 0.000 −5.285 0.17
Career options information 486.86 571.44 0.000 −3.555 0.13
483.71 547.03 0.012 −2.503 0.08
Information on jobs matching skills/degree 486.63 582.84 0.000 −4.058 0.13
483.71 547.76 0.012 −2.852 0.09
How to apply 73.56 86.42 0.009 −2.620 0.21
482.7 553.97 0.004 −2.852 0.08
Interview techniques/writing good CVs 71.80 88.70 0.001 −3.389 0.27
480.97 567.31 0.001 −2.852 0.09
Information about companies/connections 482.00 542.00 0.011 −2.549 0.08
Opportunities abroad 85.67 72.13 0.017 −2.377 0.19
Placement and internship advice 485.11 549.5 0.005 −2.835 0.08


Programme differences

Differences between programmes with respect to help with career planning were investigated. Kruskal–Wallis test was conducted to investigate differences between universities on help with career planning. It was found that country of origin made a statistically significant difference at the 0.05 level to help with career planning wanted by the students in various study programmes. For example when it comes to BSc/MChem programme, A students wanted advice from previous graduates to a significantly greater extent than NZ students. NZ students wanted help with career options information to a significantly greater extent than A students. The effect sizes for these statistical differences were found to be small implying that the statistical differences were small. As for Bachelor of Biomedical Science programme, NZ students wanted help with job matching skills and placement and internship information and advice to a significantly greater extent than A students.

Gender and help with career planning – differences between universities

Kruskal–Wallis test was conducted to determine statistically significant differences between universities on help with career planning required by male and female students. The results showed that country of origin made a significant difference at the 0.05 level on help wanted by gender. Table 9 shows that A male students wanted advice from previous graduates to a statistically significant extent than were NZ male students. The effect size was small implying that the statistical difference was small. The table also shows that NZ male students wanted information on jobs matching skills to a greater extent than A students. Here too the effect size was found to be small. The table shows that female students in A wanted advice from previous graduates to a significantly greater extent than female students from NZ. The statistical difference was however small since a small effect size was obtained as shown in the Table 9. Table 9 also shows that female students from UK1 wanted help with interview techniques and good CV writing to a significantly greater extent than female students from NZ. The effect size showed that the statistical difference was medium.
Table 9 Male and female students' career planning help – differences between A, NZ and UK1 Mann–Whitney test analyses. The rows show differences between pairs of institutions for each gender. In the table, the P value column shows the significance levels, and Z value column shows the test values
A – mean rank NZ – mean rank UK1 – mean rank P value Z value R - effect size
Males
Advice from previous graduates 222.88 175.15 0.000 −3.554 0.17
Information on jobs matching skills/degree 215.75 261.61 0.007 −2.344 0.11
Females
Advice from previous graduates 41.34 50.15 0.015 −2.441 0.26
270.60 228.60 0.001 −3.439 0.15
How to apply 40.00 51.95 0.003 −3.000 0.32
254.72 300.32 0.013 −2.487 0.11
Interview techniques/good CV writing 255.06 303.09 0.010 −2.576 0.11
40.38 51.49 0.004 −2.857 0.30
Career options information 270.6 228.6 0.015 −2.434 0.11


Career preferences

The study investigated career preferences of the undergraduate students from their response to open-ended questions. The responses were then categorised into various career categories as shown in Table 10. Universities A and NZ have higher percentages of students having a preference for medical and health science careers as compared to UK universities, probably reflecting the presence of students studying Biomedical Science. UK universities, on the other hand, have higher percentages of students with a preference for chemistry based careers compared to universities A and NZ, probably reflecting the fact that students specialise in chemistry in the UK system.
Table 10 Career preferences of undergraduate chemistry students based on number of responses. The rows show percentages of students having various career preferences in various institutions
A% NZ% UK1% UK2% UK3% UK4%
Medical and health sciences 38.2 17.5 11.8 4.8 10 7.1
Medical and health science – Research 2.6 8.8 1.5 1 1 4.8
Animal health sciences 1.4
Chemistry based careers 4.7 17.5 25 38.1 22.5 31
Science based careers 14.2 18.8 2.9 7.6 3.8 9.5
Science research 3.9 6.3 17.6 14.3 23.8 14.3
Engineering 7.3 1 1.3 2.4
Academic/education careers 5.2 12.5 8.8 10.5 10 7.1
Information Technology (IT) 0.5 2.5
Business 1.4 8.8 3.75 7.1
Legal careers 1.4 1.3 4.7
Arts based/others 1.6 3.8 2.9 6.7 1.3
Undecided 17.5 11.3 20.6 16.2 22.5 11.9


Discussion

The findings of this study suggest that undergraduate chemistry students have varying career aspirations and that the majority do choose to study chemistry because they enjoy it and are interested in it. The study also suggests that they are in need of help with career planning from within their programme of study and from the university careers services unit.

The majority of undergraduate chemistry students are planning a career that uses chemistry. It therefore seems that most undergraduate chemistry students have the intention of pursuing a career in which they will be able to apply chemistry knowledge and skills that they acquire during their studies (see Fig. 1). Similar findings were reported by Pryor et al. (2011) who found that tertiary level students pursue their courses mainly due to career prospects. There are, however, a few undergraduate students who do not have the intention of pursuing a career that uses chemistry. This finding is not surprising as an earlier study by Australian Council of Deans of Science (ACDS) (2001) found that about 75% of science graduates are employed in science positions in comparison to between 25–30% who seemed to be in employment in non-science related careers. In the present study, it may be speculated that the reason why not all undergraduate chemistry students have the aspiration of pursuing a chemistry related career is because chemistry graduates, just like other science graduates, have flexible rather than fixed career paths (ACDS, 2001). According to the Office of Chief Scientist (2016), 26% of medical sciences graduates get into medical services, 19% work in hospitals but not directly providing healthcare services, whereas 13% get into tertiary education. One might therefore ask why someone may decide to pursue a science-based course such as chemistry and not have an aspiration of pursuing a career that uses chemistry. Apart from enjoying studying chemistry, the answer may be because of the range of employability skills that chemistry students acquire during the course of their studies. Such skills include scientific and technical knowledge, numeracy skills, IT skills, communication skills, project and time management skills (Royal Society of Chemistry, 2016). ACDS (2001) observed that even those science graduates who were pursuing non-science careers were applying the skills they obtained during the course of their science studies. Whereas the majority of undergraduate chemistry students are planning a career that uses chemistry, this number is higher in UK universities compared to Australia and New Zealand. Also, in terms of career preferences, a higher percentage of UK students had expressed a desire for chemistry based careers and for science research compared to Australia and New Zealand. In contrast, a higher percentage of students in Australia and New Zealand had career preferences in the medical and health sciences.

These findings suggest that career aspirations of undergraduate chemistry students may be influenced by geographic region and educational systems. It can be speculated that early specialization in the UK institutions is the reason for higher percentage of students having a preference for chemistry-based careers compared to those from Australia and New Zealand. It seems that early specialisation in chemistry in the UK is responsible for attracting students who have an interest in chemistry. In contrast, students in Australia from New Zealand are able to pursue a broader range of science subjects and this may keep their options open for longer.

The findings of this study suggest that undergraduate chemistry students choose to study chemistry because of the range of jobs available for chemistry graduates (see Fig. 2). According to Graduate Prospects Ltd (2016) graduates of chemistry have job options in fields that are directly related to chemistry as well as in fields that are not directly related to chemistry. Directly related fields include analytical chemistry, chemical engineering, healthcare sciences among others, whereas non-directly related fields include accounting, patent attorney and many other occupations. Studying a chemistry course prepares graduates with employability skills that may lead to many and varied career options (RSC, 2016). Also, some undergraduate chemistry students study chemistry with the intention of going into careers that are not directly related to chemistry, such as business, IT and legal careers. This shows that there is some association between skills gained during the course of chemistry training and skills necessary for workplace success (Higher Education Careers Service Unit, 2016). For the students in this study getting a graduate level job after graduation is very important. Over 50% of the undergraduate chemistry students in this study are planning to obtain a graduate level position after graduation. One of the roles of university education is to impart high level skills to students. Seemingly, the students are aware that they should be acquiring high level skills, and that they should be able to make use of the acquired skills. The study also found that a smaller percentage of undergraduate chemistry students chose to study chemistry as a route to a specific career compared to choosing chemistry for reasons of general career prospects or for the range of jobs available. These findings suggest that, whereas undergraduate chemistry students may have their preferred careers, they are likely to be open to the fact that there are many career options that a qualification in chemistry could lead to. A large percentage of the undergraduate chemistry students felt that job satisfaction is more important than a good salary. Job satisfaction is the degree of a person's wellbeing that influences whether or not a person will remain in his or her job and the kind of commitment that he or she will direct toward the given job (Clark, 1996).

The majority of undergraduate chemistry students do choose to study chemistry because they are interested in it and because they enjoy it. Only a small percentage of undergraduate chemistry students reported that they chose to study chemistry either because of it being compulsory or because of lack of choice (see Fig. 2). Choosing to study chemistry because one enjoys or likes it is a kind of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is when a person does or engages in an activity because of the satisfaction derived from that activity and not for the reasons of being compelled by other forces (Ryan and Deci, 2008) such as taking a course because it is compulsory or because of lack of choice. Hence, it can be suggested that intrinsic motivation is one of the factors that lead students to choose chemistry. This finding is, however, contrary to the Gałaj (2012) study that reported that getting good grades, an extrinsic motivation factor, was the main reason why students chose to study chemistry. This discrepancy may be due to the differences of the study participants. Gałaj (2012) study participants were school students whereas the participants of the present study were undergraduate students. The study also found that one of the reasons that undergraduate students chose to study chemistry was because they are good at it. This is similar to choosing chemistry because they perform well in it and possibly have good learning outcomes. One may have good learning outcomes on a subject if he or she is interested in it since intrinsic motivation has been linked to academic achievement (Lemos and Veríssimo, 2014). Students who are interested in science subjects and who find science subjects to be enjoyable usually tend to have a greater level of commitment necessary to pursue such subjects (Osborne et al., 2003). Such students are more likely to have good learning outcomes, and are more likely to report that they are good at the subject. Pursuing a chemistry course because of good learning outcomes is an extrinsic kind of motivation. Extrinsic motivation is that kind of motivation that is driven externally by an individual so as to attain some external outcome (Ryan and Deci, 2000). The percentages of students studying chemistry because they had no choice were higher in Australia and New Zealand compared to UK. In Australia and New Zealand, there were students who were taking Bachelor of Biomedical Sciences programme and who were taking chemistry as compulsory pre-requisite. This seemingly is the reason as to why higher percentages of students in Australia and New Zealand report choosing to study chemistry because of either having no choice or being compulsory.

In terms of gender, the findings of this study show that males tend to study chemistry because they enjoy it, are good at it and expect a good salary compared to females. This may be related to self-efficacies in science-related courses whereby males tend to report higher self-efficacies as compared to females (Larose et al., 2006). Females, on the other hand, are more focused on getting specific jobs compared to males and also desire more help with career planning. A similar finding was reported by Grebennikov and Skaines (2007) who found that female students valued career advice and counseling services offered by universities much more than male students.

Over 55% of all participants want more help with career planning that is embedded in the chemistry course. Over 50% also want this help from university careers service units. Since studying chemistry may lead chemistry graduates into diverse career options (RSC, 2016), the students may be wanting support to prepare them for both chemistry-based careers and non-chemistry based careers. This finding may point towards the need for enhancing careers planning services offered by universities. Witko et al. (2005) in a study of help with career planning that senior high school students wanted, found that students wanted this help offered by their learning institutions to be enhanced. In our study the desire for career planning to be embedded with the discipline may be because students view academic staff as mentors and role models; indeed one of the important roles of educators is to offer career mentoring to students (Buntrock, 2007). Embedding career planning in the chemistry course may contribute toward student satisfaction. Student satisfaction has been identified as one of the factors that affect student retention in higher education institutions (Jensen, 2011). In the current economic climate, there are few opportunities for industrial placements and internships compared to the number of students who are in need of such opportunities. Hence, educators need to develop a curriculum that can provide students with insights into what goes on in various workplaces (Pugh, 2017). According to ACDS (2001) science faculties should be innovative in providing solutions that would adequately prepare graduates for the job market. Hence, having help with career planning for students embedded with their programme would be one way by which science faculties can prepare students for the job market. Chemistry subject experts could help students build networks and source information about career routes since young people tend to look for such support from those with existing social connections (Hooley et al., 2015). Subject experts can also help by connecting students with former graduates, career options, information on chemistry-related jobs that match their skills, and also provide postgraduate course information.

The findings of this study suggest that across all the institutions undergraduate chemistry students want help such as information on career options, postgraduate course information, CV writing, interview techniques, information on opportunities abroad, placement and internship information and advice, advice from previous graduates, information about companies and connections as well as help with how to apply for jobs. The results showed that UK students were the least eager for career planning support. The reason for this difference may lie in the differences in chemistry programme curricula between UK universities and universities in Australia and New Zealand. UK universities offer BSc and MChem programmes which have between 6 months to 12 months research or industry placements. It is possible that students feel these experiences may meet their needs for employability skills development. The differences may also be due to different economic climates and job markets or the smaller science-based industrial community in Australia and New Zealand.

A higher percentage of undergraduate chemistry students in universities A and NZ preferred medical and health science-related careers compared to UK universities. This difference may be explained by the differences programmes of study. The cohort in A and NZ universities was composed of several study programmes with the major ones being BSc and Bachelor of Biomedical Science whereas the cohorts in the UK consisted of BSc and MChem study programmes. Students who are taking Bachelor of Biomedical science often take the programme as a way of preparing for admission into graduate medical school, hence the high percentage of students with a preference for medical and health science careers in universities A and NZ. As for chemistry-based careers, UK universities had higher percentages as compared to universities A and NZ. The cohort in UK universities were all taking BSc and MChem programmes in chemistry. As these students had selected to study only chemistry for three or four years it is not surprising that they had a greater tendency to want to use it in their careers. UK universities had higher percentage of students who had a preference for research careers in comparison to universities A and NZ. Students in UK universities will all undertake at least one undergraduate research project. This may lead to a higher awareness of research in these participants which could influence future career choices.

Whereas this study was carefully planned and was able to reach its aims, it did have some limitations. The sample size of one of the institutions was very large in comparison to the sample size of the cohorts in other institutions; and the data was collected at different semesters in the academic years of the institutions. It would probably be better if the data from all the institutions were collected over a similar study period. Also, only one university from Australia and only one from New Zealand took part in the study.

Conclusion

The findings of this study have demonstrated that undergraduate chemistry students predominantly choose to study chemistry because they are interested in it, enjoy it and that it meets their career aspiration. However, whereas students do choose chemistry for career-related reasons, not all have the intention of pursuing careers that use chemistry. In addition, not all undergraduate students do choose chemistry as a route to a specific career showing therefore that undergraduate chemistry students are aware that a chemistry course can lead to various career options. One striking finding of the study is that students are eager for help with planning for employment to be embedded within the curriculum and this has implications for course planners. The minor differences between the institutions when it comes to undergraduate chemistry students' career plans, reasons for choosing chemistry and career preferences may be due to the different educational systems that offer students a different academic experience, and local employment situations.

Recommendations

This study has found that undergraduate chemistry students want help with career planning to be embedded in their chemistry course. This is seen despite the fact that most universities have well established careers service units. Academics should consider embedding some aspects of career planning within the chemistry curriculum. Relevant activities that are not likely to be provided by university careers service units include:

(1) Involvement of employers of chemistry graduates in course design. Employer participation in course design has been found to enhance graduates’ chances of landing graduate level jobs (Cranmer, 2006).

(2) Credit-bearing internships and work placements embedded within the curriculum.

(3) Facilitate networking between undergraduates and alumni or industry professionals. Belonging to professional networks may lead to a sense of belonging to the chemistry community of practice (Orsuwan and Cole, 2007).

Acknowledgements

We would like to acknowledge undergraduate chemistry students, the teaching assistants and academic staff from participating institutions whose input was crucial for the success of this study.

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