A Qualitative Approach to Understanding the Career Perceptions and Choices of STEM Undergraduate and Graduate Students

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Megan Grunert Kowalske, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Ramakrishna Guda, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Heather Petcovic, Ph.D.

Fourth Advisor

D. Eric Archer, Ph.D.


Academia, career choice, career decision-making, career education, chemistry education, stem education


In order to remain competitive in the global economy, there has been a call to increase recruitment and retention in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers in the United States (National Science Board, 2014, 2016; President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012). In addition to increasing the number of individuals in these fields, it is also imperative to increase the diversity of the individuals filling STEM positions. Not only is it a moral responsibility to create STEM environments that are more inclusive of those who have been historically marginalized in STEM settings, but it is critical in our ability to successfully address global challenges since more diverse research teams tend to have higher rates of productivity and creative problem solving (Campbell, 2018; Phillips, 2014; Powell, 2018). Due to the strong connection between educational identity and vocational identity (Negru- Subtirica & Pop, 2018; Negru-Subtirica, Pop, & Crocetti, 2015, 2018), an examination of STEM student experiences surrounding career perceptions and career perception development can help shed light on reasons why students may or may not choose to pursue a STEM degree and career. In this study, qualitative interviews were used to explore the career perceptions and career choices of undergraduate and graduate STEM students. Emergent coding techniques were used to analyze the data and produce narratives for each participant. Those narratives were then compared in a process of case study analysis using the lenses of social constructivism, critical race theory, and a career decision-making model as frameworks. The participants demonstrated a lack of career knowledge, regardless of program or education level, especially when it came to careers outside of academia. Additionally, they painted a negative picture of the climate in academia. These combined results demand a re-examination of career education in collegiate settings, as well as an in-depth look at the culture of academia to move away from being an elitist institution with little room for the inclusion or advancement of marginalized populations towards being an institution that is open to all populations and best suited to advance scientific knowledge and the betterment of humanity.

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