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The Pathways Taken by Early Career Professionals and the Factors that Contribute to Pathway Choices

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Experiential Learning Programs and the Transition to Industry

Tagged Division

College Industry Partnerships

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.1326.1 - 25.1326.15



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Paper Authors


Cheryl A. Carrico P.E. Virginia Tech Orcid 16x16

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Cheryl Carrico is a Ph.D. student in engineering education at Virginia Tech and a graduate research assistant. Carrico is conducting research on early career professionals and their pathways as part of the engineering pathways study. Carrico has industry experience including as an engineering manager for General Dynamics.

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Katherine E. Winters Virginia Tech


Samantha Ruth Brunhaver Stanford University

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Samantha Brunhaver is a fourth-year graduate student at Stanford University. She is currently working on her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering with a focus in engineering education. Brunhaver completed a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Northeastern University in 2008 and a M.S. in mechanical engineering with a focus in Design for Manufacturing from Stanford in 2010.

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Holly M. Matusovich Virginia Tech

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Holly Matusovich is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Engineering Education. Matusovich earned her doctoral degree in engineering education at Purdue University. She also has a B.S. in chemical engineering and an M.S. in materials science with a concentration in metallurgy. Additionally, Matusovich has four years of experience as a consulting engineer and seven years of industrial experience in a variety of technical roles related to metallurgy and quality systems for an aerospace supplier. Matusovich’s research interests include the role of motivation in learning engineering, construction of engineering identities, and faculty development.

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The Pathways Taken by Early Career Professionals and the Factors that Contribute to Pathway ChoicesPreparing undergraduates for their future careers remains a research area of interest inengineering education. To add to the growing body of literature, in this paper we take theperspective of early career professionals (ECPs) and examine the salient factors influencing theircareer path decisions after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Social Cognitive CareerTheory (SCCT) guides our research because this framework provides broad categories of factorsthat create an appropriate backdrop for examining the nuances of such factors.Because we were interested in the ECP’s perspective, we took a qualitative research approachusing semi-structured interviews as our primary data source. Our sample includes 32participants who graduated with engineering degrees from one of three schools. All of theparticipants began studying engineering as traditional-aged college freshmen in 2003 andcompleted their degrees three to five years ago. Interviews allowed us to capture why ECPs aremaking their choices and what factors were most influential. Interviews were conducted byphone, recorded, and transcribed verbatim. We used MAXQDA software to aid in our analysis.Coding was predominantly inductive after starting with the broad ideas of SCCT.Through our analysis, we identified the initial paths chosen as 1) entering the workforce or 2)continuing in education. We then examined the robustness of initial choices by determining ifparticipants stayed in their initial work/school pathway. Of the 32 participants, 12 continuedwith their education after earning their bachelor’s degrees and 20 entered the workforce. At thetime of the follow-up interviews, four of the 12 who pursued additional degrees were still ingraduate school. Four of the 20 workers had returned to graduate school and a number of thoseremaining in the workforce talked about plans to return to graduate school either part-time orfull-time. After outlining the pathways, we identified the factors contributing to ECP’s choices.Key influencers for transitioning straight to work after college included internship/co-oppositions and financial concerns. Participants pursuing an advanced degree straight fromundergraduate studies cited mentors as a key factor along with job availability. Other factors thatoverlapped “to work” versus “to grad school” included organizational/hobby activities andpersonal interests.Understanding the initial career decision process of ECPs allows academia and industry a betteropportunity to prepare undergraduate students for the decision process of graduate school versusentering the workforce directly from undergraduate studies. In addition, knowing the criticalfactors contributing to initial and on-going choices about workforce positions and continuingeducation affords industry and academia an opportunity to tailor their recruitment and retentionplans to match their intended audience. 

Carrico, C. A., & Winters, K. E., & Brunhaver, S. R., & Matusovich, H. M. (2012, June), The Pathways Taken by Early Career Professionals and the Factors that Contribute to Pathway Choices Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--22083

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