Asee peer logo

What Do You Want to Do with Your Life? Insights into how Engineering Students Think about their Future Career Plans

Download Paper |


2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Mentoring, Advising, and Facilitating Learning

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Tagged Topic


Page Count




Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Michelle Marie Grau Stanford University

visit author page

Michelle Grau is a K-12 Design Thinking, Engineering, and Robotics teacher at The Nueva School, where she primarily teaches in the middle school and coaches robotics teams (FIRST Lego League and FIRST Robotics Competition). She started research in engineering education as an undergraduate mechanical engineering student at Stanford in Dr. Sheri Sheppard's Designing Education Lab in 2011, where she continues that work today.

visit author page

author page

Shannon Katherine Gilmartin Stanford University Orcid 16x16


Beth Rieken Stanford University

visit author page

Beth Rieken is a sixth year graduate student at Stanford University. She is currently working on her PhD in Mechanical Engineering with a focus on the relevance of mindfulness to engineers. Beth completed a BS in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Virginia in 2010 and a MS in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford in 2012.

visit author page


Sheri Sheppard Stanford University

visit author page

Sheri D. Sheppard, Ph.D., P.E., is professor of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. Besides teaching both undergraduate and graduate design and education related classes at Stanford University, she conducts research on engineering education and work-practices, and applied finite element analysis. From 1999-2008 she served as a Senior Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, leading the Foundation’s engineering study (as reported in Educating Engineers: Designing for the Future of the Field). In addition, in 2011 Dr. Sheppard was named as co-PI of a national NSF innovation center (Epicenter), and leads an NSF program at Stanford on summer research experiences for high school teachers. Her industry experiences includes engineering positions at Detroit's "Big Three:" Ford Motor Company, General Motors Corporation, and Chrysler Corporation.

At Stanford she has served a chair of the faculty senate, and recently served as Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Education.

visit author page

Download Paper |


This research paper describes findings from a qualitative analysis of engineering students’ self-reported future career plans on the 2015 Engineering Majors Survey (EMS). This work builds on the Pathways of Engineering Alumni Research Survey (PEARS), which was administered in 2012 to recent engineering alumni; PEARS sought to identify the educational and workplace factors that influenced engineering graduates’ career decision-making. With the open-ended responses on the EMS, we can develop a deeper understanding of students’ plans in their own words, providing insights into how they think about their careers and why they want to go down a particular career path. The primary research questions include:

1. What are the different ways students think about their future plans? 2. What are the motivations that drive students? 3. Are there substantive differences between how men and women think about their futures?

The EMS was designed to examine current engineering students’ career goals, especially surrounding innovative work, and is based in the theoretical framework of Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT). The survey was sent to engineering juniors and seniors at 27 schools in the spring of 2015; a total of 7,197 students participated. Included on the questionnaire was the open-ended question, “We have asked a number of questions about your future plans. If you would like to elaborate on what you are planning to do, in the next five years or beyond, please do so here”, which elicited 1,848 responses. Responses were varied, and were coded by emergent themes. Twelve main emergent themes were identified; examples include whether or not they intended to stay in engineering after graduation, mention of the industry they intended or would like to go into, and explanation of their motivations.

Findings point to three main ways that students think about their career plans: by identifying a specific company they want to work for, by identifying a specific industry they want to work for, and by seeking a job with a certain trait. Students’ motivations included wanting to help people, a desire to combine engineering with another field, an inherent love of doing engineering, and doing engineering as a means to a secure future. Some motivations varied by gender: men were more likely to discuss a desire to travel, while women more often considered child-bearing and family factors in their career plans.

These findings have several implications for educational research and practice in engineering. Understanding more about students’ motivations helps researchers and practitioners to think more comprehensively about the persistence of different students in engineering post-graduation, as many people who plan to leave engineering are doing it for reasons such as medical school, starting a family, working for a non-profit, or becoming a teacher - it is not because they do not enjoy engineering. These insights also can help engineering educators at all levels as they strive to make content relevant and meaningful to their students. Finally, this information can lead to recommendations for future survey questions that more fully capture the range of students’ actual perceptions, worries, hopes, and plans about their futures.

Grau, M. M., & Gilmartin, S. K., & Rieken, B., & Sheppard, S. (2016, June), What Do You Want to Do with Your Life? Insights into how Engineering Students Think about their Future Career Plans Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.27190

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2016 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015