End of the road? The career intentions of under-represented STEM students in higher education

Billy Wong*, Yuan-Li Tiffany Chiu, Órla Meadhbh Murray, Jo Horsburgh

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The analogy of the leaky pipeline has been used to describe STEM education, with lower student diversity from compulsory to post-compulsory education and beyond. Although extensive research has explored the views and experiences of school-aged children about STEM, fewer studies have examined the career intentions of STEM students at university, especially those from under-represented backgrounds (e.g., racial/ethnic minority, women and working class students). This paper draws on a large qualitative study that interviewed 110 under-represented STEM undergraduates in the UK. We focus on students’ STEM career intentions and the likely directions of their post-degree trajectories, drawing on the lenses of science identity and Social Cognitive Career Theory.

Three pathways were identified. The first group plans to pursue a career in or from STEM. While social inequalities may persist, the potential impact of these challenges may be neutralised by the personal drive and passion of STEM career-oriented students, who seem committed to drive into an STEM future. The second group stated intentions for non-STEM-related careers, leaving the STEM pipeline. The reasons students gave for their imminent departure from STEM are the better financial reward on offer in some non-STEM sectors, especially in finance and business, as well as wider social inequalities and stereotypes. The third group was undecided, those who are uncertain or unclear about their futures. Students described a general lack of direction or clear career pathway, from a complete lack of career ideas to an overload of options.

We conclude with a reminder that the STEM pipeline is far from secured or equitable, despite apparent progress in participation and representation. We reiterate the importance of fostering a diverse, inclusive and supportive learning environment that maximises the participation, strengths and potential of all students, especially those from under-represented backgrounds. While it is not uncommon for STEM students to pursue careers outside of STEM, we need to be wary that those who exit the STEM pipeline are not forced off the road by social inequalities and exclusions.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages12
JournalInternational Journal of STEM Education
Issue number51
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jul 2022
Externally publishedYes

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