Communication Currents

Career Messages and Adolescents’ Framing: The Effect on Interest in STEM Careers

April 1, 2014
General Communication Studies

Career-related communication and experiences before and during adolescence have the potential to affect students’ academic and career-path choices in high school, college, and long-term career trajectories. Asadolescents receive messages and are exposed to various situations, they interpret and evaluate the information based on their career frameworks—sets of assumptions and values that filter and affect how individuals act, react, and learn. In this study, we contribute to investigations about how to slow the leaking science,technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) pipeline by identifying the types of career messages adolescents receive and the role of career frameworks in their interpretation of those messages.

We conducted focus groups with 229 students from five California high schools. Students ranged from 14 to 19 years old. We asked questions such as:

  • Will you study STEM in college?
  • Have your parents and others suggested particular careers/jobs to you?
  • How do you think math and science classes figure into your goals?
  • What is important to you when evaluating careers?

Career Messages 

The adolescents we interviewed reported receiving two broad types of messages: personal fulfillment messages advised students to prioritize their happiness and well-being and career detail messages advised students to prioritize specific aspects of an occupation.

Personal Fulfillment Messages 

Personal fulfillment messages, commonly given by parents, advised students to pursue interests, provide for themselves, and draw on their strengths. We found three types. 

Self-actualization messages advised students to maximize their talents or interests. They were gleaned through observation and experience, or through advice often from parents or other family to “pursue your passion” and “use your talents.” While self-actualization messages might be intended to empower, they provided little instrumental information. Students were unclear about what it would mean to “pursue a passion.”

Adolescents also were encouraged to follow paths ensuring financial security. Self-sufficiency messages also came from observation or experience. Self-sufficiency messages were “find a stable career” and “be financially independent.” Boys were advised to pursue well-paying careers; girls were encouraged to pursue financial independence. 

Prescriptive messages identified specific careers corresponding to the receiver’s talents or interests and were directives, such as “you love arguing—be a lawyer,” “look into engineering—don’t waste your math skills,” and “you’re good with animals, you should be a veterinarian.”

Career Detail Messages  

A second type of broad message offered career details. These occupation-specific messages pointed to opportunities in particular careers and details about day-to-day life. Most messages came from career insiders, often professionals whom they had shadowed, but students reported that their school’s job-shadow program required that they make their own contacts.  Career detail messages came in two varieties. 

Opportunity messages encouraged students to consider careers in sectors that actively pursue gender-ethnic diversity or have labor shortages. Messages include “we need more women in medicine” or “there’s a shortage of engineers.” Opportunity messages came from career insiders, but typically not from parents.  

Career environment messages conveyed details about job-specific environments and tasks. These messages came from observation, either in person or on television, enabling adolescents to project themselves into the work environment. Television programs can affect students’ career interests, but they can be unrealistic, giving inaccurate career details.

Students’ Frameworks  

We also investigated how frameworks influence adolescents’ choices about whether to pursue STEM occupations, how those frameworks were formed, and how frameworks are related to career messages. We identified three STEM career frameworks.

An enjoyment-based career framework was the most common and evident when enjoyment of math or science class work stimulated students’ interest in pursuing a STEM career. This framework appeared to be formed by self-actualization messages, including “pursue your passion.” Lack of enjoyment in math and science also affected frameworks by turning students away from STEM careers. Thus, enjoyment frameworks amplified the effect of self-actualization career messages encouraging the student to find a pleasurable career and avoid careers that are not.

An individual had an ability-based framework when his/her aptitude in math or science was the basis for pursuing or not pursing a STEM career. Students demonstrated an ability career framework when their ability was the driver of their career interests. Perceived lack of ability caused students to lose interest when they perceived they might fail.

The goal-based framework centered on pursuit of a desired career. For students with goal frameworks, classes were merely part of pursuing a larger career goal—often related to a desired identity. Students with goal frameworks knew they might face challenges, but understood how to deal with them. Goal frameworks were shaped by exposure and interaction with an insider and were influenced by self-sufficiency messages. Socio-economic status may play a role when students set career goals that help them avoid financial struggles affecting their families.

Why are these findings important?  

Our study offers several interesting findings and implications. First, students must have opportunities to learn about STEM careers either through experience or messages giving them a context for math and science coursework. However, adolescents report difficulty in accessing STEM career information unless they have a personal connection with a career insider.   

Second, students learn little about STEM careers from parents. Parents gave the most career messages but offered little information about STEM unless they are themselves STEM career insiders. Science and math courses generated interest in STEM careers when students had positive and successful experiences, but negative classroom experiences caused students to turn away from STEM careers. Educators were not influential. Students did not mention instances of messages from teachers and guidance counselors that affected their choices of college major or career objectives.  

Third, frameworks filter and could magnify career messages and experiences. Career messages communicating the importance of doing what you love shaped an enjoyment career framework. Ability frameworks were developed when students experienced success (or lack of success) in math or science classes or when they learned they had abilities that could translate into STEM careers. Finally, when adolescents set their sights on a particular career, often because they associated it with a desired identity or lifestyle, they had goal frameworks.  

How can we encourage adolescents to be interested in STEM disciplines?  

We make several recommendations to encourage adolescents’ interests in STEM. First, parents are powerful influences, but they often provide personal fulfillment messages, which tell students little about the details of careers and can cause students who are challenged in math and/or science courses to dismiss STEM careers outright. Parents, particularly those in STEM occupations, should supplement personal fulfillment messages with more informational career detail messages. These messages should be given to their children and to adolescents in their extended families and local areas because access and information about STEM careers can be limited. Math and science educators can provide career detail messages by making more linkages between classes and STEM occupations.  

Second, students’ emphasis on their lack of ability in math and science was a common justification for not being interested in STEM careers. Students should be convinced that math or science proficiency can be developed.  

Third, goal-based frameworks were based on career detail messages about STEM careers. Career insiders can contextualize the importance of science and math courses and emphasize hard work over ability. However, career detail messages were scarce. Students depended on their social connections to provide instrumental information about STEM careers. Students with insular family networks that do not have a STEM career insider or students from low socioeconomic communities have little access.   

Finally, STEM-based organizations should work with high schools to create job-shadow opportunities. Career insiders should discuss their own educational backgrounds—especially how math and science classes affected their career attainment. They must emphasize how their career is rewarding, motivating students to persist through challenging courses.

Overall, we found that parents, career insiders, and media provide most career messages related to math, science, and STEM-based careers. Parents often attempt to guide young people by providing encouragingpersonal fulfillment, but these messages can be ineffective when adolescents do not yet know what types of careers they would find fulfilling. Also, by encouraging adolescents to pursue what brings them enjoyment, parents unintentionally can disadvantage their children when they no longer think it’s important to persevere in those academic subjects they initially find challenging. Parents also can play an important role by helping their children gain access to career insiders who can offer realistic career detail. Although young people may become inspired by various careers they see in the media, these depictions often are inaccurate.

About the author (s)

Jody L. S. Jahn

University of Colorado at Boulder

Assistant Professor

Karen K. Myers

University of California, Santa Barbara

Associate Professor