This research is situated in a larger mixed methods study exploring mid-year engineering students’ motivations related to their future possible careers. Our work draws from the future-oriented motivation frameworks of future time perspectives (FTP) and future possible selves (FPS). In this study we qualitatively explore the perception of a previously identified category of students with shortened FTPs and unattainable ideal FPSs in terms of their future careers.
In this exploratory qualitative phase of our research, we interviewed eight mid-year engineering students who, based on our quantitative data, demonstrated a focus on short-term goals and a belief that they will not achieve their ideal future career. Mid-year engineering students from four large research institutions with high or majority undergraduate enrollment were recruited for this study. Data were collected through semi-structured interviews to guide students through three major topics: long-term goals, short-term goals, and connections between long- and short-term goals. Interview transcripts were analyzed using a priori coding through directed content analysis (DCA) based on a previously developed codebook, and emergent coding.
Participants primarily focused on their near-future goals and generally lacked distant future-oriented motivations and connections between the present and future. Students described their short extension into the future as being driven by their need for basic wellbeing and their sense of being overwhelmed by their current workload, with quotes such as: “[Classes are] not technically hard, just the amount of time that I have to put in them…is kind of keeping my full attention at the moment. Between that and studying abroad it is kind of difficult to think much further than that.” Previous studies have identified workload, particularly when the value of the tasks is questioned, as being a source for psychological distress for students in higher education. Participants also described feelings of being stuck in engineering. For example, some participants describe having gotten “too far into [engineering degree] to switch.” These feelings of being stuck stemmed from financial or familial pressures and a lack of flexibility in engineering curriculum.
When considering inclusivity in our course or policy decisions, we should consider different student motivations and perceptions of the future. By allowing for some flexibility in engineering curricula, we could provide safe opportunities for students to find a career path that best fits their future goals and reduces the fear, discomfort, or feelings of being stuck that some students associate with thinking about the future. As practitioners and policy makers strive to help motivate students in the classroom, techniques that involve describing the future in terms that make it seem nearer and more important could contribute to some students feeling overwhelmed, even by the near-future; bringing the far-future to their attention may only cause additional distress and lack of motivation. Future directions for this research include assessing how engineering programs can consider different ways that students think about their future in engineering to create an inclusive and supportive environment for all types of students.
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