Graduate Enrollment Decisions of Undergraduate Science and Engineering Majors: A Survey of GRE Test Takers

Grandy, Jerilee
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Engineering enrollment graduate study science surveys


To understand better the factors involved in students' decisions to pursue graduate study in natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering (NSME), this project surveyed a stratified sample of 1,651 NSME majors who took the GRE General Test in December 1990 and planned to enroll in graduate school. The survey asked about their undergraduate experiences, the quality of their departments or programs, ratings of their own skills, expected earnings after completing graduate school, characteristics of the jobs they would most like to have, importance of various job characteristics and activities, when they decided on their graduate fields of study, opinions about those fields, and family background, including whether parents were in technical occupations and whether they approved of their fields of study. The survey compared responses and GRE records of students planning to continue in NSME with students planning to change fields of study. The decision to change fields was not related to GRE scores, gender, parents' education, or ethnicity. Compared with students continuing in NSME, students who planned to change fields for graduate study liked their undergraduate courses less, had difficulty seeing themselves as scientists or being able to make a contribution in the sciences, did not receive as much encouragement from instructors to continue in NSME, had slightly lower grades in their major, found the courses more difficult, felt they had less in common with their peers, and rated the department and quality of instruction lower. They also rated their verbal skills somewhat higher and spent more hours in community service. Those leaving NSME presented a profile of more socially oriented individuals concerned more with helping people than in working with "things." Those leaving their fields expected to earn less after graduate school. Among those remaining in NSME, Black respondents expected to earn the most and White respondents expected to earn the least. The expected earnings of women were lower than those of men. Some students for whom it is important to make a contribution to society, to interact with people, to have an attractive work environment, and to have variety in their work, are leaving the sciences. These occupational characteristics were important to more women than men and to more minorities than Whites in the sample. The report suggests that science and engineering students do not always have a realistic view of the work options that will be open to them, and that they need to have a broader picture of the many varieties of work and work environments available in science and engineering. The report also suggests that more able students of both genders and all races might choose to continue in science if they knew more about its possibilities.

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