June 22, 2015, by Emma Thorne

What matters when you choose an undergraduate degree?

As thousands of prospective students prepare to flock to our UK campuses to attend the University’s Open Days later this week (Friday June 26 and Saturday June 27), researchers at Nottingham have revealed the motivations behind students’ biggest decision of all — which subject to study for their degree.

Research, conducted by Dr Anya Skatova and Professor Eamonn Ferguson in the University’s Horizon Digital Economy Research institute and School of Psychology, has highlighted that a combination of factors including intrinsic interest in a subject, lucrative career prospects, opportunities to help others and a potentially easy route into higher education can all play a part in that choice.

Motivation is a driving force behind many life choices. Different people are driven by different motives: some strive for achievement and high targets, while others want to do something that involves helping people. These different motivations can lead to different career paths, and do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. A variety of different types of degrees which are offered by the UK universities can satisfy the variety of motivations.

The researchers analysed a survey of 1,885 participants, who were a combination of undergraduate students from various backgrounds as well as prospective students applying to UK universities. The questionnaire was designed to measure individual motivations for the choice of undergraduate degree. Four important motivational factors emerged from the analysis: people choose to study degree because they are interested in the subject, because the degree provides good career options, because it gives an opportunity to help others and because of its easy access and low effort in completing it.

The results, published in the academic journal  Frontiers in Psychology, revealed that most degrees were chosen for a number of reasons. For example those who chose to study medicine did so because it offered both the opportunity to help others and prestigious career opportunities. Engineering students based their choice of degree on the good career prospects while rating relatively low the importance of enjoying the subject they study.

Arts and humanities studies on the other hand were strongly driven by intrinsic interest in the subject combined with low concern for future career. In addition, they indicated that the degree was perceived as easy to get through — another motivation in their decision to study it.

Dr Skatova said: “The questionnaire to measure degree choice motivation is a useful diagnostic tool that can help improve students’ experience of higher education. Understanding the reasons behind degree choice is important both for prospective students and their families, as well as individual departments and career services.

“Some of the results were not surprising: art and humanity students are often seen as intrinsically driven, while engineers as career driven. However, realising that this is not the sole motivation driving this choice is important. For example, engineering students rated down the intrinsic interest in a subject they study which might badly impact on their progression through the years of university leading to dropout rates. These results encourage engineering departments to discover opportunities that excite their students about engineering research and education. Identifying that arts and humanities students are not as concerned with future careers could prompt respective academic departments to highlight exciting opportunities for these students to focus on the ways in which they can convert their passion into a career.”

Read more on this subject from Dr Skatova in The Conversation and Frontiers in Psychology.

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