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Career Calculus: Assessing the Psychological Cost of Pursuing an Engineering Career

Written by: Trevion S. Henderson, Katie A. Shoemaker, Lisa R. Lattuca
Published on: Mar 16, 2023

Woman in Engineering
Photo credit: Me Studio/Adobe Stock


Personal characteristics (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender, and precollege experiences) are known to shape students' pathways to engineering, as well as persistence decisions in college. However, the role of psychological cost in postgraduation intentions has received less scholarly attention.


The purpose of this study is to examine sociocognitive factors that shape students' postgraduation intentions in the early college years. Guided by Social Cognitive Career Theory and the concept of psychological cost, we examine the role of self-efficacy beliefs, outcome expectations, and psychological cost, as well as key background characteristics, in students' postgraduation intentions.


We analyzed survey responses from four cohorts of undergraduate engineering students at a large public university. Participants responded to items measuring self-efficacy beliefs, outcome expectations, and psychological cost after their first and second years of college. We used structural equation modeling to examine the relationships between the sociocognitive variables and students' graduate school and career intentions.


The sociocognitive variables predicting postgraduation intentions after Year 1 differed from those predicting intentions after Year 2. After Year 1, we found no statistically significant sociocognitive variables predicting graduate school intentions or engineering career plans. After Year 2, both self-efficacy and outcome expectations were significant predictors of postgraduation intentions. The psychological cost was significantly related to both self-efficacy and outcome expectations. Finally, we found significant differences in racial/ethnic identity, sex, and first-generation status.


Examining psychological cost provides additional insights into the factors informing students' postgraduation intentions over the course of their collegiate careers and suggests new directions for research on students' thinking about engineering careers.

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