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Anales de Psicología

versión On-line ISSN 1695-2294versión impresa ISSN 0212-9728

Anal. Psicol. vol.31 no.1 Murcia ene. 2015 


Career choice in engineering students: its relationship with motivation, satisfaction and the development of professional plans

Elección de carrera en estudiantes de ingeniería: ¿cómo se relaciona con su motivación, su satisfacción y el desarrollo de sus proyectos profesionales?



Iciar Pablo-Lerchundi, María-Cristina Núñez-del-Río, Rosa-María González-Tirados

Instituto de Ciencias de la Educación (ICE), Universidad Politécnica de Madrid





Choosing a university degree is a relevant process for the personal, social and economic development. This study was designed to explore the students' choice for technical degrees. It is centered on the relationship between the quality of their choice and their motivation, satisfaction and development of professional plans.
The inquiry involved an incidental sample of 89 students from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) in Architecture, Computer Sciences and Forestry Engineering. After the analysis of the ad hoc adapted inventory, descriptive data and the results concerning dependence between the variables considered (analyzed with Pearson's chi-squared test) are presented. Non-parametric tests were used to asses differences on satisfaction by gender and degree studied. Results show dependence between the students' motivation and satisfaction, and the later and their professional plans' content. Gender and degree are also dependent with professional plans' temporality, as well as degree with their structure. No significant differences were found for the means in satisfaction.

Key words: Career choice; vocational motivation; career development; professional plans; engineering; higher education.


Elegir qué estudios realizar es una tarea relevante para el desarrollo personal, social y económico. Este trabajo analiza la relación entre la calidad de la elección de carrera en estudiantes del área científico-tecnológica con su motivación, satisfacción y ciertas características de sus proyectos profesionales. Para ello se tomó una muestra incidental de 89 estudiantes de las titulaciones de Arquitectura, Informática e Ingeniería de Montes de la Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM).
Se presentan los datos descriptivos tras el análisis de las respuestas a un cuestionario adaptado ad hoc, y los resultados acerca de la dependencia entre las variables consideradas (analizados a través de la prueba Chi-Cuadrado) y de las diferencias en satisfacción en función del género y la titulación (pruebas no paramétricas).
Los contrastes confirman dependencia entre la motivación y la satisfacción que los estudiantes manifiestan, la titulación elegida con la temporalización y la estructuración de sus proyectos, así como entre el género y la temporalización de sus proyectos. No se encontraron diferencias significativas en las medidas de satisfacción (promedio de rangos).

Palabras clave: Elección profesional; motivación vocacional; desarrollo de carrera; proyectos profesionales; ingeniería; educación superior.



Choice of vocation is an extremely important process not only for a person's own development but also for his/her social and economic development. At present, once the compulsory education stage has been completed, many young people are faced with the uncertainty of having to choose what they will study at university, while others have a vocation for a specific career. Most of the approaches of Vocational Psychology agree that this selection process involves the need to devote time to getting to know one's own vocational aptitudes and interests as well as compiling information on the different courses open to students, together with their requirements and demands (Valls, 1998).

It is beyond question that choosing which course of study to embark upon will exert an influence on an individual's professional development. Moreover, it is no easy task to undertake (de León, Rodríguez-Martínez, Ortega & González-Cifuentes, 2006), as adolescents usually still have a high degree of immaturity. Therefore, they do not always make the decision with the seriousness of thought required and often fail to avail themselves of the opportunities offered by the education and university system itself such as "Open Day at University", career guidance at school, etc. (Alexander et al., 2011). But everyone is interested in making decisions that have positive results, and choosing a career is a matching process, where the person matches his/her personal needs with the field that best fits them (Parsons, 1909; Anguelova, 2001).

The present circumstances of massive access to Higher Education and competitiveness in the labour market underline the importance of making a conscientious career choice that is consistent with and fits in with one's tastes, interests and aptitudes (Sánchez-García, 2001). With this, education costs can be reduced, as the academic success rate will increase and, at the same time, drop-out rates will be expected to decrease (for recent specific data in Spain see Rosselló, Olivares & Pujolras (2009). Nevertheless, studies in the field of engineering show that these students do not really drop out, but change their course (González-Tirados, 1989).

Professional development may be understood as "the total constellation of psychological, sociological, educational, physical, economic, and chance factors that combine to influence the nature and significance of work in the total lifespan of any given individual" (National Center for Career and Technical Education, NCCTE, 1993). Its main purpose is seeking to increase satisfaction in the exercise of one's profession through the achievement of the highest professional competence.

The aim of this exploratory study is to look more deeply into aspects related to career choice within the context of engineering: to discover the nature of what motivates students to choose certain studies, the quality of such choices and students' level of satisfaction, as well as to describe how they relate to the nature of the plans they make to become part of the world of work.

Motivation is defined as an intention. As all constructs, it needs to be approached through indirect measurement basing it on individuals' self-perception. However, no-one questions its weight when explaining and predicting human conduct (Garrido, 2000). Motivation may be understood as the driving force that impulses a human being to achieve something specific that involves their total will-power; it responds to the reason behind their conduct (Palmero, 2005). Whatever the definition, what is certain is that motivation is intrinsically linked to the causes behind career failure, which justifies its being taken into account as the core of any research about career choice.

We may state that motivation is present at every stage of a decision-making process, since according to Mook (1987), it is the phenomenon that triggers the initiation, choice and persistence of certain actions in concrete circumstances. Given that career choice and professional development both involve constant decision-making processes it would seem logical for both to be linked to aspects of motivation.

As in every decision-making process, in the case of career choice, two basic components can be distinguished: some objective alternatives that can be opted for and have been specified, and other subjective criteria that are an individual's own reasons for being interested in this particular decision (Anguelova, 2001). These subjective reasons link directly to motivation, in which two basic types can be identified: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (Deci, 1975). Recent studies in the educational psychology field recognize a greater complexity in the simple dichotomy between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, differentiating sub-types in each of them (Núñez-del-Río, Fontana & Pascual, 2011). Nevertheless, this study will consider the classical approach.

The interest in the task or activity itself as well as its value regarding personal development are the characteristics of intrinsic motivation. In this case, students attribute their results to factors of their own, which are under their control (their hard work, their dedication), leading them to work out of interest in the subject, their eagerness to learn it and put it into practice. In other words, intrinsic motivation means choosing to do a task just for the satisfaction of doing it, under no obligation or pressure. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation moves a person to obtain a reward or avoid punishment, where factors such as chance, luck or other circumstances are used to explain outcomes. At the academic level extrinsic motivation occurs when the stimulus has no direct relationship to the subject studied. It is based on external factors such as social esteem, benefits or the avoidance of a sanction.

In both work and academic contexts, intrinsic motivation, in its wide acceptation, has frequently been linked to satisfaction as well as to achieving better results and productivity (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Along these lines, young people who embark upon the career choice process for reasons of intrinsic motivation would also be expected to be more satisfied with their chosen activity.

González-Maura (2009) compiles the results of various studies that confirm that a responsible career choice involves evaluating one's own tastes and skills as well as the possible alternatives, reflectively and individually. By doing so, a relationship between motivation and quality of career choice can be expected.

Being satisfied with the specific activities they undertake predisposes people to pursue their goals in their specific sphere of action with greater enthusiasm. Being aware of this, the entrepreneurial world promotes career planning for their employees, seeking to generate higher levels of satisfaction that will, in turn, lead to increased productivity and feelings of loyalty and commitment (Dolan, Valle-Cabrera, Jackson & Schuler, 2003). Career plans may be understood as emotional-cognitive developments of professional expectations and aims that guide the actions of the subject in their job performance. With this, it would be expected that young people who design better structured career plans that express detailed descriptions of the goals to be reached, specify a timescale and provide the means to achieve all this, would show higher levels of satisfaction with their career choice. They will also design career plans that are oriented towards developing the activity for which they are being trained and understand that this is not only part of their career development but also their personal development.

As to gender, the current literature states that male students in technical courses perceive they fit better into the world of engineering than female students. Women also lose more frequently interest in the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) over time (Matusovich, Streveler & Miller, 2010), and have a higher level of dissatisfaction with engineering studies (Anguelova, 2001).

In addition, Alexander et al. (2011) find that women appear to take the advice of others more (mainly their family) when choosing what to study. This is congruent with the data found by Anguelova (2001), according to which women let themselves be guided more by external factors when choosing a technical career, while men make a choice because of their intrinsic interest in the job. Additionally, women have to fight against a social stereotype bias that is widespread in diverse cultures and suggests they are not suitable for these kinds of careers and jobs (Trauth, Quesenberry & Huang, 2008; Zhang 2007).

As for career plans, there appears to be no gender difference, although men show more motivation and more ambitious plans than women (Anguelova, 2001).

Opting for a degree in Higher Education is nowadays fairly common among European youngsters, but not all of them make their choice in a thoughtful manner, after having taken into account personal and situational factors. The risk of increase in dropout rates being therefore higher. Counting with young well educated people is particularly important in a crisis situation like the one we are currently living as they may contribute in a larger extent to economic growth being for example more prone to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities (Arenius & Minniti, 2005).

Taking these considerations into account, this study analyses diverse factors implicated in career choice in engineering students: type of motivation, quality of their choice, level of satisfaction and characteristics of their career plans.



89 students from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) volunteered to take part in the study. Of those 41% were studying Architecture, 38% Computer Sciences and 21% Forestry Engineering. The distribution by degree coincided with the course-age distribution since the Architecture students were mainly in their first year, those of Computing in their second year while the Forestry students were in their final year (sixth year). The sample was balanced as to gender with 55% men and 43% women (2% of the participants gave no information in this respect). The average age was 21.9 (SD = 3.3), with a minimum of 19 and a maximum of 29.


The inventory, adapted ad hoc from a career motivation survey (González-Maura, personal communication), approaches different aspects connected with career choice and its links to vocation and profession (see Appendix 1). The tool comprised structured, semi-structured and open questions intended to explore the following dimensions:

1. Type of motivation: Intrinsic or extrinsic motivation for the chosen degree depending on whether it is based on interests, personal tastes or other factors inherent to personal development or on external factors such as, salary or job status. Within intrinsic motivation, it is distinguished whether it is high or low according to whether the interest shown in the course is intrinsically high (that is, if the student states he/she likes the course, these studies were his/her first choice and his/her preferred subjects during secondary education had any affinity to engineering) or only moderately so (if the foregoing was only partly true). On the other hand, it is explored whether or not extrinsic motivation is accompanied by an explicit rejection (for example, if the participant explicitly states he/she does not like the course).

2. Satisfaction with the chosen degree. The participants' level of satisfaction was evaluated using the Iadov technique (López & González-Maura, 2002; Villamide, Alvir, Alegre, García-Alonso & Nicodemus, 2006). This method is an indirect way of determining the level of satisfaction. Three closed questions that are related to one another are included in the inventory. Through what is called "Iadov's logic table" (see table 1), a numerical score may be assigned to each subject depending on his or her answers to these three questions. These scores are encoded on the following scale of satisfaction:

1. - Very satisfied
2. - Satisfied
3. - Undefined
4. - Dissatisfied
5. - Very dissatisfied
6. - Contradictory

As can be seen in table 1, a subject who responds in the inventory (see Appendix 1) "no" to question number 6, "I like it a lot" to question number 11 and "yes" to question number 17, will be assigned a score of 1, meaning that he/she is very satisfied.

3. Quality of Choice: It is evaluated whether the student chose the course he/she is studying in a responsible or nor responsible way. Good quality (responsible) choices are based on the individual's own capacity perception and fruit of his/her personal decision. On the other hand, choices that are made as a result of external influences, such as family or friends, or without proper recollection of information about the content or opportunities of the course, are considered not responsible.

4. Career plans: This dimension explores the professional plans expressed by students once their academic education would be complete. Three different characteristics of these plans were evaluated through different questions in the inventory. the plan's content (whether it includes specific professional goals), its timescale (regarding short- or long-term planning) and the plan's structure (regarding specific means set out for the achievement of that goal).

5. Self-assessment of one's performance as a student: This dimension used open questions to explore whether the student had an adequate self-assessment, showing self-criticism and considering measures to overcome difficulties. However, the responses given by the participants were few and led to little enlightenment, and so, the dimension was eliminated from subsequent analyses.


The subjects responded to a 26-item inventory which was given out during class on two of the degree courses and on-line for the third course. Participants' responses were grouped into the 5 previously defined dimensions (see instruments) by 4 trained coders who followed clear instructions on a template. For each dimension it was established whether the subject showed intrinsic motivation (high or low) or extrinsic (with or without explicit rejection), their level of satisfaction, if their choice had been responsible or not, and their career projects regarding content, timescale and structure. All the cases were then encoded on nominal scales except the level of satisfaction, was encoded on an ordinal scale. The self-assessment dimension as a student was eliminated as there were insufficient data from the respondents.

When the dimensions had been encoded on the relevant scales, the relationships between the aspects evaluated were calculated using Pearson's chi-square (χ2). To evaluate the differences in the level of satisfaction according to gender and degree non-parametric tests (Mann Whitney U and Kruskal-Wallis H tests) were used.



Table 2 shows the distribution by gender for each of the levels of the dimensions considered. In general, high rates of intrinsic motivation and responsible decisions can be observed regarding the chosen course. The levels of satisfaction expressed are lower, although over half the students claim to be satisfied or very satisfied. There is a marked percentage of subjects classified as "Undefined". 35%, the most numerous category. There are no individuals in the "Very dissatisfied" category. Regarding the career plan dimension, the results showed that their content is goal-directed, they were focused towards the long term but were lacking structure.

Regarding dependence between the different dimensions and motivation (table 3) significant results was found only for the relationship between motivation and the level of satisfaction of students (χ2 12=27.2, p < .01). A close examination of the frequency distributions indicates that intrinsic motivation is linked to higher levels of satisfaction but is unrelated to quality of choice and to the different aspects linked to the students' career plans.

In relation to the quality of choice no dependence was found between the dimensions taken into account (see table 4).

Data analysis to test the relationship between students' satisfaction and their technical course and career plan-related issues (content, timescale and structuring) are shown in table 5. Dependence between the level of satisfaction and plan content (χ24=9.9, p < ; .05) was found. The frequency distribution shows that higher levels of satisfaction are linked to goal-directed plans.

The findings related to gender (table 6) only revealed significant dependence for the career plans' timescale (χ2 1=8.8, p < ; .01). As can be seen in the data, the majority of men plan in the long term, while the amount of women planning in the short term is still quite high (nearly one third).

Results for dependence between the different dimensions and the courses taken by engineering students are shown in table 7. Significant results are obtained for the dependence between the degree course and two of the dimensions for career plans: timescale (χ22=23.2, p < ; .001) and structure (χ22=12.3,p < .01). A close study of the data clearly shows that in the Architecture and Computer Sciences degrees, those surveyed have a greater tendency to plan in the long term. The trend is reversed on an examination of plan structuring where Computing students show a greater tendency to develop non-structured plans compared to the subjects of other qualifications.

Finally, we present results concerning the study of the differences in the students' level of satisfaction. For this, the level of satisfaction was numerically encoded. Then, non-parametric tests were carried out both for gender and degree.

No significant differences were found for any of the factors (see tables 8 and 9), so the statistical equality in the average ranks of satisfaction expressed by students on the different courses, either men or women, can be confirmed.




Discussion and Conclusions

The primordial aim of this study was to analyse in depth the different dimensions involved in the choice of vocation and the professional development of students on various technology degree courses. In accordance with the results obtained, we can state that there is a relationship between the type of motivation shown by students towards their degree course and their level of satisfaction with it. As was expected and shown by previous research (Deci & Ryan, 1985), these data confirm that high levels of intrinsic motivation lead to a higher level of satisfaction. This is beneficial for academic as well as job performance. It is therefore extremely important to emphasise the need for young people to make decisions based on their intrinsic interest for the subject when choosing a specific career or job (Rodríguez-Moreno, 2007; Sánchez-García, 2001), as the findings support this theory.

Moreover, the results obtained indicate that even when students make a responsible career choice (based on information about the course or self-capacity and not on others' opinion and advice), they do not always show high levels of motivation or explicit interest for it. González-Maura (2003) points out that, due to deficient educational and vocational guidance, one relevant weakness of university students is their lack of professional self-determination. This is characterised by a lack of reflection and solution-seeking when faced with possible conflicts during the academic-professional development process. On the other hand, the right level of professional self-determination contributes flexibility of thought as well as career motivation in the long term, which will help individuals to face up to any job problems that might arise. Therefore, at the start of university life the determining factor would not be so much that the choice of study had been made because of high levels of motivation, but that it had been made responsibly, that is after a profound personal reflection and self-assessment of one's abilities. If such a responsible and personal decision is made, even individuals who show no prior high intrinsic motivation will be able to redirect their motivation and develop a deep interest in the subject or work they will do in the future (González-Maura, 2003).

Vocational guidance is a process that must be lifelong and not just carried out before choosing higher education courses (Sánchez-García, 2001; Sebastián, Rodríguez-Moreno & Sánchez-García, 2003; Valls, 1998). Planning structured career plans directed towards specific goals is especially important if we look at how this relates positively to high levels of satisfaction with the chosen course. Therefore, we must insist on the need to develop adequate career guidance procedures to help young people plan their academic and professional development.

The existence of gender differences was also considered. According to the literature reviewed, women tend to show less interest in technological or scientific studies as they progress on their course (Matusovich et al., 2010). Some studies have clearly shown that the choice of engineering degrees by women is made in a less responsible way than by men. It would seem that women are more vulnerable to the influence of other people, particularly their family, and at the same time show higher levels of dissatisfaction (Anguelova, 2001). However, this study's results revalídate previous findings in UPM (González-Tirados, 2004), where no dependence between gender and motivation, the level of satisfaction and the quality of choice was detected. In addition, the non-parametric tests carried out for the levels of satisfaction, revealed no significant differences regarding the gender of the participants. Significance was only found regarding the timescale of the career projects, where men showed a greater tendency than women to plan in the long term. This finding could be congruent with Anguelova's results (2001), where men showed more ambitious plans than women. The fact that men show greater ambition could justify 94% of them making long term plans. Whatever the case, this question may be of interest and will require further in-depth research.

The type of variables that were intended to be measured could be pointed out as a possible limitation to the study as they are non-observable constructs. This circumstance makes it difficult to establish methods that enable motivation or quality of course choice to be measured. That is why we opted for an inventory that combines closed and open questions in an effort to obtain as much information as possible. Notwithstanding, we are aware of the difficulties involved in interpreting the studied variables. It would be interesting to deepen its study, aiming to verify the inventory's soundness with a larger and more heterogenic sample. In this sense, more subjects in the same courses (Architecture, Computer Sciences and Forestry Engineering), as well as students from other courses could be added to the sample, balancing the number of students in their first and last year at university. This would enable the results to be compared to those of other years of the same course and to the results of different degrees.

It would also be of interest to make a follow-up research looking at graduates in their jobs and ascertain their levels of satisfaction in order to compare those individuals who pursued careers mostly on intrinsic motivation with those who did it based mostly on extrinsic motivation.

In conclusion we can state that intrinsic motivation for a career is a relevant factor for later satisfaction with one's academic and professional development. However, it is essential to strengthen vocational guidance in order to foster responsible choices in those who aspire to a university education. It is also essential to design concrete plans for their future with a view to training young professionals with large degrees of autonomy, motivation, guidance and structuring, all of which will bear fruit in the form of increased productivity and satisfaction in the work context.



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Iciar Pablo-Lerchundi;
ICE de la Universidad Politécnica de Madrid;
Calle Profesor Aranguren, 3;
28040 Madrid (Spain).

Article received: 27-9-2012
Reviewed: 16-7-2013
Accepted: 18-7-2013

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