Reflections from scientists about their career choices: Key influences and significant factors

By Heather King - October 2011


Jones, G., Taylor, A. & Forrester, J. H. (2011). Developing a scientist: A retrospective look. International Journal of Science Education, 33(12), 1653–1673.

This paper reports on a study examining the reflections of 37 scientists and engineers regarding significant experiences in childhood that may have influenced their career choices. All the respondents had at least five years of experience in their chosen fields spanning earth and space science (n = 7), biology (n = 11), engineering, physics and physical science (n = 13) and chemistry (n = 6). Commonalities across the responses include motivational teachers, informal advising and mentoring from family members and teachers, opportunities to tinker and build models and independent explorations of science both in and out of school.

To analyse the scientists’ responses, the authors of this paper used the analytical lens of self-determination theory. The self-determination theory (Deci et al 1991) argues that an individual’s life decisions may be explained in terms of their ability to attain goals (competency), their interpersonal connections providing nurture and support (relatedness) and the extent to which they are self-initiating and self-regulating (autonomy).

The scientists’ reflections were gathered through semistructured interviews lasting about an hour, focusing on questions exploring experiences in and out of school, interest in science, any hobbies and whether there had been a ‘eureka’ moment or event that influenced their development as a scientist.

Key findings of this research include the following: 

In an attempt to draw these findings together, the authors offer a model outlining the factors and the relationship between them that contribute to a science career. Thus, they outline how competency, autonomy, relatedness and interest in science are in turn influenced by in school experiences (innovative instruction, interaction with teachers) and out of school experiences (tinkering, outdoor exploration).

The implications that may be drawn from this study have relevance in both the formal and informal sectors. Firstly, it underscores the importance of teachers and the approaches they use to influence learners. Secondly, the study emphasises the importance of open and independent inquiry. This, the authors note, may take the form of unstructured laboratories, or extended inquiries in school or out of school environments. Thirdly, the study highlights the role of mentors – be they teachers, family members or other influences. Finally, the study points to the significance of out of school experiences in the formation of science career choices.

However, there are a number of caveats to this study. For example, the interview sample had neither included those individuals who had not chosen science, nor those who had begun a career and later left it. Moreover, the responses offered will have inevitably reflected the nature of the question, i.e., if a question probes one’s engagement with hobbies, the recollection is likely to feature a hobby. The study is also limited in that it did not seek to identify the crucial points in the scientist’s life when important decisions were made, and career choices crystallised. As a result, questions exploring whether key decisions are made at similar times or unique to each individual still remain unexplored.

The study and findings raise a number of other important questions both for authors and for education providers. Key among these includes the following: 

The authors conclude by noting the importance of complementing in and out of school learning, and indeed cite the Family Math program as an example of how home and school learning experiences may be integrated. They conclude that “perhaps by providing consistent and coherent educational programmes in science and engineering that effectively utilise home and school environments, we can enhance students’ opportunities to learn science and can nurture their perceptions of science and engineering careers’ (p. 1670).

Related Reference

Deci, E.L., Vallerand, R.J., Pelletier, L.G. & Ryan, R.M. (1991). Motivation and education: The self-determination perspective. Educational Psychologist, 26(3–4), 325–346.