Moving into, or away from, science?

By Heather King - March 2016


Salehjee, S., & Watts, M. (2015). Science lives: School choices and ‘natural tendencies.’ International Journal of Science Education, 37(4), 727–743. doi:10.1080/09500693.2015.1013075

Findings from the ASPIRES project (King’s College London, 2013) suggest that a family’s science capital is key in shaping a young person’s decision to follow or reject science pathways. However, many individuals choose paths away from science, despite having high levels of science capital, whilst others are passionately drawn to science, seemingly against the odds. Why? Salehjee and Watts collected 12 personal biographies to characterize the personal journeys that shape science-related life choices.

Research Design 

The aim of this study was to explore the influences on young people as they contemplate the study of science and to highlight the kinds of personal events that can prompt either entry into, or rejection of, science. Six male and six female academics in the U.K. were interviewed for this study. Six worked in science-related contexts and six in other fields. All were invited to recall their personal pathways into or away from science as a career option.

In analyzing the biographies, Salehjee and Watts identified three kinds of transitions into or out of science careers.

Examples of twists of fate include having unexpected high achievement in an exam boost confidence and suggest a change of path. In other instances, failure in exams led to a new path of escape from the heavy expectations of school or parents.

Respondents with more wavering biographies said that they fluctuated in their choices at age 16 before settling on their three or four A-level subjects—the courses generally required for admission to university. The choice of A-level subjects effectively assigns education and career options.

For seven out of the 12 respondents, life stories were set very early on—age 8 was often cited. These choices were largely unaffected by later circumstances and events. As Salehjee and Watts argue, these preferences appear to have been determined not by immediate contextual factors but by long-standing commitments. This finding is in contrast with behavioural decision theory (Colman, 2009), which suggests that people’s preferences are constructed at the point when decisions need to be made.

Theoretical Basis 

Expectancy-value theorists (such as Wigfield & Eccles, 1992) argue that individuals’ choices may be determined by the value they place on particular goals. However, this theory does not address other motivational questions such as, “What makes an individual want to engage in one thing at all?”

The theory underpinning this research derives from Mezirow’s (1997) transformational learning theory, which argues that personal life experiences are key transformative initiators. Furthermore, narrative biographers, such as Schank (1990), would argue that self-reported descriptions of life experiences, such as personal biographies, provide significant insights into human lives.

A further theoretical perspective on individuals’ choices and preferences is discussed in the brief on Azevedo’s study of long-term interest. Studies of long-term engagement note the importance of contextual factors—social, environmental, or economic—that support or constrain participation and decision making.

Implications for Practice

If the die is cast for a person’s science career at age 7 or 8, then one could argue that efforts to attract teenagers to science careers are fruitless! However, the 15–16-year-old “wavering transitionals” could be a prime target for efforts to encourage engagement with science. Perhaps the key conclusion to be drawn from this study is the need for the informal science sector to continue to provide opportunities for young people to access and participate in science for as long as possible. These opportunities would allow teens to migrate between science and non-science options and prevent them from being prematurely turned away from science.

An additional implication of this research is the need to give young people more biographies that illustrate a range of rich and varied career paths. Such stories may inspire young people and counter perceptions that their options are strictly limited after they choose their school subjects.


King’s College London. (2013). ASPIRES: Young people’s science and career aspirations, age 10–14.London, UK: Author. Retrieved from

Colman, A. (2009). Behavioural decision theory. Oxford reference. Retrieved from

Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. In P. Cranton (Ed.), New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 74, Higher education: A global community(pp. 5–12). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Schank, R. A. (1990). Tell me a story: Narrative intelligence. Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press.

Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. A. (1992). The development of achievement task values: A theoretical analysis. Developmental Review, 12, 265–310.

Related Briefs:

  • Bevan, B. (2011). Multiple routes for the development and pursuit of interests: An ISE research brief discussing Barron’s "Interest and self-sustained learning as catalysts of development: A learning ecology perspective."
  • Lyon, L.A. (2011). Children’s enjoyment of doing science does not predict choice of a science career: An ISE research brief discussing Archer et al.’s, " “Doing” science versus “being” a scientist: Examining 10/11-year-old school children’s construction of science through the lens of identity."
  • Matson, C. (2014). Developing a practice-based theory of long-term interest: An ISE research brief discussing Azevedo, “Lines of practice: A practice-centered theory of interest relationships.”
  • Regan, E. (2011). First sources of scientists' and graduate students' interest in science: An ISE research brief discussing Maltese & Tai's, "Eyeballs in the fridge: Sources of early interest in science."