Purpose and Identity

How do undergraduate physics students prepare for life after graduation?


Eleanor C Sayre


January 1, 2019

How do undergraduate physics students prepare for life after graduation? The Purpose and Identity project interviews undergraduate physics students and recent alumni to discover how they balance their sense of purpose, burgeoning disciplinary identity, and professional goals to plan for life after graduation.

We conducted semi-structured interviews with undergraduate students at an urban, private, and master-granted university. We examined three major constructs to better understand and support students’ professional development needs: sense of purpose, sense of belonging, and future possible selves.

Sense of purpose

Sense of purpose (SoP) is defined as a desire to “accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self” (Damon, 2008). A student with a clear SoP shows a stronger commitment to a college degree and is persistent in the field; students with weaker SoP might be more likely to change majors or leave college. As the first step in encouraging students to develop a SoP, this project presents one case study of an undergraduate physics major discussing the sense of purpose in planning his future career.

He displays a strong SoP (desire to help others and have an impact on the community) and capability (being good at physics), and a desire to utilize both in his future career. Nevertheless, the student does not see in an immediate future a way to combine the two, rather framing his plans as sequential, first developing his capability and then satisfying the desire to help others. This framing, while common in physics, is not necessarily correct, and its prevalence may discourage students with a strong SoP from continuing in the discipline.

Submitted to ICLS.

Sense of belonging

The purpose of this research is to investigate the impact of the departmental culture on double-major students’ sense of belonging. Sense of belonging (SoB)is the extent to which students subjectively perceive that they are valued, accepted, and legitimate members of their academic domain (Goodenow C., 1993). It can have a direct impact on students’ learning and identity, which in turn can predict students’ career choices and retention in STEM.

We analyzed interview data from undergraduates who have two majors. We looked for their sense of belonging (SoB) in both of their majors, and for their perceptions of departmental practices which might support or inhibit their SoB . Across all participants, there were four departments represented: physics, education, math, and computer science (CS).

We used the Communities of Practice framework, specifically the mutual engagement construct, to evaluate students’ SoB. Mutual engagement includes activities that faculty and students participate together to build connections and relationships. Theoretically, the greater the mutual engagement between students and faculty, the more likely that students will be shifted towards central memberships, resulting in a strong SoB in the department. The following features in the physics department tend to support students’ SoB: courses are designed to promote collaboration; students are encouraged and funded to participate in extracurricular activities; and faculty support students’ future career development. In comparison to physics, students have a lower SoB in education and CS departmental communities due to less collaboration outside of the classroom; less accessibility to faculty; and fewer interactions caused by the building structure. Students’ SoB in the math department is inconclusive because students perceive departmental features differently. For example, some students have access to math research opportunities while others do not. The study’s implications include suggestions for departmental changes to improve students’ SoB, resulting in a more inclusive learning environment for all students.

Published in ICLS 2021

Future possible selves

The last few years of an undergraduate degree can be a time of intense introspection and professional planning. Students must consider a variety of factors when making a career decision, including earning money, relocating, family expectations, and so on. The goal of this project is to better understand students’ needs to develop future careers and then draw implications for ongoing curriculum development aimed at supporting students’ professional life after graduation.

We used a theoretical construct called future possible selves to investigate how students figure out who they want to be or are afraid of being in the future. Drawing on the perspectives of multiple case studies, we found that the development of future possible selves is a nonlinear process in which academic factors such as GPA does not speak for students’ future possible selves. Students, in fact, have reflected back and forth between their academic and social experiences in order to construct their future possible selves. We’ve also noticed that the appealing characteristics of a profession, such as income, location, and working hours flexibility, can strongly entice students to pursue it. Students, on the other hand, are drawn away from professions by their feared selves, e.g, not matching personality, not making a lot of money, or competitiveness. Our findings suggest that a well-rounded education should provide students with not only effective academic courses but also a picture of the pros and cons of different professions in order for students to best imagine their possible futures.

Published in PERC 2021

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