When I grow up ...

When you were at school, what did you want to be when you grew up?

It's not unusual for youngsters to play games or dress ups based around jobs, but how early do children start to think about future careers?

A new study offers some interesting insights about the career aspirations of primary and secondary students and the reasons behind their choices.

The research team from the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, says its findings suggest there's scope to explore the topic with younger students and shift the focus of careers education in secondary schools.

Jennifer Gore, Kathryn Holmes, Max Smith, Erica Southgate and Jim Albright report the results in a paper published in The Australian Educational Researcher.

The academics collected data from New South Wales students in Years 4, 6, 8, and 10 during 2013. Youngsters were asked about their occupational or career goals and justifications.

Of the 3500 students, 71 per cent knew what kind of work they wanted to do and gave a specific occupation. Another 21 per cent gave a tentative occupation when prompted a second time, while 8 per cent didn't know what they wanted to do and didn't give any suggestions.

The responses were collated to create rankings of the most popular jobs, and the researchers used an occupational status scale to classify the students as low, middle or high aspiring.

‘The vast majority of research, policy, and practice pertaining to student aspirations has focused on understanding and supporting the educational and career aspirations of students in the last three years of secondary school … and yet we found that the aspirations of younger students were similar in many respects to those of older students,' the academics write.

They add the results challenge the idea that younger children's career aspirations are based on unrealistic or 'fantasy' jobs and shouldn't be taken seriously.

‘... only two students named careers that were ‘not real' - ‘superhero' and ‘king of the world'. From as early as Year 4, the vast majority of students expressed interest in ‘real' occupations. Most did so with a reasonable level of certainty (71 per cent certain, or 92 per cent tentative or certain) and mostly their career aspirations were classified as middle to high prestige.'

Across all 3500 students, only 11 occupations were named among the five most highly ranked -mechanic, animal trainer, defence force, sportsperson, police officer, entertainer, engineer, school teacher, psychologist, vet, and doctor.

'Sportsperson, teacher, and vet appeared among the top five occupations for nearly every student group, with the exceptions being that sportsperson was not ranked in the top five for girls (instead ranked 11th) and school teacher and vet were not in the top five for boys (ranked 7th and 11th respectively). There was no overlap in the top five occupations for boys when compared with girls' top five occupational choices.'

When asked to justify their job choice, 32.4 per cent of students said it was related to something they like or love, 16.4 per cent thought they would be good at it or were interested in that kind of work, 14.2 per cent said it involved helping others, 13.1 per cent thought it would be fun, enjoyable or exciting, and 7.7 per cent said it would earn them lots of money.

Researchers say careers education could focus more on the reasons for wanting a particular occupation, rather than simply selecting one. Choosing an occupation for altruistic reasons was more frequently reported by female students (20.1 per cent compared to 8.1 per cent for males).

'For example, with the under-representation of girls in engineering, knowing that altruism underpins the occupational choices of a significant number of girls could mean exploring with girls the ways in which engineering helps people and communities, as one part of their occupational decision-making.

‘The suggestion here is not so much fitting the individual to a narrow range of careers that suit his or her interests, but opening up the range of possible careers by exploring how those careers might fit the individual.'

Most careers education in Australia is delivered in Year 10. The researchers say the fact that they found minor differences on occupational choices and aspirations from Years 4 to 10 suggest these discussions could be introduced at an earlier age.

'We are not advocating a simple replication of dominant approaches to careers education in the primary school, but there might be value in discussions focused on motivations, pathways, and options,' they conclude.


Gore, J., Holmes, K., Smith, M., Southgate, E. and Albright, J. (2015). Socioeconomic status and the career aspirations of Australian school students: Testing enduring assumptions. The Australian Educational Researcher, 42(2). pp. 155-177. DOI: 10.1007/s13384-015-0172-5.

Stay tuned for a Teacher infographic on some of the findings from this study.

Are students at your school introduced to a wide range of careers options?

When discussing careers with students, do you explore the reasons behind their choices?