Educational orientation

Educational orientationThe current study compared 166 students with plans to attend graduate school with 161 students intending to work after college on academically related behaviors, attitudes and personality traits. Students interested in graduate school reported more frequent class participation and were more motivated by learning, and less by grades. Groups also differed on several key personality traits that may be related to success in graduate school (e.g., conscientiousness, openness). We suggest that faculty emphasize to students that GPA is only one factor evaluated by graduate school admission committees, and that active engagement in learning will likely improve a candidate's chances for acceptance into graduate school.


Few questions seem to be more important to today's college students than what they will do once they graduate. There is a great deal of variability in students' ability to answer that question, as evidenced by research related to "career decidedness" (Lounsbury, Tatum, Chambers, Owens, & Gibson, 1999). Some students enter college with concrete plans for the future. Others struggle for some time, possibly changing majors more than once, before they eventually find their direction. Finally, there are those who don cap and gown, still unsure of what they will be doing in the foreseeable future. One decision that many undergraduates wrestle with is, "Should I attend graduate school?"

Faculty in many disciplines counsel their students on the reality that graduate training is often necessary if they intend to maximize their ability to apply or practice the fruits of their undergraduate labor. For instance, students majoring in psychology are informed that graduate school is essential if they intend to teach at the college level or become a clinician. The graduate admissions process is extremely competitive and not all who are interested will actually attend graduate school. In psychology, the American Psychological Association (APA) Research Office periodically tracks application and acceptance statistics for various types of graduate programs (e.g., public vs. private institutions, doctoral vs. terminal master's programs). In the 1998-1999 survey, public doctoral programs that responded reported 29,760 applications, of which only 3,651, or 12% were accepted; the highest reported acceptance rate (64%) was for private terminal master's programs

Once accepted into a program, students quickly learn that graduate school is very demanding; it requires long hours, hard work and typically a willingness to make financial sacrifices while a student completes their program of study. According to a survey of programs in many disciplines (e.g., arts and humanities, natural and social sciences, engineering, math) conducted by the National Research Council (NRC, 1995), time to complete degree has increased to an average of nine years for a doctoral degree (cited in APS, 1996). Hodgson and Simoni (1995) have referred to the increase in time to degree and escalating attrition rates as a "disturbing trend."

Given the importance of the decision, and having been made aware of the rigors of graduate training, it would logically benefit students tremendously to invest a great deal of thought and personal research before declaring their intentions to attend graduate school.

Evidence suggests that as many as 75% of undergraduates believe they will obtain a graduate degree, although juniors and seniors may be more realistic than freshmen and sophomores (Heckert & Wallis, 1998). However, it is likely that many students report an interest in graduate school well before they know exactly what is involved, and what it takes to gain admission to a graduate program. Rajecki, Lauer, and Metzner (1998) suggested that many undergraduates have unrealistic expectations regarding admission to graduate programs. Specifically, Rajecki and his colleagues (1998) found that neither undergraduate students' major grade point average (GPA), nor belief in the importance of a high GPA, were related to plans for attending graduate school. In fact, the GPAs of students who were and were not planning to attend graduate school were not significantly different (Rajecki et al., 1998).

Although certainly important, GPA is only one of several factors that admission committees consider in selecting applicants for acceptance into graduate programs. Evidence also supports the importance of letters of recommendation (e.g., Keith-Spiegel, Tabachnick, & Spiegel, 1994; Purdy, Reinehr, & Swartz, 1989). A strong letter of recommendation can often tip the scales in a candidate's favor, conveying information about qualitative aspects of a student's abilities. These attributes can, in some ways, be more informative than grades. For instance, active participation in the classroom and involvement outside the classroom are characteristics that tend to set individuals apart from classmates who receive high grades but are not as engaged in learning. This type of information does not appear on a college transcript, but can be addressed in a letter of reference. Given that faculty place a high value on active student engagement in learning (Parr & Valerius, 1999), it is likely true that students who are actively engaged in learning, both in the classroom and outside of the classroom, will receive stronger letters of recommendation. Yet, many students planning for graduate school do not seem to realize the value of such activities (e.g., participation in class, doing research, attending conferences and making appearances at symposiums, etc.). In other words, they do not engage in the very behaviors that would best prepare them for their intended futures, and those that would give them the best chances of getting into graduate school. This seems consistent with Rajecki et al.'s (1998) contention that students largely hold uninformed expectations regarding graduate school.

Student engagement and academic performance are not the only areas in which we might expect to find differences between students who are or are not planning to attend graduate school. Students who are planning to devote several additional years of their lives toward furthering their education should demonstrate a positive attitude towards the process of learning, or a so-called "thirst for knowledge". Previous research (e.g., Ainley, 1993; Eison, 1981; Eison, 1982) supports the existence of individual differences between students who are motivated by the process of learning and those who are motivated more by the outcome (e.g., grades). Eison (1982) found that students motivated by the process of learning tended to be more self-sufficient, and showed less "self-debilitating anxiety", than students who were more motivated by grades. These characteristics would be well suited for someone interested in graduate school. Yet, it is unclear whether students who do and do not intend to pursue graduate training differ with regard to these motivations.

Researchers have also investigated the degree to which personality traits discriminate between high versus low achievers in college. Using the original NEO personality inventory (NEO PI; Costa & McCrae, 1985), Dollinger and Orf (1991) found that the factors Openness and Conscientiousness

were predictive of exam performance and overall course grades in a research-oriented undergraduate course in personality. Further, Musgrave-Marquart, Bromley, and Dalley (1997) found positive correlations between GPA, Conscientiousness and Openness. It would be logical to predict that graduate students would also need to be conscientious (i.e., purposeful, strong-willed and determined) and open to experience (e.g., intellectually curious)(Costa & McCrae, 1992).

The purpose of the current investigation was to examine differences in educational orientation, personality traits, and academic behaviors and attitudes in students planning to attend graduate school and those planning to enter the work force. It was predicted that students planning to attend graduate school would engage in more academic work outside the classroom, and would participate more in class, than students who were planning to enter the work force. Further, it was predicted that students planning to attend graduate school would score higher on Conscientiousness and Openness, as well as the separate facets of these factors, than those planning on working after college. Finally, it was predicted that students with plans to attend graduate school would express a higher concern for learning than grades, compared to students with plans to enter the work force.