Academic journal article Career Development Quarterly

Using Embeddedness Theory to Understand and Promote Persistence in STEM Majors

Academic journal article Career Development Quarterly

Using Embeddedness Theory to Understand and Promote Persistence in STEM Majors

Article excerpt

Student retention in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors represents a national concern. The 2012 report of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST, 2012) strongly argues that the competitiveness of the United States in the global marketplace of the 21st century depends on a STEM-educated population prepared to contribute ideas and skills to the economy. The report also documents that we are currently falling far short of our goals for preparing the future workforce. For example, substantial evidence suggests that many American students arrive at the college level poorly prepared for STEM curricula (PCAST, 2010). However, poor preparation is not the only concern. A large percentage of qualified college students who begin their studies in STEM change to non-STEM majors before graduation (National Research Council, 2006). Especially concerning are the gender disparities; girls and women are disproportionately lost along the educational pathway and are underrepresented in STEM majors and careers (National Science Foundation, 2013). At the college level, research has considered a variety of factors to explain why students leave STEM and the associated gender differences in retention, including unwelcoming climates in STEM classrooms and departments (e.g., Cheryan, Plaut, Davies, & Steele, 2009), lack of STEM-relevant interests (e.g., Su, Rounds, & Armstrong, 2009), low self-efficacy (e.g., Marra, Rodgers, Shen, & Bogue, 2009), and the influence of contextual supports and barriers (Holland, Major, Morganson, & Orvis, 2011; Lent et al., 2001).

The present study approaches the problem from a different angle. Rather than focusing on why college students leave STEM, the present study aims to enhance our understanding of why students in STEM majors persist. In an effort to solve the STEM persistence problem, research to date has focused on testing the effectiveness of assorted intervention strategies, with some success (Graham, Frederick, Byars-Winston, Hunter, & Handelsman, 2013). Examples of effective interventions include mentoring from faculty members and peers, participation in STEM learning communities, and engagement in research (Graham et al., 2013; Wilson et al., 2012). The evidence concerning what works with regard to improving STEM persistence is certainly important, but it is equally if not more important to understand why it works. The effectiveness of existing interventions and the development of new intervention strategies are likely to be enhanced to the extent that they are rooted in a strong theoretical framework. A useful theory would explain the underlying factors that contribute to persistence and why those factors matter psychologically.

In the present study, we explored the relevance of embeddedness theory to understanding persistence in STEM. Embeddedness theory has proven useful in explaining persistence in the workforce but has yet to be applied in educational contexts. This approach offers a comprehensive explanation of those factors that retain people in their jobs, employing organizations, and occupations (Feldman & Ng, 2007; Mitchell, Holtom, Lee, Sablynski, & Erez, 2001). The development of embeddedness theory was a response to critiques of turnover research in the organizational and career commitment literatures, which has tended to view remaining in one's job and profession as largely a function of positive affect (e.g., job satisfaction, organizational commitment) and a lack of alternate opportunities (Mitchell et al., 2001). Embeddedness theory acknowledges that such factors do not adequately account for all the variance in decisions to remain in one's job and occupation. Meta-analytic research findings show that job embeddedness accounts for incremental variance in voluntary turnover beyond job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and alternate job opportunities (Jiang, Liu, McKay, Lee, & Mitchell, 2012). …

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