Raising undergraduate aspirations through career mentoring?

Tania Lyden, Career Consultancy Lead: curriculum and academic engagement, July 2020

The Thrive Career Mentoring evaluation reports for undergraduates at the University of Reading showed that mentoring had raised 41% of mentees career aspirations: convincing given the potential mentoring seems to have for influencing social mobility. To harness these findings to influence the University’s Graduate Outcomes, we needed to better understand the processes involved. We needed to know which of our mentees had raised career aspirations and examine whether particular widening participation (WP) students were benefitting or not  How had this change in aspiration happened? What processes were involved and how could we enhance the scheme?

From previous career mentoring research, certain theories and studies had come to the fore to help understand how mentoring worked, particularly in relation to WP students. These included: Bourdieu’s work on social reproduction and subsequent theories such as Hodkinson’s ‘horizons for action’; career identity theories (Meijers & Lengelle, 2012) and employability models  (Dacre-Pool & Sewell, 2007), (Tomlinson, 2017), including self-efficacy, (Bandura, 1977) alongside theories on mentoring processes ( (Kram, 1983), (Bouquillon, Sosik, & Lee, 2005), (Ragins, 1997)).

What emerged were several questions. Did mentoring provide students with a changed view of the labour market (field[1]), whether more detailed, broader or simply different and what was the impact of this: greater self-efficacy in relation to a specific career and a shift in career identity? Did mentees experience changes in their ‘habitus’[2]  or get a better sense of the tactics necessary, or ‘feel for the game’, for those roles? Did this also impact on their self-efficacy about securing a more aspirational role? Did mentoring processes such as cognitive overlap between mentor and mentee, recognition, identification, integration and trust feature and were their aspirational shifts consequences to this?

The current before and after surveys for career mentoring were adjusted to ask about student perceptions around career aspiration before and after mentoring, with analysis around why mentee’s perceived it had happened and also some analysis of the shift in occupations sought. This would reveal which students had raised aspirations. Focus groups would deliver a better understanding of the processes involved. However, this approach became challenging and interviews were opted for instead. Importantly, survey analysis revealed that what mentees viewed as raised aspirations, for the most part, did not seem to be. The researcher used the interviews to explore this misunderstanding about raised aspirations and why mentees answered yes, when their reasoning behind the answer suggested otherwise and what this meant for the mentoring programme. Unfortunately, only two WP students volunteered to take part in deeper qualitative research so each was undertaken as a case study.  The research revealed some interesting results. Firstly, a higher percentage of mentees from BAME groups and/or NSSEC category 4, 5, 6 and 7 reported raised aspirations compared to non BAME mentees and mentees from NSSEC categories 1, 2 and 3. Conversely, mentees reporting disabilities and/or who had lived in low participation neighbourhoods (Polar Q 1 and 2) had a lower percentage reporting raised aspirations. After analysing any association between these characteristics and raised aspirations using Chi Square tests, it was revealed that none of these results were statistically significant. The tests relied on small numbers of participants for the WP categories particularly, but the Chi Squared tests were valid.

Secondly, our qualitative survey analysis revealed only a handful of students had actually adjusted their career goals. What the others reported was feeling more focused regarding their career options (31%), having chosen a specific career path (24%), feeling more ambitious (7%), broadening their outlook (5%), feeling more certain about their career choice (5%) and having higher self-belief about their chosen career option (5%). The pie chart shows this breakdown. What this reveals is that for the vast majority of mentees their journey seemed to be more about making career choice progress and/or feeling more committed and ready to apply for the roles they aspired to do, rather than aspiring to ‘higher level’ roles. Without career mentoring, they may not have made a choice, not been committed enough, have lacked self-belief and potentially reverted to non-graduate level applications.

In terms of shedding light on the processes involved, the two interviews provided rich, useful data. The participant names have been changed to ensure privacy.

Jack was a male, part two, BAME mentee and a mature student. He clearly displayed higher self-efficacy due to achieving a more realistic, up close view of the career he aspired to, and the lifestyle that accompanied it, through his relationship with his mentor. This seemed to show symbolic modelling (Bandura, 1977). 

I feel it’s been less about raising my goals as about specifying them. Again, making them more realistic, actually making them a reality. It’s become a lotless nebulous now. It looks a lot more concrete now.

He received reassurance from a likeminded, yet demographically different, role model and this seemed key to him feeling like the career was right for him and that he had a good chance of success. This relationship showed clear cognitive overlap and some integration of identities, and although only this case seemed to support the idea that similarity enabled trust and identification to occur, this led to successful outcomes for Jack.

As much as this sounds attractive, and I think it’s the right call, I’m not really certain that may be once I get into it, it may be will kill me a little bit on the inside or something. Um, after the mentoring scheme I feel very definitely, no I’ve made the right call here.

Suhanna was a female BAME mentee who had almost no cognitive overlap with her mentor and was re-exploring her career identity having strongly identified with one of her parent’s careers and since rejected it. There was little bonding and no identification and only limited progress for her in terms of career direction. Both Jack and Suhanna gained a new view of the labour market ‘field’ and this resulted in a highly evolved understanding of the role and employability tactics for Jack and a huge opening up of career options for Suhanna. Neither raised their aspirations, but Jack ended up certain about his career identity and how to realise it and Suhanna realised that the answer to her career journey was to explore further career options and could see a way forward. It seems that Suhanna’s self-efficacy in her ability to navigate the career decision making process had increased, perhaps as a result of performance exposure (Bandura, 1977), in the form of exploring many new career options. She had another placement planned to explore a subsequent career option.

I wanted to aspire to be like my Dad, I want to be successful, I wanted to be in finance and the more I’ve grown up, the more I’ve realised I was, not naïve, but I just didn’t realise what else was out there. So I guess that’s what mentoring has made me realise.

A clearer career identity seemed to accelerate mentoring benefits, but progress can still be made if mentees are early in the career choice process and that building self-efficacy around applying the career decision making process is fruitful. Having mentor/mentee common ground helps and that with a well formed mentee career identity that common ground can include career interests. Cognitive overlap seemed to enable identification and comparisons between the mentee and the mentor such that the mentee saw their future self in the mentor’s current self via ‘symbolic modelling’ (Bandura, 1977). However: firstly, that cognitive overlap did not seem to need to be based on demographics. Interestingly Jack and his mentor were very different demographically but had very similar career interests, academic background, personality and work ethic. Secondly, this presented a paradox in that for mentoring outcomes to truly accelerate and reach fruition, students seemed to need better-formed career identities, something which mentoring ideally should help to achieve, but that for those with limited career identities at the outset, building self-efficacy in the career decision making process would help them move forward. Those with poorly formed professional career identities, logically, would be those who have had least exposure to professional graduate roles through their families, friends and communities, making mentoring vital for social mobility.

Several recommendations are made as a result of this research:

•            Matching processes should focus on multi-facetted mentor/mentee cognitive overlap.

•            Mentors should know how well-formed their mentee’s career identities are and encourage mentees to apply the career decision making process and reflect to build self efficacy in it.

•            Mentors and mentees need training and exercises to reflect on common ground, discuss differences and recognise the importance of relationship quality on career mentoring.

•            Mentors should provide mentee’s with mastery experiences as per Bandura’s self-efficacy concept, including providing experiences, if possible, occupational information, vicarious insights into job roles and reassurance as well as honest reflection about a mentee’s emotional reactions to what they learn and the process. This will broaden mentee horizons, deepen knowledge from new vantage points previously unavailable to them plus support about how they feel about it.

•            Scheme organisers need to encourage mentors and mentees to invest in the relationship.

•            Stakeholders need to better understand mentoring processes and how to support them.

To conclude, what originated as a study of career aspiration, evolved into a study of how career mentoring ensures mentees create, develop certainty around and ultimately secure their career aspirations and how schemes can support this to improve graduate outcomes. Aspects of the mechanisms of recognition and identification, habitus and field and self-efficacy all seemed at play.

 

[1] ‘Field’ is a place where agents are based with their positions of power dependent upon the interaction between; the rules of the field, the habitus of the agent and the capital (social, cultural, symbolic) of the agent.

[2] ‘Habitus’ is a repeated set of behaviours, assumptions and judgements that have developed over time due to family socialisation and that particular position in ‘the field’ and scaffolds decisions as a loose framework (Bourdieu, 1990)

 

References

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Bouquillon, E. A., Sosik, J. J., & Lee, D. (2005). It’s only a phase: examining trust, identification and mentoring functions received across the mentoring phases. Mentoring and Tutoring Partnership Learning, (13): 1-20.

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The Logic of Practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Dacre-Pool, L., & Sewell, P. (2007). The key to employability: developing a practical model of graduate employability. . Education and Training, 49(4):277-289.

Kram, K. (1983). Mentoring at work: Developmental relationships in organizational life. Academy of Management Journal, (26): 608-625.

Meijers, F., & Lengelle, R. (2012). Narratives at work: the development of career identity. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 1-20.

Ragins, B. R. (1997). Diversified mentoring relationships in organizations: a power perspective. Academy of Management Review, 22(2): 482-521.

Tomlinson, M. (2017). Forms of graduate capital and their relationship to employability. Education and Training, 59(4): 338-352.

 

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