A Career Course for Life Science Students
By Serena L. Christianson
Throughout the 21st century, national educational policymakers and scientists have focused on raising awareness about opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) because of the demand for these skills in the current labor market (Fayer et al., 2017). However, career specialists do not have a standardized process for introducing and preparing students for these career pathways. Many first-year students enroll in discipline-specific courses without initially confirming or exploring their career goals. After observing the fragmentation of academic and career engagement, Arizona State University (ASU) staff identified that students would benefit from integrated educational and vocational exploration. A career course for life science majors would enable students to understand their options and fully engage in the career decision-making process. Many of these students dreamed of becoming physicians, nurses, or research scientists in medicine. Still, they knew little about other occupational alternatives that were available to them. Moreover, many ASU life science students had never fully explored their career interests, values, and skills.
Career courses are a promising practice that career specialists can use to scale support and close gaps in students’ self-awareness and work-world knowledge. Reardon et al. (2021) reviewed the literature on career courses from 1976 through 2019 and found 116 publications. Most were in psychology or education, but 18 (16%) were in other disciplines, with 15 reported from 2015–2019. The time frame and interdisciplinary nature of these career courses indicate that a credit-bearing curriculum is a common practice across higher education. These findings indicate that career courses are common practice, as career specialists across institutions and disciplines are interested in scaling support and career development. Reardon et al. (2021) found that career courses significantly impacted student retention to graduation, which addresses a priority for many postsecondary institutions. Recognizing this importance, ASU developed a specialized career course in the School of Life Sciences (SOLS) to equip life science students with the necessary skills and knowledge for success in STEM-related professions.
After carefully reviewing program options, SOLS at ASU decided to offer a special topics credit course in remote and in-person formats. The instructor selected a comprehensive career textbook (Reardon et al., 2019) that was based on Holland’s RIASEC theory and cognitive information processing (CIP) theory. (Readers may review Christianson  for complete information on this course's design, development, and evaluation.)
Aligned with ASU’s online 7.5-week course schedule, the class included a series of learning modules designed to enable students to (1) become purposefully responsible and active in the life/career planning process; (2) understand how interests, values, and skills influence career development; (3) become aware of the changing global economy and how it impacts individual and family career systems; (4) identify and use appropriate academic major, occupational, and/or employment resources in the life sciences; (5) learn about and use job search strategies and related employment-seeking skills; and (6) understand how to formulate action plans and strategies for implementing life/career goals.
The instructor used a multistrand mixed method action research procedure using quantitative and qualitative data to evaluate the course (Ivankova, 2015). Online and on-campus students enrolled in BIO 394: Career and Professional Development for Life Sciences participated in a study of this special topics course. Of the 34 students enrolled in the career course, 29 completed the Career State Inventory (CSI; Leierer et al., 2020) at the beginning and end of the course, 12 participated in the retrospective pre- and post-intervention surveys, eight participated in the interview, and eight provided permission for their essays to be reviewed.
The CSI, a measure of readiness for career decision-making about career certainty, satisfaction, and clarity, was one of the instruments used to assess the impact of the course. Respondents were asked to provide a list of current occupations and their first occupational choice from that list (certainty), a satisfaction level relating to that choice (satisfaction), and three statements about their assessments of doubt, confusion, and difficulty in making a career choice (clarity). At the end of the course, students were significantly more content with their occupational option list (satisfaction) and confident in their ability to make a career choice (clarity); however, there was no change in the level of career certainty because the students did not feel the need to change their occupational goals.
After the course, a semi-structured interview was used to assess students’ understanding of career development and decision-making and the effectiveness of the course. For example, students were asked, “After taking this course have you changed personally? If so, how? If not, why not?” The major themes derived from these interviews were (a) increased awareness of career options, (b) increased confidence in career decisions, and (c) overwhelming support for the course.
While acknowledging the potential impact of individual actions, it is essential to recognize that the implications of this study extend to a systemic level. This includes the imperative for higher education leaders to reevaluate and prioritize career development in their institutions' strategic planning. Additionally, the results indicate an opportunity for academic advisors at other institutions also to consider how to foster career development across the STEM educational programs they support.
Career Development Course for the Future
Drawing upon prior work regarding college career courses, a comprehensive special topics course was created for 34 students in the School of Life Sciences. A multistrand mixed method action research model indicated that students increased their readiness for career planning and employment to become more confident in their career journey, more informed about the world of work, and more intentional in their career development processes.
Career services professionals at other institutions can replicate ASU’s curriculum (Christianson, 2021) by integrating educational and vocational exploration into existing courses or by creating a discipline-specific career development course.
Christianson, S. L. (2021). Creating and using a career development course to prepare life science students for career decision making (Publication No. 28411946) [Doctoral dissertation, Arizona State University]. ProQuest. https://www.proquest.com/openview/d073fffe3c31ad6ddeb1b2caa7e301cb/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y
Fayer, S., Lacey, A., & Watson, A. (2017, January). Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) occupations: Past, present, and future. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2017/science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics-stem-occupations-past-present-and-future/home.htm
Ivankova, N. V. (2015). Mixed methods applications in action research: From methods to community action. SAGE Publications.
Leierer, S. J., Peterson, G. W., Reardon, R. C., & Osborn, D. S. (2020, April 20). The Career State Inventory (CSI) as a measure of the career decision state and readiness for career decision making: A manual for assessment, administration, and intervention (Second Edition). Florida State University Libraries under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives 4.0 license. http://purl.flvc.org/fsu/fd/FSU_libsubv1_scholarship_submission_1587411085_afa0b2e3
Reardon, R., Lenz, J., Peterson, G., & Sampson, J. (2019). Career development and planning: A comprehensive approach (6th ed.). Kendall-Hunt.
Reardon, R. C., Peace, C. S., & Burbrink, I. E. (2021). College career courses and instructional research from 1976 through 2019. https://diginole.lib.fsu.edu/islandora/object/fsu:760320/datastream/PDF/view
Serena Christianson was an academic success coordinator at ASU and is now a Learning Communications Program Manager for the Sales, Marketing, and Communications Group at Intel Corp. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org