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Career Shocks Influence Millenials' Decision to Attend Grad School

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From high expectations of work-life balance to entitled demands for more compensation, many anecdotes exist about millennials in the workplace. While many speculate that early career changes are a sign of boredom and applications to graduate school may be a last resort, little is known about what truly motivates this generation.

In the study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, “Even the Best Laid Plans Sometimes Go Askew: Career Self-Management Processes, Career Shocks and the Decision to Pursue Graduate Education”, Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business Professor Brooks Holtom and his co-authors investigate what motivates millennials to leave an organization and return to school during the first three years of their career.

“For young employees, it’s not just leaving a job,” said Holtom. “Many are attending grad school, which led us to explore this phenomenon as we are seeing elevated turnover rates amongst young people early in their careers.”

By examining an international sample of undergraduate students, Holtom discovered counter-intuitive findings that positive shocks (such as being promoted early) were more likely to encourage early career employees to leave the organization and pursue graduate education. Regardless of socio-demographics or undergraduate degrees, the likelihood that early career millennials would return to school is influenced by career goals, career planning, job satisfaction, or career shocks.

Likely to Pursue a Graduate Education

Early career individuals with intrinsic career goals (goals that align to passions and social causes); who engaged in career planning; who were less satisfied with their career; or who experienced impactful positive career shocks (unexpected promotions) were more likely to intend to go to graduate school. Graduate education intentions, career planning, and the impact of having one’s mentor leave the organization positively related to these individuals actually going through the graduate school application process. The direct relationship of career shocks to graduate school applications, regardless of one’s intentions, suggests that even ‘the best laid plans’ can sometimes be altered by unexpected events.

Less Likely to Pursue a Graduate Education

Individuals with extrinsic career goals who were highly satisfied with their careers were less likely to intend to go to graduate school. Having extrinsic career goals, a significant and unexpected raise or promotion (a positive career shock), and a negative organizational change negatively related to the likelihood of applying. It is important to note that graduate school is not the only option when an individual leaves. For example, if an employee experiences negative shocks (fights or disagreements with a boss) they may wish to pursue other options including changing jobs or industries.  

“Millennials have a mental image of their future life and will do their best to find jobs that match that image,” said Holtom. “Punctuating events or “shocks” can cause employees to stop and reevaluate the position or job, wondering ‘does this fit my image?’”

Advice to Employers

Employers must understand that shocks are going to occur and therefore should be prepared and vigilant. Since positive shocks (such as early promotions) can increase the likelihood of individuals pursuing graduate school, employers should proceed with caution when promoting young high-performers. Given the influence a mentor can have on an individual leaving, employers should be aware of social networks and immediately engage with younger employees when a mentor leaves the organization.

While this research provides unique insight into the impact of career shocks and the decision-making process of students before attending grad school, it is important for millennials to stay focused on their original goals and future aspirations.

“Millennials should understand what they want out of their careers,” said Holtom. “It is important to set short and long-term goals. When career shocks occur, millennials should pause and reflect in order to make more conscious decisions that will better serve their long-term interest.”