Career Goals and Motivation

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn how your beliefs and goals are related to how you act and what you achieve.
  • Learn how to assess what is most important to you as you think about and plan your future.


“I have noticed a disconnect between my departments’ goals and the reasons many of the students have come here to study. Programs at large institutions seem to lose sight of their training obligations while becoming overly focused on output.”

“I have found it so important to remember why I came here to study in the first place. If I remember my love for the material and the freedom I will have one day to pursue my real interests, the daily hassles seem worthwhile.”

Motivation for Different Types of Careers?

Career goals assist you in making informed academic and life decisions. However, even the most determined and conscientious person can get so caught up in the steps that it's easy to forget about the end goal.

The term 'career' refers to "time spent on a purposeful life pattern” through work.1 As this definition suggests, a career is not just what you do in a position or for an income. Rather, it is a cumulative body of work that is characterized by meaningfulness and productivity as you define them.

Are You Future-Oriented?

  • As a child, did you often imagine your adult life?
  • Do you think often about the impact that your decisions will have on the life you lead years from now?
  • Or do you prefer to live in the moment, taking on challenges, and opportunities as they arise?

Whether or not you are future-oriented, developing a vivid dream for your life after graduation will increase your short-term motivation in graduate school.

Reflections: Who Can Motivate You?

Take a minute to think of your extended networks. Do you have:

  • Close colleagues?
  • A mentor?
  • A good friend?
  • People you do leisure activities with, like run or do something creative?
  • A spouse or significant other?
  • Children?
  • Extended family?
  • Casual acquaintances?
  • People you look up to, even if you don’t know them well or at all?

Most people have many, if not all, of these people in their lives in some shape or form. People can be important external motivators, reminders, and sounding boards. Once you share with people your goals, they can keep you accountable to what you are striving for.

Getting off track is easier if there are no reminders of what your track actually was. Sometimes people get so far off the path that they feel lost in the woods of daunting responsibilities, ambiguous life plans, and feeling unsupported.

You may ask yourself, why did I transfer to this school? Your sister may remember that decision very clearly: So you could be closer to her. This is a good example of how easy it is to forget the support systems you have in place and underutilize them in times of need.

People with personal networks are fortunate, as close others can be important sources for sustaining motivation, reminding us of what’s important, and serving as sounding boards. Once you share your goals with others, you have made a type of public commitment, and your supporters can help you stay on track.

Subjective Beliefs

An important ingredient of career motivation is your subjective belief about the types of careers for which you believe you will be good or bad.2 In fact, many theorists argue that beliefs about what you can do have a great deal of overlap with your interests.3 If you believe you can't do something, you are less likely to express interest in it, and less likely to be motivated to pursue it.

Your past, as well as your interpretation of the past, influences future-oriented motivation. How you explain and to what you attribute past successes and failures will influence your motivation level and your actions.4

Past Event

"Your advisor asks a different advisee to collaborate with him on a research project"

Your Interpretation

"You take this to mean that your research skills are not up to par"


"Your motivation to do research declines and you start to focus your efforts on developing your teaching skills"


Which of the following can serve as a motivator?

The best answer is D, all of the above. Answer A can motivate you in the short-term by getting you to focus on the things that will get you to where you want to be. Answer B can be an effective career goal motivator, in that by telling your family about your goal, they can help hold you accountable. Answer C is an important factor in motivation as well—how you interpret past events that relate to your possible career goals can either motivate you to move forward, or to discontinue entirely.

Possible Selves

Career motivation theory also suggests that you are motivated by your different “possible selves,”2 that is, the person you want to become, as well as the person you fear you could become.

Let’s take an example ...

Ashley and Mona are both 2nd year students in chemical engineering. They work in the same lab and share the same advisor. Ashley and Mona also have the same dream (“future possible self”) of acquiring a tenure-track faculty position on the West Coast. The pair work around the clock, but still face the stereotype that, as women, they are not as committed to a career in science.


Feared possible self

Ashley does not want to be like her mom, a successful career woman who did not have much time for the family. Ashley blames her mother for her parents’ divorce.

Feared possible self

Mona had many experiences with racism growing up, including people assuming she was not smart or able based on her cultural background and where she grew up. She is worried these types of stereotypes will continue in graduate school.


Ashley decides to leave school with a master's degree and take a laboratory position at a private company promising high flexibility in preparation for her future life as a mother. Although this was not her original career plan, she is happy to pursue chemical engineering while leaving open the possibility for the type of family life that she desires.


The stereotypes Mona faces while in graduate school only increase her motivation. She eventually lands a faculty position at UC Santa Cruz.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

Another important aspect of career motivation is the value or reward that you expect will be associated with this career path. Extrinsic motivation is the desire to achieve something for external rewards, such as money, prestige, or to please someone else. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to pursue an activity for the act itself and its meaningfulness. When compared to extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation is generally associated with better performance and more persistence.5

You're pursuing a science and engineering career because you enjoy the activities or consider it a worthwhile pursuit are examples of intrinsic motivation.6 If you want to become a professor, you probably place a higher value on discovery and education, and less on maximizing your lifetime income.

Women are more likely to cite altruistic, as opposed to monetary, motivators as underlying their career choices.2,7 This appears to be one explanation for why disproportionately more women than men are drawn to careers and roles with higher interpersonal and societal impact.

Working Environments Can Influence Career Goals

The context in which you act and perform in the present can influence your future-oriented motivation.9,9 For example, the degree to which assignments relate to students’ future goals has been found to predict how engaged they are in the material, and how long they will persist academically.10

There are other environmental challenges that affect career goals and may have a differential impact on women. Women report less support from their academic departments and families in overcoming academic and career obstacles.11 In fact, in a recent doctoral student life study, 46% of female participants said that at the beginning of their program, their goal was to become a research professor, whereas at the time of the study, only 31% of female participants were still motivated to stay on this career track.12

Reflections: Environmental Supports for Success

How many of these are true for you?

  • Career goals are established through the discourse and agreement of students, professors, and mentors.
  • Projects focus on research that is of relevance to the professor as well as the student, and require effort and persistence over time.
  • Students receive assistance and advice from professors, supervisors, and other colleagues or mentors; they use the tools and follow practices of experts in the field.
  • Students develop an awareness of the educational requirements of career opportunities in your chosen field.
  • Learning involves the interdisciplinary process of inquiry, investigation, hypothesizing, articulation, collaboration, negotiation, practice, and reflection.
  • Achievement is demonstrated through multiple types of assessment. You have many opportunities and outlets to shine.
  • If you find that you have very few of these environmental supports, this is not a hopeless situation. Some of these need to be built, but you have to request others. Many students do not experience full support because they are not aware of what is reasonable to expect or do not know how to express their needs.
  • Asserting your needs is a skill, not a personality trait. It doesn’t mean being brazen or outspoken, rather it entails being clear.

CareerWISE Point on Career Goals and Motivation

Clear career goals matter for current productivity, sustain motivation, and contribute to long-term success. You will have an easier time staying motivated now if what you are doing in your program relates to what you value in your chosen career.

CareerWISE Tip on Career Goals and Motivation

Try to boost your productivity by reconnecting with your passions and dreams, visualize your ideal career position, review your statement of purpose, or have lunch with an inspiring professor. Remember why you love what you do!


  1. Zunker, V. (2006). Career counseling: A holistic approach (7th ed). Pacific Grove, CA: Thomas Brooks/Cole.
  2. Greene, B. A., & DeBacker, T. K. (2004). Gender and orientations toward the future: Links to motivation. Educational Psychology Review, 16, 91-120. doi:10.1023/B:EDPR.0000026608.50611.b4
  3. Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D., & Hackett, G. (1994). Toward a unifying social cognitive theory of career and academic interest, choice, and performance. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 45, 79-122. doi:10.1006/jvbe.1994.1027
  4. Eccles, J. (1984). Sex differences in achievement patterns. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 32, 97-132.
  5. Vansteenkiste, M., Neyrinck, B., Niemiec, C. P., Soenens, B., De Witte, H., & Van den Broeck, A. (2007). On the relations among work value orientations, psychological need satisfaction and job outcomes: A self-determination theory approach. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 80, 251-277. doi:10.1348/096317906X111024
  6. Sansone, E. & Harackiewicz, J. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: The search for optimal motivation and performance. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  7. Seymour, E., & Hewitt, N. (1997). Talking about leaving: Why undergraduates leave the sciences. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  8. Gjesme, T. (1981). Is there any future in achievement motivation? Motivation and Emotion, 5, 115–138. doi:10.1007/BF00993892
  9. Raynor, J. O. (1970). Relationships between achievement-related motives, future orientation, and academic performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 15, 28–33. doi:10.1037/h0029250
  10. Lens, W., Simons, J., & Dewitte, S. (2001). Student motivation and self-regulation as a function of future time perspective and perceived instrumentality. In S. Volet & S. Jarvela (Eds.), Motivation in learning contexts: Theoretical advances and methodological implications (pp. 233–248). Amsterdam, NY: Pergamon.
  11. Toews, J. A., Lockyer, J. M., Dobson, D. J., Simpson, E., Brownell, K. W., Brenneis, F., MacPherson, K. M., & Cohen, G. S. (1997). Analysis of stress levels among medical students, residents, and graduate students at four Canadian schools of medicine. Academic Medicine, 72, 997–1002.
  12. Mason, M. A., & Goulden, M. (2004). Marriage and baby blues: Redefining gender equity in the academy. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 596, 86-103. doi:10.1177/0002716204268744

How Do You Know When You're Ready?
The importance of learning from failed experiments.

Planning Experiments Around Breast Feeding, Productivity, and Encouragement (Part 1)
Creating a schedule and meeting an advisor's expectat

Interpersonal Satisfaction
The satisfaction that comes from working with colleagues and interacting with others.

Words of Wisdom: Dr. Rosser
The importance of remaining passionate and remembering that the PhD opens doors.

Gaining Strength from Adversity
Underscores the challenges that come from being the only woman in an academic department and gives suggestions on how to gain confidence and be assertive in these situations.

Leisure Activities
Using leisure activities to relieve stress and build friendships.

A Virtual Support System (Long Distance)
The importance of nurturing relationships outside of academia.

Creating an Environment for Exchanging Ideas
How the physical space in a laboratory allowed for collaboration among colleagues.

Time Management Profile
Outlines a philosophy on time management.

Words of Wisdom: Dr. Barton
The importance of knowing what you want and expecting tradeoffs on the path to get it.


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