Career Perspectives of Elementary, Middle, and High School Students: Results of a Cross-Sectional Survey

 Conducted for randrr by Karyssa Siegel

Table of Contents

I. Introduction

 II. Summary of Key Findings

III. Detailed Findings

IV. Recommendations

I. Introduction:

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? How much has that changed over the years? As you may expect, children commonly say they want to be professional athletes, doctors, teachers, and police officers. Few say they want to be an astrophysicist or a chief technology officer. Why is that?

To explore this, randrr surveyed elementary through high school-aged children about their dream jobs. Our cross-sectional survey was conducted among 818 American children in grades 1st-12th in December of 2017. Of the high school students, we also inquired about post-graduation plans, such as their intended major course of study (if on a collegiate track).

This report begins with a summary of the key findings drawn from survey analysis and ends with strategic recommendations to address issues uncovered. Specifically, we examine:

  • The different perspectives on careers between first-eighth graders and high schoolers.
  • Gender bias in career perspectives.
  • Graduate readiness.
  • Correlation between career path and college major.
  • Student understanding of employer expectations.

Why do younger children evince a higher incidence of aspirational career goals?  Perhaps it is the appeal of “cool” jobs. (Who wouldn’t want to play basketball full time as a career?) The reality is that very few kids make it to become a professional athlete. A study conducted using research from ESPN, NCAA, YMCA, and WSJ indicate that the odds of a high school student becoming a professional football player is 1:4,233 or .0002%  Ice Hockey had the highest likelihood with 1:598 or .002% making it from high school to the pro level. While it is exciting and normal for children to dream of these unique roles, the probability of it manifesting into reality is very low. (1)

Students are expected to make decisions impacting the rest of their lives at age 18, despite the fact that they have had very little exposure to the abundance of options. When high school students select a major course of study in college, it is based on what they have been exposed to at that time. This can be short-sighted, as there are thousands of non-traditional careers that they simply have not been exposed to yet, any of which could be a perfect fit. As many as 80% of college students will change their major at least once, and studies show that students who change their major have a slightly higher chance of graduating than those who remained with one major throughout college. (2)

According to a study by, the most popular college major is humanities. 17% (641,549) of the degrees awarded in 2017 were in humanities. 9.5% of our survey respondents picked jobs in these categories. While it is wonderful to follow passion and areas of interest, it is concerning when compared to BLS (Bureau of Labor and Statistics) data about the areas of highest occupational growth and demand. In fact, of the top 30 jobs the BLS outlined with the highest growth potential between now and 2026, not one of them aligns to a traditional “humanities” course of study. That is not to say that the students pursuing and obtaining degrees in this field will not go on to achieve great success. However, if made aware of job prospects, and exposed to real career trajectories, earning potentials, and pathways to the lifestyles they want, would they have chosen the same major? (3)

When interviewing, employers often want potential employees to have a degree – the course of study has less relevance than satisfying this minimum requirement. More than the degree, there is a focus on skills required to succeed within the job, the company, and their culture; possessing these skills is critical to landing the job. In fact, according to the American Association of Colleges and Universities, 93% of employers indicated that critical thinking, communication, and problem solving are more important than the collegiate field of study. (4)

According to research done by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 62% of jobs require a degree but only 27% of college grads have jobs relevant to their major. Which means that having a degree in general is more important than the type of degree. Now there are some exceptions to the rule, generally degrees that require years of schooling like doctors, veterinarians, pharmacists or nurses but what does that say about the rest of college graduates? It appears more focus is being put on the type of experience you have versus the actual degree you have. (5)

How could educational systems help students find their passions early in life, develop realistic aspirations, and be better prepared for career decisions in a rapidly changing world?

II. Summary of Key Findings

It is incumbent upon our education systems to expose children to as many options as possible to help them find their passions early in life in order to develop more realistic aspirations.

Key Findings:

  • Aspirational jobs are a top choice for younger students, but high schoolers choose more realistically.
  • Students tend toward non-traditional careers.
  • High school students still have no idea what they want to do when they graduate.
  • Students are unable to consider long-term career objectives when making critical choices about their education.
  • There are clear gender biases between top dream job choices for males and females.

III. Detailed Findings

1) What is your dream job?

Aspirational jobs are a top choice for first-eighth graders, but high schoolers choose more realistically. Children can only aspire to careers that they know about. Our survey showed that 18.57% of elementary males have a dream job of an aspirational career (This includes: professional athlete, coach, actor/actress, singer, etc.) whereas that number drops down to 5.33% of high school male students that desire an aspirational career. It would appear that as children get older, their perspectives shift to more realistic careers. However, of the high school students that responded to our survey, 23.77% wanted a career in the medical field while only 0.003% of the US population are employed as doctors, so there is a disconnect between the perspective of students and the professional reality.

Nearly 20% (⅕) of survey respondents in elementary and middle school responded with a dream job that is aspirational. These “jobs” are few and far between – requiring a level of excellence (and luck) that is atypical and often includes connotations of wealth and social prestige. Whereas only 8.2% (less than 1/10) of high school students picked an aspirational career as their goal.

Graph of Top Elementary School Dream Job Categories

Graph of Middle School Dream Job Categories

Graph of High School Dream Job Categories

Graph of 1st- 12th Dream Job CategoriesOur study found that more male students in elementary (more than 50% more than females) and middle school (3 times more males than females) selected aspirational career goals than their female counterparts. Most younger male students want to be professional sports athletes, but over time those interests fade (replaced by more realistic expectations) and demonstrated interest in a wider variety of dream jobs.

2) Students want non-traditional dream jobs.

The desire to become a professional YouTuber ranked 8th as a top dream job for kids 1st -12th grade. Becoming a professional YouTuber is not a traditional job (there are no YouTuber jobs to apply to). This reinforces the notion that children aspire to what they are exposed to. It is not uncommon for children to watch videos on YouTube, so it appears accessible and underserved to them, making “professional YouTuber” a new career option.

According to our research, students in elementary and middle school are more interested in becoming a professional YouTuber than high school students. 3.52% of elementary students and 3.38% of middle school students ranked “professional YouTuber” as a top career choice, whereas only 1.23% of high school students ranked YouTuber as a profession.

We saw a variety of dream job choices among the high school students and technology was clearly a driving factor in what they want to do when they graduate.

3) There are clear gender biases between top dream job choices for males and females.

There is a clear lack of females in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers. Despite the concerted effort to encourage recruiting women into STEM careers, our findings indicate that there is still a lot of work to be done to achieve the desired gender balance in these careers. Based on our survey, male students in first – twelfth grades ranked STEM careers 2nd, with 9.56% of the total survey responses picking a career in STEM.  Among the female students, STEM careers ranked 5th in volume, selected by only 4.44%. Furthermore, the females selecting STEM careers were predominantly focused on jobs in the medical field (doctor, nurse, veterinarian, etc..), whereas males had a broader interest in mathematic and research-based roles, including engineering and technology. Additionally, male students were far more likely to aspire toward civil service jobs such as police, military and firefighters than their female counterparts.

4) What do you plan to do after graduation?  

Our study found that more than 75% of high school students planned to attend a 4-year college after graduation, but nearly 10% of those surveyed were unsure what they wanted to major in and 6.97% were unable to define what their dream job is. In fact, our survey found that the highest percent of respondents who did not know what their dream job was, were students in high school.

Researcher’s Note: It seems younger students have time to figure out what they want to be. Once a student hits high school and has to make commitments, decisions about college, and choose a course of study, reality sets in and students begin to consider selecting a more realistic career that interests them, making them more likely to succeed in it.

Graph of High School After Graduation Plans

5) If you plan to attend college, what do you want to major in?

“The Medical Field,” “I am unsure,” and “Business” were the top selected degree majors for students that we surveyed, but students tend to pick broad majors in college to help give them a better marketability after graduating.

6) What makes you desirable to employers?

Our study found that 78% of High School Students planned to attend a 4 year college after graduation. Interestingly, the 2nd highest category selected on our survey affirmed 9.87% of students were unsure of what they wanted to do when they graduated high school; with the majority of those respondents in ninth and tenth grades. As students got closer to graduation, they become more focused on knowing what they want to do after graduation.

Graph of High School Major ChoicesIV. Recommendations

Expose students to a wider variety of careers earlier in life to better inform their major in college and be prepared to enter the working world. Exposing children to a multitude of options to help them find careers that interest them and fit their strengths can help to alleviate anxiety while strengthening the likelihood of success when they are faced with deciding what they want to do with the rest of their lives at age 18.

Educate based on the real needs of the work world. 40-60% of tomorrow’s jobs don’t exist yet so choosing majors based on job demand trends is improbable. (6) Students will have exposure to a variety of careers throughout their lifetime, especially as technology changes and plays an increasingly predominant role in everyday lives. We may not know what jobs will be available 10-15 years down the road, but we can continue to educate and study trends to help students develop the skills, agility, knowledge, and self-awareness required to find jobs that they love and are a good fit for.

Businesses must participate in preparing students for the skills and education they’ll need in tomorrow’s workforce and education systems need to be agile enough to accommodate changing business needs. Paying attention to and engaging with emerging technologies as well as monitoring for and encouraging the development of needed skills to ensure that children are exposed to and equipped with the necessary competencies to be agile in a rapidly evolving workforce.

We will continue to do research and survey students to gather more data to help share the endless possibilities of jobs.

Editors Note: 818 students were surveyed with 879 dream jobs identified.



Karyssa Siegel, Marketing Owner

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