Journal of Youth and Adolescence

, Volume 46, Issue 8, pp 1805–1820 | Cite as

Who Chooses STEM Careers? Using A Relative Cognitive Strength and Interest Model to Predict Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

Empirical Research


Career aspirations in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are formulated in adolescence, making the high school years a critical time period for identifying the cognitive and motivational factors that increase the likelihood of future STEM employment. While past research has mainly focused on absolute cognitive ability levels in math and verbal domains, the current study tested whether relative cognitive strengths and interests in math, science, and verbal domains in high school were more accurate predictors of STEM career decisions. Data were drawn from a national longitudinal study in the United States (N = 1762; 48 % female; the first wave during ninth grade and the last wave at age 33). Results revealed that in the high-verbal/high-math/high-science ability group, individuals with higher science task values and lower orientation toward altruism were more likely to select STEM occupations. In the low-verbal/moderate-math/moderate-science ability group, individuals with higher math ability and higher math task values were more likely to select STEM occupations. The findings suggest that youth with asymmetrical cognitive ability profiles are more likely to select careers that utilize their cognitive strengths rather than their weaknesses, while symmetrical cognitive ability profiles may grant youth more flexibility in their options, allowing their interests and values to guide their career decisions.


STEM Individual differences Career choices Relative cognitive strength Relative interest 



This project was supported by Grant HD074731-01 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD).

Authors’ Contributions

MTW conceived of the study, participated in its design and coordination and drafted the manuscript; FY participated in the design and interpretation of the data and performed the statistical analysis; JLD participated in the interpretation of the data and drafted part of the manuscript. The second and third authors made equal intellectual contribution to the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. A review conducted by the Institutional Review Board approved the study to be consistent with the protection of the rights and welfare of human subjects and to meet the requirements of the Federal Guidelines.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ming-Te Wang
    • 1
  • Feifei Ye
    • 1
  • Jessica Lauren Degol
    • 2
  1. 1.University of PittsburghPittsburghUSA
  2. 2.Penn State UniversityAltoona,USA

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