How high-achieving students choose their career path

If you are planning to build a career but have not yet chosen your career path – relax, you are not the only one. If you have already chosen your career path, heave a sigh of relief. Do not relax too much though because the path you have imagined may be an illusion! If you have already walked down that imaginary path for some time, you may have realised that a defined path doesn’t exist: you have to work hard to shape your route, making decisions about the various opportunities that emerge on the way, or creating opportunities for yourself. We’ll adopt the glass-half-full approach here in the midst of a potentially disenchanting mood, by parking the idea that this is just how it works in the neoliberal world. After all, it is a matter of making a start when shaping this career path, and the rest should follow.

This article is both for those who are in limbo about their career path as well as those who have made their decisions – to reflect on your decision-making process by comparing it with the case presented below. This case is based on the results of a small-scale survey conducted in November 2018. The survey targeted 11th and 12th grade students of one Kazakhstan school to get an insight into how they approach choosing their career path. This school presents an interesting case because it is a school for the highest-achieving students in Kazakhstan – one of the schools in the network of Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools (NIS). Comparing with the results of existing research about the same issue in mainstream schools for students with different levels of academic achievement, our case study highlights a few similarities as well as some striking differences in students’ decision-making processes.

While Bodrov states that 30% of mainstream school leavers are absolutely certain about the career they want, we found that almost 85% of the 11th and 12th NIS graders have made their mind up. One of the strongest reasons for prompting this relatively quick decision is the assumed expectation for this in that school’s environment, and from students’ parents, as well as the deadlines for university foundation courses and undergraduate program applications. Almost 13% of the 85% NIS students that have decided what career they want are passionate about their choice. 17% out of the 85% may consider changing their mind. While others are not so passionate about their choice, they are likely to stick to their decision because of the upcoming deadlines.

The pressure created by these deadlines may be a reason for some NIS students considering not going to university next year (17%) and some students being unsure whether they could imagine not going to university (almost 23%). This is quite a surprising finding for two reasons. First, the ratio of school leavers going to university in Kazakhstan is generally quite high – 70% of school leavers in 2018 took the test, the results of which are needed to be admitted to universities (this figure is calculated based on the information provided in the Kazakhstan Country Commercial Guide). Secondly, NIS is a school for the most talented students in Kazakhstan where there is an expectation of continuing academic studies. According to the principal of the NIS where the survey took place, 100% of the school leavers from last academic year have been admitted to higher education institutions.

Earlier research suggests that the role of parents and schools is an important factor in career choice among prospective school leavers in mainstream schools, even though their impact is lower than that of personal choice (Piesch et al, 2018). Parents’ jobs and their advice and support have a direct influence on their children’s career choices (Saleem et al, 2014). Schools provide help through guidance counsellors, subject teachers or personal tutors (Olle and Fouad, 2015). Mass media is also mentioned as an influential factor, albeit not as important as personal preferences, parents’ and school support. The mass media, especially the Internet, is frequently used by school students to seek information regarding various professions (Saleem et al, 2014).

Liking the subject area turns out to be the number one influencing factor in students’ decision-making about their career in NIS. However, there seems to be a pre-step of deciding what to like. This decision is predominantly influenced by the high demand for employees in a certain area as well as by the expected monetary profit from a job in this area. That is why, perhaps, the most desired professions among the NIS students are in the areas linked to the so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences. The passion for the subject developed in the process of studying and/or during extra-curricular activities is most informative for the students in shaping their personal preferences. Conversely, parents’ views, and the messages about different careers on the internet and other types of the media are not as influential. The role of other family members, peers and the school professional guidance counsellor has the smallest influence on career choice. Furthermore, the majority of students do not find professional orientation tests (e.g., the 16 Personalities Test) – as suggested by their schools – helpful.

Despite the high expectations for the NIS students in their school environment in terms of choosing their career, students’ decision-making process is not always straightforward.  However, their high motivation for making a choice and persevering in the direction of their goal serves as a driving factor of deciding what to like and what to aim for. This motivation and the environment of high expectations may be what mainstream schools need to focus on to increase the number of their school leavers being more confident in making decisions about their future. This is the first step, essential to see what career path they may begin to shape, but as we’ve said, the rest of the path will not unfold magically, so what’s step number two…?

Iryna Kushnir, Chingiz Yertay and Adiya Tulesheva


Olle, C. D., & Fouad, N. A. (2015). Parental support, critical consciousness, and agency in career decision making for urban students. Journal of Career Assessment23(4), 533-544.

Piesch, H., Häfner, I., Gaspard, H., Flunger, B., Nagengast, B., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2018). Helping parents support adolescents’ career orientation: Effects of a parent-based utility-value intervention. Unterrichtswissenschaft, 1-23.

Saleem, N., Hanan, M., Saleem, I., and Shamshad, R. (2014). Career Selection: Role of Parent’s Profession, Mass Media and Personal Choice. Bulletin of Education and Research, 36(2), 25-37.

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