Explaining Educational and Occupational Choices: an Exploratory Study

Paul N. Bloom, University of Maryland (student), University of Maryland
George Coan,
ABSTRACT - An exploratory study was conducted of one type of educational/occupational choice decision: the decision to enter or avoid a doctoral program in business. The results suggest that future research should focus on how job-market perceptions and personality characteristics affect this decision.
[ to cite ]:
Paul N. Bloom and George Coan (1979) ,"Explaining Educational and Occupational Choices: an Exploratory Study", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 617-621.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 617-621


Paul N. Bloom, University of Maryland

George Coan (student), University of Maryland


An exploratory study was conducted of one type of educational/occupational choice decision: the decision to enter or avoid a doctoral program in business. The results suggest that future research should focus on how job-market perceptions and personality characteristics affect this decision.


Consumer researchers have recently begun to show interest in a "broad" range of consumption decisions (Zaltman and Sternthal, 1975). Studies are being done with increasing frequency in areas such as voting behavior, travel behavior, safety behavior, and family-planning behavior. However, one type of consumption decision that has received relatively little attention in the consumer research literature (Levine, 1976) is the educational and occupational choice decision. Although studies in this area could reveal much about why consumers acquire certain life-styles, skills, habits, preferences, and so on--which could, in turn, provide valuable guidance not only to "sellers" of educational and career opportunities, but also to sellers or commercial products and services--consumer researchers have generally focused their attention on more mundane consumption decisions.

This paper contains an examination of a very specific form of educational/occupational choice decision: the decision to enter (or to avoid) a doctoral program in business or management. Needless to say, this is a decision about which many consumer researchers could be interested, since many of them are business professors and are heavily involved with trying to recruit doctoral students. The paper is organized in the following manner. The first section is devoted toward a short presentation of several potential explanations for why business doctoral programs are entered or avoided. This is followed by a description of the methodology and results of an exploratory study that was designed to examine the plausibility of several of the proposed explanations. The concluding sections discuss the implications of the results for doctoral program recruiters and for future research studies.


An individual's decision to enter or avoid a business doctoral program can be influenced by a host of factors. Social, political, and economic trends can have a substantial impact, as can the individual's personal characteristics. In this section, some ideas are offered about the factors which are most likely to affect whether a person enters a business doctoral program. Most of these ideas are drawn from the general literature on educational and occupational choice (Levine, 1976; Holland, 1973).

In her review of the literature, Levine (1976) emphasizes that educational and occupational decisions can be highly influenced by labor market trends, business cycles, and public policy actions. This observation would seem to hold for the decision to enter a business doctoral program. For example, supply and demand conditions in the markets for MBAs and for business Ph.D.s probably have a significant impact on whether or not MBA graduates enter business doctoral programs. Similarly, the stability of the overall economy probably has an impact, since great uncertainty about future economic conditions could lead MBA graduates to choose the sure returns associated with starting a Job immediately over the unsure returns associated with postponing employment. Furthermore, the availability of government financial aid funds probably has an impact, since many students cannot afford to continue graduate school without aid.

Of course, the degree to which these macro-environmental developments will influence individual choices will depend to a great extent on how these developments are perceived by the relevant individuals. If, for instance, most MBA students believe that job prospects are poor for all doctoral degree holders--when, in fact, holders of business doctorates have good job prospects--then few MBA graduates will apply to doctoral programs. It is therefore important to consider how both real and perceived macro-environmental trends affect decisions to enter business doctoral programs.

Although real or fancied macro-environmental developments may have a major influence on decisions concerning business doctoral programs, there are definitely other factors which can affect these decisions. As Levine (1976) notes, there is "ample evidence that socioeconomic origin, family support, race, sex, and intelligence all play a part in the (educational and occupational choice) process" (Levine, 1976, p. 285). In addition, she suggests that an individual's choice process may be influenced by factors such as the size of his former school, the aspirations of his peers, his personality characteristics, and his energy level. Thus, it would seem reasonable to speculate that a student might decide against entering a business doctoral program because of a lack of family support, intelligence, energy, or the appropriate personality characteristics; while a person might choose to enter such a program because of peer influence or because doctoral work was consistent with his personality.

The role that personality might play in the decision to enter or avoid a business doctoral program deserves some extended discussion. Many researchers have attempted to demonstrate that a causal linkage exists between personality characteristics and career choices, with Holland (1958, 1966, 1973) probably serving as the most active of these investigators. Holland has even proposed a personality-based "theory of careers" (1973), citing considerable empirical support for its postulates. Since Holland's theory seems capable of explaining some of the decisions that are made about business doctoral programs, it is summarized briefly below.

Holland (1973) believes that people can be characterized by their resemblance to each of six personality types: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional. He also believes that work environments can be characterized by the same six labels--based on the kinds of people that are found in them. Holland recognizes that the personalities and work environments of most people cannot be described by only a single label. However, he believes that most persons and work environments will tend to have a consistent set of labels associated with them; that is, enterprising types of persons or environments may also be social and/or conventional, but they are unlikely to be investigative. Based on his research, Holland has formulated an hexagonal model which shows the degree of consistency between types as being inversely proportional to their distance from one another in the model. The model is depicted below:


Holland (1973, pp. 14-18) describes the six personality types in the following manner:

1. A realistic type prefers activities that entail the explicit, ordered, or systematic manipulation of objects, tools, machines, and animals; and he has an aversion to educational or therapeutic activities.

2. An investigative type prefers activities that entail the observational, symbolic, systematic, and creative investigation of physical, biological and cultural phenomena in order to understand and control such phenomena; and he has an aversion to persuasive, social, and repetitive activities.

3. An artistic type prefers ambiguous, free, unsystematized activities that entail the manipulation of physical, verbal, or human material to create art forms or products; and he has an aversion to explicit, systematic and ordered activities.

4. A social type prefers activities that entail the manipulation of others to inform, train, develop, cure, or enlighten; and he has an aversion to explicit ordered, systematic activities involving materials, tools, or machines.

5. An enterprising type prefers activities that entail the manipulation of others to attain organizational goals or economic gain; and he has an aversion to observational, symbolic, and systematic activities.

6. A conventional type prefers activities that entail the explicit, ordered systematic manipulation of data, such as keeping records, filing materials, and reproducing materials to attain organizational or economic goals; and he has an aversion to ambiguous, free, exploratory, or unsystematized activities.

Holland claims that people will seek congruence between their personalities and their work environments. For example, an individual who is essentially enterprising and conventional will probably choose an enterprising and conventional work environment (which might have some realistic and social characteristics). This person would tend to avoid investigative and artistic work environments (since they would be highly unlikely to have enterprising and conventional characteristics). Thus, an explanation for why many MBA students avoid business doctoral programs may lie in a lack of congruence between the conventional, enterprising personalities of these MBA students and the investigative, artistic nature of the professorial work environment. Likewise, an explanation for why some MBA students choose to enter doctoral programs may lie in the congruence between the social personalities of these students and the social nature of the professorial work environment.

The remainder of this paper is devoted toward reporting on an exploratory study which sought to clarify and test some of the ideas presented in this section. The study was essentially concerned with comparing MBA students who were not interested in business doctoral programs to both MBA students who were interested and actual doctoral students. It was expected that these groups would differ in ways that the educational and occupational choice literature might predict. That is, they would exhibit different job-market perceptions, family-support situations, intelligence levels, energy levels, personalities, and so on.


The absence of previous research on why people enter or avoid business doctoral programs dictated that the present study should be exploratory in nature. Given this situation, it did not seem appropriate to incur the expense of acquiring a national probability sample of MBA and doctoral students. It was also deemed infeasible to sample undergraduate students and working people. For achieving the limited objective of clarifying and generating hypotheses, a convenience sample of business graduate students from a representative group of schools was viewed as adequate.

The sample was obtained during the Fall of 1976 by asking professors at thirteen different schools to seek responses from a representative group of MBA and doctoral students (from all majors). [Responses were obtained from students at the following schools: Berkeley, Case-Western, I.I.T., Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Northwestern, N.Y.U., UCLA, Washington, and Wisconsin.] Although in some cases questionnaires were distributed in a random fashion (using student mailboxes), most professors simply handed them out in their graduate classes. The final sample included 236 MBA students and 154 doctoral students.

Students were instructed to complete the study's questionnaire in sequence, and not to go back to a section once it had been completed. The opening question asked the students to indicate the probability of their ever entering a business doctoral program on an 11-point scale (i.e., 0.0 to 1.0). [Doctoral students were instructed to answer 1.0 to this question.] This was followed by three distinct sections. The first section contained a single question which asked the students simply to list their major reasons for wanting and/or not wanting to enter a doctoral program in business or management. This question was included in the hope of obtaining fresh insights about the beliefs, personalities, and other characteristics of the students.

The second section contained a group of 5-point Likert-type scales. The twenty-two scale items were designed to reveal information about the students' (1) job-market perceptions (e.g., "The present supply of people with doctorates in business or management exceeds the demand for these people"), (2) family-support situations (e.g., "My parents would like it if I became a college professor''), (3) personalities (e.g., "Working in the business world requires too much conformity"), and (4) other characteristics (e.g., "I am tired of going to school" and "None of my current friends are interested in entering a doctoral program in business or management").

The final section asked the students questions about their GMAT score, undergraduate grade-point average, marital status, age, sex, and number of years of full-time employment. In addition, questions were asked--based on thoughts obtained from the educational and occupational choice literature--about the size of their undergraduate school, about the social class they grew up in, and about whether they were first-born children.

The data from each section were analyzed in separate steps. The responses to the open-ended question in the first section were content analyzed and then cross-tabulated with the responses on the question asking for probability of entering a business doctoral program. The categories for the analysis were developed by the authors and the placing of responses into these categories was done by an MBA student. The responses to the Likert-type items in the second section were first factor analyzed. The four factors which explained most of the variance in the data were then utilized in a multiple discriminant analysis to examine their relationship with the "probability-of-entering" measure.

Finally, the association between probability-of-entering and the responses given to each question in the third section were examined using multiple classification analysis, one-way analysis of variance, or correlation analysis, depending on the nature of the data.


The responses obtained on the portion of the open-ended question which sought reasons against entering a business doctoral program fell within the following three categories:

1. Costs. These responses showed a concern with the time and money it would take to obtain a doctorate.

2. Stress. These responses showed a concern with the amount of work, pressure, and fatigue associated with continuing one's schooling.

3. Career-Goal Incompatibility. These responses indicated that obtaining a doctorate was not useful for achieving their career goals or for getting a good job.

The responses obtained on the portion of the open-ended question which sought reasons for entering a business doctoral program fell within the following four categories:

1. Opportunity to Develop Self. These responses indicated an interest in learning more and in overcoming the "challenge" of getting a doctorate.

2. Opportunity to be Investigative. These responses indicated a desire to become involved with more complex, theoretical research and consulting activities.

3. Opportunity to Teach. These responses indicated a desire to teach.

4. Opportunity for Security, Status, and Income. These responses revealed beliefs that a doctoral degree will lead to job security, increased professional impact, and better incomes and job prospects.

Table 1 reports on the frequency with which different kinds of students gave each type of response. For example, the table shows that 60 out of the 176 negative reasons (34 percent) offered by the least interested MBA students (those who gave a 0.0 to 0.2 probability of entering) were cost-related; and that the respondents who were more interested in doctoral programs gave a larger proportion of cost-related negative reasons. In general, these results suggest that MBA students tend to avoid doctoral programs because (1) becoming a professor is incompatible with their more enterprising and conventional career goals and (2) the costs associated with obtaining a doctorate are perceived as high. The results also suggest that students are attracted to doctoral programs because of a desire to pursue more investigative and social (i.e., teaching) activities. In addition, the results suggest that students who are less interested in doctoral programs are attracted somewhat by the opportunities these programs present for developing one's intellect or "proving" oneself.

Table 2 presents the results of the factor analysis on the 22 Likert-type items. Using the principal components method with a varimax rotation, four factors were found which explained 77 percent of the variance. To ease interpretation of the factors, consideration was given only to those items which had factor loadings of .4 or greater on one factor and less than .15 on all other factors. The following labels were given to the four factors: (1) Task Competency, (2) Perceived Supply of Ph.D.s, (3) Intolerance for Business Job Activities, and (4) Perceived Demand for MBAs. Items concerned with degree of family support, peer interests, energy level, and other characteristics did not load heavily and/or cleanly on these four factors, suggesting that these variables may not explain much of the differences among business graduate students.

The results of the multiple discriminant analysis are reported in Table 3. This analysis explored the relationship between the four factors (each is measured by summing the item scores for the two highest-loading items associated with it) and the probability-of-entering measure (broken down into the four categories found in Table 1). The bimodal nature of the responses to the probability-of-entering question made it necessary to use a discriminant analysis approach. As the results show, the one significant discriminant function revealed that task competency, intolerance for business activities, and perceived demand for MBAs are positively associated with probability-of-entering, while perceived supply of Ph.D.s is negatively associated. Thus, business doctoral programs seem to look less attractive to students who (1) have doubts about their ability to do professorial-type work, (2) are more tolerant of business job activities, (3) think the Ph.D. job market is poor, and (4) think the MBA job market is poor (reflecting, perhaps, a concern about economic conditions).

The data obtained from the last section of the questionnaire required several different analysis approaches. One-way analysis of variance was used to test whether the four probability-of-entering groups had significantly different GMAT scores, undergraduate grade-point averages, ages, or sizes of undergraduate schools. Doctoral students had significantly higher GMAT scores (p = .017) and ages (p < .001), but insignificantly lower undergraduate grade-point averages and school sizes. In addition, correlations computed between probability-of-entering and sex, number of years of full-time employment, and childhood social-class produced no significant results, while a marginally significant correlation was found between probability-of-entering and being a firstborn child (rpb = .09, p = .039). Finally, a multiple classification analysis found that students who were married, and especially those who were married with children, reported a significantly higher probability of entering a doctoral program than single students (p < .001). This finding can probably be explained by the fact that the doctoral students in the sample were older than the MBA students.


The results obtained from this exploratory study seem to be consistent with Holland's "theory of careers" and with Levine's thoughts about the importance of macro-environmental trends in career choices. The data suggest that an interest in engaging in investigative and social activities, and an intolerance for conventional activities, draws many students toward doctoral programs in business--while opposite interests draw many MBA students toward careers in the business world. The data also suggest that job-market perceptions and perceptions of economic trends draw students toward or away from doctoral programs. Other factors which seem to have an influence on an individual's decision to seek a doctorate are his skill level (i.e., "task competency," and GMAT score), his ability to withstand the financial hardships of doctoral work, and, perhaps, his age. Variables which do not seem to have a major influence on the decision to enter or avoid a business doctoral program--based on this small, exploratory study--are socioeconomic origin, family support, sex, size of undergraduate school, peer interests, and energy level.







If similar results are found from more conclusive forms of research, then several recruiting strategies would seem in order for schools seeking larger numbers of business doctoral students. One action that could prove helpful would be to publicize the large number of job opportunities available to Ph.D.s in business (as long as these opportunities remain plentiful). It appears that many MBA students see the Job market for Ph.D.s as being weaker than it really is.

In addition to providing accurate Job-market information, schools seeking doctoral students might find it helpful to communicate the excitement and challenge associated with the research, teaching, and consulting done by business Ph.D.s. Rather than sending out materials and posters dominated by imposing details about degree requirements and faculty publications, it might be preferable for a school to emphasize telling prospective students about the rewarding careers of some of its recent graduates. Efforts should probably be made to target these messages at students who have investigative-artistic-social personalities, rather than at conventional-enterprising types. This might be accomplished by directing messages at students enrolled in certain schools, programs, or courses (e.g., research design, social responsibility).

Another action that would probably help most schools recruit more doctoral students would be to lower the financial and time costs associated with obtaining a doctorate. Besides increasing financial aid packages, some schools might find it feasible to shorten the length of time a prospective student could expect to spend in their program. This might be done without compromising academic standards by setting up rigid time schedules for all students to follow.


In their efforts to recruit doctoral students, business schools could obtain helpful guidance from additional studies of why people choose to enter or avoid doctoral programs. These studies should probably focus on how personality and macro-environmental trends affect decisions about doctoral programs. In addition to helping recruiting efforts, the insights obtained from these studies could also prove useful for obtaining a more general understanding of educational and occupational choice decisions. [The authors would like to express their appreciation for the assistance of Frank Franzak and the twelve professors who distributed questionnaires.]


John L. Holland. Making Vocational Choices: A Theory of Careers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973.

John L. Holland. The Psychology of Vocational Choice: A Theory of Personality Types and Model Environments. Waltham, Mass.: Blaisdell, 1966.

John L. Holland. "A Theory of Vocational Choice," Journal of Counseling Psychology, 6 (Spring 1959), 35-45.

Adeline Levine. "Educational and Occupational Choice: A Synthesis of Literature from Sociology and Psychology," Journal of Consumer Research, 2 (March 1976), 276-289.

Gerald Zaltman and Brian Sternthal, eds., Broadening the Concept of Consumer Behavior. Association for Consumer Research, 1975.