Pathways in STEM: Factors affecting the retention and attrition of talented men and women from the STEM pipeline

Date of Completion

January 2009


Education, Educational Psychology|Education, Sciences




Many men and women who are talented in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics (STEM) choose not to pursue undergraduate majors or careers in these fields. To develop talents in STEM, educators must understand the factors that contribute to an individual's retention in STEM domains, as well as the factors that act as barriers to success, such as the role that gender plays in the underrepresentation of women in certain STEM fields (e.g., computer science and engineering) and changes in recent decades in the process of selecting STEM majors and careers. The purpose of this study was to explore the influences that guide decisions related to the selection of majors and occupations during high school, post-secondary education, and early careers. Survey methodology was used to explore the perceptions of 360 Science Talent Search (STS) semifinalists and finalists during the years 1987-1989 and 1997-1999, and quantitative procedures were used to analyze the data. A majority (74.2%) of STS participants majored in a STEM field in college, and most (68.6%) currently work in a STEM field. A greater percentage of men selected computer science, engineering, physics, and mathematics majors, and a greater percentage of women selected biological science and chemistry. Belief in one's ability to achieve in STEM was a predictor of STEM majors in college and STEM concentrations in graduate school, but differences were found between men's and women's self-efficacy in STEM during high school and in college, as women had lower self-efficacy. Sex was a predictor of STEM majors in college, but perceived quality of academic courses was not. STEM majors also reported more satisfaction with their STEM courses in high school and college than non-STEM majors. ^ In a departure from the results of previous research, the reasons that men and women selected occupations were similar, as were the reasons they chose to leave or not to enter STEM. The most frequently cited reason for attrition was interest in another (non-STEM) field. Participants placed little importance on other reasons for leaving STEM that were identified in previous research, such as competition, social isolation, or financial considerations. ^