US College Graduates Want Work with Purpose

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08 June, 2019

When she was growing up, Camille Roberts always saw science in her future.

Her parents are both doctors of chemistry and she wanted to follow their example by going into medical research.

It was not just that she enjoyed the idea of making scientific discoveries. The 24-year-old Pennsylvania native says her parents taught her the importance of helping others. She saw medical research as a way of helping improve society.

And, seeking an education in such a field would likely lead to a high-paying job.

So, in 2013, Roberts began studying biomedical engineering at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

During her four years there, she volunteered with young children in the city. She also worked as a teaching assistant for several professors. These experiences introduced her to other, more personal ways to help people.

After completing her studies in 2017, Roberts took a research position at the National Institute of Mental Health. But she soon began feeling deeply unhappy with her work. She wanted a change.

"What meant more to me was a day-to-day impact that I could see and that I could feel, and had more control over," Roberts told VOA.

So in 2018, Roberts took a job doing what she had come to find much more enjoyable: teaching. She started teaching science classes at the Fusion Academy, a private high school in Washington, D.C. that serves students with non-traditional needs.

Many of Roberts' former classmates and coworkers now have jobs that pay them much more than she makes. Many of them also have more free time than she does. But Roberts says she would not trade more money or more free time for the creativity and purpose she now finds in her work.

Roberts is not alone. In fact, several new studies show that college graduates in the U.S. are increasingly looking for more than just good pay from their jobs. Experts say this may greatly change the relationships between employers and employees.

In April, the employment website Indeed released a study on the job interests of recent college graduates between 2014 and 2018. Over the four-year period, the listings that gained the most interest changed from higher-paying business and finance jobs to arts and social services jobs.

Nick Bunker suggests the reason is the strong economy the U.S. is currently experiencing. He is an economist with Indeed's Hiring Lab. Bunker argues with high demand from employers and low unemployment, graduates are more likely to turn to career fields that might otherwise seem riskier to them.

"People do have their own individual views of the world," he said." "And in a tighter labor market, recent graduates are going to have more of an ability to find jobs that fit with those views."

Also in April, the research organization Gallup and Bates College in Maine published a joint study on career interests of U.S. college graduates.

The researchers asked more than 2,200 graduates of four-year programs what they wanted from their jobs. The people they questioned were between the ages of 21 and 55. About 80 percent of them said it was either very important or extremely important to feel a sense of purpose from their work.

What is a ‘sense of purpose,' exactly?

Rebecca Fraser-Thill says it comes from identifying goals in your work that are both meaningful to you but that also affect the rest of the world. Fraser-Thill is director of faculty engagement at the Bates Center for Purposeful Work.

Fraser-Thill notes that the research shows that every generation represented in the study wanted to find a sense of purpose in their work. Other Gallup studies have shown that today's young people -- often called Millennials -- want it even more than earlier generations.

In the past, employers offered greater job security than most jobs today, Fraser-Thill notes. A person would often work for one company for most of their lives. That company would then offer them financial assistance once they ended their careers. So even if workers did not feel as much of a sense of purpose, they at least felt a more personal connection to their employers.

"That doesn't exist anymore," said Fraser-Thill. "All of the students who are graduating now are going out into a world where ... there're going to be fewer companies looking out for them ... And because of that, they know that ... this sense of purpose has to come from within."

She says people with jobs they find meaningful are 10 times more likely to be healthier mentally and physically. This in turn makes them better workers.

But it is not necessarily the kind of job a person has that makes work seem purposeful. Instead, purpose comes from how an employee relates to the duties for which they are responsible.

An office worker might not feel as though they are saving the planet, for example. But Fraser-Thill says if their employer takes the time to find what an employee's interests are and centers their responsibilities on those interests, workers will have a more purposeful connection to their work.

Colleges and universities can help students find what gives them purpose before they graduate, she adds. The schools can do so by helping them find internships. And professors can offer classwork that makes them think about their career goals, and hold discussions about what they should really expect from the working world.

I'm Pete Musto.

And I'm Anne Ball.

Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor. We want to hear from you. How important is finding a sense of purpose in you work to you? Write to us in the Comments Section or on


Words in This Story

societyn. people in general thought of as living together in organized communities with shared laws, traditions, and values

introduce(d) – v. to cause someone to learn about or try something for the first time

impactn. a powerful or major influence or effect

creativityn. the ability to make new things or think of new ideas

graduate(s) – n. a person who has earned a degree or diploma from a school, college, or university

facultyn. the group of teachers in a school or college

engagementn. the act or state of being involved with something

internship(s) – n. a position as a student or recent graduate who works for a period of time at a job in order to get experience