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Recruiting female engineering undergraduates who plan to choose a career outside engineering for academic interviews

Zeyi Liu, PhD Candidate at University College London

Women’s underrepresentation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is a global issue. Among STEM disciplines, engineering can be the one with the largest gender gap but be regarded as an afterthought by educators and researchers (Moote et al., 2020). Furthermore, the pipeline to an engineering career is leaking severely for female engineering students at university (Smith & Gayles, 2017). In addition, socio-economic status (SES) is suggested to be intersected with gender affecting STEM aspirations (see Archer et al., 2015; Guo et al., 2010).

My research focuses on the experiences and career choice decisions (inside or outside engineering) of female engineering students from different SES backgrounds at Chinese universities. Accordingly, a mixed-methods research study has been designed, with a quantitative survey first, followed by qualitative semi-structured interviews. The survey only aims to create a landscape that situates the qualitative elements, while the interviews can help to interpret the pattern found from the survey data.

This blog post focuses on the recruitment dilemma I faced with regard to the interview phase and how I sought solutions.

It was an informative experience participating in the BERA event, ‘Researching Gender & Sexuality in Educational Settings: An event for PGRs and ECRs’. I presented my PhD research and asked my question on how to recruit more female engineering undergraduates who plan to choose a career outside engineering for semi-structured interviews. A number of helpful suggestions provided by the event attendees are worthy of reflection and being shared with more general readers.

The greatest challenge I have met during the data collection stage is that I lacked interview participants who choose to leave engineering after graduation. I have tried to make use of my personal contacts and the snowballing strategy, but I still have very limited access to this sample group. Girls choosing a career outside engineering tend to regard this choice as a failure, so they refuse to talk about it. Fortunately, I had received pragmatic advice on this issue thanks to the BERA event.

  1. Seek help from certain online platforms and gender groups, such as ‘Student Union’, ‘job forums’ and ‘women in STEM associations’. The Newcastle University Gender Research Group was strongly recommended because it is very active, and regular details about research are sent out to the group.
  2. Organise free events on academic study and employment guidance targeting the interview sample. Specifically, in my case to recruit more female engineering students choosing a career outside engineering, it can be feasible to invite one or two speakers who have already chosen to leave this field to share their experiences and stories.
  3. Be perseverant. Recruitment can always be challenging but it will happen in the end. If you continue to push on doors, it’s only a matter of time until you find what you are looking for.

‘If you continue to push on doors, it’s only a matter of time until you find what you are looking for.’

Some research questions can indeed be sensitive, potentially causing psychological pressure on the participants, which may lead to their reluctance to take part in the research. In such cases, we can design innovative and flexible approaches beyond what textbooks teach us, as long as they can serve the purpose of the research. Particularly in this age of the internet, leveraging publicly available online resources to attract participants to engage in the interviews can be an effective strategy. Be flexible and resolute; there will be enough participants for your research. 


Archer, L., Dawson E., DeWitt, J., Seakins, A., & Wong, B. (2015). ‘Science capital’: A conceptual, methodological, and empirical argument for extending Bourdieusian notions of capital beyond the arts. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52(7), 922–948.

Guo, C., Tsang, M. C., & Ding, X. (2010). Gender disparities in science and engineering in Chinese universities. Economics of Education Review, 29(2), 225–235.

Moote, J., Archer, L., DeWitt, J., & MacLeod, E. (2020). Science capital or STEM capital? Exploring relationships between science capital and technology, engineering, and maths aspirations and attitudes among young people aged 17/18. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 57(8), 1228–1249.

Smith, K. N., & Gayles, J. G. (2017). ‘Setting up for the next big thing’: Undergraduate women engineering students’ postbaccalaureate career decisions. Journal of College Student Development, 58(8).

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