Study Abroad Experience and Career Decision-Making: A Qualitative Study of Chinese Students

Research highlighted

Wu, Y. (2020). Study Abroad Experience and Career Decision-Making: A Qualitative Study of Chinese Students. Frontiers of Education in China, 15 (2), 313-331.

Yihan Wu, City University of Hong Kong

In recent years, there has been an unprecedented increase in the number of Chinese students undertaking degrees abroad in the context of globalization. Amongst other levels of study, most of these students are seeking to pursue international education and postgraduate degrees abroad (Mazzarol, Clark, Rebound, Gough, & Olson, 2014). Gaining an overseas education can however pose challenges, particularly in terms of taking important career-related decisions following graduation. It is important to carry out more in-depth investigations to gain a more profound insight into the cultural value that international students have in their home countries and how this impact on their overseas study life. Hence, my research explores factors influencing Chinese overseas students’ career decision-making. Based on the social cognitive career theory, a semi-structured interview schedule was devised to qualitatively investigate how Chinese students evaluated different factors and coped with career decision-making while studying abroad.

Drawing on qualitative data from 16 interviewees, my research findings illustrate that family influences, overseas social life, and personal improvements were three key factors in shaping Chinese overseas students’ career decision-making.

Firstly, family influence has been identified by numerous studies as a central factor that has a significant impact on young people’s career decisions (Fouad, Kim, Ghosh, Chang, & Figueiredo, 2015; Ma, Desai, George, San Filippo, & Varon, 2013). However, the results obtained in the present study did not entirely corroborate those of previous research with respect to the extent to which Chinese students’ career decision-making was influenced by their family. More than half interviewees in this research stated that their career choices were not directly influenced by their families, but indirectly, through the impact they had on career interest and values, despite the fact that other participants did admit that they had received advice from their parents regarding what academic subject and/or career to pursue.

With respect to personal improvement, previous research has indicated that students studying abroad are not independent in their career decision-making, do not score highly on the career maturity scale, and have extrinsic and pragmatic career values (Hardin, Leong, & Osipow, 2001; Lee, Choe, Kim, & Ngo, 2000; Tang, 2002). Nevertheless, this study shows that participants knew exactly what they were interested in and passionate about. Indeed, the current study discovered that career and personal values were both directly and indirectly influenced by the experience of learning and living in a different country and this experience in turn, shaped their career decision-making.

Lastly, the findings in this research highlight the importance of a positive overseas social life and its impact on students’ career decision-making. This was consistent with previous studies which have addressed the importance of acculturation and cultural values and their impact on Asian students’ living and learning experiences abroad (Hou et al., 2018; Reynolds & Constantine, 2007). In the case of some participants, their career choices were not directly impacted on by the process of cultural learning, but rather by the fact that they were aware of differences between Eastern and Western cultures, and it was this awareness that shaped their self-construction and how they interacted with local students.

Furthermore, my research also found that the factor of family influences including family members, family advice, and the factor of overseas social life including balancing two cultural values, together play essential roles in shaping personal improvement factors including self-development and fulfilment, career, and personal values. Thus, it can be argued that there is a complicated interplay among the three factors, which exert a combined effect on Chinese international students’ career decision-making.

To gain an insight into Chinese overseas students’ career decision-making, the present research has applied the social cognitive career theory to interviews. The theory helped understand the living and learning experiences of Chinese overseas students, because, in addition to dealing with the factors shaping career decision-making, it highlights the interaction between individuals’ learning experiences and their abilities to promote personal interests and self-efficacy. The findings further suggest that participants’ learning experiences, self-efficacy, and career values, the main elements highlighted in the social cognitive career theory, were also heavily influenced by academic supervisors and tutors. The participants stated that positive learning experiences, performance accomplishments, and favourable feedback from supervisors and tutors made them feel happy and fulfilled, which in turn improved their self-efficacy, strengthening their conviction in their career interests and shaping decisions made regarding their career. Social cognitive career theory places great significance on such interplay between factors as it further clarifies how different factors shape individuals’ career decision-making.

In general, my research findings were intended to aid and expand investigations of career decision-making among college students, and may prompt individuals coming from similar backgrounds as the participants to identify the factors that have shaped their career development. Since the social and cultural perspectives influencing international students’ career decision-making were particularly emphasized in this study, it will be useful to both researchers focusing on young people’s career development and concerned institutions looking to improve the international career support services they offer to non-local students.


Mazzarol, T., Clark, D., Rebound, S., Gough, N., & Olson, P. (2014). Perceptions of innovation climate and the influence of others: A multi-country study of SMEs. International Journal of Innovation Management, 18(1), 1–24.

Ma, P.-W. W., Desai, U., George, S. L., San Filippo, A. A., & Varon, S. (2013). Managing family conflict over career decisions: The experience of Asian Americans. Journal of Career Development, 41(6), 487–506.

Fouad, N. A., Kim, S.-Y., Ghosh, A., Chang, W.-H., & Figueiredo, C. (2015). Family influence on career decision making: Validation in India and the United States. Journal of Career Assessment, 24(1), 197–212.

Hardin, E. E., Leong, F. T. L., & Osipow, S. H. (2001). Cultural relativity in the conceptualization of career maturity. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 58(1), 36–52.

Lee, R. M., Choe, J., Kim, G., & Ngo, V. (2000). Construction of the Asian American family conflicts scale. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 47(2), 211–222.

Tang, M. (2002). A comparison of Asian American, Caucasian American, and Chinese college students. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 30(2), 124–135.

Hou, P. C., Osborn, D., & Sampson, J. (2018). Acculturation and career development of international and domestic college students. The Career Development Quarterly, 66(4), 344–357.

Reynolds, A. L., & Constantine, M. G. (2007). Cultural adjustment difficulties and career development of international college students. Journal of Career Assessment, 15(3), 338–350.

Author Biography

Yihan WU is a PhD student at the Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences, City University of Hong Kong. Her PhD project focuses on identity issues and adolescents’ mental health. She is also highly interested in educational psychology and has published articles on international students’ emotion regulation, career decision-making and study abroad experiences. She can be contacted at

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