Pre-professional identity (PPI) is an understanding of the skills, qualities, conduct, culture and ideology of a students’ intended profession. Understanding PPI is valuable for students and higher-education providers to provide insight into motivation for- and to promote engagement in- learning. Describing PPI is challenging, particularly for evolving health professions. This paper describes a process undertaken to understand PPI, using exercise science (ES), a new and evolving health profession, as a case study. Mixed methods were used to describe three aspects of PPI: 1) student cohort characteristics; 2) personal factors influencing PPI; and 3) perceived career direction. Final year ES students participated in an online survey and a focus group (n=305; 59% male; 75% age range of 20-24 years). Factors contributing to the development of PPI included the desire to help others; interest and experience in sports/exercise. Students had the strongest understanding of the PI domains of affiliation, money and structure and limited understanding of the role of scientist and researcher. Two outcomes were derived from the study findings to advance the theoretical understanding of PPI: 1) a 3-item framework that describes factors specific to students’ PPI; and 2) a worked case study demonstrating how this framework was applied to gain a nuanced understanding of PPI in ES. Our framework can be applied to increase student and higher education providers understanding of PPI and the motivations underpinning student decision-making in higher education.

Practitioner Notes

  1. Understanding the factors that influence the development of pre-professional identity is important for student success, retention and employment outcomes. Higher education providers benefit from understanding the relationship between motivation and engagement in learning and confidence, academic achievement and attrition. These factors have increase prominence in emerging professions due to the evolving nature of the professional and variability in employment outcomes.
  2. Three factors are perceived to influence pre-professional identity: 1) characteristics of the student cohort specifically previous paid or voluntary work experience in their field of interest; 2) personal factors including intrinsic values (personal attributes, ambitions and motivations) and extrinsic motivators (perception of the role of the profession and social and family influence); and 3) perceived career direction relating to earning potential of the profession, hours and routine, governing guidelines and career pathways.
  3. Investigation of the above factors can allow for the development of a model of pre-professional identity that promotes familiarity, proximity and confidence relating to a students targeted employment area.