Serendipity as an influencing factor in career decision making among young people navigating their school-to-work transitions

Project summary

This project will aim to:

The ways in which the transitions of young people articulate with, and are influenced by, structures, systems and individuals remain poorly understood and relatively under-theorised. Policy makers globally remain resistant to the idea that transitions from school to work may not be straightforward, but variously extended, fractured, precarious and/or troubled in other ways. In addition, the potentially interesting relationships between positions in fields and career decision making remain unexplored, despite evidence suggesting ‘that career styles relate to positions and fields as well as to dispositions, even for the most strategic’ (Hodkinson, 2008, drawing on Ball et al, 2002 and Bimrose et al, 2005).    

Further, research has tended to focus on those young people who might be described as working class, while the transitions of young people from more affluent backgrounds have been largely ignored, despite evidence that middle-class as well as working-class transitions are marked by increasing precariousness in a time of social upheaval consequent upon austerity and the Covid-19 pandemic (Avis and Atkins, 2016; Avis et al 2021).

Research (Atkins, 2017) implies that subtle social-class fractions or particular social positioning is significant in its relationship to decision making, the ways in which young people perceive and construct their careers, the pathways and trajectories taken by them, and the ways in which they exerted their agency through the decision-making process as well as in their response to contingent and serendipitous events. More recent work (Esmond and Atkins, 2020; 2021 forthcoming) highlights significant differences in socialisation processes in different forms of vocational education which have implications for career decision making and potential trajectories. 

Therefore, the project will aim to provide some of the ‘further amplification’ regarding the influence of serendipity on career decision making that Hodkinson (2008, 9) noted was required. It will explore the extent to which this is mediated by habitus, field, and access to those types of cultural capital which are valorised in education and investigate how these factors differ across different forms of technical and vocational education. These are particularly significant issues at this time given the lack of contemporary research in this area, and the changing conditions of the education and labour markets that young people are destined for. 

Research cluster 

Technical and vocational education and training

Entry requirements

For our PhD programmes, we normally expect you to have a First or Upper-Second (2:1) honours degree and preferably a masters degree from a UK university in a relevant subject such as Education or Sociology/social policy. 

International students may also need to meet our English language requirements. Find out more about our entry requirements for international students.

Project specific requirements must align with the University’s standard requirements 

How to apply

Please contact Professor Liz Atkins ( in the first instance for more information on how to apply.

The University has four starting points each year for MPhil/PhD programmes (September, January, March and June). Applications should be made at least three months before you would want to start your programme. Please note that, if you require a visa, additional time will be required.  


Self-funded by student. There is a range of options that may be available to you to help you fund your PhD.


Liz Atkins
Professor of Vocational Education and Social Justice

Professor Liz Atkins is a leading scholar in the field of vocational education and training (VET). She has published widely on her concerns about how VET helps low-attaining young people move from school to work and associated ethical/methodological and social justice issues. Her recent book with Duckworth (2019) is Research Methods for Social Justice and Equity in Education (Bloomsbury).

Square image of staff member Bill Esmond
Professor of Professional Education and Training

Bill Esmond is Associate Professor, Education & Employment. His research is located at the intersection of workplace learning, vocational and higher education. His analysis of systems and practice is widely published in international journals, and he supports the research aspirations of vocational practitioners, from local projects to doctoral study.