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Understanding contemporary careers - choices and consequences - for higher education professional staff

Gander, Michelle (2019) Understanding contemporary careers - choices and consequences - for higher education professional staff. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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This dissertation aims to understand the careers of professional staff working in universities: how they envisage their careers in terms of individual versus organisational responsibility, the place of their own internal values, the psychological and locational mobility they may enact, their psychological contract with their university, and their subjective experience of their own career. These are important considerations as professional staff make up approximately 25 per cent of university staff in OECD countries and hold some of the most senior leadership roles in a university. Yet little research has been carried out on this cohort of staff to understand their career needs and related behaviours, or how universities in and of themselves influence these behaviours and other outcomes. The work that has been published has mainly either taken a purely quantitative approach, testing for predictor variables, or an exploratory qualitative approach, often with limited methodological rigour and little emphasis on theory building. This has led to three research aims, to: 1) determine the factors influencing the contemporary career of higher education professional staff, 2) evaluate the application of a multi-theoretical framework for understanding the careers of higher education professional staff, and 3) determine the efficacy of a mixed methods research design to better understand the contemporary career of higher education professional staff.

The epistemological basis this research is grounded in is a pragmatic worldview. A concurrent complementarity mixed methods research design was used which allows for comparison of quantitative and qualitative data to search for congruence and divergence. Additionally, an analytical tool, Pierre Bourdieu’s Theory of practice, was used as a lens through which to view the results of the research with the aim to develop a richer and deeper conceptual understanding of the lived careers of professional staff working in universities. This study utilised a cross-sectional survey design to collect quantitative and qualitative data in a multi-method instrument via an online survey. A convenience sample was used, recruiting two professional bodies. Two-hundred and twenty-six usable quantitative responses were returned, with 143 career stories being provided in the open-ended text box included at the end of the survey.

The results of this research led to five contributions to knowledge. First was the finding that professional staff have a Hybrid career orientation. They take aspects of the Traditional career and blend these with aspects of the Protean and Boundaryless career orientations. Second, that within this orientation there are four career profiles: Intra-Organisational Advancement, Inter-Organisational Advancement, Work-Life Balance, and Fixed. Third was that there are some essential needs, adaptation strategies and vocational development requirements, and that there is a reciprocative relationship between the individual and the employer for career management. Fourth, that professional staff develop a balanced psychological contract, balancing the needs of internal demands with external employability. Fifth, through the application of Pierre Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice as a lens through which to view the results, the importance of context for career behaviours was brought to light, an area which has not been given the level of importance it deserves in contemporary career theories which valourise individual agency. By taking the sector field of practice into account, and its effects on the organisational field, the underlying effect of habitus is illuminated, a critical aspect for individuals managing their careers within an organisation. By understanding the effects of field and habitus on individuals’ decisions relating to career behaviours, a new integrated career framework was developed in answer to criticism of previous career theories.

There are a number of human resource policy implications from this research. Firstly, is the recognition that career management has a reciprocative nature – the individual is responsible for their own career management, but the organisation needs to create an environment for this to take place. Universities would do well to introduce high performance work system bundles corresponding with an individuals’ employment lifecycle, starting from the management of expectations to ensure psychological contract is not at breach, through good job design, professional development opportunities. – perhaps based on career profile as well as competency development – opportunities for promotion, and a culture of inclusivity and transparency. A rigourous talent management process should be implemented, an area ripe for development in the higher education sector, to ensure that highly competent staff are developed and prepared for more senior roles in their organisation.

This dissertation highlights the need for further research into the integrated career framework presented, especially the significance of habitus within the field, and the concept of power relations. The Hybrid career orientation needs a more complete understanding of career needs for individuals who work in organisations, especially to take account of any cultural differences which this work was unable to undertake due to the limited sample. The concept of a balanced psychological contract should also be investigated and testing of the four career profiles should be undertaken.

To conclude, this dissertation is somewhat of a hybrid. The main results section is presented as a number of papers submitted, accepted or published in journals or presented at conferences. These papers are contextualised by more traditional dissertation chapters such as a broad literature review and methodology, and at the end a discussion chapter that links all the papers together, followed by a concluding chapter.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Business
Supervisor(s): Girardi, Antonia and Paull, Megan
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