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Home Research Report When Job Hunt Excitement Fades, the Ticking Clock Does the Trick

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By Liz Warren-Pederson


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Allison Gabriel, Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations

Although a college senior’s job hunt may start as fun and games, it’s external pressure and consequences that drive the search over the finish line, according to a new study co-authored by Serge da Motta Veiga of the American University Kogod School of Business and Allison Gabriel of the University of Arizona Eller College of Management.

Their study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, is the first to examine the dynamics between different forms of motivation and the effort job seekers invest during the job search process.

“Job seekers need to stay motivated to secure a job,” da Motta Veiga said. “Past research has taken a static approach to examining motivation during the job search, and ignored how the quality of one’s motivation—ranging from autonomous to controlled—can influence the job search process as time elapses.”

“Autonomous motivation is intrinsic to the person,” Gabriel said. “These people look at the job search as a fun challenge, an opportunity to find work that’s congruent with their personal values – something interesting and enjoyable.” On the flip side is controlled motivation. “These are extrinsic factors, job seeking due to external pressures such as having bills to pay, or fending off a parent’s expectations.”

Both types of motivations play a role in job seekers’ plan of action – how they set and revise personal goals, develop job search plans, monitor and analyze the job search process, and improve their skills related to finding a job – and also how much effort they put forth during the job search.

The researchers used weekly surveys to measure how the motivation of college job seekers changed over time. “College students start looking for jobs at similar times and go through parallel stages of their respective searches,” Gabriel said. “We looked at motivations starting at the fall semester’s career fair, which is often the beginning of the job search for college job seekers.”

They found that autonomous motivation tended to yield benefits across the entire job search, leading to better strategizing and more effort being put forth by job seekers. However, they also found that the levels of autonomous motivation declined over time, suggesting that other types of motivation may be at play.

“What’s more, as time elapsed and the goal of securing a job became more critical, controlled motivation became beneficial for job search processes,” da Motta Veiga said. In other words, it is the ticking clock, parental expectations, and a stack of bills that spurs students to put in the effort to get through the finish line and secure that first job.

In their future work, they hope to extend their findings to unemployed or laid-off workers. “We are looking at ways to rethink types of motivation and maximize their value at different points in the job search process,” Gabriel said. “This work can yield important insights for job seekers and career counselors alike.”

Top image of stressful people waiting for a job interview courtesy Shutterstock.