Date of Award


Document type


Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program


First Advisor

Linda Smircich

Second Advisor

Marta B. Calás

Third Advisor

Ronald Karren

Subject Categories

Business | Organizational Behavior and Theory


While careers are often conceptualized as individual paths through occupations - propelled by internal drive and (for the lucky ones) passion - this research takes a more social and political perspective, understanding careers as coordinated by forces external to people and their immediate local settings. In particular this study uncovers ways that imperatives and activities associated with contemporary regional economic development have uneven consequences for young workers depending on socioeconomic status.

For this dissertation I undertook a three-year longitudinal study of a much publicized initiative by top administrators of a state university to entice more college students to remain in that northeast US state to work upon graduation. Using the theoretical framework and methodology of institutional ethnography, a mode of analysis designed to “explore a regime of social policy from the standpoint of those subject to it,” (DeVault 2008: 2) this research is anchored in the actual experiences of young students and workers transitioning into careers - potential young professionals. Through extensive observations of the activities of those involved with the initiative, interviews of business leaders, students, and recent graduates, analysis of initiative documents, as well as analysis of related practical and academic texts, I mapped the complexes of career-related social relations around students and workers that have material consequences on their everyday lives.

According to the leaders of the university initiative “young professionals” – a category applied rather freely - were the creative, energetic, hard workers needed by the state for economic growth. This research investigated the “work” – paid and unpaid - that goes into performing as a “young professional,” and reveals the disjunctures between the idealized images of young professionals and their actual lived experiences. It is much easier for some to perform the work of young professionalism than others, given structural inequities in economic, social, and educational structures. The dissertation concludes with a discussion of the consequences of these findings, including implications for university professors who work to prepare college students for their future careers.

Despite the prevalence of young professional discourse in the United States, there is very little careers research specifically focused on young professionals and their careers. This research addresses that gap and also adds a needed contextual, longitudinal perspective to that body of management scholarship.