How placement in accounting degree programmes influences developing professional identities: an empirical analysis

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Dempsey, Julia Sylvia
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University College Cork
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The growing popularity of placement as part of undergraduate degree programmes suggests that placement is a valued element of undergraduate education for students. Literature exploring the value of placement for students focuses on identifying or measuring specific outcomes post-placement for students. However, the same level of attention has not been given to students’ placement experiences. The objective of this study is to gain an understanding of and to document how students make sense of their placement experiences. To fulfil this objective, two key sets of literature are considered. Situated learning literature provides a holistic way of exploring students’ experiences of overlapping membership of the communities in which they find themselves. Professional identity (PI) literature provides a way of exploring the nuanced sensemaking by students of who they see themselves becoming in organisations. To gain access to the subjective worlds of students, and capture their experiences, forty students who completed placement in accounting roles are interviewed at three points in time (pre-, during and post-placement). Modes of identification (Wenger 1998; E. Wenger-Trayner and B. Wenger-Trayner 2015) from situated learning literature provide theoretical lenses to investigate, in different ways, students’ experiences of multi-membership of university and the workplace. Using thematic analysis, the themes created point to emerging PIs from students’ experiences of reducing uncertainty around what could be required of them in accounting roles and who they see themselves becoming. Using insights from interpretivists in the PI literature, such as Covaleski et al. (1998), Ibarra (1999), Ashforth and Johnson (2001), Reid (2015) and Ashforth and Schinoff (2016), further thematic analysis facilitates a more nuanced exploration of the ongoing positioning and repositioning by students of their identities. Drawing from both situated learning literature and PI literature, analysis of the data in this study positions sensemaking of placement experiences by students as influencing their developing PIs. This study contributes to placement literature by advancing understanding of placement from achievement of disparate outcomes to a more holistic and nuanced view of placement experiences influencing developing PIs. A framework for understanding how placement experiences influence developing PIs is presented. This framework captures experiences of making sense of multiple possibilities as future accounting professionals and constructing differing forms of fit with these possibilities. Personal fit, reflected fit, projected fit and absence of fit are identified, and how these are constructed is described. Feeling, feigning or forsaking developing PIs are presented as legitimate beneficial experiences from placement, as each involves reducing uncertainty around possible future selves. The framework presented in this study adds to the placement literature by collectively capturing and documenting placement experiences, bringing pre-placement uncertainty and imagining and reimagining possible future selves in association with placement to the fore. The framework presented can be used by others to better understand processes of developing PIs in placement in other fields of study and processes of developing PIs in other periods of transition.
Placement , Professional identity , Accounting students
Dempsey, J. S. 2021. How placement in accounting degree programmes influences developing professional identities: an empirical analysis. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.