Neurodivergent graduates confident in career skills but can face workplace discrimination

Research by the University of Southampton and Lancaster University has found that neurodivergent graduates feel confident about their careers skills and value their degree-related knowledge for gaining future employment.

However, the participatory project , funded by Research England and supported by AGCAS , also showed that adverse early employment experiences, including prejudice and discrimination, can affect their ability to set and achieve career goals and develop career capital - the resources, networks and confidence that can help them succeed.

The study findings are based on a survey of 228 neurodivergent graduates from UK higher education institutions, and follow-up interviews with 14 of the respondents. The survey and interviews were conducted between March 2023 and July 2023.

72 percent of research participants found recruitment processes challenging, but difficulties continued even after a job had been secured. Many found it hard to be themselves at work, with one commenting that "there is no advantage to being your true neurodivergent self in the workplace", and another highlighting that employer statements about neurodiversity don’t always match the work environment or behaviours "One of the things I find most frustrating [...] is that people always say they want someone who thinks outside the box, but they don’t."

58 percent of participants felt they had to conceal their neurodivergence, and only 17 percent felt that their neurodivergence would be understood by employers and colleagues.

Lead researcher Professor Michael Tomlinson , of the University of Southampton, commented: "Whilst the report reveals evidence of some positive early employment experiences and outcomes for neurodivergent graduates, it also highlights persistent challenges and barriers. Continued employer support and good practice in recruitment and early career opportunities is therefore crucial."

Fellow lead researcher Dr Jonathan Vincent, of Lancaster University, said: "This report offers a unique insight into the capabilities that neurodivergent graduates have as well as the challenges that they can encounter in their transitions from university to work. Whilst many do wish to pursue full-time graduate-level employment, we find that this journey can be diverse and that other outcomes can be meaningful too."

Building on the Graduate Capital Model , and AGCAS research on outcomes for disabled graduates, the Enhancing Neurodivergent Graduates’ Access to Graduate Employment (ENGAGE) project has established a series of recommendations for action. These focus on what careers professionals, higher education institutions, policymakers, sector bodies and employers can do, in collaboration with neurodivergent students and graduates, to support the fulfilment of their career potential.

Recommendations include:

  • Embedding the skills and capitals that graduates need for their career development into degree programmes, alongside tailored 1:1 careers support, throughout degrees and beyond graduation.
  • Establishing partnerships between higher education and employers to create tailored, inclusive opportunities for developing work experience that generate skills, networks, and confidence around recruitment processes.
  • Working collaboratively with neurodivergent graduates and support organisations to educate employers about neurodiversity, inclusive recruitment, and sustainable support/development.
  • Creating supportive structures e.g. mentoring and supervision, where neurodivergent staff, students and graduates feel listened to, valued, and psychologically safe.
  • Committing to training and education for all staff that is co-created and co-facilitated by neurodivergent people on inclusive recruitment, neurodiversity and allyship.

The research shows that developing provision to identify strengths and needs was a significant factor in enabling graduate success. University and employer support that allowed neurodivergent graduates to understand how to find alignment between their skills and potential roles, share their potential with employers, and advocate for their needs, was valued.

The full project report is available on the AGCAS website. Related resources and a free online employability course developed as part of the ENGAGE project can be found at the ENGAGE project website.