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Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data follow a cohort of 161,000 people who graduated with a university qualification in 2011.

Data show instances and impacts of career breaks over 5 years. This includes breaks for further study, the arrival of a child or a period of unemployment or very low income, indicated by social security payments.

Explore interactive data and insights on this page:

Graduate career breaks

Compare the proportion of graduates who took a career break between 2012 and 2016 and their income by 2016.


Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics 2021 (unpublished)


Data insights

Across the 2011 university graduate cohort, women were more likely than men to take 1 or more career breaks in the period 2012-2016 (40% for women, 32% for men).

This was also the case for STEM graduates. Approximately half (49%) of these women and a third of these men took a career break over the period. This was higher than women who graduated with non-STEM (39%) or health qualifications (39%).

Women with a STEM qualification were considerably more likely to take 2 or more career breaks (of any type) during this period (33% with STEM, compared to 21% with non-STEM and 17% with health).

Arrival of a child

STEM-qualified women were less likely to take a break during this period for the arrival of a child than women graduates of non-STEM or health qualifications (10% with STEM, 15% with non-STEM and 20% with health). However, they were more likely than men with STEM (5%) or other qualifications (5% non-STEM and 6% with health).

STEM-qualified women and men were more likely to take breaks for a new child at the end of the data period (2016), than directly following graduation (2012). Men working with a STEM qualification who took a career break for a new child were likely to earn more by 2016 than men who didn’t take any break. They were also more likely to earn more than women who did and didn’t take a career break. This was the case in both the full and part-time cohorts. For example, of those who took a career break and worked full-time, 58% of men and 32% of women earned $75,000 or more.

Of the STEM-qualified women and men who took a career break for a new child:

  • 11% of women and 6% of men were working in a STEM-qualified occupation in 2016
  • 10% of women and 5% of men were working in a non-STEM-qualified occupation in 2016
  • 6% of women and 3% of men were working in a health-qualified occupation in 2016

Both STEM-qualified women and men who took a career break for a new child were slightly more likely to end up in a STEM-qualified occupation in 2016 than those who didn’t take a career break.

Period of unemployment or very low income

The data show periods of unemployment or very low income during 2012-2016, without specifying reasons like health, personal reasons or inability to find suitable work.

Women who qualified in STEM in 2011 were more likely to have a period of unemployment or very low income during this period (36%), than women who earned other qualifications (24% non-STEM and 20% health) or STEM-qualified men (26%).

STEM-qualified women and men were far more likely to have a period of unemployment or very low income in the year following graduation (26% of women, 19% of men in 2012), than in 2016 (9% of women, 7% of men).

STEM-qualified women who had a period of unemployment or low income were less likely to be in a STEM-qualified occupation in 2016, than those who didn’t. They were also likely to earn less. This was also the case for STEM-qualified men. For example, 16% of women employed full-time in 2016 after these periods were earning $75,000 or more, compared to 41% of women who didn’t take a break. For men, this was 24% compared to 57%.

Of the STEM-qualified women and men who experienced unemployment or very low income:

  • 25% of women and 17% of men were working in a STEM-qualified occupation in 2016
  • 38% of women and 34% of men were working in a non-STEM-qualified occupation in 2016
  • 58% of women and 54% of men were working in a health-qualified occupation in 2016
Further study

STEM-qualified women from this cohort were much more likely to return to study (receiving study allowance benefits) after their qualification (27%), than those with non-STEM qualifications (12%) or health qualifications (8%). They were also more likely than men with STEM qualifications to do further study (16%).

STEM-qualified women and men were far more likely to return to further study in 2012 directly following graduation (16% of women, 10% of men), than at the end of the data period in 2016 (5% of women, 3% of men).

Of the STEM-qualified women and men who undertook further study during the period, were:

  • 11% of women and 6% of men were working in a STEM-qualified occupation in 2016
  • 28% of women and 23% of men were working in a non-STEM-qualified occupation in 2016
  • 62% of women and 66% of men were working in a health-qualified occupation in 2016

STEM-qualified women who did further study after their qualification were much less likely to be in a STEM-qualified occupation in 2016, than those who didn’t. They were also likely to earn less than those who did not undertake further full-time study. This was also the case for STEM-qualified men to an even greater degree. For example, 14% of women employed full-time in 2016 after a study break were earning $75,000 or more , compared to 41% of women who didn’t take a study break. For men, this was 16% compared to 57%.

Further study in 2016

Separate data show some of the 2011 cohort were enrolled in higher education in 2016. This does not necessarily reflect a career break or show reasons for further study like specialisation, career change or retraining.

In 2016, 23% of STEM-qualified women and 17% of STEM-qualified men from the 2011 cohort were enrolled in further higher education. Approximately three fifths of this cohort were studying full-time. (For context, almost half of all 2011 graduates enrolled in 2016 were working during their studies.)

Of the STEM-qualified graduates enrolled in further studies in 2016:

  • 40% of women and 55% of men were studying STEM
  • 25% of women and 24% of men were studying non-STEM
  • 35% of women and 21% of men were studying health

The rate doing further study in 2016 was higher than women and men with non-STEM or health qualifications. Non-STEM and health graduates were more likely than STEM graduates to be studying the same field as their 2011 qualification.

About the data

Our department commissioned the Australian Bureau of Statistics to undertake this longitudinal study.

ABS examined the occupational outcomes of the 2011 cohort of university graduates for the following 5 years through to 2016. To do this, the ABS analysed the Multi-Agency Data Integration Project (MADIP) Modular Product (2011-2016) which is a linked dataset providing anonymised and aggregated analysis of the following:

  • 2011 Higher Education data
  • 2016 Higher Education data
  • 2016 Census of Population and Housing data
  • 2010-11 to 2015-16 Personal Income Tax data

This allowed ABS to determine income and occupation details through the years from 2011 until 2016. For each chosen variable of analysis, the outcomes have been explored using one of these datasets. Linkage of datasets is based on the data quality for the particular variable and highest level of linked records with the 2011 Higher Education data. This may have resulted in differences in total numbers and proportions reported. 

The ABS measured career breaks by social security payments. These include:

  • parenting payments (e.g. parental leave pay of 60 days or more, dad and partner pay)
  • unemployment or low income benefits (Newstart allowance, low income card)
  • study allowances (e.g. Austudy, Abstudy and Youth allowances of 60 days or more)

We have grouped the qualifications and occupations broadly into STEM, non-STEM and health, and used granular details for analysis where possible. All definitions of education, occupation and industry are consistent with our methodology.

This analysis covers the initial 5 years of graduates’ careers. We will publish further analysis following the 2021 and 2026 Censuses to understand how the cohort of 2011 graduates’ careers progress.

Read about the ABS’ Multi-Agency Data Integration Project

Read more about our methodology and this data

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