Motivation Wording in Job Adverts: A Dissertation Summary

Exploring the impact of job advert wording for Knowledge Transfer Partnership roles

Dissertation overview by Leanne Kenyon, ProjectMatch Ltd

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) are a business innovation scheme, run and part funded by Innovate UK. The scheme creates a 3-way partnership between a UK company, and UK Knowledge base (University) and a KTP Associate. This Associate is hired to manage and deliver the project for 1-3 years, acting as the conduit for academic knowledge to be brought into the company, industry skills to be brought back into university teaching and to act as a springboard to their own career. They deliver the project at the company’s premises, supported by a Company and Academic supervisor. Hiring excellent graduates is key to the project’s success, but there is little research into the motivations of those that apply for the roles and how these motivations can be better utilised to make adverts more attractive.

Across the HE sector application numbers for KTP Associates has been dropping, causing delays starting the project and a risk of losing funding. This study aimed to make recommendations for improving advert wording to significantly increase the pool of applicants to these roles.

Given the extensive push of the UK government to address the skills gap in the country and to drive talent into UK companies, there is surprisingly little work on the motivations of UK graduates and how to attract them to roles benefiting the UK economy. One key questions left from current knowledge is, what motivates graduates in the UK to apply for certain job roles? Another question left from the literature is, can motivation language be used to attract graduates to apply for these roles? Both these questions will be addressed in this study.

Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a theory of motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985), that has been demonstrated in a plethora of contexts including basic human needs, learning, health care, sport, parenting, and key for this research, work and institutional motivations.

SDT’s fundamental feature is that, for humans to achieve continual psychological growth and well-being, ‘innate psychological nutriments’ are essential, and that these are essential human, psychological needs (Deci & Ryan, 2000). They employ what they term an ‘organismic-dialectical perspective’, which describes humans as ‘active, growth oriented’ with an aim to integrate sense of self and social structures. To engage in activities that encourage this, we need these psychological nutriments which are fulfilled through three key psychological needs; Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness.

  • Autonomy refers to the desire to self-organise one’s own experience and behaviour, and to engage in activity that is in line with one’s sense of self. Autonomy can also refer to the experiences of integration and freedom.
  • Relatedness refers to the desire to feel connected to others and to care and be cared for. The need for relatedness involves developing secure and satisfying connections with others.
  • Competence refers to a proclivity to have an effect to the environment and to attain desired outcomes within it. It can be a manifestation of ‘effectance-focused’ motivation.

This theory has developed through many industries and applications including the workplace and organisations, the research from which forms the basis of this study. As expected from the underlying theory, SDT finds that to be motivated in work, people need to be satisfied in their needs for Autonomy, Relatedness and Competence. There is a growing body of research using Self-Determination Theory to assess and improve motivation within the work place but research into SDT’s (and motivation in general) effects on recruitment of staff and how adverts can demonstrate how roles can fulfil these needs is still in its infancy.

Whilst there was relatively little literature on SDT and job searching, and none focusing on students or recent graduates looking for jobs to start their careers, there is more research that investigates job adverts aimed at graduate careers. Job adverts come in variety of formats and are intended to attract a pool of appropriate candidates for a role. Recently, research has indicated the wording of adverts can impact on the application levels and the diversity of applicants (e.g. Born & Taris, 2009).

Many articles focused on the goals and expectations of graduates while looking for jobs. Results from these form recommendations for companies wanting to increase attractiveness of their job adverts to this group. There is much agreement that this group differ in their work-related characteristics. They expect their knowledge and skills to be used and if not met can lead to “lower levels of intrinsic work values (e.g. autonomy, variety of work, opportunity for training, and effort” (Taris et al, 2006). Other characteristic of importance to this group include job flexibility and organisational responsibility, ability to be creative, have clear direction and open and positive managers and work in teams of committed and motivated people. They also value and expect mentoring and training.

Although building on expectancy-value and goal-setting theories (rather than SDT), Luscombe et al (2012) investigated essential elements for the recruitment of “Generation Y” (aka, millennials) and found they had expectations higher than previous generations for working within collaborative companies, being involved in the decision-making process, engaging in challenging work that draws on their degree, a desire for training and development and companies perceived as innovative and contemporary.

With these graduate expectations in mind, and the need for business to hire the best quality graduates, it seems sensible to address these in the wording of job adverts to better attract applicants by their motivations.

The literature above shows an understanding of the motivations and expectations of graduates looking for jobs, and a good understanding of SDT in the workplace. However, there has been very little work done on the use of motivational language used in job adverts broadly, and almost no evidence of this used for graduate level jobs. Investigations on language use in job adverts largely focus on how to articulate the company identity itself), how gendered language affects diversity of application. There is also still a gap in SDT to understand how it can be used as a predictive feature (or at all) in the recruitment process, as well as an identifier of motivation and well-being within the workplace.

Research Overview

To achieve this study’s aim and determine if job advert language can be manipulated in line with Self-Determination Theory (SDT) to better motivate potential applicants to apply for KTP Associate roles, a mixed method approach was used. Quantitative data was collected via questionnaires on both participant groups’ SDT preference and in ranking manipulated version of a job advert. Qualitative data was collected via Semi-Structured Appreciate Inquiry interviews exploring current KTP Associates motivation in applying for the role.

Stage 1: Exploring SDT with existing KTP Associates

This stage took both a within and a between participants approach. It is also is both Inductive and Deductive. The questionnaire asked participants to complete an established SDT questionnaire to collect data about their motivation styles. The interviews openly collected data on the Associates experience of the role and analysing the data through theme analysis to identify themes both within and outside SDT.

The results from the Stage 1 interviews with 9 current KTP Associates showed that the 3 SDT factors are indeed present in the role and valued by all Associates. The Associates articulately described elements in their role where they felt their skills and know-how were being utilised and sought after (Competence), their relationships offered support (Relatedness) and that they felt they had control and responsibility over the project (Autonomy). From coding and thematic analysis of the interviews, it became clear that these were ambitious, hard-working and high-achieving individuals, all at the start of a new career close to completing University. Their expectations of a good role were in line with earlier researcher’s findings that this generation (compared to previously) are looking for flexibility and organisational responsibility, creativity, direction and positive managers, to work in motivated teams and expect training and development.

The 3 SDT factors were the highest coded themes, but further emerging themes, Learning, Impact and Experience & Environment were all relevant to the Associates. This finding also relates to previous research that finds graduates maintain a desire for learning, training and development and work feedback and working within collaborative companies, perceived as innovative and contemporary.

Alongside the interview analysis, the results of the SDT questionnaire by the Associates again demonstrates that all three factors are of importance to them and their role. Competence came out as the highest factor identified with, which may be unsurprising given the technological nature of the roles, and with qualifications and key technical skills being essential. But it is also clear that this alone is not enough to attract and motivate good quality applicants.

Stage 2: Exploring advert wording

Manipulated job adverts were rated and reviewed by students and recent graduates for attractiveness. This stage is a within participants design, as each participant rates the job advert for each condition and had 3 levels: Standard Advert (original job advert (control)), Competence weighted Advert and Mixed Motivations Advert (version worded with all 3 SDT factors). The table below offers example commentary from participants on these 3 adverts.

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The results from the Stage 2 showed that students and graduates rated the Mixed Motivations advert significantly higher than they did the Standard advert and the Competence weighted advert. Participant feedback on this advert gave support for all 3 factors, for example:

(Relatedness) “I know I’m getting support from supervisors”, (Competence) “The list of requirement I’m drawn to see if I’m practically I’m going to be capable” and (Autonomy) “This one seems most prestigious frames you as leader …”take the lead” etc.

There was also the suggestion that the combination itself offers a fuller vision for the applicant to working there “The ‘Develop skills’, ‘Take the lead’ and ‘Interact’ section headers gave a bit more emotional connection and insight into the role”.

The results suggest that as this advert identified characteristics the applicant desired and the working environment with the company, the participants would be more attracted to the advert, in line with the research where applicants are more attracted to companies with similar characteristics to their own.


Advert Wording:

  • Give the benefits or opportunities in line for all three motivational factors, e.g.
  • Note the potential for skill development or knowledge creation (Competence)
  • Note the leading opportunities or creative freedom available (Autonomy)
  • Note the support available and influence they will have on others (Relatedness)
  • Offer applicants a vision of the kind of Associate the partnership is looking for.
  • Do they need to be a dynamic, self-starter or an innovative, problem solver?
  • Will they need to have leadership potential or the ability influence change management?
  • Offer applicants a vision of what the company environment is like.
  • Is the company ‘fast-paced’, ‘creative’ and ‘ambitious’?
  • Will they be working with a close-knit team, or stakeholders across the country?

Other Considerations:

  • Makes sure the KTP scheme is explained from the view of the applicant (not the company).
  • Articulate that this is both a research and industry role
  • That this is a springboard to their chosen career
  • Ensure the direct development support is clear and the implicit learning opportunities.
  • Include detail about the training and development budget
  • Include detail about the development time allocation
  • Include detail about the development courses included
  • Keep the essential criteria concise.
  • Check if skill requests are being repeated in different words


The results presented above support the expectations of the study, based on previous theoretical knowledge and research. The expectation was that utilising all three SDT motivators (Competence, Autonomy and Relatedness) in the language of the advert would significantly increase the ratings given as to how likely participants would be to apply for the role. The aim of this study was to build on this previous research around Self-Determination Theory (SDT) and job advert wording. It used SDT as a framework to analyse KTP job adverts and explored how changing the wording of adverts impacted on the attractiveness to appropriate applicants.

In conclusion, this study has demonstrated that wording job adverts in line with the SDT motivation factors of Competence, Autonomy and Relatedness, does have an impact on the attractiveness of the advert and an increase in the likelihood of viewers going on to apply for the role. It has confirmed that KTP Associates currently in role value each of these elements, and that even with a stronger preference to one, all three are necessary for best workplace motivation and for appealing to applicants.


  • Born, M.P. & Taris, W.T. (2010) The Impact of the Wording of Employment Advertisements on Students’ Inclination to Apply for a Job. The Journal of Social Psychology, 150:5, 485-502
  • Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. (1985). The general causality orientation scale: Self-determination in personality. Journal of Research in Personality, 19, 109-134
  • Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behaviour. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268
  • Luscombe, J., Lewis, I. & Biggs, Ht. (2013). Essential elements for recruitment and retention: Generation Y. Education + Training. 55. 272-290
  • Taris, T. W., Feij, J. A. and Capel, S. (2006), Great Expectations – and What Comes of it: The Effects of Unmet Expectations on Work Motivation and Outcomes Among Newcomers. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 14: 256-268