Navigating First-Gen Career Pressures

Helen Pho provides insights to help lower the anxiety such students often feel when pursuing a Ph.D.

February 18, 2019
 
 
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When I first told my parents I was leaving my job as an admissions officer to begin a doctoral program in history after just graduating from college a few years before, their first reaction was, “Why are you going back to school for so long instead of working to make money? And why aren’t you coming back home to California?” To immigrants who had spent years trying to make ends meet while raising three kids, the idea of not working so as to obtain another degree seemed, from their perspective, like a frivolous privilege.

Although I was committed to my own plan, I still understood their reaction. As I tried to come up with an answer that would satisfy their concerns, I fell back on a response that took advantage of their unfamiliarity with academe: “Well, I could make more money after I earn a Ph.D.!” Knowing that it wouldn’t likely be true, I felt it was the only way I could justify my decision to get a doctoral degree to my parents.

For some first-generation graduate students, the process of pursuing a Ph.D. can come with additional career and financial pressures from their families. Those expectations become more pronounced as they finish their programs and begin to transition to a career. In fact, whether you’re a first-gen graduate student or not, many doctoral students face pressures from their families to move closer to home; to provide support, financial or otherwise; or to pursue a particular kind of career that would guarantee stability, prestige or monetary reward. On top of that, some first-gen doctoral students also feel obligated to be in career roles that have impact on society, given their backgrounds. All of these pressures can make choosing and launching a career more stressful, since additional stakeholders are involved in one’s career decision making.

As someone who has navigated these first-generation family pressures personally and has advised graduate students in making career decisions under similar circumstances, I hope to offer some insights to help ease the process and perhaps lower some of the anxiety many graduate students feel. In addition to the first-gen career advice I wrote about previously, here are a few things to keep in mind as you progress throughout graduate school and begin to think about your next career steps.

Pursuing a career path you’re excited about and have worked hard for is not selfish. For first-gen graduate students, carving out your own post-Ph.D. career path will require you to persevere in ways your family may not understand. If you know you’d like to pursue a certain career, whether in academe or beyond, don’t feel guilty for that decision. Yes, it will likely require some personal sacrifices. You may have limited options in terms of where you live or how often you have to move. You may have to make sacrifices that affect your family -- like not being able to visit home when you have conferences to attend or deadlines to meet. It will probably also challenge you in ways that your family may never fully grasp, like learning an unwritten set of rules in academic or professional culture to fit into a workplace. Depending on what your career goals are, it may take some time and a lot of hard work to achieve them. But life is long, and you’ll want to be happy spending the next few decades of your life at work.

Making a decision to pursue a different career than the one you originally planned for doesn’t mean you failed. On the flip side, sometimes the amount of sacrifice required for a career may turn out to be more than you’re willing to invest in. As Derek Attig wrote, it’s perfectly fine to build an endpoint in your faculty job search, for example. As you explore career options that value your Ph.D., keep in mind that many employers, both within and beyond academe, respect and desire the research, communication and analytical skills you bring to the workplace.

Just because you set out to pursue one career path initially and then decided that another path is a better fit -- for any number of reasons -- doesn’t mean you gave up on the first career. In fact, as I often tell the graduate students and postdocs whom I meet with, learning that you don’t want a certain path is itself an important thing to know about yourself. After all, you will have saved yourself so much time and frustration in not pursuing a career that will make you miserable! Being able to internalize this breakthrough as a positive step in your career process and to communicate this narrative optimistically to others, including your family, is key to deflecting some of the internal and external pressures you may face about your career choice.

Following a career path might bring some forks in the road; you’ll make choices that reflect your life’s priorities. Sometimes, graduate students feel that the career decision that they’re making is one that will determine their future for the next five to 10 years of their lives or even longer. The reality is that life circumstances change, and people change jobs multiple times in their careers.

Even once you land a job as a faculty member, that doesn’t mean that you’ll stay at one institution for the rest of your life. Many academics do change jobs and institutions for a variety of reasons -- including for positions that fit better intellectually and professionally, for higher pay, or for geographic reasons. And outside academe, people change jobs all the time, often gaining promotions in the process. Whether it is the need to provide for your family financially or to be closer to home to help care for your parents, trust that you will pursue career options and make decisions that reflect what’s important in your life, including your obligations to your family.

Giving back to society can take various forms -- both in your career and beyond. Many first-gen students often feel obligated to give back to their communities because of how much they have benefited from the help of others. If you are one of them, finding a career where you feel that you can make a small difference in someone else’s life may be an important factor. In certain careers, it’s easy to do that because giving back is part of the nature of the job. In other careers, it may be harder to draw the connection between what you do on a daily basis with the greater social impact that your role or organization has.

While some people might find ways to make a difference in their everyday roles, such as mentoring a junior colleague or participating in workplace volunteering events, keep in mind that you can have an impact on your community in other ways beyond your career. Depending on your circumstances, you can fulfill your desires to help others through volunteering during your time off or donating to different causes.

Completing a Ph.D. and embarking on a career afterward can change the relationship you have with your family back home; differences in socioeconomic class or life experience that may arise as you become more upwardly mobile can cause conflict or misunderstandings with your family. Now that I have my Ph.D. behind me, my parents still don’t quite understand the professional world I inhabit or how my doctorate in history is relevant to career advising, but I know they are proud I have achieved the highest degree in my family and that I am in a role that allows me to be happy, productive and helpful.

Many of the career-related pressures coming from family can be difficult to satisfy. But knowing you have the agency to craft your career path in a way that is adaptable to different circumstances and obligations can hopefully lower some of the stress that comes with making important career decisions.

Bio

Helen Pho is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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