Navigating First-Gen Career Pressures

Helen Pho, Associate Director

First published in Carpe Careers for Inside Higher Ed:

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.

Addressing Gender-Based Violence Through the Lens of Intersectionality

This is the next in a series of posts by recipients of the 2018 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they’ve been spending their summer. You can read the entire series here.

This entry is by Zeba Raisa Shah, COL ’19

When I first looked at the Futures Without Violence website, I was fascinated by all the different areas in which this organization was involved. Often, the broad concept of gender-based violence (GBV) is reduced to just a few things that make media headlines, while many other aspects of this issue are overlooked. My internship at FUTURES in Washington, DC this summer has not only taught me to combat this oversimplification of what constitutes GBV, but further delve into the many insidious ways in which it can take form. As someone who identifies as a Bengali, Asian American, Muslim, first generation, low income, immigrant, woman of color; intersectionality has always naturally been a key component of my vision of the world. Through this internship experience, I learned the importance of looking at GBV through an intersectional lens that recognizes the diversity within this massive category of violence.

In addition to regularly attending relevant briefings and hearings on Capitol Hill, some of the projects I worked on at FUTURES this summer included attending conferences regarding reducing sexual harassment in the workplace, researching ways to better aid survivors of human trafficking entering the workforce, advocating for survivors of domestic violence seeking asylum in the U.S., and finding programs that assist survivors of elder financial exploitation and abuse. In each one of these projects, I learned to take an intersectional approach. For example, sexual harassment in the workplace is an enormous issue anywhere; but when we look specifically at high-risk low-wage industries such as the restaurant, service, commercial cleaning, janitorial services, hospitality, and agriculture industries, etc., the risk is exponentially higher. Women in these industries are also much less likely to report incidents of harassment or have resources readily available for them. This is particularly relevant given that women – especially women of color – are significantly over-represented in these industries. For instance, even though women make up less than half of the overall workforce, they make up two-thirds of the low-wage workforce. Moreover, African American women’s share of the low-wage workforce is double their share of the overall workforce. Another clear illustration of this can be seen with domestic violence. While domestic violence is an enormous problem for many women, further disaggregated data indicates that immigrant women are at much higher risk than U.S. citizens, due to institutional barriers such as limited English proficiency, fear of deportation, and a biased legal system, which make it nearly impossible for immigrant women to access resources to achieve safety or justice. These are just some of the many ways in which intersectionality play a pivotal role in gender-based violence. Without taking into account these missing pieces, it is impossible to cater the resources at the Workplaces Respond to Domestic and Sexual Violence: A National Resource Center and beyond to directly impact the root causes of the issue. Thus, a truly effective survivor-centered method of combating GBV requires an intersectional lens.

Interning in DC this summer has been an incredible privilege. Despite being engaged with politics and policy-making since I was young, physically being in the nation’s capital made a huge difference in seeing change happen first-hand. Whether it was standing outside the Supreme Court with signs within minutes of the “Muslim Ban” decision, or attending a press conference with notable representatives from Congress celebrating the introduction of a reauthorization of VAWA (the Violence Against Women Act), I was right there. I wouldn’t have had the chance to witness any of this had it not been for my internship with FUTURES. I leave DC with a further solidified understanding of intersectionality and how advocacy and organizing efforts need to be interconnected and inclusive. I am beyond thankful for this experience, and I know that everything I’ve learned this summer will strengthen my future work in policy, advocacy, and civic engagement.


This entry is by Jonathan Petts, COL ’02, LAW ’07

After graduating from Penn (‘02) and then Penn Law (‘07), I followed the traditional corporate law path, working for large firms in New York. That corporate life was interesting enough for a while. But I found my true passion in the pro bono bankruptcy cases I did helping low-income New Yorkers buried in debt. My first client was a woman from Crown Heights named Linda.  Linda was unemployed and had $40,000 in medical debt from a car accident. I helped Linda file for Chapter 7 and obtain a fresh start. She called me back a year later to share some great news. She had a job, her credit score was 100 points higher, and she was still debt free. She then told me something I’d never forget, “If I hadn’t found you, I’d still be trapped in debt because it costs $2,000 to hire a bankruptcy lawyer and if I had $2,000, I wouldn’t be filing for bankruptcy.” I realized that the people who need access to our bankruptcy courts the most in America are the least able to afford it.  

Jonathan Petts in acton

The bankruptcy process involves lots of data entry and document collection that are ripe for automation. So along with my cofounder Rohan Pavuluri, I founded a tech nonprofit called Upsolve which provides free Chapter 7 bankruptcy help to low-income Americans across the country. Last year, our website helped over 400 Americans get a fresh start, erasing over $16 million in debt from medical illness, job loss, and payday loans. We’ve been lucky to get grant funding for our work from the Robin Hood Foundation, Y Combinator, the Public Welfare Foundation, and other fantastic funders.

I see Upsolve as a small piece of a broader opportunity to democratize access to the law for low-income Americans. The internet has transformed the delivery of most professional services to consumers.  For little to no cost, consumers can use TurboTax to complete personal tax returns, use WebMD to diagnose their medical conditions, or use Khan Academy to learn a new subject. But the internet has brought very little disruption to the delivery of legal services. One lawyer researches, writes and litigates for a single client, who is charged by the hour. The result is 80% of low-income Americans with a legal problem cannot afford to hire lawyer.  In the years to come, I’m excited to see other tech solutions to help low-income Americans solve their legal problems on their own.

CS Radio – Episode 84: “Money Pool”

It may seem like a distant dream, but summer is just around the corner! Students may be facing difficult decisions about taking low-paid or unpaid internships and research opportunities, and while some deadlines have passed, there are still funding opportunities available across the university. Today, Mylene and Michael discuss where you can find them and how quickly you need to act on them. Also: How DID Scrooge McDuck swim through hard currency? Enjoy!

Penn’s Guatemala Health Initiative

This is the next in a series of posts by recipients of the 2018 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they’ve been spending their summer. You can read the entire series here.

This entry is by Zabryna Atkinson-Diaz, COL ’19

Signing yourself up for an internship in extremely rural southwestern Guatemala shouldn’t be something done on a whim but after interviewing for Penn’s Guatemala Health Initiative (GHI), that’s where I found myself. GHI is based in a more residential part of Guatemala on a beautiful lake called Lago Atitán, one of Guatemala’s tourist attractions, there students work with an established connection made between Penn and the Hospitalito of Santiago Atitlán to conduct qualitative research based on the issues and needs of the Hopsitalito. And so, after reading about this internship, I applied. In the group interview, they stated that there were not enough spots for everyone being interviewed to go, but that they also had another site that they wanted to start sending students to but had not yet done.

The way they sold the site was not convincing to say the least. They warned that if you went, you would be the only student from Penn, you would be stationed on a compound, with armed guards, barbed wired fences, wouldn’t be able to leave the compound unless you were going out with the nurses during the daytime, and that the weather would be extremely hot and humid. Somehow in my crazy brain that’s what convinced me to pack myself up and go venture to a clinic based on a banana finca (a banana plantation) for 10 weeks of my summer.

I wanted the opportunity to do public health research this summer, and after hearing that not all of us would be able to go to the original site, I volunteered to go to this rural site to gain the experience of conducting research in a global health setting. I was ready, eager, and willing to be the guinea pig for this new site. For me it didn’t matter where you were sending me, only that I could be useful to the community there. Most importantly, I wanted to be able to learn from them because if it’s anything that I’ve learned during my travels is that learning from others and their culture is the most informative and impactful way to learn.

So I packed my bags, flew into Guatemala city and made the 5-6 hour trek through the rocky, pothole filled roads to what would be my home for the next 10 weeks. Now, given what I had been told I had very limited expectations. I am happy to say that my coordinator, overexaggerated greatly and that I not only lived in rural Guatemala but became part of a community.

My experience there taught me not only how to conduct qualitative research in a rural setting, but solidified an entirely new career path that I was unsure of before. Going into the summer I was still unsure of whether I wanted to fully pursue Public Health Research as a career or continue on the pre-med track to becoming a medical doctor. For over 10 years I was certain that becoming a doctor was what I wanted to do with my life, but after being exposed to public health in my academics and another abroad experience, I began to question whether there were other ways to look at health in a more holistic sense that I was far more passionate about. This summer I got to conduct 47 interviews on mental health, the use of alcohol, and alcoholism and came to the realization that this truly is how I want to be involved with health in my career, conducting research in a community setting. If it was not for the Career Services funding I would have never been able to have this opportunity and been more certain in my decision to change my career path. I fell in love with the research that I was doing, the community that I lived in, and the possibility that in some way my work would be able to support their clinic. Far too many people enter foreign countries with a God complex, the idea that they can come in and fix all problems. I hope that my work this summer, and truly believe that it was shaped in a way that I did not come in to fix, but to learn. And the research that I conducted is a product that the clinic itself can use to make their own change as they see fit. I entered this experience expecting to learn, learn skills, learn about culture, a community, but I didn’t realize until it was over just how much I learned about myself.