Helen Pho, Associate Director
First published in Carpe Careers for Inside Higher Ed: https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2019/02/18/advice-first-generation-students-pursing-their-phds-opinion
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
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.