Navigating Family Career Choice Expectations

Do you share the career dreams that your family members have for you? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t, and perhaps the experience of studying abroad has led you to rethink your ideas about the careers you wish to pursue. Family members most often establish their career expectations with limited knowledge about the many types of careers that exist, and with a lack of current data about career outlook and outcomes. If a family member were to say, “We expect you to be a lawyer, doctor, or engineer.” it is likely that these are the jobs that they associate with individuals who have had career success. Perhaps they are also careers that are viewed as prestigious within your culture or family’s community. Usually, family members want “the best” for their student, wishing them to have career success which may include, but not be limited to, one or more of the following factors:

  • strong job outlook;
  • high salary;
  • well known company;
  • access to a strong network of professional colleagues (and perhaps romantic partners);
  • potential for future sponsorship;
  • stability;
  • a job title that has prestige;
  • a company that has tuition benefits that will pay for the next degree.

You may also have family members who share that you should “do something that makes you happy” or “pursue a career where you have a strong sense of purpose” but this advice may not be at the top of the family’s expectation list.

If you do not share your family members’ career choice expectations you will want to decide if you wish to talk with them about that. This is a very personal decision that may not result in understanding.

Preparing for a Conversation

If you think that you do want to have a conversation, or explore the possibility, here are some tips to help you prepare for that discussion:

1. Review the list of factors (above) and determine which are of greatest importance to the family members with whom you will be speaking;

2. Once you determine which factors are likely of greatest importance begin to think about the types of information you will need to provide to illustrate that the career(s) you are choosing are also viable and lead to successful outcomes. Take time to identify any other factors that may also arise and be important;

3. Talk to other international students and alumni to learn if and how they approached this type of conversation, further determining what seemed to work well for those individuals;

4. Consider scheduling a conversation with a multicultural mental health clinician at Student Health and Wellness (SHaW) to share any worry or stress and to talk through options;

5. Meet with a Career Coach at the Center for Career Development to review job outlook data and to think through your plans for speaking with your family;

6. Consider joining the International Support Group coordinated by ISSS where international students discuss various concerns and connect with each other around common topics;

7. If researching careers within the U.S., use resources like the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook and Job Market Insights to gather data about your career choices: (Career Coaches at the Center for Career Development will likely have other recommended resources to share.)

Having a Conversation

When embarking on your conversation with your family ask questions to learn more about where their expectations originate from. Perhaps in talking to them, you recognize that they do in fact have some valid points that you want to consider, or maybe when you hear what concerns they have you realize their reactions are more about something that they think might be true rather than based on evidence or facts. When change does occur it is usually because you are able to provide your family with information that reduces their worries and allows them to adjust or remove their expectations. This information might be career data, articles about job outlook, or stories about other international students who have had career success.

Now What?

Even after having prepared for a conversation with family, and feeling like you have gathered and presented your findings well, your family may not shift their expectations or provide you with %100 approval. Sometimes these conversations may need to happen a couple of times before people begin to understand and shift viewpoints, and sometimes change just won’t occur. At this point, it continues to be important to connect with others who will help you to explore options and to navigate the many emotions that you may experience. Will you pursue the careers you want? Will you follow your family members’ expectations? Will you explore career options that reflect your interests and also incorporate elements of familial and cultural expectations? Will you seek to find ways to not be financially tied to your family to pay for your education?

It is in speaking with others and continuing to access resources and opportunities that you will draw the greatest knowledge and strength in planning your career and in navigating family career choice expectations.

By Kay Kimball Gruder
Kay Kimball Gruder Associate Director, Graduate Student & Postdoc Career Programs and Services | Pronouns: she/her/hers