Exploration Preparation Stories + Advice

Managing Family Career Expectations

Read this if….

  • Your family expects you to have a high-earning or high-profile career.
  • You feel pressured to be successful because of your families’ sacrifices.
  • Your family expects you to follow in their career footsteps. 
  • You carry the weight of your family’s dreams and goals on your shoulders.

Our family’s expectations heavily influence our choice of major and career path, even if it is not explicitly discussed. The pressure is often amplified in different cultural communities, such as immigrant households. We may feel trapped when our career ambitions do not align with our family’s expectations. A classic example is the pre-med freshman who realizes they actually dislike medicine but is hesitant to pursue their real interest in art. Or, the student who comes from a family of lawyers but really wants to pursue teaching. There are no easy answers for how to navigate our families’ expectations, but we can try to prepare ourselves for these conversations. 

1. Stick with what you believe in

As cheesy as it sounds, this is your life, not your parents’. Remember to prioritize your happiness. If you know being a doctor/lawyer would be soul-draining for you, recognize that thought and explore other careers that might bring you joy. Also, remember to be kind to yourself. Sometimes our career ambition of living up to our families’ dreams is so ingrained in our identity that we can experience identity dissonance when diverging from this path. 

2. Understand where your parents are coming from

Career pressure often comes from a place of care. Our parents or guardians don’t want their kids to have to work as hard as they did. For some parents, success is equivalent to job stability, steady income, and an easier life. For others, success is acquiring that title – the M.D. or J.D. Try to understand how your parents define success, and work towards reframing what “success” really means together. 

3. Fill in Information Gaps

Sometimes we may need to rephrase a career in a way that makes sense to our families. For example, your family may be worried about your career interest in graphic design because they have never heard of it. Try to offer an explanation of the potential job description with special focus to job stability, salary, work-life balance, etc. You can find such information by using Vault, a career guide that provides in-depth information and data on different industries. It may also be helpful to give examples of successful people in your field of interest. 

4. Compromise?

Family is important. Sometimes it is too risky to go against our family’s expectations for fear of damaging our relationship or losing ties to our community. Consider – is there a way to compromise? Can you incorporate your own interests and goals into theirs? Maybe you agree to study biology but draw the line at pursuing med school. 

Note: Your friends, teachers, and advisors at college may not understand why you can’t just defy your family. They may question your decision to keep pursuing a major or career that you don’t like. Be prepared for disagreement, but also don’t feel like you need to justify your decisions. 

5. Find a Support System

Confide in someone who does support your career ambitions – a relative, a family friend, a career coach. Ideally, it may be helpful to find a mentor figure who shares your cultural background and can understand your family’s expectations. As social beings, we need to feel validated and heard. Although we would ideally love to hear supportive words from our family, we can also turn to other sources and communities for words of encouragement. 

Family career expectations are hard to navigate on your own. Schedule a Career Exploration appointment on Handshake to start the conversation and connect with a Career Coach. We’re here to support you!

—By Katherine Osterkamp, Graduate Assistant

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