Career Stumbles


My ex is washing out of his residency.

Several weeks ago, he messaged me on Facebook to inquire
about a graduate program at my school. Considering that he had just finished
his MD, the interest seemed odd. He quickly confessed that matters were going poorly.
Although he did exceptionally well in an academic environment, applying that
knowledge to his patients was beyond his abilities. To paraphrase his
explanation, he simply did not care about them enough to push himself over the

Five years ago, when we dated and I was still unsure of
what I wanted to do as a career, I asked him why he wanted to become a doctor.
He said it was mostly for the money and because his parents pressured him into
becoming one. I questioned the sustainability of those motivations, especially
since – in the previous year – every medical school to which he applied
rejected him. He assured me otherwise and I did what I could to help him
breathe life into his admissions essays.

@gaysianthirdspace’s recent series of posts on the ways
in which our Asian identities intersect with careers made me think of my ex. It
also made me contemplate the ways in which parental pressure may force some
into careers for which they are not suited.

For good or ill and with varying degrees of truth, there
is a stereotype
that our parents encourage us to take up careers that are traditionally
associated with wealth and prestige. Their words take added urgency when we
remember that they or our grandparents moved abroad – and likely gave up
everything – to give us opportunities infinitely better than anything they
could have ever dreamed of back home. Even my fifth generation remoteness from
Asia has not entirely dulled my father’s insistence that I obtain a degree in
an area he can readily associate with a verb.

Sadly, I have no easy answers as to how one may balance
parental concerns with our individual interests and talents. Indeed, my
relative estrangement from my father grants me a degree of immunity to such pressures
that many people, like my ex, do not enjoy. However, it seems that dismissing
and denigrating another’s career choices or struggles – especially if they are
not in STEM or some other “traditional” field – seems to have acquired a
certain currency as of late.

Certainly, there are practical considerations to obtaining
a degree. If we incur tens of thousands of dollars of debt – hundreds, even,
for medical, law, or graduate school – then it would be foolhardy to ignore the
question of how one will repay those loans. At the same time, however, I do not
think the answer to the issue is a cold calculation as to how one may wring
every penny from their diploma at the expense of everything else that an
education is supposed to provide.

We should take care to ensure that our parents’
long-standing – and a renewed societal – focus on STEM and other “conventional”
fields does not blind us to the wisdom that arises from other areas of study.
We need writers to
capture the human condition, psychologists to help us
understand ourselves, and musicians
to make us cry just as badly as we need doctors to keep us well, engineers
to build bridges, and astronomers to make sense of the universe. A healthy –
and, arguably, flourishing – society cannot exist solely on the accomplishments
of those in the “hard” sciences.

We should also be open to the possibilities for personal
enrichment that may arise from contact with other fields. This seems doubly
true in college. I certainly would not be where I am today if I had not taken
an undergraduate course in public health on a lark. I could not imagine how
much poorer my inner existence would be if I had shunned English courses on
rhetoric or creative writing just because I was majoring in something wildly
different. It would seem to be a terrible tragedy for a person to know
everything about their field’s contributions but be ignorant of – or even deny
– the benefits that arise from others pursuing alternate careers.

I would also encourage us to take a somewhat more
sympathetic tone with those who are still finding a career that is right for
them. As I wrote previously,
the media prefers to emphasize the stories of those who knew what they wanted
to do with their lives while still in diapers. The infinitely more common
story, however, is that most people gradually – if clumsily – find a career
that is right for them.

There is certainly something admirable in those who
fulfill their childhood career aspirations without ever experiencing a
scintilla of doubt. However, there
is something equally courageous in those trying to find their way
. Although
our parents might not immediately – or, unfortunately, ever – warm to an
“unconventional” career path, I doubt that one reduces human suffering by demonizing
those who have stumbled.

@thoughtsfromthewalkhome offers a critical assessment of how one’s desired career choice can be influenced by our identities and the individuals in our lives (most notably, our parents). How has your background informed your choice in a particular field or occupation? What do you make of the difficult choices one must make in balancing others’ expectations, personal passions, and the reality of an often difficult job market?

– Anthony


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