Are you more successful than your parents? How?
April 1, 2013 12:55 AM   Subscribe

My parents never had careers. I would like to. Most career advice doesn't make any sense to me, and I'd love your thoughts on the matter.

I've been reading Lean In and it's made me think a lot about my career trajectory.

My parents didn't have careers. My Mom was told to become a teacher because she would have summers off. She became a teacher, hated it, then worked crappy receptionist type jobs for many years. She then got a useless degree at a community college that she never used, and finally went to work in her parents' family business doing menial jobs, although she has a Mensa level IQ. She never had interests or hobbies or strived to fulfill herself through career or volunteer work. She never really, as far as I know, "found herself" or even tried to. She never taught me or encouraged me to do any of these things either.

My father has significant mental and social disabilities. My Mom always blamed him for not being a higher earner. He has had a series of technical jobs that use his high IQ and that allow him to avoid people. He never progressed in his career and now works as a taxi driver part-time although he has an advanced degree. He has some hobbies but doesn't really engage with the world (i.e., he goes running but never enters a race, plays an instrument but never performs, expounds on his opinions but doesn't do any writing or activism or volunteer work to express them). He never encouraged or supported me to do well in school or be involved in the community in any way. I wasn't given any career advice growing up other than "don't go into careers with a lot of women in them". (not a joke)

They were both economically unstable most of my life, and I honestly don't know how they supported the family except for the handouts from my grandparents.

My grandparents were immigrants who worked ridiculous hours at a local small business for their whole lives and made a lot of money. Most of the women in my extended family are stay-at-home-Moms (even now that their children are grown) or work in their husband's businesses. None of them seek fulfillment even though quite a few of them have the financial means to do so. They spend their time watching TV and running errands and such.

As for me, I stumbled along for a really long time, relied on a man to set my career direction (dumb) and then finally found myself in a fairly high-powered milieu (an elite university) and have realized that I have no clue. I have no idea how to get from here to there. I don't really have a visceral sense of what "there" is.

I'm not really asking for career advice, interviewing skills, etc. It's not specific skills I'm after so much as learning from people who have walked this road before. A lot of the things I read assume a somewhat middle class background, but I didn't grow up in the middle class.

If your parents did not have careers or were not fulfilled by their careers, and did not encourage you to do so -- and you are somehow fulfilled by your career, I'd like to know more about how things are for you and what suggestions you might have for me. What should I know now?

tl;dr: If you are more successful than your parents, how did that happen? Was there a turning point? Did someone mentor you? How did you start to think about a career? What would you do if you were me, or yourself 10 years ago?
posted by 3491again to Human Relations (32 answers total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
My parents left school after completing their secondary education, they both did apprenticeships and worked in their areas all their lives. My father had his own business for many years but he lacked any kind of entrepreneurial bend and sold up after a while. My mother was a stay at home mom for many years after she had children and supported my father in his business by doing all the admin. She always wanted us to do well at school. But her idea of encouraging me was to tell me I should work for the government because the pension is good....even at the tender age of 9/10 that didn't really sound appealing and I said as much. I guess the main thing you could say for my parents is that my mother encouraged education (although I don't think she'd expected this to entail getting a masters degree) and once she passed away my father was quite happy for me to do whatever I wanted to do as long as it entailed gainful employment. I now have a professional career I enjoy.

I got there by basically doing what I wanted to do at various points. So I knew I wanted to get a degree, when I was doing that I decided I wanted a masters as well, because I'd have to get one to work in an area I wanted to work in. I could not get into that field but realigned myself with another field. In that 2nd choice field, I held a number of roles I didn't like but that was more to do with the roles and the employers and less with the field so I found myself a job I enjoyed more. And here we are. I guess the best way to describe it is find stuff you want to do, define goals within that and work towards them.

Also, find some mentors on the way. Because the main disadvantage you have as somebody whose parents/immediate family did not follow that kind of path is that you have no role models and nobody to help you by giving you pointers or providing a sense check. For me, this absence of advice and guidance is reflected in a less direct path and resulting slightly slower rate of progression. I have at times taken indirect routes to get to places and I do make strategic mistakes because I was never taught to think about these kind of strategic things. So things can take a bit longer. This is becoming less of an issue now because I do understand how things work a lot more and have now got mentors to point me in the right direction.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:32 AM on April 1, 2013

I grew up in a pretty middle-of-the-road middle class household, so my perspective might be a bit different. Both of my parents are college-educated packaging engineers. They met at MSU, actually. My dad has a career still in packaging, and has advanced rather far in his organization. My mom pivoted and became an IT project manager because of her attention to detail and because of the relative dearth of packaging engineering jobs, especially where we live.

Both my parents thus pushed rather hard for me to go to college. That was the basic expectation and the basic assumption. Both were also the first in their families to attend college, and both paid their own ways working insane jobs. I should ask my dad what made him really want to go to school... I don't know if I've ever asked him that, but I'd guess that he saw how his dad was an alcoholic truck driver (not... usually simultaneously) and former farm-hand and wanted more for himself than that. I should also ask them again how they both ended up in packaging of all things. My dad was going the pre-med route, got screwed by bad advice from a guidance counselor, took some 400s his freshman year and failed out miserably. How he landed on packaging as a plan B, I am not sure.

My dad decided to open a small business doing packaging consulting for certain industries. It paid the bills at first, but then the economy took a hit, and he struggled to maintain the business. Because my mom had converted to the stay-at-home mom route after he transferred to Arizona, he was the sole income, so they ended up dipping pretty heavily into 401k to keep us afloat and things got pretty rough for about a year or two.

I watched my mom pivot into mortgage processing/origination as a way of securing an okay-paying job, and watched my dad go back to the company man route with a large consumer goods company which provided stability and a nice paycheck.

I've been technically inclined for basically all of my life, and through high school was already building things on the web. During my last two years of high school, I managed to get myself "hired" by a few clients. I scrambled, and put together some proposals using some old consulting proposals my dad had prepared as a template. Things kind of fell into place, and I realized I'd be working with technology as my job.

I don't know if I made a conscious decision that this would be my path. In my case, because I landed on it so early, and because I enjoyed it, I just took it and ran with it. I started college but only lasted a semester and a half. It wasn't worth my time as I was already starting a web business with my partner and things were doing alright there. So I dropped out.

This caused some level of consternation with the parents, but they saw that I was on a path to success with the business and not just acting irrationally. Still, it was a huge culture shock to them: college was "what's next" and "what (educated/intelligent) people do." Even if it's a state school (it was), that piece of paper is valuable if you want a career.

I bucked that trend, and questioned the conventional wisdom that college was my only path forward. It is for many (most) people and it certainly is more so in a bad job economy. And, of course, it is for people in medicine or law or any number of other highly advanced careers that require a solid education that isn't as achievable "on-the-job". But web development isn't one of them, and neither is running your own business.

Flash forward 9 years and change later. I still own the business. We've been through ups and downs, but things are going extremely well for us this year. We have 13 (soon to be 15) people in the office, which is pretty exciting in its own right, even though it's still small beer by most standards. And I've spent the past couple of years transitioning out of anything that remotely touches code itself and pivoting towards a career in building the business, building relationships, and building products by suggesting features and working with clients and developers on what needs doing.

It's something that I love and it's something that I have a plan B or backup plan if it all disappears tomorrow. (A very real concern in the small business world, trust me.) I geared my career towards the things I loved: building things, working with people, networking, relationships, and technology behind it all. I could pivot and become a business development person for another agency, a project manager, a developer evangelist, an account manager, or any number of other roles that I can speak to, so I feel like I've built a career that has "outs", or alternatives on the path.

But I've built a career around things I enjoy. I really am trying, for the purpose of this answer, to think if there was a single moment when I said "aha, I shall be a web developer and later the owner of a web development company." But it was kind of just always there for me, and I don't take that for granted. I know a lot of people struggle with identifying the path they want to take. There are so many options out there, that you fall under the spell of analysis paralysis.

You've landed where you've landed because of the reasons you state: a man set your direction, and now you are where you are.

So how do you get further?

Well, that's the fun part. Many, many, many people stop. And that's okay. They stop pushing. They stop advancing. They stop learning. They go to work, they do their jobs, and they cash their checks. And that's okay. My wife is a nurse supervisor. There were many people her senior who decided not to go for the supervisory position when it opened up because they were good. They're set. They are where they are and they like it.

And that can be okay. People plateau in their trajectories. But many people want more. They want to push further, advance, get promoted, and move their way on up. It's something we're all working out, and I'm not "high up" in any sort of organization enough to provide you with concrete examples of how I've advanced, but with my business, we started small, as all small businesses have to. We hustled and wheeled and dealed and landed bigger and bigger clients and projects. And now we're in a fortunate place where our body of work is substantial and speaks for itself.

But I'm still having to hustle. I still have to get ourselves in front of the right people and the right clients and the right markets. It's difficult with the sort of product we're selling. (Expensive custom software.) I can't up our ad buy and watch the results trickle in.

So the piece of universal advice I'd give to you is the advice I'm working on following myself, now that our business is a bit more stable than in the past: Identify where you want to be in, say, 5 years. And identify where you want to be in 3 months. Then, continue to monitor and adjust accordingly as you progress in life. (There's a business book called the Rockefeller Principles that actually suggests 10 years and 3 months and no in between. That's a bit extreme for me, personally.)

How do you apply that to plotting a trajectory in the environment you're in? Well, identify what sort of success you want to have. Do you want to be a professor? (If that's an option, or if you're not already.) Do you want tenure? Do you want to lead a department? Do you want to become a dean? Do you want to lead research projects? External projects for the university? What's next on your plate that would excite you and fulfill you and... frankly... be fun? What parts of the job your'e doing now do you enjoy the most? Now figure out what job path maximizes those elements.

I didn't like writing code as much as I thought I did. So I minimized that bit and focused more on building the business and building our products as an abstract and working with my team to code more and keep me out of code. That's good and well as a business owner, but you can do that by plotting your career path as well.

The other thing you can universally do, and that's important, is to get in front of people. Once you have some ideas firmed up (or even before they're fully firmed), start grabbing lunches with people. Ask people to introduce you to others. Become active. Identify committees or panels or groups and put yourself up for them. Gain visibility in your organization, as a curious, proactive person who wants to help and wants to know more.

People like discussing their life stories (see: this response). They like sharing their paths to success and their mistakes. Ask around, a lot. Keep asking, keep soliciting advice, and use it to inform your decisions and the career path you want to be on. I've started asking the owners of several much larger firms out to lunch lately to ask the same sort of questions: when did you decide you wanted to be on this path? What did it look like for you? And how did you make the first moves?

They all have different answers, and I'm using them to shape my worldview and adjust my approach moving forward. I'm taking the time to actually establish a plan of attack, instead of meandering and barely surviving as we have the last, oh, 9 years or so. But I still have no idea how to get from here to there. So I'm trying new things. I'm adjusting as I go. And I'm trying to cultivate a margin of safety in case things go poorly.

Most importantly, most careers are a combination of what you can do, how effective you are, and finally, and most often overlooked: who you know, and who knows you. The people who get promoted are the ones who put themselves in front of the right people and asked to be mentored. They're the ones who asked for it, and they're the ones who were willing to jump when they saw a perhaps-not-the-most-safe option present itself, but jumped anyway.

It's okay to be safe, stay safe, and stay still. Some people like consistency, stability, and derive their sense of self from doing a good job every day. But others question their path constantly, work to advance, and ask the questions you're asking. So now it's your chance to take the next step and start thinking big picture. The best part is that nothing has to be firmed up. Nothing is written in stone. You get an idea, you start moving towards it, and then you adjust incrementally as you go. In web development, we call it the agile methodology to software development. You can approach your career in an "agile" way: iteratively, but constantly moving forward towards whatever goals you've set.

Identify what you love the most, and keep working to maximize your exposure to those things. That's what a fulfilling career should look like, in my opinion.
posted by disillusioned at 1:36 AM on April 1, 2013 [44 favorites]

My parents both have bachelor's degrees, so this may be a little different from what you are asking, but...

- Find a mentor. Someone who inspires you, someone who you respect, someone who you trust. And most importantly, someone who makes time to talk with you, regardless of how busy they are.

- Identify what your motivational point is. Before I got a job, I went through an exercise where I thought of specific occasions where I felt fulfilled and energized (got a prize in middle school, got asked for advice in high school, etc). Then I thought of why this made me fulfilled, and what was exciting about it. If you look deep inside yourself, you will find some underlying things which are common, which motivate you.
posted by xmts at 2:03 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

tl;dr: If you are more successful than your parents, how did that happen? Was there a turning point? Did someone mentor you? How did you start to think about a career? What would you do if you were me, or yourself 10 years ago?

I am slightly more successful than my parents. I really liked disillusioned's advice above. Read it, reread it. :)

Don't get stuck. Keep moving. Move quickly. I wanted to become a lawyer and studied for it, but fell in love with putting shows on and now... well... I've worked on some really huge gigs and closed some tremendous deals. My studies helped with some of the clerical stuff, but the bulk of my knowledge has been earned by dealing with people who I looked up to at the job. They don't have to be rock stars, either (but that certainly helps? ha!).

" A lot of the things I read assume a somewhat middle class background, but I didn't grow up in the middle class. "

Neither did I. Don't make excuses. Try your hardest to identify bad behaviors and work to correct them, because you can't grow anything on poor soil. My parents taught me a lot of things, which I've forcefully had to un-learn. And I'm better for that experience.
posted by raihan_ at 2:04 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

@ disillusioned: good work on that response. a big effort and a nice gift of your time.

@OP: yeah, i am way more successful than my parents. i am still breathing, for one thing. but for another, in virtually every aspect, i left my ancestors in the dust. i don't think it's unusual for kids to outperform their parents, but I do think that parents who lead exemplary lives do their kids a favor. they set norms and expectations. it's why lawyers have kids who are lawyers and docs have kids who are docs. they see that it's possible to do things a lot of folks find daunting.

in looking for norms, sometimes it's helpful for adults to find examples in selected unrelated individuals. biographies help. finding a willing mentor helps. paying attention to people you meet who are worth imitating helps.

humanity has produced many who are worthy of emulation. parents are entirely random. if you use your parent's experiences for templates, it's likely you won't stray far, and if, like most, they are mediocre, you will be, too.

don't be. no reason to be. the goal should be to be better.
posted by FauxScot at 2:26 AM on April 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

I was the first in my mother's family with high school, though my dad was an army officer. They divorced before I was one, and my stepfather actively disapproved of education. (Actually, my dad wasn't too keen on higher education for women, either). Not to argue here, but my stepfather shared disillusioned's views except he wasn't successful. That makes a big difference. I admire people with a strong vision, and I agree that college-education isn't the only way to success, but if you don't have that strong vision, education can help you find it. That is my personal experience.
I probably earn more than my mother and stepfather put together, adjusted for inflation. I'm also a lot happier.
In the beginning, it was really tough, and I think I studied a lot more than my peers, because every time a professor told about something the other students understood from their background knowledge, I'd have to look it up. My notebooks are full of question marks, things to look up. I think I read every book at the school library, at every school I went to. Later on, that habit became a huge advantage. My peers thought they knew, but often they didn't, they were just assuming stuff. Also, I don't give up easily.
You need mentors. Not a man you are romantically involved with (I made that mistake too). Professional people, teachers or people involved in the practice/research you are heading towards. You don't need to have the same mentor throughout your life (though obviously, you should stay in touch). Mentors are people who will spend time talking with you about things professional and semi-private, and who will introduce you to useful people and other resources.
I've met my mentors in different ways, some were professors or employers who took a special interest in me, others people I called and asked for advice in specific issues, and it rolled from there. (Remember, when you have success in your life, give back!)
I wish I had made better use of my mentors, because they really, really wanted to help me get on. THese days, I'm making the round of those still alive to thank them for their guidance. One thing I'd say though, is: they all wanted me to go their way, and maybe fulfill some ambitions they'd had to give up on. And my gut feeling was that I didn't want to go there. So my career has been full of detours and hilly roads, and only now do I feel I'm closing in on the real point of it (30 years after I started at university). I don't regret anything, it's been fun a lot of the time, and most of the time I've had a decent living. The way getting here was full of knowledge that I use now, even though it seemed random and directionless at the time.
One person in the family who supported me was my grandmother, even though she sometimes didn't get at all what I was doing, and confused me with her concern. She hated being a housewife, and really, really wanted me to get as much education as humanely possible. I was a bit bitter when she subverted my sports-ambitions when I was 17, but now I feel she did the right thing.
posted by mumimor at 2:50 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been-there-done-that.

I think mentors are the most important thing. Not only for the advice they give, but because spending time with these people will help "normalise" their achievements in your eyes, and help you understand deep down that all those things are really possible.

In particular I've found it's important to know cool go-getting people who are female. It helps a heck of a lot to know that you're not on your own, you're not the first woman in the universe to forge this path. Which, Crikey it feels like it sometimes, at least in my male dominated workplace!

As for meeting happy self-determined people, of course you can look in your workplace, but another place to look is Toastmasters (go there anyway! it will help!), and to find the really driven people you may have to look outside academia (depending on where you are).

For me personally, I've fond it helps to do lots of different things (mostly hobby stuff), meeting lots of different people, and trying to take opportunities when they arise, because who knows what that might lead to?

I think it's also useful to spend some time thinking about why you want this. What do you really want out of life? It's good to have some kind of yardstick by which you can measure your progress, and if you're accidentally measuring progress towards "corner office and six figure salary" when what you really wanted was "financial stability and a good environment to raise a family" then you may feel pretty bad if you get the corner office and find that you hate it.

I also suggest strongly establishing your boundaries around housework and child-rearing-work (if you want kids) before you go moving in with / marrying anyone. It is acceptable to hire a cleaner, if you can afford it. I've avoided following in my mother's footsteps by not having kids, but that path is not for everyone!
posted by emilyw at 3:45 AM on April 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

My dad set a great example by doing his day job and having awesome hobbies and being a pretty awesome dad. The failure I see in your parents/family isn't the career's that they don't do anything. They sound boring, and shallow/ least, that's what I would be if that's all I did.

My parents failed to teach me what to do with money if I ever had any. Read Suze Orman and the Mr Money Moustache blog. I'm not likely to retire early on my salary, but learning to save, the freedom of being debt free and living well within my means has gone a long way.

Also...who you marry. Be thoughtful...
posted by jrobin276 at 4:09 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and read the blog Ask A Manager! The post about class issues in the workplace garnered hundreds of comments.
posted by jrobin276 at 4:14 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

My father barely worked, had some small businesses that inevitably went bankrupt and gave up on doing much of anything by the time I was in my late teens. My mother was a nurse and didn't like her work. She actively resented my father for not being able to bring home any money (though she also loves him very much). She hated going to work and went part time and then retired early, despite being in a precarious financial position. Frankly, it would be tough to do worse than they did money wise and happiness wise.

The biggest thing my parents did right was to show us what not to do. They are a financial disaster and the only reason they aren't completely insolvent is because my father inherited some money from my grandmother. They put zero pressure on my sister or me, to the point of disinterest. Both my sister and I are financially secure with solid upper middle class jobs that we enjoy, in totally different fields. I went through a couple of degrees, my sister didn't, though she's catching up on that now so she can continue to advance in her career. We both worked our asses off to get where we are, and were lucky as well. Not coincidentally we both have partners with incredible work ethics.

Surround yourself with people who work hard and take pleasure in what they do. Follow their lead.
posted by Cuke at 5:46 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think one of the most difficult things about taking a different (and more successful) path than your family/friends/social culture is the resentment/rejection that can be expressed, even though it may not be conscious or deliberate, by those you leave behind. This is why mentors are so important. When you are between two worlds suddenly, and your old world doesn't fit anymore but you don't know all the rules for the new one that everyone who's lived there take for granted, you need a role model, or a guide, or at least someone lighting the way a little. For me, adult/career success was bewildering because while I'd been told all my life that I needed to be successful in order to have value, when I actually achieved some success, it was met with...I don't know, this attitude of "well look at you all fancy, guess you're too good for us now." Like I thought my success might be greeted with "wow, you really did it!" but instead it was this defensive shrugging "whatever" that was at first really devastating to me, because I thought this was what they wanted: for me to be successful, to do better, to do ANYTHING. So it was very unsettling, and I had to find a way to be comfortable in my new world without feeling like an impostor, or feeling very guilty about being there. Having mentors and others to help normalize that has been key. And now when I encounter that kind of defensive attitude from my family, I can be less defensive myself and recognize it for what it is, and keep moving forward the way that I am on this path that, really—although it brings with it anxiety that I might become unknowable to them, and maybe some sadness that they weren't able to go there themselves—they have always wanted me to travel.
posted by mothershock at 6:30 AM on April 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

Thank you so much for asking this. I was raised by my grandmother and mother, neither of whom worked a single day in my life or have a high school diploma. Their lives were primarily sitting around watching TV and running errands and such; they didn't really *do* anything. Like you, I also ended up at an elite university. I haven't really gotten started on my own career yet, so I can't offer much advice yet. But please
(1) See to it that you actually graduate!
(2) See if your school has any sort of outreach for first-generation college students. My uni didn't while I was there, but it could have helped.. it's pretty alienating to be at an elite university surrounded by students who have been raised with much more direction.
(3) There was a comment about being careful who you marry... it's true! I married an awesome guy from an upwardly-mobile family, and my dad-in-law is the closest I have to a mentor these days.
(4) This was a big problem for me... but don't dwell upon your background (or lack thereof). It really does not help. Just use it as a frame of reference so you can marvel at how far you've come.. and then push on.
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 6:30 AM on April 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

My Dad has an MSW and spent most of his career working in the low-paying, non-profit sector. My Mom went back to school for her bachelors and then masters while I was in high school (good times, we went to the same school, Arizona State, and I had some of her teachers ask me, "are you Esther's sister?") Mom worked in government until she was "let go" in her fifties and pretty much never worked again.

I worked in Telecommunications and gained skills and responsibility and at the age of 26 I was making more than my Dad made.

My parents always seemed to have their financial act together, but after my Mom was fired, they ended up declaring bankruptcy. That rather rocked my foundations.

At any rate, I quickly learned that while my parents were smart and educated, that their experiences were completely unlike MY experiences and I had to blaze my own trail with regards to my career.

You ask about career fulfillment. I have to say that while I've always worked at things I enjoyed, that my job/career wasn't fulfilling. What fulfills me are my relationships with my friends, my co-workers and my customers. A lot of work is tedious, it just is. Also, so much of your career is out of your control.

I worked for MCI then they were bought by WorldCom. Then they imploded in an enormous accounting scandal. Then I lost my retirement account. Oh well.

I worked in the telecommunications industry for 25 years, made a lot of money in bonus and commissions during the dot com boom, when it busted, I sucked wind for awhile.

In 2001 I my customers were Latin American companies headquartered in Miami. Lots of them were airlines. After 9/11 none of these folks were going to buy anything and I eventually had to leave telecommunications.

You decide how you want to measure success. Does it mean financial stability, does it mean consistant movement through the ranks of management, does it mean publishing on a regular basis, then doing that means you are successful.

I think that learning new things, mastering them and harnessing that power to my advantage is MY measure of success.

You might want to find a mentor, someone you admire and whose career seems to be where you want to go. Work with that person to further yourself, and be prepared to mentor others as you succeed.

I would caution you to remain flexible. You may have to re-evaluate your career at any given time. Telecommunications bottomed out, so now I'm an analyst. You can't be afraid to go in new directions.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:36 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

The people I saw who have been successful at this were the ones who made up for their lack of social capital by entering credentialed professions in which effort in = results out. Doctors, dentists, patent lawyers, scientists who were prodigious writers of papers, etc.

While getting a mentor is great advice, keep in mind that your lack of social capital will make it difficult for you to get a mentor in the first place. Quite honestly, I would find navigating career waters that depend on all of those unspoken things that you're "supposed" to know in a professional environment to be extremely risky, professionally and financially. The people who are best at pulling off what you're talking about entered careers with very, very clear and mapped out career trajectories in which "mentors" were institutional roles rather than someone you just managed to find via your social/professional skills in the workplace.
posted by deanc at 7:11 AM on April 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

My mom and dad were pretty successful in their careers. Dad was a principal and Mom taught at the college level and loved it. Both had advanced degrees by the time they retired. From a very early age, I was told relentlessly that education was the *only* legitmate path to success. To my dad, it wasn't the information you learned in college that helped you out, it was the learning how to jump through ridiculous hoops and deal with bureaucracy that made one successful. In my dad's way of thinking, very few people can deal with the political and personal bullshit that comes with a good paying job and college (to him) taught you how to work on teams, deal with being subordinate to someone way dumber than you, and function within a system that was dedicated to paperwork.

He worked in vocational education, so it was always interesting to hear his advice to his students vs. his advice to me. For them, he encouraged apprenticeships and the military as a path to success and it's surprising how many of his former students we run into that are in good-paying, satisfying jobs that they like. They often credit my dad's insistance to learn to deal with bullshit for helping them on their path.

But from the both of them, I learned that your job isn't the only thing in life. Dad likes to make cabinets, Mom keeps bees and sews. They both brought their jobs home to some degree, but tried really hard to escape into their hobbies and keep work and personal seperate. From them I learned that overachieving is all fine and good until it forces you to give up valuable time with those you love and enjoy. When my dad finally retired, he realized that he was actually a nice man. He'd just spent so many hours of his day being nice to everybody else that he had no nice left for me and Mom when he got home from work.

For me, college *was* the only out. I went and loved it, then I graduated and realized I don't like working in the world as much as I like learning. So I went back and got another degree and became a librarian. That was and is fun, and kind of like staying in school. But it wasn't enough and I went back and got a PhD.

I still don't quite have the job that I want, but I'm very close. And my dad was right. For me, education and degrees were really the only thing that made me happy. He considers me successful to a point, and both my folks were blindingly proud when I got that third degree. For my mom, it was a huge deal because she was the first person in her family to get a college degree.

So in a way, even though my job isn't perfect, I feel more successful than my parents because I am happy most of the time when I get home from work. I can leave my work at the office most of the time and for me, spending my nice on my husband and friends is far, far more valuable than spending it on work.
posted by teleri025 at 7:43 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

My parents had just high school educations and while my mom worked at home my dad worked in a factory until retirement. He tried a few times to start up his own business, but it never got off the ground. They are diseased now but during my early 30s I sometimes talked with my dad about career issues and the level of resonance was hit or miss because my white collar IT professional career is so different from how he scrapped it together in his time.

What I learned was that we could relate to each other about how sometimes you don't know the best choices to make and increasingly as a parent how your work life takes on a new meaning to you as a provider. The ground where we connected was that we felt a sense of pride in doing an honest day's labor and knew that a lot of stuff was out of our hands.

For more practical advice for specific situations I came to develop a network of people I respect that have 20 years experience on me who are more than happy to impart some battle wisdom to people who care to listen. Even if my parents had professional careers I'm not so sure I wouldn't still need or value these non-relation advisers because there is much less history to unpack.
posted by dgran at 8:03 AM on April 1, 2013

You're at an elite university? The answer for you is 'networking'. Just find some people there you get along with, doing things that you care about, and go along for the ride. There's a pretty good chance that a significant percentage of them will have an opportunity to get you started on a career, maybe even two or three careers if the first one doesn't work out.

Just make sure that you aren't compromising. Do what you love. Don't do what you think you have to do or what you should do
posted by empath at 8:16 AM on April 1, 2013

As for how I ended up making a lot more money than my parents: I dropped out of community college, partied for a few years while working shit jobs like the mail room, and then fell into IT work, where I was able to use the connections I made partying with people who were tied into the industry. I don't really recommend that for anyone else though.
posted by empath at 8:18 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

You mention being at an elite university - whatever position you are in there, I think this book would be a great read. This Fine Place So Far From Home is an excellent collection of essays by people working in academia who come from marginalized / non-elite backgrounds. For me as a grad student, reading this book was a big step in trying to deal with "impostor syndrome" - the feeling that somehow, I've made it this far by tricking everyone and that I don't really belong in my program/school/field/etc. It's such a common feeling in the academic world and it's so rarely talked about (by women especially, I think). You are not alone in feeling out-of-place with how far you've made it, and furthermore that is okay.

The book doesn't provide any advice in a kind of self-help sense, but with what you've described I think you would relate quite well to some of the writers and their own backgrounds. I hope you're able to check it out. As others have said, mentors are invaluable, but while you are still working to find a mentor or build networking skills, anything you can do to help you feel "I am not alone in this" is so important.
posted by augustimagination at 8:55 AM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Lots of excellent answers here. I've had to figure out my career without any help at all from my parents; my father was lucky and was an elite in his career (journalism, before the internet), where only the top few got paid decent money, and my mother (still) lives on inherited money and is constantly coming up with vaguely defined self-publishing schemes that usually fail.

So I had to ask myself: what do I want? What makes me happy? I knew that money made me happy, so I'd have to actually plan a career and follow it. (It doesn't make my sister happy, so she's content to meander around the country and not worry about a career.) What am I good at? I'm good at writing, yes. But the path my parents took was not an option. So I identified a field that would make decent money (technical writing), and found mentors. As people state above, yes, mentors, lots and lots of mentors.

It took me longer than I'd hoped to finally arrive at this career, because I made the mistake of listening to my parents (my mother suggested once that I quit my good job with health insurance to join her on one of her crazy schemes), and they were very guilt-trip-inducing so that was hard. I also had a lot of people around me in college say, "you're a writer! You could be a novelist!" without taking the time to find out that 1) I wasn't all that great at creative-type writing (but better than them, so what did they know) and 2) I liked money. It was only after I had identified what was important to me that I was able to find mentors that could help me get to the goal that I wanted.

So, yeah. What everyone else said. Find a goal, don't let other people tell you what they think your goal is, and mentors. Good luck!
posted by sockerpup at 9:13 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I guess my level of success depends on your perspective.

My grandfather was pretty senior in the civil service. My father was a buildings surveyor and (at various times) ran a building firm and an estate agents (realtor). Me? I'm a web developer with no great desire to be a manager or run my own firm.

On the flip side, my father was never qualified to do any of the things he did. His inability to tackle certain subjects was overruled by his arrogance that he was fantastic at everything else. As a result, he threw himself at multiple jobs and careers but always needed to have others prop him up. He was a surveyor, but his inability to pass one specific module at college meant he couldn't practise by himself, so he started looking for similar tasks that let him use the knowledge he did have. He owned an estate agents, but he couldn't sell or negotiate so employed people to do it for him. He ran a builder's firm but his knowledge was all about standing buildings not making them, so he had to employ people who knew how to. And when you know nothing about your industry it's very easy to fail.

On the flip side, I do something that I enjoy and that I'm (apparently) quite good at. When I left my last job, one of my employers clients tried to offer me a job. In the last couple of years, I've had 4 interviews and been offered 3 jobs.

How I've done it, I don't know. There wasn't a time when I thought "I'm going to be a web developer". I just found something (by chance) that I enjoyed and worked at it. I think I'm just lucky to have stumbled upon a job that's the right fit for the way my brain works.

And that's probably how I've done better than my father. He stuck a pin in a big book of well paying jobs and hoped it would work out for him. I found something I was halfway decent at and decided to become better at it.

My grandfather was effectively the same. He left school and joined the civil service because he thought it would be a safe job for life. Through sheer dumb luck, he chanced on a department that was a perfect fit for the way his brain worked.

So, yeah... the difference was going out and doing stuff and finding something that I connected with instead of looking at a list of job titles and deciding which one looked coolest.
posted by sodium lights the horizon at 9:52 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

My guess would be that the root problem here is you're operating from the assumption that in order to succeed, or even have some adequate career, you have to have somebody (parents, advisors, a man, Mefites) tell you how to do it.

With me, and most everyone I know whose parents were immigrants without much education or much money, no one told us anything much. We went to school, got into stuff we liked, went to college doing things we were interested in and/or good at, and got related jobs.

As for fulfillment, that is a whole different story and has as much to do with your attitude to life as it does to what career you are in. I know plenty of fulfilled stay-at-home moms, and plenty of unfulfilled high-powered lawyers.

If what all these people have provided for you has enabled you to get to an elite university, they have more than done their part.

You'll find your answers by stopping looking at what they didn't provide, and starting looking at who you want to be and what you want to do with your life.

Frankly, once you're at an elite university, it is harder to screw up than it is to wind up in a decent career.
posted by philipy at 9:56 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Background: Grew up well below the poverty line. Neither parent finished high school, attended college, or was even duly moved to seek out any employment whatsoever after I was... 7 or 8? Despite lacking even the most basic entry-level job skills, they both felt that they should never "have to" work in conditions they felt were unsuitable or degrading, and they both hate absolutely everything and everyone, so they just... didn't/don't work. They never expressed an opinion on whether or not I should work or volunteer or do anything at all, ever, other than leave them alone; it just eventually dawned on me that I was going to have to start paying my own way, and getting a job was a/the way to do that, so that's what I did.
Mom never worked, presumably so she could continue spawning like a friggin' salmon, but I remember so clearly when dad quit his job of over a year (the longest he'd ever had any job, IIRC) because he just hated those assholes, and snap! The halcyon days of shopping for food at the regular old grocery store were suddenly over, never to return. Then life just became a series of bizarro fiscally-required moves, i.e. "oops, we don't have any food at all except for this gelatinous meat in a can" (can't believe I found a picture of the real stuff!) and "uh oh, mom traded all of our food stamps for cash so she can buy smokes, now we have to eat our mac & powdered cheese with water instead of milk."

I am fulfilled by my career only insofar as I have been blessed with truly wonderful co-workers and, over the past decade, my paycheck has reliably allowed me to purchase food, clothing, and, eventually, an entire goddamn house (I was the first non-renter in my family in decades). I have always felt like that whole deal (food/clothing/shelter) is as much as anyone could possibly ask for from gainful employment, so while my sense of "satisfaction" may be different than the one you're seeking, it still runs very deep and remains extremely meaningful and important to me.

If you are more successful than your parents, how did that happen?
I realized that I did not want to live on handouts or stay in the projects forever, that I wanted to be the person helping to stock the shelves of the food pantry with delicious and highly-regarded brand-name items instead of timidly picking through expired generic leftovers there, that I wanted to be the person giving the random 'TO: FEMALE CHILD' Christmas presents from the neighborhood church instead of the one getting them. With a whole lot of luck and white privilege, I was able to proverbially bootstrap it the rest of the way. I did not attend college, and almost certainly never will, but I have been working full-time for half my life (since I was 15-16 years old) and am currently on a rather clear-cut career path. It's still weird! I still feel like it could all be taken away from me at any moment, and I'd have to go back to mostly-empty pantries and potted meats. There but for the grace...

Was there a turning point?
Realizing that college wasn't free, and that my peers with college plans were just acting like it was free because their parents had agreed and figured out how to pay for it when they were babies, and the whole thing was so seamless that it wasn't even worth mentioning. No one in my family went to college, so no one told me about college, so I literally did not know that anyone ever paid for it out of pocket; I assumed it was ostensibly "free," like public elementary, middle, and high school. I was ~13-14 when this all came out, and quickly realized that any post-high school education requiring the expenditure of even a dollar was not going to work for me, so my top priority immediately became the process of attaining peak employability -- in any industry, as soon as possible.

Did someone mentor you?
Kind of? My mother peaced out (like, was suddenly just not around anymore) for a few years, I had no idea when or if she was ever coming back, I couldn't live with my father, so I had to live with my grandparents for awhile. My grandpa (dearly departed) drove a school bus and my grandma ran the switchboard at a hospital -- still does, 20+ years later. I was too young to stay at home alone; as such, during summer vacation, there was nowhere for me to go during the day, so my grandma started bringing me along to work with her. I was the kind of kid who would happily sit in a corner with a box full of decades-old National Geographic magazines for hours of edu-tainment, so she knew I wouldn't kick up a fuss.
Rather vividly, I remember her once sighing wearily to herself as she answered yet another call in a seemingly endless stream: "Well, it keeps you busy, it pays the rent, and it pays the bills..." And I thought, "That actually sounds really good!" As a poor kid, my dreams consisted entirely of buying brand-name junk food whenever I damn well pleased -- that'll be the DELUXE, CREAMY Kraft dinner; please, no powder -- and never, ever standing in the free lunch line at school (or using one of those stupid blue tickets that SHOWED everyone I was a charity case) ever ever ever again. So I started taking extra typing and computer classes in school, and practiced answering phones with my grandma whenever she took me to work. Turns out I had (still have) a real knack for that kind of stuff.
Bonus: My first 'real' job ended up being at a switchboard, directly using skills I learned while working with my grandma when I was 10-11. This was definitely not intentional on my grandma's part, but the magic words -- "busy," "rent," and "bills" -- were enormously instructive going forward.

How did you start to think about a career?
I thought, "What can I do to maintain the highest chance of consistently possessing gainful employment?" and then just kept going. The line of work I am in is actually one that directly contradicts my personal beliefs and morals (think: atheist working in an evangelical church), but it keeps me busy, it pays the rent, and it pays the bills, and those are still the only things that really matter to me. When you know there is nothing beneath your tightrope but the cold, hard ground, your subsequent choices and actions can really catch you off-guard.

What would you do if you were me, or yourself 10 years ago?
If I were me, I would probably go to college in a place that was very far away from where I grew up. I was poor enough that I likely wouldn't have had to pay a dime; with some gumption, I might've even been able to get into Smith (a lifelong goal after finding out Madeleine L'Engle was an alumna). Not knowing that path was even a remote possibility until well after the window had closed is a pretty big bummer. It's really scary to think about losing my current job and having to re-enter the job market without any sort of degree whatsoever.
If I were you, I would try to find a path that combines one or more of your existing skill sets with one or more of your interests, and run toward it with all of my might. You're in prime position, go get it! You're so lucky right now, the world is your oyster, it's ALL out there! So saieth Dessa: the fact is, you have it / the task is to want it. Good luck!
posted by divined by radio at 10:01 AM on April 1, 2013 [11 favorites]

For me the first hardest part was not even knowing *what jobs there were in the world.* The only things I really knew about jobs beyond the menial/meaningless were jobs on TV. I knew I didn't want to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a trophy wife, so.... I was a bit at a loss.

Second, I had noooooooooo idea what "wealthy" meant. Growing up, the "rich kids" were the ones with finished basements and clean carpets. Seriously, that was my framework for "wealthy beyond fathoming" until I landed in the Ivy League. So all my planning was predicated on, "FORTY THOUSAND DOLLARS A YEAR? THAT IS MORE DOLLARS THAN I CAN CONCEIVE OF."

I have since learned the very real and restrictive limits of a salary that once seemed astronomically large for my mother (who was raising 3 kids on that income...)

My only real advice: Learn about all the jobs! and all the money! If I had known there was such a thing as a music engineer when I was a teenager, that is what I would be right now. Instead I learned about it at 29, and am laughably old and my skills laughably lacking. (And of course now the industry is dying, so there's not a lot of opportunity for ancient upstarts.)
posted by like_a_friend at 10:03 AM on April 1, 2013 [7 favorites]

The turning point for me was the death of my mother when I was 12. I took on a lot of responsibility starting when she was sick and was basically an Insta-Adult by the time she died. My father was alcoholic but kept a white-collar job.

Obviously your mom didn't die young, but the experience had side effects that I've intentionally kept in my life because I saw how they helped me, and maybe they would help you.

My main suggestion: Work a lot of different jobs, constantly stretch yourself, and discover your strengths and preferences through experience rather than looking back at your family. Consider yourself a recently-arrived immigrant with a world of possibilities in front of you and a past that you've left behind.


- I worked a LOT of jobs, starting at age 12. I noticed what I liked and was good at, what I didn't like, and how I responded to being supervised (poorly!).

- I was a good student, but after high school, I wanted to just work full time. At the last minute, I went to college because I knew a BA would help me get better jobs, not out of any love for academia. I already realized I preferred working and learning on the job; I just didn't know what type of job.

- I continued to work while going to college because there wasn't enough money and I wouldn't take out loans. Through a part-time job I discovered something I liked and was good at. It was way more interesting than classes, and when I "graduated" (I didn't even go to the ceremony) my employers turned my student job into a full-time one.

- I quickly hit the women's salary ceiling and left. I was 24 and already realizing that I couldn't stand the monotony of full-time work and that in the usual job environment, there's little or no connection between work quality and pay.

- That was the end of my full-time work forever and the beginning of a bajillion part-time gigs, freelance work, and small businesses. At about the same time I stopped participating in what remained of my family because they were stuck in a sick system that denigrated me and other women.

- I kept my expenses low by living super-simply so I could try out lots of ways of generating income until I hit on one that I enjoyed and that paid well. It's very similar to the thing that I discovered in my student job, but I do it at a much higher level and charge a lot.

My income is directly tied to the quality of my ideas and service. I've been doing it independently since 2003 or so. I usually love my work, and when I get burned out on some aspect of it, I change the structure of the business to get rid of that aspect.

I wouldn't have had the confidence to do this if I hadn't repeatedly stretched myself beyond my comfort zone and tried several jobs and a small mountain of businesses. There was no career path, which for me was an advantage, because that let me learn from experiences all over the map. A mentor would have been good but there have just been fleeting glimpses of people, usually men, leading the kind of life I eventually realized I wanted. My dad died a long time ago and I continue to steer clear of the remainder of the family.

I don't see a college degree as career preparation. It's a way to get some letters after your name that might get you more respect. For me, work is career preparation, any kind of work, because through that experience you see what you can do, what you're willing to do, and what lights your fire.

I've worked in both academia and the private sector; in my experience, academia is more likely to suffer from dysfunction, inefficiency, and drama. I turn away work from academic clients because they're not professional enough. If you're from a malfunctioning family, I recommend trying a job in a healthy private-sector organization for awhile to see how a respectful, goal-oriented team can work.

Also, I learned late that it's really important to surround yourself with people who are like the you that you want to be. I spent way too many decades in a social group that scorned ambition or any attempt to make more than poverty wages. As I became more successful, I had to leave behind those friends and look for other entrepreneurs. I'm 52 now. If I could go back 10 years, I would leave most of that social group and find more supportive friends. Actually, I would go back 20 years and do that, it's that important.
posted by ceiba at 10:24 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I haven't had a chance to read it yet but I've been told by others that Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell gives some insight on class and career success.
posted by driedmango at 11:40 AM on April 1, 2013

I think a lot of this depends on what success might mean to you. It could be income and wealth-based, status based, or just some kind of internal intrinsic value - like constantly learning things.

Since you said that you're at an elite university (and it sounds you work there, not like you're studying there - could you clarify?), our experiences probably have some overlap. My parents are immigrants and my father had a career before they immigrated, but after it was low-paying factory-type odd jobs, lots of unemployment and finally some re-training that resulted in a semi-professional job. My mother has worked worked at various office support positions, retail, that sort of thing. Neither had degrees, though both had vocational training. In contrast, I have degrees and have been in school a lot. My parents thought education would get one ahead - which to them means, making a lot of money - but they didn't think of it as anything other than a means to end and weren't in interested in what I was doing at all. They offered no financial or emotional support and mostly just wanted to know when I would be "done" and then when I was done, they wanted to know why I wasn't making a lot of money.

That's the background. I went down this unusual path because I thought learning stuff was fun and it was bizarre to me that people would pay for me to do it! (Scholarships, grad school fellowships). But it did lead to a lot of directionlessness, because, if I'd had middle class parents, they would have said, "what are you going to with that?" or "why do you like it?". They would have forced me to think about it and maybe think in terms of a career. Instead, although I'm (finally) in something that might lead to a career, I'm still not 100% sure where I'm headed or what it will look like.

It seems like a few posters have said, "you don't need parents to tell you what to do" - but, it's not about being told what to do but about knowing what the possibilities and professional norms are from having seen it, and having seen it so much that you don't even know what you know. In terms of these social and professional norms, I ended up learning a lot from a partner who was middle class. We'd talk a lot about work and things like, how you to talk your boss, how you deal with co-workers, how conflicts can be resolved while deferring to the hierarchy (important in academia!) and still saving your own stake, how to interact with colleagues socially, and on and on. An awful lot of this is cultural, by class.

I was listening to This American Life last week (the one on disability) and at one point the interviewer asks a working class woman on disability what her dream job would be; she says it would be being the disability co-ordinator. Why? Because she gets to sit all day. As the reporter pointed out, in the universe of work that this woman encounters, this is the only job she can think of/has encountered where you can sit all day. I thought this was the perfect illustration for the working class/middle class gap in the workplace that you're asking about; your class can limit your knowledge, your resources and your imagination.
posted by ashworth at 12:33 PM on April 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

Thank you all so much for your answers! This has been really helpful. Please do keep them coming.

Just to clarify, I am a PhD student at an elite university, not a professor. So I have a ways to go in my career, and not really sure to think about these issues. I'm in a field in social science that has reasonable prospects -- not as good as the hard sciences, but not as bad as, say, English literature. (Before you ask, I am fully funded, not in debt, etc. etc.)
posted by 3491again at 4:01 PM on April 1, 2013

Both of my parents were exceptionally gifted. My mother was a beautiful writer, my father amazing with math and physics. Neither of them acheived anything close to their potential, and dealt with alcoholism through most of my life. There was a strange dynamic in my mother's family. My grandmother fought hard against family trying to gain their independence. My mother fell prey to that and worked for them all her life. My grandfather, by contrast, told me I should do what I loved.

I had a similar challenge to you, in that my parents weren't really role models or mentors, and to be honest, I wish they had been. It's motivating to me to have an example to emulate. They both wanted me to do well in school, and pushed me when I was younger, but neither held down a steady job (outside of family) for most of my life.

So what ended up motivating me was finding something I was passionate about. I was always excited about geography and cities as a kid, and through school. As I got into university urban planning, and pursued graduate work in that area. It was purely my passion for the subject matter that carried me through grad school, because it was hard work. I was always motivated though. My career has had its dry spells but my current work is well paying, stimulating, and fulfilling. My mother passed away a few years ago, but was rudderless before she died. My dad has been on welfare for several years.

I agree with the sentiment of having mentors. They have definitely been helpful to me. But passion and curiousity allowed me to find my own path when I didn't have external forces pushing me.
posted by dry white toast at 6:29 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Since you clarified that you're a PhD student, I just want to add: develop a really good relationship with your advisor(s). If you can't/don't do this for various reasons - your advisor is a total nutbag, for example - find another advisor! If you're interested in academia, your advisor's name and reputation are going to carry you a long, long way, and if you have a rocky relationship, that may mean lukewarm reference letters, missed deadlines, etc. Also, a good relationship means that your advisor will introduce you to their network - I wish someone had told me how important it was to get to know all the folks in that senior network. Good relationships - and by that, I mean friendly interpersonal relationships as well as substantive relationships (knowing their data, or theories or whatever) - will lead to opportunities to write with them or apply to grants with them, etc. Publications and grant money are serious currency in an academic career.

If you're not going to stay in academia, or if you have some doubts, find out right now what kinds of applied/practise associations there are in your field. For example, I'm not an anthropologist, but I know that there is an association of applied anthropologists - find something similar in your field, go to conferences, find out what non-academic jobs those applied folks do and where/how your skills might fit into those opportunities. If you're a sociologist, take quant courses! Even if you don't finish the PhD, everyone thinks numbers are a) infallible, b) hard, so having those skills will take you far in a lot of different fields.
posted by ashworth at 12:09 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

My parents are both well educated, but kind of underachievers and somewhat unlucky/overly optimistic/screamingly impractical in the careers they chose. Like your parents, they leaned too heavily on support from their folks and never really became independent (honestly, your family sounds waaaay too familiar!). I thought of us as being middle class when I was younger, but having seen more of the world I'd put us on the lower end of that spectrum now. Money was always a concern, but at the same time, I guess my parents always knew in the back of their heads that the bank of Grandma and Grandpa would bail them out if the shit hit the fan.

I was lucky enough to get interested in computers and ended up getting a really generous merit scholarship to a reasonably good university. This absolutely changed the course of my life. I socialized a lot with the other scholarship students. Most of them would probably have had to pay full price for their educations if they hadn't been scholarship students...I most assuredly would have gotten substantial need-based aid. At first I found this really embarrassing and alienating, and felt very weird going to scholarship events. But eventually I figured out how to dress and how to act. My boyfriend was also in the same scholarship program and he definitely coached me on how to behave at these things because I felt like such a weirdo going to them (I remember after our second or third scholarship event he sat me down and had a firm chat about my wardrobe, which was - in retrospect - highly idiosyncratic). These scholarship events were great preparation for job interviews and other high-pressure professional situations in terms of feeling somewhat simultaneously high-pressure and low-stakes. And swapping notes with other scholarship students gave me a sense of what students of my caliber were aiming for, in terms of internships, postgraduate jobs, grad school, etc. I was also lucky enough to be female in a very male department, and the few female professors took a special interest in making sure I stayed motivated and was exposed to opportunities. I got a very competitive internship based in part on a recommendation from one of these professors.

So I guess I'd say probably the key thing for me was sticking with a peer group that my program found for me, and using their progress as a gauge for how far along I should be and what I should be finding hard or easy, since this wasn't something on which my parents or friends from childhood could advise me. I would imagine you could use your PhD cohort for the same purpose.

My first job out of college paid me more than either of my parents have ever made in their whole lives, and my salary's almost doubled since then. At this point there is a lot about me that just doesn't "fit" with the rest of my family, and I'm not going to pretend that isn't painful. There's a lot of mental illness and a lot of impractical dreamer types on both sides of my family and I think I have become somewhat cold and pragmatic in dealing with them sometimes just because the lackadaisical approach everyone else seems to take is so infuriating to me. So in a way I now feel almost as alienated from my own family as I did from my scholarship cohort when I started university. I love them so much but man, do they drive me crazy.

Don't ever let people tell you class mobility isn't emotionally difficult, or invalidate your feelings about the process. It's taken a lot out of me, and continues to. I'm about to have a baby and I really wonder how she'll process the differences between my family and my husband's much more successful relatives.

Good luck. Memail me if you want to chat more...I feel like we'd have a lot to say to each other, haha.
posted by town of cats at 4:43 PM on April 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I had a similar background to you in terms of watching my parents settle, but for some reason, this wasn't an obvious hindrance to me. I saw my friends' parents as my 'goals'; I wanted to grow up to be like Becky's mom rather than my own, etc. That worked logistically and got me through the mechanical steps of my PhD. However, I had some mysterious friction on the emotional side for quite a while, feeling slighted by my parents over little things or getting very frustrated with them or depressed for them. (In the present day looking back, I believe that my parents, on the other hand, probably were thinking most of the time, 'Tandem Affinity is in grad school; therefore, she is fine; therefore, no worries there-back to life here", without a strong feeling toward me either way. It was all in my own head.)

I almost accidentally ended up in therapy but I kept on going because it turns out that it can be difficult emotionally to go further in your career than your parents, and it doesn't hurt to get some 'training' in that too. The somewhat frustrated and angry tone of your post reminds me of myself. (I don't blame you - as I said, I harbor some anger, too.) However, I would like to strongly recommend therapy to you's better to work these things out with a therapist than to make the mistakes of attaching inappropriately to mentors and advisors, etc. (I, for one, transferred that feeling that my parents hadn't steered and helped me enough to become enraged at my advisor, who while not the best advisor and who did drop the ball sometimes, didn't deserve alllllll the feelings of abandonment and anger I had.) Avoiding misuse and mishandling of your mentors and advisors will allow you to get as much as possible out of them and to get good advice and training from people who aren't perfect, but useful nonetheless (i.e., my thesis advisor). I think about my parents waaaaaaay less than I did while in school. This is realllllly good for my career.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:23 PM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

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