“Mom Made Me Change my Major”: The Dilemma of Parental Influence

“What kind of job are you supposed to get with that major?”

“You know, we always hoped you’d follow in your brother’s footsteps.”

“Shouldn’t you be a little more realistic?”

nagging-mom“But you’d be a wonderful teacher/dentist/architect.”

“If you want to go to grad school, you’re paying for it.”

“Your uncle majored in that, and he still works in fast food.”

So, you’re home for the summer. Or maybe you’re a commuter student and you’re always home. Either way, you are fully exposed to a barrage of parental input—possibly the kind that really makes you grind your teeth.

Choosing a major and a career path is hard enough. You have to think about your passions, what you’re good at, the kind of work that is meaningful to you. You have to consider the job market in the place you’d like to live. You have to honestly assess how much money you’ll need to finance the lifestyle you want. You have to ponder things like prestige, work/life balance, and whether you’re willing to get a graduate degree.

Now, take that simmering concoction and sprinkle it with your parents’ expectations—accompanied of course by a potpourri of guilt, love, stubbornness, and a burning desire to please.

It would be easy to argue that you should follow your star wherever it leads, declare your independence, etc., etc. And truly, it is extraordinarily important to take the time—now, while you’re in school—to understand yourself. Will an office setting make you miserable? Would you enjoy interacting with people all day, or would you rather immerse yourself in independent projects? Are you flexible enough to choose whatever path is most promising, or do you feel compelled to pursue a single passion, come hell or high water? Mom and Dad cannot give you the answers, and their well-meaning advice may ignore some fundamental truths about who you are.

(To start answering those questions for yourself, make a 1:1 appointment at the Career Center by calling 410-704-2233. You might also want to check out Compass, a fun, five-minute career quiz. Just log in with your NetID and password.)

The trouble is this: Deep down, you care what your parents think. You want to make them proud. Let’s face it—most of us feel happier knowing we have the approval of the people, or person, who raised us. Also, not every culture emphasizes the individualistic, it’s-my-life-and-I’ll-do-what-I-want attitude that is common in America. Maybe you feel a strong desire to repay your parents for the sacrifices they’ve made. Maybe you simply put a high premium on family harmony.

So you can’t ignore your family, but you also can’t let them make your choices. How do you strike a balance?  As always (annoyingly), there is no one-size-fits-all answer. But it may help to remember this:

Your family doesn’t know everything about every field. (Neither do career counselors, actually.) Many people hold misconceptions about careers based on “information” they’ve picked up anecdotally or in the media. Dad might assume there are no jobs in graphic design, but what do the current employment numbers say? And just because your sister studied environmental science and is still unemployed doesn’t mean it’s a dead-end major. Test your family’s assertions against the evidence of people who actually work in the field and websites like O*Net and the Occupational Outlook Handbook (or check out the Career Center’s new Resources by Major).

Your family does know a lot of people. This is true no matter what industry your family members work in, or even if they don’t work. Everyone is connected to someone who works in law, education, construction, health, etc. Use their contacts to your advantage. At the Career Center, we like to recommend that all students (but especially freshmen and sophomores) shadow workers on the job and conduct informational interviews to get a better feel for a career they’re considering. Don’t forget to ask about secondary connections—“a friend of a friend”—who could make excellent resources.

Your family knows you. They have known you for a really, really long time. Often your parents and siblings can tell you things about yourself that you can’t see. You might be gung-ho about becoming an accountant, but your mom remembers that even as a little kid, you hated to sit still and be quiet. (Don’t let that stop you from considering accounting, but do a noncredit internship early on, or at least spend plenty of time shadowing an office worker to see if you feel drained, energized, or ready to explode at the end of the day.)

Your family doesn’t know what the future will bring. And neither do you. Your interests and values will probably change; technology and the economy definitely will. You’ll adapt. Fortunately, the decisions you make today won’t necessarily dictate your entire career, or even your first job. (Plenty of liberal-arts majors get their start in the business world, for example.) The first step to becoming adaptable is accepting that the future is, and always will be, uncertain. That’s scary, but it can also be exciting.

Think of your parents and other family members as valuable consultants in your career. You’re in charge, no doubt. But it’s okay to care about the opinions of the people closest to you. Chances are, you’ll be happier, humbler, and more secure if you open your ears to their advice. Whether you choose to follow that advice is up to you.

Kacie Glenn
The Career Center

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