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Boundaries: Teaching students & postdoc how to discuss their career with family over the holidays.

A few years ago, right before Thanksgiving, a student came in for a counseling appointment to develop strategies to talk to her extended family about her career path when she went home over the holidays. She had two problems. First, she was not sure that she wanted to continue on a career path in the biomedical sciences. Second, her academic and professional achievements were the pride of her family. If she chose not to pursue this career path, she was afraid she wouldn’t just lose her professional direction, but also their approval.

It was a life-altering decision, and she didn’t want to talk about it with them before she had decided what to do. But between November 1 and January 1 she had to get through Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, several religious events in her community, and a few birthday parties. A gauntlet of friends and family. And she was dreading it.

Talking to people about our career path – or deflecting those conversations –  can be a tricky situation.  Going home over the holidays can feel stressful when you aren’t certain about your career path or job prospects can leave you feeling even worst. But there are some good strategies for how to do it effectively.

There are two reasons your career plans or progress can cause holiday stress, and they are both skill-based. First, our friends and families aren’t always skilled at offering useful, judgment-free support when discussing career-related issues. Conversations about your career path, specialty choice, or job search progress can be weighed down by their own hopes, expectations, anxieties or limited understanding of your field.

Second, you might not know how to skillfully discuss the complex process of navigating your own career. As a result, even a simple dinner-table conversation that begins with, “How is school?” or “How is your job search going?” can feel like loaded or trick questions. How do you handle inquiries and conversations about your academics or career when you aren’t sure how it’s all going to turn out?

Here are six strategies:

1. Decide how much you want to share before talking to people.
We all need to consciously set healthy conversational boundaries with the different people in our lives. It is wise to limit the length and depth of your career-related discussions with those who only gaslight, criticize, project their anxieties or offer unhelpful advice. Consider a postdoc asked a somewhat abrasive question, such as, “Why can’t you afford a car if you’re a scientist?”

With supportive family members, he might choose to explain how postdoc salaries set by the NIH limit his income. He might be candid about his own concerns regarding his future financial stability. But with an insensitive relative, he may side-step the question and redirect the conversation altogether. His response might be, “Oh, I’m actually looking to buy a car at some point. I see you drive a Mazda—do you like it?”

2. When you do speak, stand as close to your truth as possible.
When you do decide to talk about your career issues, try to be as honest as you can within your boundaries. For example, one first-year professional student who was having a particularly hard fall quarter felt somewhat lost and was questioning her decision to continue her studies. While she planned to talk to her parents over Thanksgiving, for more distant relatives she developed honest responses that that omitted her current concerns. For example, when asked, “How’s school?” questions, she replied, “It’s challenging this quarter, but I am learning a great deal.”

Similarly, a Ph.D. candidate not wanting to invite a host of questions about his struggles with writer’s block, can answer the “How’s school?” question honestly as well: “Well, the usual time to degree completion is six years. Right now, I still plan to finish within that time frame. I’m working on my third of five chapters.”

3. Speak confidently about your career development process.
Frankly, it’s not always clear what career path or specialty you should choose or how a job hunt is going to turn out. But even when your career outcome is uncertain, you can refocus the discussion on your thinking, strategy, and actions. For example, a sociology student uncertain about her plans after graduation might respond to job search questions by explaining the steps she’s taken. “For the past month, I’ve been using LinkedIn to identify health outcomes research consulting firms I’d like to work somewhere similar to Endpoint Outcomes in Boston. I’m also updating my résumé” or “I’m currently talking with my adviser about my options, and plan to schedule an appointment in the Office of Career & Professional Development this month.”

4. Speak in generalities.
Just because people ask a question specifically about you doesn’t mean you can’t respond with information generally true for others like you. For example, a medical student repeatedly asked about specialty choices can talk about medical students in general. “You know, the school is actually encouraging all students to remain pretty open about our specialty choice until about the third or fourth year. There are some great choices for physicians interested in working with complex clinical cases, such as orthopedics, cardiology, and rheumatology. I haven’t ruled any of those out yet. Also, I was pleased to see that the residency match success rate for UCSF students is quite high.”

5. Don’t get sucked in.
When you are asked questions such as “You still haven’t finished your dissertation?” or “You still haven’t found a job?” it can be hard not to question the person’s motivations. But as Andrew Green, the UC Berkeley career counselor for Ph.D.s noted, whether people are well-intentioned or not, a key professional development goal for students and postdocs is to be able to answer awkward questions in a way that maintains social peace but is protective of your privacy and feelings.

The key step to responding skillfully is to consciously acknowledge if a conversation makes you feel angry, embarrassed or defensive. If you do feel that someone’s approach is insensitive or inappropriate, do not try to explain your perspective. Instead, move to end the topic.  A response like, “Yep. Still engaged in a job search. How is it going with you?” can begin to redirect the conversation. Also, don’t get baited, even if they persist with follow up responses that feel inflammatory, such as  “It’s taking forever, isn’t it?” A diplomatic response would be, “Not an unexpected amount of time for my field, no.”

6. Finally, allow people their anxiety; it’s not yours.
Your friends and family may project their own agendas or anxieties about your career path onto you. A few years ago, a nurse practitioner was feeling sticker-shock at the cost of her graduate training combined with the loss of her RN income. Her partner felt the financial strain much more acutely and was increasingly critical about what had initially been a joint decision.  A key strategy for her was to seek out support to manage her own anxiety, rather than try to control her partner’s.

Want more help? Read “Hand Me Down Dreams: How Families Influence Our Careers And How To Reclaim Them” by Jacobson or “Dealing With Difficult People You Can’t Stand” by Brinkman and Kirshner.

photo credit: tantek via photopin cc