The guilt in pursuing a Ph.D.: The familial obligations of first-generation people of color

“I was going to a University for a doctoral degree. I explained that it was a means for me to pursue something I enjoyed, which was neuroscience research at the time. She understood but back then she asked me, and still does to this day, questions like: “How much longer are you going to be in school? When will you be getting a job?” or “Why is it taking so long?” When I go home and visit relatives I always get, “Pero mijo, when are you graduating?”

Talking to your family as a graduate student can be a struggle because they can ask some tough questions. I’m sure we all get stumped from time to time by questions about our work when presenting a poster or giving a talk, but getting stumped by family is different because so much is riding on those questions. Why is that?

When I decided I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., my family was very supportive, and remain so today. In my family, I represent the first generation born here in the states. Education was one of the top values held by my parents, as it was a means towards a better life and a stable career. Going to college meant I wouldn’t have to work in a warehouse for 12 hours a day, six days a week.

For my family, the idea of college means going to school for four years, after which you get your degree and can find a job. You can imagine my mother’s confusion when I told her I would be applying to go to more school. I had already been in school for some time (a story for another time), and of course, she understood that more school was necessary to become a lawyer or doctor. But I wasn’t doing either of those; I was going to a University for a doctoral degree. I explained that it was a means for me to pursue something I enjoyed, which was neuroscience research at the time. She understood but back then she asked me, and still does to this day, questions like: “How much longer are you going to be in school? When will you be getting a job?” or “Why is it taking so long?” When I go home and visit relatives I always get, “Pero mijo, when are you graduating?”

These are valid questions, they are tough to answer, and they bring me tons of anxiety when I consider them. Of course, I hope to finish my dissertation soon; I hope to have a decent job lined up afterward, at which point I will be working and making money. And sometimes I don’t know why it is taking so long. And on top of all of that, I feel a pang of guilt. My parents, like the parents of other first-generation U.S. citizens, invested their lives into my education. In many ways, the decision to go to pursue a Ph.D. instead of something more practical, like becoming an MD, seems incredibly selfish.

To understand why is to know that it is an unspoken rule in Hispanic/Latin American culture (as well as many others), that with adulthood comes the responsibility and obligation to take care of your parents, who labor their lives to give you better opportunities. I strive to take care of my mother, who raised me on her own for most of my life. We recognize and honor this sacrifice by returning the gesture. We succeed so that we can go to our parents and say “Thank you for all you’ve done. I know you’re tired, but you can rest now because I will handle this from here on out.”

Where I grew up in Southern California, the people in my communities looked like me, and my peers in school had similar backgrounds. But when I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan for grad school, I experienced a significant culture shock. Having parents with graduate degrees was common, students held a sense of entitlement I didn’t understand, and parental support extended into the college years and beyond for many. My white Midwestern colleagues saw this sense of obligation to support my mother as ridiculous and inverted; she should be helping me out!

What eased the culture shock was meeting and befriending other people of color, and bonding over our struggles and guilt towards our family while we pursue graduate degrees. We all get those questions from our families about why are we in school for so long and when will we get jobs? Some of us will get calls from family who straight up ask for money because they need it. We may get the same stipend as other members of our cohorts, but we make do with less because we send money back home to hold up our families. My white colleagues interpret this as my family taking advantage of me, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Hell, I bet most of us wish we could give more. We don’t feel upset about taking care of our families; we just feel frustrated.

Not all the questions are financial of course. I am currently involved in biomedical research, so I often get asked my opinion about what to do about specific diagnoses. Although I’m not in a medical profession, I do my best to help and answer questions. My wife will get phone calls from her mother, who believes her daughter is going to med school. My mother-in-law will spend an hour listing symptoms and ask for medical advice. My wife has pretty much given up on trying to explain grad school to her mother and resorts to googling symptoms while on the phone to help meet her mother’s medical needs. While it might be more efficient just to say, “I don’t know, I’m not a doctor,” it feels shameful and selfish to do so. Maybe we didn’t become medical doctors, but we’ll be damned if we’re not going to use all this biology I spent years learning to help our family.

Even though I am working towards advancing my families position in the world, I still feel shortcomings. Being a parent myself, it is hard not being able to provide all the things that their peers at school have. And I’m not talking about toys. No, I mean the day camps and music camps my daughter’s friends go off to for days or weeks, which typically costs up to 4 figure amounts. This speaks to exactly what I feel my parents wanted for me, which is opportunities and experiences they couldn’t afford to give me. And this is what is on my mind every day. Rising from the humble immigrant roots my parents set down, it is a long process until my family gets to that level of privilege and opportunity that only wealth and income can grant to minorities—it’s a transgenerational process. My parents, both Mother and Father, worked their asses off. Growing up, I didn’t see my father except for a few days a month. My mother worked the graveyard shift for years in a warehouse, going from packing boxes to loading trucks. You know those cute stories about people coming to the United States with only the clothes on their back and 20 dollars in their pocket, and living 20 years later as happy, wealthy business owners? Those stories are not reality. Not for us. The payoff from hard work tapers off for most people, and from there advancement depends on what you can provide for your kids.

I will continue to work towards supporting my parents and my own family. Those folks that grew up more privileged than me working alongside me at the bench might not get it, and maybe they never will, being unable to relate my experience and upbringing. But there are plenty people like me out there working in science, succeeding to help their family, and they are not alone.

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25 thoughts on “The guilt in pursuing a Ph.D.: The familial obligations of first-generation people of color”

  • Thanks for sharing your story and providing perspective Alex, great insight into a difficult familial situation. I look forward to reading your next piece.

  • Absolutely loved this article. As a post graduate my father doesn’t understand my degree. He can only relate it towards the medical field, similar to what you mentioned about your mother. Unfortunately, there is not a direct translation for my job title so I feel that the meaning when we explain it to ESL speakers can somewhat get confusing. Great read and great job! You should read the “Gardener’s Tale” if you are not aware of it to help shed some light to your colleagues. 👌🏼

  • Thank you for writing this piece and sharing your story with us. Your story is much like the story my husband and I share. We can definitely relate to your struggles and accomplishments of finishing school and stilly having to support our families. Again, thank you for the reminder that we are not alone in this journey and that it will hopefully get better from here on out.

  • Thank you for writing this. As an undergrad, I have felt selfish for planning to get a PhD but I also know it will allow me to provide more for me and my family. Even if it takes longer, it is worth it to me for many reasons.
    I also get medical questions and counseling questions all the time (since I study psychology). I feel out of place giving recommendations but I know I can help out even if it’s just by researching their question so I can give an educated answer.

  • Thank you Alex for your honesty. Yes, there are many who can relate to your story. And your sacrifice will pay off in the end. It did for me. I now take care of my elderly parents who immigrated to the US in the late 60’s. They didn’t have pension plans or 401k to provide for them now that they can no longer do manual labor. But getting a PhD was the best thing for my family – nuclear and extended.

  • Thank you for sharing your story! Even though I am pursuing my M.D., your experience is very similar to mine as a child of refugee parents and the first in my family to pursue higher education. Even though the challenge to become a physician is understood by many who pursue it, there is this other level of experience that you have written about that the majority of my peers/colleagues do not understand.

  • This is so true for many immigrant, not only Latinas, even African like me! I can relate to this story it goes straight to my heart. While I was reading this article I could picture the whole thing because I know what it is to go to school and try to help your family not to be taking advantage of but to give back what you have been given from your parent or those who raised you, it takes guts! Keep doing what you are doing, don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for what you think is right!

  • Thank you *so* much for this. I am really struggling to work with my (and, in all reality, explain to my) therapist the feeling of guilt and shame I have from success. This was so helpful in reaffirming that I ain’t crazy (not for this at least).

  • I grew up as a white woman in Madison WI and I teach at a community college in San Bernardino. Most people in the Midwest will never understand the roles you have in all facets of your life. The best you can do is educate them kindly and let them know they are blessed.

  • As a PhD/MD student, I get this pain. I’m going to be $400k in debt at the age I should be working and providing for my family. Starting school was the hardest decision to make, and I still feel selfish when Im at home and see my parents struggle to pay bills. Immediate gains vs future rewards; its like poor economics.This article echoed so many of our internal struggles.

  • Man I know this struggle I live it and Hear everything you’re saying. Its hard for those who haven’t experienced the same to understand.

  • Have you ever considered publishing a book of this very readable story and maybe compile stories of others in similar circumstances?

  • Thank you for insight writing. It made me cry. I relate a lot with the same cultural differences, and many times I even questioned myself over the very same issues. It feels better not to be alone…

  • Thank you for sharing such a powerful story! It’s as if you read my journal – even though I earned my PhD 8 years ago and was not born here but rather came at a very young age. Very touching. And the issues you bring up stay very true for many of us well post PhD. Adelante. You are making your raza proud.

  • Well said. It’s our culture. Our customers. Our respect for the elders in our families. Nothing wrong with that.

  • Great read, I could write a whole article on being the child of someone who spent a lifetime in school and how it impacted my family. We all sacrifice fore each other. The lasting impact for your children of having parents who endured will be what counts. A good example can be timeless.

  • I absolutely love this post. It really resonated with me. As a first-generation U.S. Latina who just finished her second Masters… I feel like I have nothing to show for it. All this education, but nothing to help my parents out, especially now that they need me the most. Lately I’ve been having a lot of guilt and pressure to go back home, but I also feel like it’ll cause me to settle down if I do. We’re in a tough position, but then again so were our parents and our grandparents and many generations before us. Beautifully written post. I hope you realize how far you’ve come and I’m sure your parents and family are extremely proud of you.

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