Trends and Reasons behind Asian Americans’ Professional Choices

(Family Magazine February 2013 5th Issue)
Agnes Ip
It is no secret that Asian families strongly emphasize education. To compete for admission to an elite college, their high school-aged children spend most of their free time in tutoring and SAT prep classes.

As for their majors, most Asians choose subjects in science and technology. When it comes to professions, they tend to stay in similar fields. How do we explain these choices?

Asians Tend to be Professionals in Science and Technology Fields

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the majority of Asian Americans are professionals in science and technology fields, and are not as well represented in production, entertainment, social services and humanistic fields, (Leong & Hardin, 2002; Leong & Gupta, 2007; Fouad, Kantamneni, Smothers, Chen, Fitzpatrick, & Terry, 2008; Tang, Fouad, & Smith, 1999). In 2007, 4% of the American population identified as Asian. Among them, 25% were computer engineers, 17% were medical doctors, 14% were dentists, and 30% were scientists in medical fields. There were only 1% of social service workers (Fouad et al., 2008).

In 2002, Mei Tang conducted a research study to compare the career patterns of three groups of students: Chinese from Mainland China, American-born Asians, and white Americans. The study showed that the first two groups preferred research-based professions, whereas the third group was more likely to be in humanities and social services-related careers. Tang hypothesized that in the absence of external influences and restrictions, the career choices of these three groups of students would exhibit more commonalities. However, one’s dream career and reality often do not match due to practical factors such as financial obligations, personal skills, and the market demand. Since many Asian parents, especially first-generation parents, have experienced poverty and other forms of economic deprivation, they tend to prefer—more so than Caucasians—that their children go into professional fields because of the stability.

Tang reiterated the observation from Walsh and Osipow’s book (1983) that minorities tend to be most concerned with survival and financial stability. In general, jobs that are related to science and technology offer relatively more security, easing parents’ concern. Tang also cited from Leong & Serefica’s article (1995) that the prevalence of Asian Americans in science and research positions is also the result of stereotypes and discrimination in the workplace. Peer influences also play a role—seeing their friends pursue careers in technology and science, rather than the humanities or social service, these young Asian Americans often just follow the crowd.

Asian Americans’ Career Choices are influenced by Family Expectations

Major career development theories posit that personal interest is the decisive factor in a person’s career choice. As much as Asian Americans recognize the importance of personal interest, recent research on this subpopulation has arrived at a totally different conclusion.

Research has been done (Leong, 1998; Leong & Gupta, 2007; Tang et al., 1999) in 187 universities populated with Asians about how their career decisions are affected by personal interest, self-development, family backgrounds, and cultural adjustment. The results reveal that the career decisions of Asian students are more correlated to family expectations and needs than to personal advancement or interest. As a matter of fact, to most Asians, family upbringing, cultural adjustment, and self-efficacy are the key factors influencing their career choices. There is no direct connection between individual interest and job choice. When it comes to Southeast Asian Americans, family influence is even stronger (Castelino, 2005). While white Americans tend to be more independent in their decision making, Asian Americans and Chinese students are strongly influenced by their fathers. They are more likely to comply with their parents’ preferences, not just because of the culture, but also out of a sense of obligation to fulfill their parents’ aspirations and to ascend the social ladder so as to bring fame to the family(Leong, 1986).

Asian Americans Climb the Social Ladder Through Management Positions

In general, Asian Americans are socially and economically well off. Many have seized opportunities to hold upper management positions. For example, one study reports that 42% of 25-year-old Asian Americans have at least a college degree compared to the general U.S. population of 24.4%. Additionally, Asian Americans’ median income in 2010 was $64,308 compared to the national average of $49,445 (IpNgan, 2012, p.3).

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, management positions as well as science and technology jobs are predominately held by Asian and Caucasian Americans, more so than other races. Among all management positions, 35.6% are held by Europeans and Caucasians, 25.2% by African Americans, 18.1% by Hispanic and Latino persons, and 44.6% by Asians. However, Asians have paid a high price to climb the corporate ladder. They are constantly facing social obstacles and carrying inexhaustible pressure.

As I mentioned in my previous article, Asian Americans are often stifled by the invisible but tangible “glass ceiling” at some point in their careers (IpNgan, 2012, p.3). One study explains that, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, compared to Caucasian men with the same level of education and experience, Asian American men are 7% to 11 % less likely to hold managerial positions. Additionally, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income for Caucasians with four years of college education is $36,130 a year, while for Asian Americans it is $34,470 a year (IpNgan, 2012, p.3).

Asian Americans often exhaust themselves in their attempts to attain management positions. Around the clock they compete with colleagues, striving to distinguish themselves. Their minds and souls become worn as a result of insurmountable competition and pressure. “Many studies have shown that Asian Americans — men and women alike — suffer from higher rates of stress, depression, mental illnesses, and suicide in comparison to other races (IpNgan, 2012, p.3).

During my counseling practice, I encountered many Asian professionals who triumphed in their careers but were wearied and drained as people. They entered the professional world because of the seemingly promising future, attractive pay, and ability to provide for their families, regardless of whether or not they had genuine interest in their jobs. Day in and day out, they labored and worked hard. Their passion for work, if it ever existed to begin with, was soon gone. The only ambition they are left with is to retire early so they can finally do what they really like. If given another chance, most would have chosen an occupation that they enjoy!

Now my two children are in college. Not wanting them to make the same mistake, with the support of both my husband and me, our oldest daughter is studying in New York, majoring in art and design. Our younger son lives on campus in Santa Barbara, exploring his new world. As Asian parents, we realize the learning environment is very different nowadays. What we study in college may not be related to the career we ultimately choose. As a matter of fact, many have chosen careers that are different from their majors.

Let’s encourage our children to pursue their natural talents and develop their personal interests as they decide on their majors or careers. Rather than pushing our children into the science and technology fields that are traditionally dominated by Asians, parents can help their children lead more fulfilling lives by identifying their children’s natural talents and cultivating their unique passions so that they can advance in a career they truly love.


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