Love or Money?

Planning your education and career in uncertain times

Ambitious Lihua focused on university learning as the most important thing until her first jobs, where she's learned teamwork, collegiality, and how to be more patient with herself and others.

Lihua has always been a girl in a hurry. Born in China, she moved to Canada in her 20s to complete a master’s degree in educational psychology. She’s articulate, ambitious, and loves the kind of work that lets her dive deep into statistics. statistical analysis.

Working with data wasn’t her original career goal. “I wanted to be an archeologist,” she says, “geography and history and all that.” When she was little, her father stoked her imagination, filling her early years with maps, pictures, and documentaries about ancient societies and cultures. Upon high school graduation, however, it was time to get practical: “There are no jobs for archeologists,” her father said.

Did Lihua feel like her dad pulled the rug out from under her? Not really. Despite her early childhood interests, she confesses she “never had a really strong feeling about a career,” and thinks her parents steered her in the right direction by encouraging her to study business or economics.

Education and Career Planning in a Chinese Family

Lihua and I talked about growing up in a Chinese family. North American students, she says, have “more freedom and a stronger voice when it comes to career conversations with parents.” For young people in China, school and career success isn’t just personal success: it reflects on your family too. In China, academic success also influences what university you are able to attend, and what kinds of programs you can get in to. “It’s a crazy system,” she says, with some frustration, because “it decides your future.” Lihua missed her first two program choices in economics, and found herself in a degree program studying English literature. It wasn’t very fulfilling: “I just wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.”

Coming to Canada: "It Was Surreal!"

Hoping for more, Lihua came to Canada in 2013 to do a master’s degree. It was "surreal,” she says. “You realize that you're not here as a tourist... you're going to be here for quite a while.” She didn’t know what to expect from her master’s degree program either. Studying education seemed like a good route if only because it was somewhat connected to her undergraduate degree. She might have remained lost if not for her graduate supervisor, Renata. My focus, Lihua recalls, “came purely from Renata,” who helped her to choose her courses and a research focus. With Renata’s support, Lihua spun her culture shock in Canada in to her graduate thesis: a study of how international students adjust in host countries. Renata engaged her in quantitative research, using math skills that Lihua hadn’t thought much of since high school. “But she makes you feel like things are easy. I realized my math foundations weren’t that bad and I might be good at this!”

Freshly graduated from her program, Lihua was grateful to work with another excellent mentor in a high-profile four-month government internship. In her first real, professional experience, she discovered both ups-and-downs in the world of work. Lihua describes herself as an introvert to begin with, and on top of this had to figure out the rules of interacting in a Western office culture. It was a lonely and uncertain time, with little guidance provided by her direct supervisor. “I had to figure out what I am supposed to say and not say. What I am supposed to do and not do. Nobody ever teaches you that and you don't learn that in school. And something that seems so intuitive and natural to local people isn't to me.”

A Tough Transition to Work

Lihua reflects that she got some valuable work experience out of her internship, especially learning presentation skills, and how to be more personable. But the experience was ultimately a disappointment, mostly because the short-term placement and lack of interaction with colleagues left her feeling like she hadn’t been able to make a real contribution. “I didn't have a sense of achievement. And I also wanted to feel like people appreciated my expertise, not just that I wanted their help."

Art by Allyson Gutchell

There was further disappointment and discouragement following, as she looked for a full-time job. A work friend suggested she use an English name on her resume, “but I was very stubborn,” she says. “That wasn’t me. And if I show up to do interviews people will know I’m not from here." Lihua is savvy enough to know that being Chinese can work either for her or against her in the job market, but being authentic, and being recognized for her skills was too important to her to whitewash herself with an Anglo name: “I don't want people to interview me just because they think I'm local." On the other hand, she was equally troubled by the prospect of being hired “as an Asian thing. Just because I’m Asian.”

After several months of small contracts and unsuccessful job interviews, Lihua was frustrated, and considered returning to school to doing a PhD in psychometrics, with Renata, again as her supervisor. As the deadline for applying loomed, she received a full-time job offer out-of-the-blue. It was a position she had applied for months earlier. She was completely surprised, and unsure of what to do.

Renata encouraged her to take the job. The PhD could wait. It wasn’t an easy decision. Lihua and I talked about the temptations of staying with what you know: the PhD program was a place where she would feel comfortable, competent, and safe under Renata’s steady guidance. In many ways it would have been an easier choice than all the unknowns of the position she had been offered, but she took a deep breath, and accepted the job.

Love or Money?

Over a year into her job, Lihua confesses that these days, work is more about money than love. “I have a mortgage now,” she sighs. She doesn’t find the work as challenging as she had hoped intellectually. She expected she’d be working with big data sets and complex problems as she had in her graduate studies, but her day-to-day work is more straightforward. She and her team develop surveys, write up descriptive data in reports, and providing program evaluations to stakeholders.

While the work isn’t what she expected, she has learned new things about how data is applied in real world settings. She also relishes the teamwork in her office. Most of her work colleagues are a bit older than her, and she has the support and friendships she lacked in her internship placement. “The smallest gestures push me through difficult times,” she says.

Even though Lihua doesn’t love every minute of her present job, she sees it as an opportunity to learn new skills and to learn more about herself. She still looks forward to the challenge of doing a PhD somewhere down the road, but she knows she’ll be much better prepared for it with the work experience she is getting today. Before, she just wanted to “push a PhD through as soon as possible.” Now, she sees it as something she has to really believe in and feel committed to. Lihua also has a better fix on linking her education to her future work prospects. “My research has to be meaningful to me but also important to building my career. To be attractive to my future employer,” she says.

Knowing Yourself

In retrospect, Lihua has no regrets about choosing to take her job, even though it isn’t always fulfilling. “I still feel like I haven't gotten as much as I can out of this,” she says. "There is still lots for me to learn. I'm not perfect. I have a lot of flaws. And that’s another thing I have learned from my colleagues is to just always focus on your own personal learning.”  That’s her biggest “take away” advice for younger adults who are also trying to figure out a career path: “Really get to know yourself and understand what kind of person you are.”

For Lihua, this has come as much or more from her encounters with other people as from learning in school. She still loves the challenge and rigour of academic work, and her graduate supervisor, Renata remains an important role model. But, but her work experiences have taught her that “interpersonal skills are just as important as other skills.” People around you, she says, can help you with your self-exploration even if you don’t have the same values or goals.

Also, says Lihua, it’s important to be persistent and diligent in all your work – to take your small goals and what is right in front of you seriously. “Success is such a broad concept, but you need to think about all the small things that you want to achieve for your career.” In other words, don’t be so impatient about getting to the big picture or the big goal that you rush through the building blocks you need to get there. For Lihua, slowing down, observing and learning patience is something that helped her to enjoy the process of forging her career instead of just rushing to a destination.