Career Transitions of Highly Skilled Immigrants: Two Case Studies.

Author:Lane, Alexandra

Highly skilled immigrants face many obstacles in transitioning their career from their home country to the United States and often face challenges in gaining recognition for their skills and credentials. By studying the specific stressors and protective factors these immigrants experience in their career transitions, career counselors can better assist this population through the process. Two phenomenological case studies were conducted to understand and describe the lived experience of highly skilled immigrants as they adapt to new careers in the United States. Four themes emerged from the interpretative phenomenological analysis: loss of community, lack of voice, frustration with U.S. education and regulatory systems, and pride in vocation. Findings suggest that career counselors should engage in advocacy for this group and promote vocational pride and community engagement. Future research should elaborate on the specific circumstances of highly skilled immigrants from diverse demographic backgrounds and professions.

Keywords: immigration, acculturation, career transitions, highly skilled immigrants, underemployment


The United States makes use of an international pool of talent within most of its specialized professions. A diversified, specialized workforce contributes to the economic and social advancement of the country. Currently, one fourth of all U.S. physicians, and almost half of all scientists with doctorates, are immigrants (American Psychological Association, 2012). In addition, the National Foundation for American Policy found that over half of America's start-up companies valued over $1 billion were founded by immigrants, and 70% of them have immigrants as key members of management or product development (Anderson, 2016).

As globalization and technology reshape the international labor market, highly skilled immigrants become even more important as educated workers in developing countries are increasingly sought after to provide crucial skills (Maidment, 2003). Highly skilled immigrants are generally defined by their possession of special skills, knowledge, or training, although they can also be defined more precisely as immigrants with a college degree or more, in contrast with low-skilled immigrants, who lack a high school diploma (Card, 2009). For the purposes of this study, we define highly skilled immigrants as individuals with a graduate-level education and training experience in a field of practice. These immigrants allow host nations to overcome skill shortages in crucially needed professions, such as medicine and engineering (Aalto et al., 2014; Al Ariss, Koall, Ozbilgin, & Suutari, 2012); thus, their optimal functioning within the community is important to researchers and policy makers.

Despite the strong contributions highly skilled immigrants can make to their new society, these individuals often face many obstacles in gaining recognition for their skills and credentials in the United States. The process of becoming certified can be long and complex, requiring the negotiation of various state and federal bureaucracies and retraining at a community college, university, or professional school (Aycan & Berry, 1996; Smart & Smart, 1995). In addition, this process can be financially costly, with a great deal of uncertainty associated with the outcome of these investments (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.).

In the interim, many of these immigrants are forced to take on menial and contingent survival jobs that entail a loss of status and that do not engage their skills (Dean & Wilson, 2009). For example, a doctor may end up working as an orderly in a hospital (Moore, 2016), or an engineer may end up in the production line at a factory (Dean & Wilson, 2009). This process of de-skilling is one of a confluence of stressors this group of immigrants can face, given that they are also often in the process of adapting to a new language and culture. All of these factors can lead to unemployment, underemployment, anxiety, low self-esteem, and a struggle to acculturate (Aycan & Berry, 1996; Cislo, Spence, & Gayman, 2010; Nakhaie & Kazemipur, 2013).

Fueled by the momentum of globalization over the years, research on the career transitions of highly skilled immigrants has been on the rise. Most of this research has been conducted outside the United States. Canada is witness to a proliferation of literature on this topic (Amundson, Firbank, Klein, & Poehnell, 1991; Aten, Nardon, & Isabelle, 2016; Zikic, Bonache, & Cerdin, 2010), as well as Australia (Cooke, Zhang, & Wang, 2013; Joseph, 2013) and Israel (Itzhaki, Ea, Ehrenfeld, & Fitzpatrick, 2013; Shuval, 2000). Studies have also been conducted throughout Europe (Aalto et al., 2014; Cooke, 2007; Pearson, Hammond, Heffernan, & Turner, 2012; Ramboarison-Lalao, Al Ariss, & Barth, 2012; Roberman, 2013) and New Zealand (Mace, Atkins, Fletcher, & Carr, 2005). This research has been important in laying a foundation of knowledge about the experiences of highly skilled immigrants in general across the globe. However, there is a seeming lack of studies addressing the specific experiences and needs of highly skilled immigrants to the United States.

More research is needed in the United States, because this context is distinct from that of other nations and continents (Hopkins et al., 2016; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2015). For example, the culture of U.S. capitalism, with its emphasis on consumerism, materialism, and employment as main aspects of social worth, creates a unique situation for unemployed and overqualified immigrants (Wood & Essien-Wood, 2012), who can easily begin to develop low self-esteem in this environment. There is also a high level of perceived discrimination against immigrants across the United States, which creates unique challenges (Hopkins et al., 2016). Furthermore, the United States may have more stringent professional standards and requirements for credentialing, such as U.S.-based training, as compared with other countries (Cueto et al., 2006). By uncovering the specific stressors and protective factors at play in the career transitions of highly skilled immigrants in regulated U.S. fields, career counselors can discover how to ease their transition into new careers and new lives in the United States.

Challenges for Highly Skilled Immigrants

Research on the detrimental effects of acculturation stress and underemployment would suggest that highly skilled immigrants are at risk of experiencing setbacks to their mental health and optimal adjustment to their new environment (Faragher, Cass, & Cooper, 2005; Friedland & Price, 2003; Kirmayer et al., 2011). Kirmayer et al. (2011) performed a systematic review of the stressors commonly facing immigrants. The loss of economic, educational, and occupational status in the immigrants' new country had a significant negative impact on their mental health. The disruption of social support, roles, and networks was also found to have a profound negative effect. Difficulties in language acquisition and acculturation processes often provoked feelings of unease, anxiety, social withdrawal, and depressive symptoms. The general uncertainty about the outcome of migration was also found to contribute to mental health issues. For these reasons, recent immigrants showed elevated rates of many mental disorders, including depression, other mood disorders, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and even psychotic disorders (Kirmayer et al., 2011).

In an in-depth interview study of underemployment and perceptions of subsequent health effects among recent highly skilled immigrants in Canada, participants identified lack of income, loss of employment-related skills, loss of social status, and family pressures as major sources of stress, leading to feelings of anxiety and sadness (Dean & Wilson, 2009). These stressors affected mental and physical health, which was also compounded by the strenuous working conditions of interim unskilled jobs.

The emerging literature on the psychology of working posits that employment has the potential to satisfy three basic human needs: the need for survival and subsistence, the need for social connection, and the need for autonomy and self-determination (Duffy, Blustein, Diemer, & Autin, 2016). External, contextual factors that obstruct employment and prevent the satisfaction of these needs can cause intense and multifaceted distress. One would suspect that this lack of fulfillment would be even more problematic for individuals who are highly skilled immigrants, given that they have already invested a great deal of time and effort into developing their careers (Dean & Wilson, 2009).

No published qualitative study has specifically examined the experiences of highly skilled immigrants in the United States to identify the stressors that may affect their adjustment and the strengths that may augment their adaptation. Previous studies of immigrant adjustment have typically grouped highly skilled and unskilled immigrants together (Hopkins et al., 2016; Kirmayer et al., 2011; Smart & Smart, 1995). This lack of differentiation between skill levels obscures the different ways that highly skilled immigrants must navigate their career transition. Such information would be invaluable to career counselors seeking to effectively aid this population.

Purpose of the Study

We attempted to gain an in-depth understanding and provide a rich description of the lived experiences of highly skilled immigrants as they transitioned and adapted to new careers in the United States. The lived experience under study was defined as the thoughts, feelings, and emotional states of individual highly skilled immigrants in response to the ecological and contextual factors that affect their career transitioning, such as legal barriers to licensure and extended retraining periods. Only by better understanding these experiences can career counselors and...

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