Immigrants face identity crises when work qualifications under threat

portrait of a taxi driver with cab

Immigrating to a new country is an act of bravery and optimism. Setting up shop in the same career as the country of origin is usually part of the plan and often closely linked to the individual’s sense of identity. York Professors Jelena Zikic and Julia Richardson were interested in studying what happens when immigrants – particularly those who heavily identify with their professions – are unable to break into their previous roles in the new host country.

Julia Richardson (left) and Jelena Zikic (right)
Julia Richardson (left) and Jelena Zikic (right)

With funding from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the research duo interviewed 58 immigrant professionals, in the medical and information technology (IT) sectors, in Ontario over two years, and discovered barriers. Immigrants face an ‘us versus them’ mentality; cannot reestablish themselves in their original career; often take ‘shadow’ jobs to be close to their original careers; suffer financially, which spurs them into unrelated jobs just to make ends meet; and face an identity crisis.

The article, published in Human Relations (2016), provides vital information for policy- and decision-makers because it underscores the personal and emotional costs of occupational closure for these individuals. “Trying to re-enter one’s profession in a new country may involve coming to terms with what we can no longer do and who we can no longer be,” Zikic sums up.

Today’s immigrant populations face unique challenges

For the past decade, Canada has opened its doors to 250,000 immigrants and refugees a year (StatsCan). Diversity, openness and inclusion are core values to Canada, frequently called to mind by Prime Minister Trudeau.

But in today’s context immigrants face unique challenges. Research tells us that immigrants with established professional identities, such as doctors, have to navigate a complex and unfamiliar labour market, and this includes having to understand and interpret local institutional rules of conduct.

Female Asian doctor sits at a table and uses a tablet
This study focused on immigrant professionals in the medical and IT sectors

Little is known about this area; Zikic and Richardson’s research fills an important void. In looking at ‘outsiders’ trying to enter the host country’s labour market, their work contributes in three ways:

  1. Explores sources of identity barriers;
  2. Identifies and theorizes the identity work processes that may emerge in response to the rules of conduct; and
  3. Examines the experiences of immigrant professionals as they try to understand and interpret the unfamiliar rules of conduct.

Study focused on medical and IT professionals

The researchers focused on two groups − medical and IT professionals – as these were “extreme cases” wherein newcomers may have a hard time finding work.  Due to the fact that these two fields have unique structural differences – for example, the medical field is highly regulated and collegiate, while IT is flexible and entrepreneurial − this allowed the researchers to compare and draw universal conclusions.

Between fall 2009 and summer 2011, Zikic and Richardson interviewed 58 immigrant professionals in Ontario: 32 from the medical field (15 women, 17 men) who emigrated from 15 countries; 26 from IT (5 women, 20 men) from 14 countries.

The researcher duo compared the groups in terms of structural differences and professional content. They examined local institutional rules of conduct; and immigrant professional identity, defined as “the stable and enduring set of attributes, beliefs, values, motives and experiences that people use to define themselves in a professional role.”

“I was a physician back home. […] Here, I am nothing. Just a person who has come from Bangladesh.” – Mirza

Research reveals stories of barriers, gatekeepers, ‘us versus them’ mentality

In the interviews, Zikic and Richardson heard about roadblocks encountered by immigrant professionals, such as an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Decision-makers often acted as gatekeepers, reluctant to acknowledge the qualifications of immigrant professionals, effectively disallowing newcomers from entering their field.

As a result, immigrant professionals often cannot reestablish themselves in their original career, blame themselves for this perceived failure and suffer financial consequences. They sometimes take ‘shadow’ jobs, such as working in a hospital to be close to their original career of physician, and are often forced to accept less skilled jobs wholly unrelated to their career. They also struggle with identity.

portrait of a taxi driver with cab
Immigrant professionals are often forced to take less skilled jobs wholly unrelated to their career

Verbatim account from immigrants speak to identity crises

One particularly compelling component of this research is the verbatim accounts. For example, Medhi had to put his identity as a doctor on hold while he worked as a security guard. “I have to do what I have to do. I am a doctor; I worked so hard for it. But for the time being, I have to do this,” he said.

Former doctor Zita volunteered in clinic to be in the same environment as her previous role. “I know the techniques […] but I am not allowed to practice. This was hurting – I can’t do anything,” she said.

Victor in IT also spoke of the emotional let-down, “[…] You face the hard reality, that people do not accept you […] It’s a very sad situation. But it is true.”

A datacenter manager posing in front of the datacenter
This research provides important insights into the impact of the struggles facing immigrant populations

These first-hand accounts clearly illustrate how these individuals struggle with their identity. Mirza said, “I was a physician back home. […] Here, I am nothing. Just a person who has come from Bangladesh.”

Trying to re-enter one’s profession in a new country may involve coming to terms with what we can no longer do and who we can no longer be.

Zikic and Richardson believe that these findings provide invaluable insight, for policy- and decision-makers, into the impact of the struggles facing immigrant professionals. They also note that this research will be of interest to other groups of organizational outsiders and those with established identities seeking to re-enter local organizations – such as people who have taken extended periods of time off from work related to parenthood or long-term illness.

The article, “What happens when you can’t be who you are: Professional identity at the institutional periphery,” was published in the journal Human Relations in 2016. For more information about this research, visit Zikic’s faculty profile and Richardson’s faculty profile.

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By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation,