Time, class and privilege in career imagination: Exploring study-to-work transition of Chinese international students in UK universities through a Bourdieusian lens

Research Highlighted

Xu, C. L. (2020). (Open Access) Time, class and privilege in career imagination: Exploring study-to-work transition of Chinese international students in UK universities through a Bourdieusian lens. Time & Society, 0(0), 1-25. doi:10.1177/0961463×20951333

  • Watch a video on this paper.
  • Refer to a presentation given by Dr Cora Xu at the ‘International Mobilities and Post-Pandemic Futures in the Asia-Pacific’ conference organised by the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

    Dr Cora Lingling Xu, Durham University

    Abstract

    Existing research and policy on international students’ study-to-work transition fall short of a temporal theoretical perspective that is sensitive to the fluid and class-stratified nature of their career imagination. Career imagination refers to how international students conceive of, enact and reconfigure their careers as they encounter novel circumstances along their life courses. Drawing on in-depth interview data with 21 Chinese international students and graduates at UK higher education institutions, this article adopts a primarily Bourdieusian framework that centres around how time, class and privilege intersect to shape these students’ career imagination. In this framework, time is conceptualised both as a form of coveted cultural capital and as an underlining mechanism that constitutes these students’ habitus. This theoretical orientation facilitates exposition of the complex rationale behind the two observed temporal career strategies, ‘deferred gratification’ and ‘temporal destructuring’ and accentuates nuanced inequalities pertaining to fine-grained familial class backgrounds and places of origin of these students. This article furnishes empirical cases that challenge extant policy and empirical literature’s tendency to consider international students and their career imagination as homogeneous, individualised and present-focused. Instead, the empirical findings reveal how these Chinese international students’ career imagination is class-differentiated, embedded within and influenced by broader temporal structures and constantly evolving. This article thus advances understanding about how temporally sensitive and better differentiated career supports should be and could be tailored for international students at policy and practice levels.

    Background

    Current policy discourse in destination countries such as the UK, Canada, Denmark and Singapore has often statisticised international students as lifeless figures that constitute graduate employment indicators. These instrumental approaches betray policymakers’ lack of intention to harbour international students’ subjective career wishes, plans and imaginations. Instead, there are prevalent focuses on the present, the Now of the international students’ employability and much oblivion of the ‘unpredictable’ future and impact of ‘the passage of time’ on these students’ post-study career enactment (Collins & Shubin, 2017, p. 19). Such policies also tend to consider career deliberation of international students as a linear process that could be compartmentalised in a specific period, e.g. pre-employment stages.

    Within such policy accounts, international students are often individualised and homogenised. They are individualised because they are frequently assumed to be ‘individual free agents, able to respond to [migration policies] in line with their individual career or lifestyle preferences’ (Geddie, 2013, p. 204); this assumption ignores the ‘embedded’ nature of international students’ career decision-making, as shaped by their complex transnational relationship and citizenship strategies (ibid.). They are homogenised because they are typically portrayed to fit this persona:

    … are financially secure; have the support (emotional and material) of family and friends (i.e. ‘social capital’); have been raised in an environment that places great value on formal education and credentials; have highly educated parents; and have experienced overseas travel as a child (Waters, 2012, p. 128).

    This stereotype is counterproductive as it may falsely lead policymakers and institutions to believe that a one-size-fits-all approach is sufficient for supporting all international students’ study-to-work transition. In fact, research has revealed that international students can be highly diversified and socio-economically stratified.

    Nevertheless, there has been little empirical understanding about how time features in and shapes the career imagination of international students. Take the case of Chinese international students with British higher education degrees for example: much existing research on these students has been focused on their perceptions about employability and approaches to getting hired immediately after graduation.

    To redress the above gaps, this article investigates the career imagination of 21 Chinese international students and graduates with British higher education degrees who are from middle- and upper middle-class backgrounds. It has two aims: firstly, to provide a theoretical vocabulary for understanding how time features in and shapes these Chinese international students’ career imagination; secondly, to pinpoint how class, privilege and time intersect to underpin these participants’ temporal career strategies. By achieving these aims, this article can serve as an anchoring point for informing better differentiated career supports for international students at policy and practice levels.

    Theoretical framework

    This article is informed primarily by Bourdieu’s (1986, 2002) conceptual tools of capital, field, and habitus as well as his writings on the social structuring of temporal experience (Bourdieu 2000). Specifically, I first conceptualise time as a form of coveted cultural capital (following Cheng 2014), the possession and free deployment of which can be highly stratified along class lines and shapes the adoption of career strategies such as ‘waiting’ (to be elaborated) among these Chinese international students. Second, I draw on Atkinson (2019), Snyder (2016) and Adam (1990, 2006) to expound how time is integral to the field and sedimented within these Chinese international students’ habitus, thus inclining them towards certain career preferences, attitudes and approaches over others, reinforcing and reproducing forms of class privilege. While Bourdieu’s theoretical framework facilitates an incisive set of tools for unpicking the structural factors that impact on these participants’ temporal understanding of career imagination, I have turned to concepts such as ‘deferred gratification’ (Adam, 1990) and ‘temporal destructuring’ (Leccardi and Rampazi, 1993) from the cannon of sociology of time as specific conceptual vocabulary that can depict observed career strategies among participants.

    Temporally sensitive research approach and implications

    This study employed both pre-employment anticipation and on-the-job reflection and retrospection from participants to highlight that their career imagination is an ongoing and evolving project. The data reveal that some participants have substantially recalibrated their career ambition, e.g. Chang and Jing both realised that their initial career ideal of working in the UK did not match their temporal expectation of enjoying high quality personal time. Instead they found that working in Switzerland and Australia respectively fit their overall career temporal rhythms better. Qie’s initial decision of rejecting the overwork-culture in China was reinforced after three years of work in the UK where he could enjoy better work-life balance. However, as his career progressed, his began to see new resources and opportunities (e.g. the high-end talent schemes) in China that could serve his temporal ideal while advancing his career. Li’s deferred gratification strategy eventually allowed him to subvert the temporal structures imposed on him back in China and embraced the alternative work and lifestyle in Britain. He thus appeared to experience fewer adjustments in pursuing his career ambitions. Inclusion of on-the-job reflection, retrospection and prospection of international students is thus a useful way to unpack the embedded temporal dimension of career imagination, which has been missing in career support policy and practices, as well as empirical research (Huang & Turner, 2018; AGCAS, 2016).

    These lively career imagination trajectories also demonstrate that international students are much more than lifeless graduate employment figures (HESA, 2018). Their career imagination is fluid and contingent upon their specific personal and familial circumstances, and sensitive to alternative temporal structures that they are exposed to. It is, therefore, pivotal to devise career support services that are conducive to supporting these students to understand their longer-term career needs and priorities. Importantly, it is advisable to cultivate their exposure to alternative temporal structures and pinpoint possible routes to achieving their career ambitions. The use of career case studies, such as the ones discussed in this article, could serve as useful reference points for international students to ascertain their own circumstances and devise corresponding temporally sensitive career strategies.

    Dr Cora Lingling Xu, Durham University

    Conclusion

    This article makes three contributions to the literature. Firstly, its Bourdieusian temporally sensitive theoretical framework provides necessary conceptual vocabulary to understand how international students’ career imagination is shaped by their class, privilege and access to time. This theoretical orientation facilitates exposition of the complex rationale behind the two observed career strategies, ‘deferred gratification’ and ‘temporal destructuring’ and accentuates nuanced inequalities pertaining to fine-grained familial class backgrounds and places of origin. Secondly, this article provides empirical cases that illustrate the evolving nature of international students’ career imagination. Such cases challenge extant policy and empirical literature’s tendency to consider international students and their career imagination as homogeneous, individualised and present-focused. Thirdly, consequently, this article advances understanding about how temporally sensitive and better differentiated career supports should be and could be tailored for international students at policy and practice levels.

    Author Bio

    Dr Cora Lingling Xu (PhD Cambridge, FHEA) is Assistant Professor at Durham University, UK. Her research interests include educational mobilities, identities and social theories. She has researched cross-border student and academic migration, ethnic minority and rurality topics within contemporary Chinese societies. She is an editorial board member of the British Journal of Sociology of Education, Cambridge Journal of Education and International Studies in Sociology of Education. She is founder and director of Network for Research into Chinese Education Mobilities. Her publications have appeared in The Sociological Review, British Journal of Sociology of Education, International Studies in Sociology of Education, Time and Society, Asia Pacific Journal of Education, Policy Reviews in Higher Education, Review of Education, Journal of Current Chinese Affairs and European Educational Research Journal. You can access her publications here. She can be contacted via Email: lingling.xu@durham.ac.uk; ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3895-3934; Twitter: CoraLinglingXu

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