Here’s why most Americans prefer to be a ‘big fish in a small pond’
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Would you rather be an average employee at a prestigious company or perform far ahead of your peers in a less prominent firm. There is no right or wrong answer, experts say, but the option you choose may depend largely on your cultural upbringing.
When it comes to this career debate, Chinese students were more likely than European-American students — Americans of European descent — to choose to the “big pond,” research from the University of Michigan found.
Most Chinese students (58%) said they would prefer to be a “small frog” — that is, an average student at a top-10 ranked school, rather than a “big frog” in a small pond — an above-average student at a top-100 ranked school. Only 29% of European-American students made the same choice, the report, published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal Tuesday, said, largely because Chinese students value prestige more.
“Coming from cultures that place a heavy emphasis on prestige and obtaining an elite education, it makes sense for Asian internationals to vie for the big pond,” said lead author Kaidi Wu. “What this suggests is that it is not that people are following their idiosyncratic preferences or making an irrational decision; instead, they are making choices based on what makes the most sense given their sociocultural context.”
Wu added that “frog-pond decisions” represent important crossroads in life like which universities we go to, which internships we choose, and which companies we work for — altering the course of our lives. Mark Hamrick, Washington, D.C. bureau chief for Bankrate.com, said a similar crossroad also happens in retirement, when Americans opt for communities where the cost of living is lower so they can live larger. While such decisions may seem consequential, he recommended not viewing them as life-altering or permanent.
“More so than in recent generations, we have a sense that individuals are spending shorter timespans with employers,” he said. “That is a mixed blessing, of course, because it also makes for potentially more volatile careers.”