Poverty in the Ivory Tower

This post is a modified and expanded version of a post that originally appeared on my personal blog.

I went to an awesome small conference a few years ago. The location was gorgeous, I got my own room, the talks were all well prepared and about stuff I’m gaga over. There were enough acquaintances attending to feel comfortable and enough new folks to make some useful connections. Plus, the conference sponsors gave away lots of free and super nerdy books.

I also got to interact a lot more with two postdocs from my university who I had developed little science crushes on and really admired. When I prepare for discussion groups, I try to work through the material as deeply as they do. When people ask me questions, I try to respond as carefully and thoughtfully as they do. When they say a book really impressed them, I go read it. So, naturally, I was pretty excited to spend more time with them.

The thing about role models, though, is that they can really let you down.

I took a walk with these postdocs after a long day of talks. Somehow the conversation turned from cool research in my subfield to poverty and homelessness. Specifically, how the homeless people one postdoc saw couldn’t possibly be homeless because they were sitting out in the rain instead of finding shelter. Then the other postdoc jumped in, and suddenly they were talking about how annoying it is to have to walk around homeless people on the sidewalk, how offensive it is for homeless people to ask you for money, and just generally being disparaging of the poor and especially the homeless.

I’ve never been homeless, but we were poor enough that my mom used to put water in the milk to make it go a little further. While my family’s financial situation has improved, I’m now the most financially stable person in my family – and I’m a graduate student.

Home sweet home. Old tobacco barn and tree by Flickr user snowleslie99

Home, sweet home. Old tobacco barn and tree by Flickr user snowleslie99

Anyway, at some point I’d started to identify with these postdocs, to see some part of myself in them. And that made me feel more confident in my own potential. When they started talking about the poor like they had some sort of moral failing or disease, all that vanished. Suddenly, they were just impossibly clever and talented people who I had nothing in common with.

Later I got angry, told myself how ignorant of their privilege they were and got right back to doing my work and loving it.

But in the moment, I couldn’t say anything to them. Instead, I just muttered an excuse and took a different trail, irrationally terrified that if I opened my mouth they would know that I’d been poor. Being poor is nothing to be ashamed of, but when people talk like those postdocs it is so hard not to be hurt and humiliated. If I hadn’t looked up to them, personally and professionally, it would have been easier for me to deal with their poor-people trashing. I still would have been hurt and angry, but I wouldn’t have spent even a second questioning my ability to do my job.

Academic scientists don’t talk about class much. We don’t regularly acknowledge how money keeps talented people out of academia. If we do, it’s usually framed as an educational problem (poor students go to poor schools) or a lack of funding for science. Individual classism like I described above and the enormous structural barrier of a thousand small bureaucratic hurdles faced by poor people in academia rarely are even acknowledged. Worse, the poverty of graduate school is often joked about. How many professors reminisce fondly about just scraping by in grad school? How many people joke about the number of people they fit in their hotel room at the conference or how many times they had to eat ramen?

The financial hardship of graduate school is often downplayed or thought of as temporary. However, finishing a PhD and finding a job is often an incredible financial hardship for even a relatively well off student now. Many students must beg or borrow 10s of thousands of dollars from relatives or otherwise rely on family resources and still end up in crushing student loan and credit card debt. Poor students can’t rely on family – they often have family members relying on them.

Even worse, we don’t even have the promise of a secure well-paying job at the end of graduate school: the academic job market looks more and more like a pyramid scheme, graduate students receive almost no training for non-academic careers, and the non-academic job market is incredibly competitive, too. A poor person may beat the odds and make it through graduate school only to face a lifetime of overwork and poverty level wages as an adjunct or low pay, constant moves, and lack of job security as a postdoc. Even making it on the tenure track isn’t a guarantee of financial stability when you’re coming from poverty. Going into massive debt to train for a career that is less and less likely to exist or pay well means that people who lack external resources cannot make it in academia.

So there are some hard things about money in graduate school, and they’re even harder when you’re already poor.

There are also cultural fit problems. Co-workers are often unsure how to respond when I share stories from my childhood. They ask seemingly innocuous but painful questions like “where did you go on vacation when you were a kid?” or they want to split the bill down the middle, assuming available income. Colleagues look down on my parents when they find out they’re incredibly religious. My parents couldn’t help me with my college applications or give me advice on navigating academia (I can’t count the number of successful academics I know with professor parents.). Other scientists want me to pull out my carefully hidden accent with its blatant class markers as a party trick. I had to learn which stores and restaurants I shouldn’t go to (thrift stores > WalMart, a reversal from my childhood when getting new things was a treat). Dress is particularly fraught for me. I spent a lot of time developing a style from thrift stores that’s a sort of vintage chic to hide my poverty. If you’re wealthy, you can show up in sloppy REI outfits, but the poor (wo)man’s equivalent is less acceptable.

There are things you can do to help students from impoverished backgrounds. Most of these are geared towards PIs, but #1 especially applies to everyone.

  1. Don’t distance yourself from poverty. Learn about it. What is like? Why is so hard to escape? What are the structural factors in our society that perpetuate it? Get to know some poor people. Don’t say mean things about them. Don’t walk around or move away from visibly poor people in your environment. Make it clear that you don’t think poor people are lazy or weird or scary. Don’t treat us as noble either.
  2. Tell us when we don’t fit in. Overcoming cultural differences is often key to gaining access to resources. Don’t be shy – or cruel – about talking to graduate students when they don’t quite fit in culturally. Tell them about cultural norms and how other people interpret your students’ behaviour. We don’t want to sabotage ourselves, but sometimes we don’t know we’re doing it.
  3. Set up a fund in the lab that students can borrow from for conferences and field work. Universities take forever to process reimbursements. A poor student probably doesn’t have a credit card with enough room on it to buy that $1200 plane ticket and if they do, they’re paying interest for the 6 months the university takes to issue a check.
  4. Send your students funding opportunities and make it clear that you believe they’re qualified and that you support their application. The first research funding I ever got was for something I thought I was completely unqualified for, but my mentor told me otherwise.
  5. Offer living wage stipends, even if that means taking fewer students. You can calculate a living wage for your area here. If you’re worried fewer students will hurt your competitiveness for grants and tenure, advocate for it to be a university- or funding-body- level policy. The base stipend for graduate students at my university is less than half a living wage for the city, and that’s not uncommon. People try to justify the terrible stipends by calling a PhD a “training” position. I’d argue graduate students provide enough value to be treated as entry-level employees. Low stipends are an added barrier for poor students; being poor is remarkably expensive – there are so many extra things to buy and family emergencies. You have to build your own safety net when escaping poverty and that takes money.
  6. Include perks like moving expenses if it appears students may not be able to afford to move. I almost couldn’t start at my current position because of money. If my supervisor hadn’t been willing to chip in for moving expenses and a well-off relative hadn’t lent me money, I probably wouldn’t be here.
  7. Tell us about personal and family leave options and available funding. Poor students will likely be called on more by their families and friends for support. Help your students support their loved ones without giving up on a degree.
  8. Ask us if we’re doing ok financially and personally. It’s really, really hard to ask for help. You can make that easier by just asking, acknowledging that personal and financial problems are not unexpected and are nothing to be ashamed of.

If you’re poor and want to attend grad school or are already there, there are also some things you can do to get where you want.

  1. Talk about being poor. Don’t be ashamed of it. Use your story and the survival skills you’ve gained to succeed. I use my escape from rural poverty in personal statements to show that I have incredible drive, creativity, and independence.
  2. Apply for money. Apply for ALL the money. I applied for 38 scholarships in undergrad before I started getting money in my second attempt at an undergrad degree. It took awhile partly because I was slow to get good at writing scholarship applications. But it also took awhile because the best way to get money is to have money. Once you start getting money, it’s easier to get more because funding bodies take an endorsement from one of their own more seriously than anything you say. Getting the first agency or person to invest in you is really, really hard. Everything after that is easier.
  3. Figure out the unwritten rules. You’ve got to learn how to speak the language of the middle class and academia. The best way to do this is to read and observe and ask questions of a trusted mentor. I was incredibly fortunate to have high school and middle school teachers who took an interest in me – taking me to nice restaurants, symphonies, and foreign movies – to teach me how to act and interact in rich people and urban spaces. Female Science Professor, other science bloggers, and friends with more experience helped me learn the language of academia. Send your mentors drafts and questions – is this how you write an email asking to be considered for grad school? How do you write a personal statement for a fellowship?
  4. Keep an eye on non-academic jobs. You can do a lot with your PhD outside of academia, but this will be really hard if you haven’t been keeping an eye on possible non-academic careers. Lots of universities and conferences have workshops on “alt-ac” careers and there are some great resources like Versatile PhD.
  5. Support your loved ones, but not too much. You are getting a regular paycheck and probably even have health insurance. This may be better than many of your family members. If they’re struggling, it’s hard not to help, but make sure you can pay all your bills and go to a conference before you start mailing those checks. I know this is impossible advice, but try not to give your family more than you can afford unless there’s a true emergency. Read a book on financial literacy and follow the advice. I liked On My Own Two Feet.
  6. Ask for money without asking for money directly. People _hate_ being asked for money, but love being able to help. You’ve got to ask for money without making it sound like you’re asking. For example,
  • I was accepted to a really cool summer short course, but had no money to attend. They offered fellowships to some students, but not originally to me. I wrote to the program manager and told them how excited I was to have been accepted and how much I wanted to attend, but that without full funding, I simply couldn’t afford to go. Full funding materialized.
  • When I needed help with moving expenses, I asked my professor not if she could help me with moving expenses, but if there was funding available for moving expenses. Asking if something is available rather than requesting it from someone directly is a good strategy for getting funding you need. It both expands the pool of resources a person considers and is way less awkward if they have to say no. If it gets awkward, they won’t want to help you in the future and will avoid you.

Poverty is horrible, and academia is a hard place to be poor. If you’re an academic, you’re supposed to be solidly middle class, but that’s becoming less and less true. The best thing we can do is advocate for policies within higher ed that promote better and more equitable salaries for everyone and for policies at the government level that alleviate poverty across the board. This will make academia a better place for people already there and open the doors to students from more backgrounds.

81 thoughts on “Poverty in the Ivory Tower

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  5. People are only disappointing because you did expect them to be different.

    As I understand you seem to have more life experiences as the people you are surrounded by.

    Once someone said: it is better to beg as to steal.
    I also agree with someone else who wrote: If I do not write I need money for my rent and Internet how can people help me?

    Your mom added water to the milk, so do we if we buy milk at all…

    I agree that you/no one should help anyone else unless you are quiet sure you are able too. I did it the biggest part of my life. High amounts of money. By now nobody helps meout, I even did not make 1 single friend

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