One of these things is not like the others: on being an academic from a non-academic family

My first culture shock in academia came in graduate school when I noticed that, for the first time in my life, most of the people around me were from much more affluent backgrounds (Did you read Sarcozona’s post last week on poverty in academia? You should. In fact, if you haven’t, go read it now. I’ll wait. Done? Good.). My experiences with poverty and a working-class family were similar to Sarcozona’s, and financial instability definitely added stress to my life and occasional to awkwardness to conversations with colleagues. But for me, the hardest aspect of making the transition to academia was much closer to home.

As a grad student, the majority of my peers and faculty came from academic families; at least one parent was an academic or white collar professional of some kind. If you took the average graduate student in my program, it was almost a guarantee that one or both of their parents went to graduate school, medical school, law school, or at least worked as teachers. Many of them had parents who were professors– they’d literally grown up in an academic culture. They knew how things worked. They had parents who were able to support them financially, but also emotionally.

In contrast, my parents never graduated from college, and so had only vague ideas of what graduate school was like. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading