Talent is equally distributed but opportunity is not
April 6, 2021 3:54 AM   Subscribe

Academia is often a family business.
A new study quantifies how underrepresented people like Flake are in academia, at least in the United States, finding that tenure-track faculty come from homes wealthier than the average population and are 25 times more likely than the general population to have a parent with a Ph.D. Compared with the wider population of their Ph.D.-holding peers, tenure-track faculty are also nearly twice as likely to have Ph.D.-holding parents.

The articles touches on various issues that lead to this problem including race, class, and culture. Some links harvested from the article:
posted by Alex404 (72 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
because of its effects on society and culture at large when generational patterns cannot be changed due to entrenched systems?
posted by kokaku at 4:40 AM on April 6 [9 favorites]


Because classism is bad, mmkay?
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:44 AM on April 6 [5 favorites]


It also means that a significant number of people producing research come from similar backgrounds and that their work is likely to have blind spots.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 4:51 AM on April 6 [32 favorites]


The main barrier to entry for farming is having an actual farm. You don't need to own a college to get into academia - in theory it's supposed to be open to all.

There is a natural tendency to want to emulate your personal role models, and for that reason, a lot of people will gravitate towards their parents' career areas. That this is much more prevalent where parents have high-status 'academic' or 'professional' careers isn't perhaps surprising. If, as I did, you grow up a bright kid in a household where both parents are moving from one manual job to another, or from one temporary office job to another, you're not going to feel that connection between role model and career. A university degree is a way to move towards doing something that interests you and offers a future, but I think there's a cultural gulf between undergraduate and postgraduate study - academia can seem like an alien world if you didn't grow up with that stuff as a topic of dinner table discussion. At least it seemed that way to me, and I didn't choose to pursue it.
posted by pipeski at 5:10 AM on April 6 [13 favorites]


How is this news?

I'd say it is not news to underrepresented groups that have tried, successfully or not, to join academia. It is a somewhat obvious issue to anyone who has that experience.

From someone in this position, it is very surprising to see this discussed openly only now, since it crosses my mind so frequently. But that is probably a reflection of the self-perceived meritocracy of academia. I am encouraged to see this get some attention.
posted by wigner3j at 5:20 AM on April 6 [18 favorites]


Its not a typical career track, so growing up in a household where it is modeled helps a lot. Most farmers grew up on farms. How is this news?

It isn't surprising, but it's still interesting to think about the implications for society. For better of for worse, certain professional groups have an outsized impact on how our society operates and it is worth considering the consequences of certain professions being very much tilted towards certain demographics and away from others. It's especially interesting to look at academics because for lack of a better term, they think they're the good guys. Nobody is expecting investment bankers to find and fight societal inequities so telling them as a group that they are a non-diverse group of elite-schooled lax bros (which is sort of true) has no impact because they know that and don't care. Telling academics who think of themselves as a group of fighters for truth who got their positions based on meritocracy that they're overwhelmingly from certain backgrounds is much more effective because they do care.

Also, what even is a "typical career track"? In some ways, I have a social circle with lots of different jobs: academics, lawyers, bankers, management consultants, civil servants, think tank policy people, academic journal editors, data scientists, software developers, politicians, soldiers & sailors. I even know quite a few farmers. Those all seem like typical career tracks to me and it's totally obvious to me how someone would come to do them. The thing is, actually that isn't a representative spread of careers *at all* and many millions of people for whom it would be obvious how you would get a job as a plumber (which I would not know, something to do with an apprenticeship?) would have no idea what those jobs are like and how one might come to have one of them.

The main barrier to entry for farming is having an actual farm. You don't need to own a college to get into academia - in theory it's supposed to be open to all.

Sort of, many people are tenant farmers or work in agriculture in all sorts of other capacities. See, this is a perfect example of a barrier to entry based on knowledge and social habits i.e. dinner table discussion. If you grow up in an agricultural area, you might choose not to work in farming but you would also know socially lots of people who do. Obviously how this works depends on where you are, if you're Dutch then it would be "obvious" that lots of people work in high tech agro-tech driven greenhouse operations, if you're in the American Midwest then farming might be production of wheat or corn/maize on an industrial scale.

It's up for debate whether the social composition of farm owners and workers really matters to society. Personally I sort of doubt it. The thing is though, that like or loathe it, our society is heavily shaped by the kinds of things that academics think about and work on.
posted by atrazine at 5:30 AM on April 6 [11 favorites]


I realised when I arrived at [prestigious university] that a non-trivial percentage of my fellow students were not the first person to attend [prestigious university] from their families, let alone the first person from their families to attend any kind of university, like I was. It wasn't uncommon to know people whose parents had met at [pu] and whose older siblings already had degrees from there too. That most people there weren't flukes, like me; it was their birthright, either because that's what people from their families did, or because they came from families rich enough that everyone just assumed it was indeed their birthright. As a child of barely-middle-class, first-people-in-their-families-to-have-professional-jobs type people, I could not imagine an academic career for myself even after studying for my undergrad degree at [pu]. That the kids of people already doing that kind of work can imagine that as a career for themselves does not surprise me at all, as much as I dislike that this is the case.

There's a moment in the early 00s Battlestar Galactica where the fleet's leadership realise that certain jobs are becoming entrenched as part of an informal caste system, with kids expected to learn their parents' particular form of labour. Where BG diverges from our current reality is in the fact that the people in charge saw that as a problem and actively wanted to (at least attempt to) fix it.
posted by terretu at 5:35 AM on April 6 [19 favorites]


This is an interesting cosmic coincidence, at least from my perspective. My wife and I were just texting about how my job when the fence broke, or there was new fence to be put up, was to dig the post holes and mix the concrete. My Dad and grandfather would pull the fence, not trusting me to be strong enough to do it.

What is my job today? I'm a professor at a research-intensive institution.

I was born with pure genetic luck to have facilities in both creative and logical parts of my brain - I could manipulate logic problems, learn math, mimic adult styles of writing and speaking, etc. I liked to perform really well on tests because that gave me a sense of control I was lacking elsewhere in my life. I grew up in a small town in Kentucky and so it wasn't until high school that I was in a big enough student body (1100+ students) to be exposed to lots of other kids who liked to do well in school. Again, from my perspective, my success was a mix of basic genetic luck that I was born with a healthy brain, and the fact that succeeding in school gave me positive feedback that I wasn't getting elsewhere.

My father worked in factories for most of his life. He was frequently laid off, occasionally fired. His attitude and outlook was mostly blue collar - he was very big, especially for his generation, and liked to show off his strength and physical ability. But his main interest in life was reading. So, he would also talk about books from Stephen King (one of his very favorites) to Richard Bach to Shelby Spong.

My mother was an elementary school teacher in a rural Kentucky school. Her primary interests were her Appaloosa horses (that's the source of my fencing experience) and other pets. Her father had grown up in a tiny unheated cabin on the border between Kentucky and West Virginia in the 1920s. His parents were dirt poor. He made an incredible decision for that time and place - he would go to college. And so he became a science teacher and eventually principal in Eastern Kentucky. I think I owe my grandfather an incredible debt for having the grit and perseverance (and probably some strokes of luck, too, including being white and male) to go from a tiny cabin in a holler in Appalachia to college and then being a school principal.

When I was in high school, I did pretty well on standardized tests. Some prestigious national universities called to recruit me. Dad talked to them and talked to me. I'll never forget what he said "Son, you know kids at [prestigious school] will do stuff like go skiing on the weekends. How would you begin to fit in?"

I went to college in Kentucky and still had a wonderful experience. I met my wife of going on twenty three years. After college, I started working as a designer. My dear wife (whose Dad was briefly a professor before leaving for a much more lucrative position in industrial science) started working on me when I would complain about clients and bosses. She would say "I think you should be a professor. You like people! I'll bet you would like teaching design to young people." My father-in-law's academic experience was decades out of date and in a wildly different discipline, but it did expose me to the idea that it could be done.

And so, after lots of uphill climbing, and a tenure track position at a different school, I am now tenured at what used to be called an R2 school. I love it. But I definitely still run into what Dad talked about - most of my colleagues grew up in very different environments with different life expectations, and frankly, fancier tastes. I still remember showing up to the Chancellor's house for my official tenure celebration (with lots of other people who had gotten tenure or Full Professor that year) in my 1994 Ford Escort station wagon. Mind you, the year of my getting tenure was 2016! But the old Escort suited me fine - it had been my grandfather's car! It rusted out from under me, or I'd still be driving it!

I'll also always remember what my Mom asked me when I told her I wanted to go to graduate school: "You're not going to grow a beard and start acting weird are you?"

So, yeah, lots of my colleagues did have parents who were professors. And yes, honestly, they often seem blind to that leg up.

Tchozz Junior is about 10 years old. They can draw like... well, it's amazing, and I'm a professional evaluator of these sorts of things. So, I can give Tchozz Junior (who wants to make video games and animation) a leg up, too. I know what to learn, what schools to go to, what internships to do, where to move to, etc. No one told me those things. But I'm not gonna keep it a secret from Tchozz Junior.
posted by Tchozz at 6:25 AM on April 6 [27 favorites]


I only really became aware of this disparity a few years ago when I was reviewing funding options from the National Institute of Health. I'm a white guy from Toronto, and yet it turned out I was eligible for a broad range of funding to promote diversity in academia, because I grew up in a relatively low-income household (I wouldn't say poor) and neither of my parents finished college. That experience connected a lot of dots for me. I realized a lot of my struggles and missteps in trying to build an academic career were traceable to the fact that my immediate family and support structures couldn't provide me with any guidance whatsoever on how to do it. There was indeed a hidden curriculum that I had no awareness of, and that I had to learn the hard way.

At the same time, as a white guy from Toronto I never struggled with feelings and perceptions of not-belonging, and so I think my forceful bumbling through the system was tolerated and supported in a way that it might otherwise have not. I had it kind-of hard, but not that hard, but even kind-of hard makes a huge difference for a high-profile career like professor. I mean, this may not be a surprising finding in general, but that "tenure-track faculty come from homes wealthier than the average population and are 25 times more likely than the general population to have a parent with a Ph.D."? That's a shockingly high number. I think a broader awareness of this is indeed a good thing, and it's nice reading the experiences that others here are sharing.
posted by Alex404 at 6:25 AM on April 6 [14 favorites]


I am the only person with tenure in my department who has any experience of living on welfare, or any working class background at all. It is not surprising that we also have very few people who otherwise have different backgrounds to the norm. Just getting people to realize educational privilege is an issue - you can imagine how they react to issues of race or even difference in hiring with that much of a homogeneous background even among white faculty.

Then multiply that across a lot of elite and other universities and you see the issue is immense. It also explains a lot why so many people you would not otherwise expect to, have so much invested in keeping the system the same.

Though I do like to stop annoying conversations with other faculty about crime by telling people that my dad did time in a supermax. Works even better with administrators.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 6:49 AM on April 6 [32 favorites]


I'll also always remember what my Mom asked me when I told her I wanted to go to graduate school: "You're not going to grow a beard and start acting weird are you?"

Mine: "What's that?"
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:25 AM on April 6 [8 favorites]


I honestly had no idea that this was not a well-known and widely accepted phenomenon.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:26 AM on April 6 [9 favorites]


How does this fit in with the undermining of academia in general with the new business model of education with the elimination of tenure track people and the use of adjuncts as teachers with low pay and minimal or no benefits?
posted by njohnson23 at 7:39 AM on April 6 [2 favorites]


How does this fit in with the undermining of academia in general with the new business model of education with the elimination of tenure track people and the use of adjuncts as teachers with low pay and minimal or no benefits?

Very well, unfortunately. I'd have to dig to find a reference again, but I recall reading some data that the increasing divide between classes of academic labor generally tended to parallel and entrench difference in socioeconomic class background (as well as race and gender) of academic workers.
posted by eviemath at 7:45 AM on April 6 [3 favorites]


Have a look at faculty job postings. With Gen X now firmly entrenched in the tenure track in "solid" subjects that their boomer PhD parents told them to study, the gaps are being filled with millennials and beyond (adjuncts) who have other kinds of knowledge, so that programs of study look balanced.
posted by wellred at 7:47 AM on April 6


My first Grad School Foray came right out of undergraduate, when I was accepted into a Ph.D. program and given an extremely good four-year fellowship (for someone in the social sciences). I came from a family where my dad was the first person to go to college; my older brother had gone to college but failed out in his first year, so I was the second to get a bachelor's degree and the first to attempt grad school. I left after two years, for complicated reasons, but one is that I had no idea about any of the ways that grad school was different from undergrad—and even as an undergrad, I had watched friends develop close mentoring relationships with faculty, something I never did. Looking back, the only way I was prepared for grad school was academically, and the undergrad model of being successful by showing up to class and doing high-quality work just wasn't enough anymore.

I have a lot of friends who are college professors, and I've gradually learned over the years how many of them came from academic families. A friend who is a mathematics prof has both parents and grandparents who were also math profs; a friend who is a literature prof is the son of a respected scholar and critic in literature; other friends are in different fields but have at least one parent who is a Ph.D. One of my friends grew up with a father who was president of an Ivy League college.

In my Quaker meeting, we have a lot of faculty families, since we're in a university town. Their children seem to also be high-achieving and to move into academic and post-college success fairly easily. My own children are struggling. My partner and I are both very well-educated, but we're also queer (one of us is also trans) and our kids are also queer and trans, and dealing with a family burden of anxiety disorders, and we just don't fit the way these other families do. Our path is not so smooth.
posted by Orlop at 7:48 AM on April 6 [10 favorites]


There were two people from THE SAME HIGH SCHOOL in my Ivy PhD program
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:51 AM on April 6 [5 favorites]


How does this fit in with the undermining of academia in general with the new business model of education with the elimination of tenure track people and the use of adjuncts as teachers with low pay and minimal or no benefits?

In my case it means that the son of an academic spends a lot of time thinking "damn, I wish I was coming up in the 60s, like my Dad did." One wonders if current tenure-track faculty will pass this trade down to their children as readily, or if they'll warn them off it.
posted by anhedonic at 7:56 AM on April 6 [3 favorites]


I honestly had no idea that this was not a well-known and widely accepted phenomenon.

We've definitely discussed this on Metafilter previously. It is a category in data on the profession collected and published by the AAUP. And if one has had academic mentors who recommend relevant critiques ("This Fine Place so Far from Home", "Outsiders in the Sacred Grove", "Disciplined Minds", etc.), then it's definitely something one would have been aware of for a while. But I rarely hear the topic discussed in actual academic settings, and given how invisible hierarchies of privilege and oppression are from above in general, it would be quite easy for academics from an upper middle class background to have completely glossed over the one relevant line in the AAUP data sets (if they read those at all) and to never have thought about or been consciously aware of this discrepancy. Like, even colleagues who on some level know that there are access issues for undergraduate university students from more working class backgrounds don't connect the dots to think about how that impacts who becomes a university professor. The myth of academia as a meritocracy is unfortunately still very prevalent, especially among those who hold the most power within universities.
posted by eviemath at 7:57 AM on April 6 [6 favorites]


One of the things that this can really make an obvious difference at the start is in the funding packages given to grad students. A lot of faculty I know assume that parents or others will also be giving financial assistance. They are also blasé about debt for some of the same reasons.

But for someone with no other resources to call upon, the consequences of such thinking can be crushing.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 8:01 AM on April 6 [8 favorites]


One of the things that this can really make an obvious difference at the start is in the funding packages given to grad students

I mean, only on the margins? In most top programs grad funding is fixed and guaranteed for 5+ years.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:05 AM on April 6 [1 favorite]


But they are never enough if you are from a really disadvantaged background. I had a very good funding package but I had to live in Los Angeles, and thus needed more money. Also moving somewhere is expensive. Even if you just bring yourself and bags.

And if you are in a discipline where extensive travel and international is expected then the hidden costs grow even if you have funding for that
posted by lesbiassparrow at 8:08 AM on April 6 [9 favorites]


I honestly had no idea that this was not a well-known and widely accepted phenomenon.

I think it's probably not well-known to the people who would most profit from the knowledge.
posted by Alex404 at 8:14 AM on April 6 [9 favorites]


In most top programs grad funding is fixed and guaranteed for 5+ years.

This varies greatly by discipline, and by level of graduate school. Eg. I went straight to a PhD, skipping the Master's degree step, because in my discipline that was (a) even an option and (b) I could get paid to pursue a PhD, but not a Master's degree. That's common in the sciences, but not so much in the humanities (and social sciences are mixed). Varies a lot by country, too, of course - I'm focusing on the US context here.

An additional issue is average time to PhD (can be 7-10 years in some fields, particularly in the humanities) versus duration of funding (generally not longer than 5 years).

You do see an effect of these funding differences in the data on how accessible different fields are to students from working class or non-academic backgrounds. It's not the only factor, of course (eg. the proportion of mathematicians who have another family member who is a mathematician is rivalled only by philosophy, if I recall correctly - the issue of applicability or perceived applicability of a discipline to issues relevant to the lived experience and concerns of prospective academics is also a factor, as noted in one of the comments above). But it is a measurable factor, and a useful one to pay attention to because it is an area where it would be easier to make changes to provide more equitable opportunities for students from different backgrounds.
posted by eviemath at 8:16 AM on April 6 [2 favorites]


There were two people from THE SAME HIGH SCHOOL in my Ivy PhD program

I have a friend who went to Horace Mann; she was considered a bit of a loser because she went to Cornell, one of the "lesser Ivies," and so was her brother, who went to MIT. It was fascinating getting to know her. I grew up in a small town in Michigan, so it was like learning about a whole different culture.
posted by Orlop at 8:25 AM on April 6 [2 favorites]


I went straight to a PhD, skipping the Master's degree step, because in my discipline that was (a) even an option and (b) I could get paid to pursue a PhD, but not a Master's degree. That's common in the sciences, but not so much in the humanities (and social sciences are mixed).

Huh? I'm sure there are exceptions, but the master's is an afterthought in most humanities Ph.D. programs. I got mine a year late because I just didn't bother to file the paperwork.

I remember when I told my mom that I got into [Ph.D program] and she got very quiet and sad and said, "praemunire, I can't afford any more tuition!" (Note that I was already on massive scholarship at [other fancy undergrad].) She had no idea about how humanities graduate school was funded. If I'd had to rely on her social capital, I never would've gone at all. (It was still too expensive to live in [city] without help, and I later realized I was basically the only one in my cohort trying it, but this was right when costs really started diverging from funding and probably it wouldn't have been so much of an issue ten years earlier.)
posted by praemunire at 8:41 AM on April 6 [3 favorites]


I suspect having parents embedded in that system helps a lot when politicking to advance one's career, even if second- and third-gen scholars don't really think of their middle-class parents parents as powerful or influential in that way. As a non-academic, the culture of academia always seemed really fucking weird to me. (Two of the most striver-y monsters I've ever met in my life were in academic administration, and I don't think they were atypical. Possibly a system that dispenses public money, hoards private money, and can bestow fake meritocratic honors does not raise excellent people to positions of power!) Even if we created a decent society where everyone had enough of their basic needs met that they could pursue their goals, I think there would still be a culture problem.
posted by grandiloquiet at 8:43 AM on April 6 [6 favorites]


As an academic outsider who applied for PhDs and is settling for an online masters, I think a big part of this is just how confusing and arcane the process of actually getting a PhD is. For a lot of subjects you have to be thinking way ahead to actually get on track for getting into a PhD program, especially research-heavy ones. To get into a US PhD program you need 3 solid letters of recommendation from professors, which basically means you HAVE to do undergraduate research work with specific professors, who hopefully like you. But getting spots in free/underpaid undergraduate research is difficult because you have to aggressively seek them out at a point where most people barely know what their major is. To get a PhD you normally have to specialize pretty early, and that's not something most people do. In contrast to PhD, the STEM undergraduate-to-get-a-job-in-industry pipeline was very well explained by my undergraduate advisors.

I think its pretty unlikely anyone would end up down the path towards academia without having a parent or someone else who can give them direction EARLY so they understand how the process works. And to make it worse it seems like it's completely different for different majors and countries so you can't even really use that knowledge consistently.
posted by JZig at 9:17 AM on April 6 [11 favorites]


At the celebration of my successful Ph.D. defense, my advisor asked my parents, "So, are there many Ph.D.s in your family?" He was really surprised when we all laughed.
posted by biogeo at 9:47 AM on April 6 [4 favorites]


In most top programs grad funding is fixed and guaranteed for 5+ years.

My sister is fully funded. The school didn't pay to move her to the expensive city where it's located. My parents helped with that. Once there, she and her partner were able to get by ...until a health issue popped up. They eventually had to move home because paying for a place to live and paying for treatment (despite being insured and having help from family) was impossible.

The pandemic has set things up so she's being allowed to work remotely from hundreds of miles away, and it looks like they'll keep letter her do that. Our parents (one of whom is a professor) are financially able to help out with moving costs, drive partner to appointments, and upgrade their internet so she can work.

I'm fairly certain being around academia from birth helped her: 1)take the steps that got her into a good program with funding (connect with professors early, go to conferences and present), 2) hit the ground running in grad school, which set her up to be granted the ability to continue working from a distance.

On top of that, our parents financial position has absolutely let her (and previously me) be in academia and take risks without excessively stressing about finances.

Our parents aren't rolling in it, and we definitely still worried about finances a bit (who wants to keep taking money from mom and dad?) but we were never going to starve or be homeless: worst case mom and dad could buy us a plane ticket home.
posted by ghost phoneme at 10:11 AM on April 6 [3 favorites]


I have a PhD and my research and writing were top notch (I won many awards and honours, and my external examiner described my dissertation as a “tour de force” of the genre), but I will never have a tenure track job, because the politicking and networking and all of the other cultural aspects of the job are too overwhelming and foreign to me. University is not part of my family’s knowledge base. Some people have a supervision that can help them acclimate to this, but I didn’t, and now I’m a middle aged adult not sure what to do with myself.
posted by Edna Million at 10:35 AM on April 6 [9 favorites]


I'm a second-generation academic; my father, by contrast, came from an impoverished working-class family, and neither of his parents went to college. So, ironically, I did grow up hearing a lot about how privilege reproduced itself in academia.

The nepotism thing can be a bit of a myth: my father and I are in entirely different fields and there isn't exactly much he could do for me (in graduate school, I did freelance editing on a book he co-authored, for which I received books; that's it). In addition to having more financial backup, it's more a case of knowing expectations: how to behave during seminars; how to network with potential advisers and mentors; how many and which conferences to attend; etc. We also wound up at the same type of institution, teaching-focused comprehensive colleges, and so I was also prepared in terms of thinking about how to pursue a research program at this type of college, what kinds of disadvantages I would face, etc. By contrast, I know nothing directly about working in R1 departments or even SLACs, where entirely different expectations and sometimes administrative power structures are in play, and this was glaringly obvious when I tried interviewing at an R1 back in 2005, shortly before I got tenure.
posted by thomas j wise at 10:35 AM on April 6 [1 favorite]


I honestly had no idea that this was not a well-known and widely accepted phenomenon.

I suppose it depends on your circles, And it is always worth discussing and re-emphasizing.

I do admin for the admissions committee of a Top 3 grad program. The stuff I hear would turn your stomach. I make use of whatever leeway I have to remind the committee about class and first-generation issues but of course my ability to push is small. It's very nice and all that student X did 3 study abroads but all that really means is that she/her family is very wealthy and educated and supportive and she had no non-academic obligations she couldn't leave behind and doesn't actually make her a better candidate than the underrepresented first-generation student from a less fancy school. The credentialism and classism is disheartening, even with faculty I know are trying.

Very tangential but I feel like griping - I have sat in more than one meeting where the chitchat turned to pets, and the staff members all had rescue dogs and rando puppies from their aunt or whoever, and the faculty waxed on lovingly about their pedigree golden retrievers and labs and I dunno, I'm crabby and class prejudices are very hard to break free from.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 10:46 AM on April 6 [23 favorites]


"Hidden curriculum" was not an openly known or discussed thing in my PhD program. I often say that I think first-gen issues became a (more) cared-about topic right after I left college and grad school, which... I'm really glad younger students have it, but also I'm wistful about what could have been for me.

A small story that was a big story for me: my PhD department had an internal, generic application for funding if you wanted to try to get a paper into a conference. There were few instructions for the application, so I merrily filled it out just to get the ball rolling. My adviser later (mostly gently, but still) scolded me not just for filling out the app without consulting her, but because "this isn't the right kind of conference to present your first paper at."

Now how the fuck was I supposed to know any of that?!?
posted by nakedmolerats at 11:02 AM on April 6 [5 favorites]


I often say that I think first-gen issues became a (more) cared-about topic right after I left college and grad school, which... I'm really glad younger students have it, but also I'm wistful about what could have been for me.

I'm very proud of the way the young people have pushed this issue. I wasn't technically first-gen for undergrad, but my parents' college experience (both of them first-gen) wasn't at all typical, plus we were broke, so I could feel the cold wind blowing through the gaps in our financial and social resources all the time. That these kids have managed to organize and press their schools to make better accommodations is amazing.
posted by praemunire at 11:09 AM on April 6 [2 favorites]


Have a look at faculty job postings. With Gen X now firmly entrenched in the tenure track in "solid" subjects that their boomer PhD parents told them to study, the gaps are being filled with millennials and beyond (adjuncts) who have other kinds of knowledge, so that programs of study look balanced.

I'll have to think about why I find the framing of this problematic, but the knee-jerk reaction is to challenge the neat generational divisions you've laid out here.
posted by elkevelvet at 11:41 AM on April 6 [3 favorites]


I did a fully funded humanities PhD at an elite state school, which meant the stipend was a bit lower than top private institutions. It was doable without help from parents. But it did require living in a perpetual state of early-adulthood, despite finishing in my 30s. In other words, I always had housemates, I ate a lot of budget food (so much beans and rice), etc. The program really failed people with kids - some people with kids clearly got help from parents, had a spouse with a real job, or just really struggled.

I recall reading some data that the increasing divide between classes of academic labor generally tended to parallel and entrench difference in socioeconomic class background (as well as race and gender) of academic workers.

This is what I've noticed from my cohort (which recently graduated, and was relatively diverse for academia), though not entirely. Most of those who got tenure-track jobs entered the program already relatively polished. Those that are currently contingent faculty were mostly either from working-class or solidly middle-class backgrounds. That said, there are some fields (medieval history, for example), where there really just aren't many jobs. I don't know a single medievalist from my program that got a tenure-track job.
posted by coffeecat at 12:08 PM on April 6 [8 favorites]


I think this article is important context (maybe this too). Many jobs are highly heritable. This isn't something unique about academia at all.
posted by kickingtheground at 12:38 PM on April 6 [3 favorites]


My grandfather and two of my aunts were professors. As a kid I knew socially probably five adult women who worked for pay outside the home, and two of them had tenure. Of course I said I was going to be a professor when I grew up, I thought that was a job that approximately 40% of women had. My parents didn't have a lot of money but they absolutely never said anything to indicate I shouldn't get exactly as much schooling as I wanted to get, and presumably that would be a lot. They just also made it clear I'd have to figure out how to pay for it.

Idk. "Kids get jobs their relatives also got" doesn't feel like much of a story to me. Like any profession, there are expectations that you have from a young age if it's your family trade. I just assumed I'd get a PhD, for instance, whereas for many people that much school at that rate of pay is a nonstarter.

I'm actually not an academic, as it turns out, and getting used to professional culture in my industry (tech) was hard and confusing. I think I'd have felt more at home in academia and when I've hung out with professors as an adult it feels homey and welcoming, like being at a family reunion. Whereas my husband always leaves my family reunions all "THIS...is NPR" because he says being around my aunts and uncles is like being trapped inside public radio.
posted by potrzebie at 12:50 PM on April 6 [1 favorite]


The point is that the myth of meritocracy is particularly strong in academia, however, so the disconnect between perception and reality is at a different level. People expect a certain degree of outright nepotism in many non-academic areas (kid directly joining their parent's trade or non-academic professional practice or family business), whereas that is strongly frowned upon in academia... yet the nepotistic advantages of having family members also in academia is often unrecognized and the hypocrisy of this combination unquestioned.
posted by eviemath at 12:52 PM on April 6 [20 favorites]


Yeah I remember during a dinner I was asked why I chose to study at such and such large state school with X program rather than this other, smaller school with a strong X-adjacent program, and of course the faculty brat (my lab partner, I do miss him dearly) immediately makes the conversation about why studying in a liberal arts college makes people much better prepared.

It's not any explicit bias, it's just purely structural class privilege that takes a particular form in the intellectual classes, and I'd say since the system benefits from this by being able to extract talent and labor, there's little incentive and movement to make intellectual class privilege and information asymmetry more fair and humanized.
posted by polymodus at 1:37 PM on April 6 [1 favorite]


This isn't really about privilege of faculty kids - who grow up middle class if they live in low cost places, and lower-middle class in high cost of living places - but about how that background immunizes you from falling for the gross unreality about the academic career path that PhD programs deliberately or negligently foster.

My dad was a tenured professor and many of friends' dads were too. I grew up knowing that there was (rounds down to zero) hope outside of top programs, and that even in top programs the dividends all flowed to ambitious self-promoting workaholics, not introverted refugees from capitalism who liked to research.

(As I've said before - if you're not the type who could have made a million a year on Wall Street, flown fighters off aircraft carriers, or become a heart surgeon, if those things had appealed to you, you're not the type who'll make it in academia.)
posted by MattD at 1:51 PM on April 6 [10 favorites]


Because classism is bad, mmkay?

It's not just classism - it's about knowing the culture, the unspoken things. I married into an academic family. My parents didn't know how to apply to an undergrad program, let alone how to apply to a graduate program. But I had two in-laws, both professors, who could guide me the whole way. Seriously: I had to make all these statements fit exactly in certain word counts (e.g. 300 words, 500 words) - and my mother-in-law has written so many abstracts and grants that she can turn out just about anything to word-limit.

Even if my family had been wealthy, but through business, I probably wouldn't have known what to do for writing graduate school proposals or grant applications. On the flip side, I doubt that either of my in-laws really would know how to raise capital and start a business, even though one studies business. Even now, I have a great job (in academic administration), and I'd have no idea how to start a lemonade stand.
posted by jb at 1:59 PM on April 6 [1 favorite]


This isn't really about privilege of faculty kids - who grow up middle class if they live in low cost places, and lower-middle class in high cost of living places

Yeah, no. This might be true for the children of graduate students or contract lecturers (poverty) or support staff (more middle-class). But I am very familiar with the salaries and life-styles of tenure-track professors at several different universities in the United States and Canada - and they are making a middle-class to upper-middle-class salary.

Of course, you could just be using, as people do, "middle class" to refer those on the 75th percentile or higher for income - that's it's historic origin (the middle meant in-between the nobility and the working poor, not that they had an income near the middle of the distribution). But since most people hear "middle" and think that actually means the "middle" of the income distribution - that is median or average, it's deceptive to keep talking that way. Certainly we can all agree that "lower-middle-class" should be at the median even under). Most tenure-track/tenured are paid above the median income for their regions, and many are paid well above the median income.

To take one real example - I looked up the average individual professor salary for a good, but not elite university (CUNY), which (according to Glassdoor) is about $125k/year, which wouldn't sound that high until one remembers that the median household income is only about $64k/year (for 2015-2019), according to the US Census Bureau. And that's just one salary; with a two-income family, that household income would be higher.

Someone could argue that one could not live a "middle-class lifestyle" on $125k in NYC. I would argue that person was re-defining "middle-class" to reflect the lifestyle of people who are well above median or average income (yes, I know they aren't the same) for their society -- and at that point, "middle-class" does mean privileged (as it did in the 19th century).
posted by jb at 2:21 PM on April 6 [10 favorites]


(the previous comment brought to you by the letters A, B and 6+ years of graduate study with heavy concentration on class, income-distribution and economic development. I'm lots of fun at parties).
posted by jb at 2:28 PM on April 6 [2 favorites]


Have a look at faculty job postings. With Gen X now firmly entrenched in the tenure track in "solid" subjects that their boomer PhD parents told them to study, the gaps are being filled with millennials and beyond (adjuncts) who have other kinds of knowledge, so that programs of study look balanced.

I'll have to think about why I find the framing of this problematic, but the knee-jerk reaction is to challenge the neat generational divisions you've laid out here.


I can problematise some of this, with some recent history of higher education and basic knowledge of life cycles.

Since many people will work as a contract lecturer for only part of their life - and then, if they cannot make a living at it, transition into another field, I wouldn't be surprised if contract lecturers were younger on average. Being a Gen-Xer who attended an elite graduate program, I can tell you that the people I know who did contract lecturing, but didn't get tenured positions have since transitioned to other fields, because they had kids and bills to pay and couldn't get by.

In terms of the generational history: there was "explosive growth" in the number of colleges and universities in the US between 1950 and 1970. The growth from 1950-1970 wasn't as great as the growth in the earlier 20th century, but the number of BA degrees granted still doubled in that time period. In contrast, between 1970 and 1990, degrees only increased 1.2 times. Just think about what that would have meant for the numbers of faculty needed - doubling between 1950 and 1970, but not after that. The big beneficiaries of that growth were the people who entered the academic job market before 1970, which included only the oldest of the boomers (born c1945-50, if that). The 1970s, 80s and 90s - just when most boomers were coming of age - are known by everyone even a little associated with academia as the bust years. No more new universities, hires just stopping. Even very successful people could have lean years; I knew a later-Ivy League professor who had a 7-year gap between his children, because his career in the 1980s was so insecure (stitched together from post-docs and visiting professorships that didn't pay much more than a TA-ship) that he couldn't afford to have another child.

Of course, the job market has not improved since then, despite the fact that the number of degrees has increased again. Government investment in higher education dried up - and then took an absolute nose-dive after 2008.

This pattern is similar to the ones in Canada and the UK as well - lots of expansion in the 1950s and 60s, slowing down in the 1970s and flatlining in the 1980s and 1990s, with the expected impact on the academic job market.

So the Boomers didn't have an easy ride, but things have just gotten harder (yay). Current tenured professors have told me that they don't think that they could get hired if they were on the job market now.
posted by jb at 2:58 PM on April 6 [2 favorites]


This isn't really about privilege of faculty kids - who grow up middle class if they live in low cost places, and lower-middle class in high cost of living places - but about how that background immunizes you

A background that immunizes an individual is one manifestation of structural privilege (read my comment carefully, I never said anything about faculty brats being privileged as being the underlying issue). The white collar, intellectual, and/or creative caste (if you will) know what mistakes to avoid and so forth. The fact that they choose not to do it is isn't out of wisdom but out of information asymmetry. The fact that they have this choice is also privilege. And the subtle fact that this creates a reserve for this sector is also evidence of how capitalist extraction works, analogous to theories of labor precarity.
posted by polymodus at 3:06 PM on April 6 [8 favorites]


It's not just classism - it's about knowing the culture, the unspoken things.

Yes, this. I was the first person in my family - ancestors, aunts & uncles, cousins - to attend university. My dad worked on cargo ships, my mother (before she married) was a venetian blind assembler in a factory. My first year of uni was 1988. I can't emphasise enough how many things are just assumed to be known (or at least were, back then).

For example, I had no idea you could talk to your tutors outside tutorials. I was utterly gobsmacked the first time I saw someone argue their grade. When I did my Masters, I had no idea that I was expected to be in far more regular contact with my supervisor than I actually was. That I could discuss things with them and ask for help. I thought it was just like a high school teaching role where I bring them things I've done and they tell me if they're good or bad and what I need to work on more.

And if you're a smart kid and you've grown up getting lots of praise in your tiny country town for being smart, you're too scared to ask for help because asking for help shows you are not smart. It would be like admitting to my grandmother who constantly asked, "But darling, how will that help you to get a job?" or my grandfather who thought I was lazy to not already be working full time, that they were right.

Looking back I am amazed that I have two degrees under my belt because I felt like a total imposter the entire time. I often still do. I work at a university - but as support, not academic, staff. Many of the people I work with - both academic and professional staff - come from families where degrees were the norm.

One of my tasks now is to assess scholarship applications alongside the scholarship donors. Often, others will want to award it to the kid who's been on overseas exchange programs, whose hobby is something expensive like dressage, whose only volunteering has been school-organised overseas trips to build schools in impoverished countries, and who has never had a job (ie, from a family that can afford to pay for those things), rather than the kid with equally great academic results who's first in family, works as a roustabout in a shearing shed or a sandwich hand at the local roadhouse, is a CFA volunteer, etc. I will always fight for the kids with less privilege, even if they are less likely to express themselves in the "right" way in their application.

We have programs and scholarships for first-in-family students so they feel supported, and I'm glad. I'm also glad that there are so many ways for kids to communicate and ask questions online, without having to feel like idiots.
posted by andraste at 3:52 PM on April 6 [15 favorites]


And this was all even more so in the pre-internet days, when you had to rely on guidance counselors, faculty advisors, and other gatekeepers, and their personal prejudices, to help you navigate your way through higher education.

If your family wasn’t already familiar with the process and requirements, it was largely up to chance whether you met the right advisors or not.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:45 PM on April 6 [1 favorite]


Have a network of peers helps...a lot. I had seniors from my school end up at the same grad school. It made a world of difference having familiar faces to turn to for guidance, right from which profs usually require TAs or RAs to which courses to take (or to avoid).
posted by asra at 5:01 PM on April 6


And that's just one salary; with a two-income family, that household income would be higher.

Those two incomes were a lot more feasible and paid off a bit more for my parents because my grad student then professor father and nurse mother could adjust there schedules to minimize the need for paid childcare. By prioritizing parenthood he probably didn't max out his professional success, but he doesn't seem to mind that.

Between the good benefits, summers off(ish), and reduced tuition for the kids...a professorship was a buff that boosted his socioeconomic status.

Some of the benefits he was able to enjoy may be less likely to apply to people starting out now: he got a tenure track job ABD in the area he wanted to live, some control over when his classes happened, and had minimal student debt. But that's true for any job now a days, I suspect.

I'm lucky enough to work for a boss that is somewhat cognizant of the hidden curriculum. So we take part in programs designed to help bridge the gap. The goal is usually to give first-in-family students direct research experience. One silver lining to the pandemic and being remote is we've started introducing more topics about how academia works: what to look for in grad schools, the different kinds of grad programs, funding options (for school), funding for research (aka why do we always talk about grant writing), etc.
posted by ghost phoneme at 5:21 PM on April 6 [1 favorite]


So, I'm a little hesitant to post this, but I guess I'm the posterchild for this dynamic. I'm an academic, child of an academic. I grew up on a college campus, literally. Nearly all the kids in my public elementary school were children of academics. At Thanksgiving, there are enough Ph.D.s at the table that we could probably form our own cross-disciplinary department. Academia is all I've ever known, and all I've ever imagined myself doing. I was utterly oblivious to the extraordinary advantages this gave me until well into my teaching career. I'm probably still way more oblivious than I think, certainly more than I would like to be, but I have become significantly more cognizant of my privileged position, in no small part because I have the good fortune to be part of a department and a university that is increasingly dedicated to making graduate education more accessible and more open and less of a machine for class replication. We are working hard to lay bare the hidden curriculum. And discussions like this one help me to do that. So that's good.

But all of this is a preface to a problem that I've been wrestling with for some time. When undergraduates come to me to discuss going to graduate school to enter the professoriate, I feel very, very strongly that I need to make sure that they fully understand what that entails, how the system works, how academic jobs work, and the permanent state of crisis that higher education finds itself. This means explaining how graduate school works, how it's different from undergraduate education, but it also means explaining things like the tenure process, but more importantly, the difference between tenure-track and non tenure-track teaching, the system's dependence on underpaid adjunct labor, the abysmal state of the job market (I'm a historian, so I show them the AHA's most recent jobs report), and more. Most of them are utterly horrified, and they should be. Most of them ask me how it came to be that I became a professor and I answer honestly. I also try to make it clear that academia is changing, or at least it needs to change, and that graduate school isn't just for people like me -- but I'm also worried that my principled-but-maybe-too-much-so explanation of just how messed up the whole thing is reads as me actually saying that they shouldn't bother, that only professors' kids have a chance. The whole thing really nags at me and I don't know how to do it right. I want a professoriate populated by people of all kinds of backgrounds, but I also think that the whole system is so exploitative and awful that I can't in good conscience not explain how things work. For my own child, I've adamantly encouraged him to stay the hell away from professoring, because I'm a dinosaur and the time of dinosaurs is nearly over.
posted by pleasant_confusion at 7:39 PM on April 6 [7 favorites]


I think that part of the dynamic of PhD candidates coming from homes with PhDs is the willingness of the parents to fund the journey to get to the position to compete for tenure track jobs in the first place - because the family values their offspring getting a PhD.

Also, hangover from the 60's and 70's where a PhD was an even more surefire lottery ticket than a bachelor's degree. Probably even into the 80's and 90's (when the story mutated into "but there is going to be a wave of retirements when it's your turn to try to get tenure).

Thinking back, of my PhD cohort in a very high COL area that I knew well enough to definitively know their family backgrounds, out of 15 of us, 11 came from very wealthy families. Like, owned horses in the city from childhood, dad was an oil exec who traveled frequently to the 'stans, family owned factories back East, dad was a retired foreign general who got into business, etc. All 12 had extensive help - if not having a condo bought for them (and some, credit cards that got magically paid for every month), then their rents were paid for. One was married to a tech guy, another married to a prof. Me and the other one were from in-town and lived under our parent's roofs for at least a couple/ few years. Of that one, his parents put the down payment on a house for him, and one for his wife, when he got married.

The PhD is just the first step - academic post docs don't pay very well. Of my cohort who went on to try, they continued to have extensive family help and/ or married well.

Of the 5/6 post docs that came and went through my PI's lab, again, wealthy family, had savings from being a (foreign) medical doctor, followed their also-post-doc-ing-but-has-N.European-funding+Canadian-funding spouse, or were married to someone with a healthy income.

Myself, I come from a wealthy family (and had the privilege of a fancy expensive undergrad education, and some understanding of "class") but my parents were "poor." I didn't pursue an academic post-doc because I didn't believe in myself (or the prospects) and my dad was terminal and doing an academic post-doc would have necessitated moving away.
posted by porpoise at 8:11 PM on April 6


The PhD is just the first step - academic post docs don't pay very well. Of my cohort who went on to try, they continued to have extensive family help and/ or married well.

This might be field-dependent. USD50-75K is not uncommon for postdocs in my field in the US. This doesn't affect the larger point, though, because of everything that has to happen before a first postdoc. It's the insecurity and the need to be willing to move to essentially random locations every few years, more than the salary, that makes the post-PhD academic job market prohibitive for whole chunks of the population, IME.
posted by busted_crayons at 2:39 AM on April 7 [3 favorites]


My experience with the "hidden curriculum" is, in short, just that academic culture is large-majority-white professional-managerial class culture; there are all kinds of tacit superstitions one needs to (at minimum) be aware of in order to at least give the impression of fitting in. Most of these superstitions fall apart under a fraction of the scrutiny that academics would bring to bear on an assertion in their own field of specialisation, so the whole state of affairs is pretty embarassing.

It's pretty culturally rarefied, evidently: I'm a white man whose parents had bachelor's degrees (and some postgrad experience), made a bit over the median income most of the time I was growing up, and paid most of my undergrad tuition; in a variety of respects, I have a much easier time fitting in with the dominant academic culture than many of my colleagues, and even I have spent a lot of time feeling out-of-place or "outclassed" in academia.

Examples of the dominant academic culture include:

- some extremely woolly-headed and self-serving ideas about "merit" and "meritocracy";
- the widespread idea that expertise in one area is an indicator of some (vague) "ability to think" that entitles one to be taken seriously in unrelated matters;
- the widespread idea that academic work is above moral or political considerations, and that ideas that have not been filtered through academic gatekeeping (or some other professional gatekeeping) are unworthy of consideration;
- "individualism" is fetishised but not properly articulated or even really supported --- academics are actually a pretty conservative and deferential bunch;
- ...

The tacit superstitions are pretty obviously bad for scientific/scholarly progress, because entire fields develop significant blind spots and cultural norms that systematically exclude, or force out, people with a lot to contribute (not that that should even be the bar --- good-faith interest in the field should be the bar).

The tacit superstitions are pretty obviously contrary to values that should be more or less forced on us logically by the philosophical underpinnings of our disciplines. I can't speak too much outside of my own field (mathematics), but serious commitment to the attitudes that undergird scientific and mathematical reasoning would seem to me to require a much more democratic and inclusive culture than we currently have. This feeling is, in fairness, to some extent latent in the academic community I'm familiar with, but it routinely fails to influence actual behaviour.

The tacit superstitions are also dangerous to the academic enterprise, which is currently in fairly serious conflict with managerialism and marketisation in universities in many places. The most obvious example for me has been seeing how the dominance of professional-managerial class culture has hamstrung efforts to counter inappropriate encroachment of market logic through unionisation. Our union (representing academic staff, some postgraduate students, and a variety of others at many institutions) has staged three large-scale strikes in the past few years, and this has given me the chance to see some really bizarre behaviour, like professors "participating" by continuing to work and making a show of working ("my students need me"/"my work is too important") but refusing paycheques. Being too invested in being definitely not working-class to know how to organise is absolutely suicidal, because I promise senior management does not see us as the special essential priesthood we think we are.

TL;DR abolish "prestige" and see who sticks around or shows up.
posted by busted_crayons at 4:16 AM on April 7 [5 favorites]


This isn't really about privilege of faculty kids - who grow up middle class if they live in low cost places, and lower-middle class in high cost of living places - but about how that background immunizes you from falling for the gross unreality about the academic career path that PhD programs deliberately or negligently foster.

Isn't that part of the tacit knowledge of privilege though? Not just the knowledge of when and how to get a PhD but also when and how not to? I think many academics find it hard to have the conversation that pleasant_confusion mentioned with mentees that they don't have a close relationship with. Telling undergraduates that they should potentially *not* do something, it's really hard and easier to just be vague.

I did a physics degree at an elite under-graduate institution and went to PhD interviews in my final year and had the good fortune that both family members and academic mentors told me the truth. That was that while I would probably come out of it without any debt and having enjoyed myself, I should be realistic about what an academic life would actually entail. I would bet that if you're a white male academic, this is an easier and less fraught conversation to have with a white man from a well-off family like me than it would with other undergraduates, what professor wants to be the guy who tells the first generation student that a PhD is not for her? Yikes.

I had one prospective supervisor who outright said that my academic results were good enough to get in but that I didn't seem to have the monomania and/or innate mathematical ability to have a successful career in particle physics but that if I joined his experimental group I'd learn to develop high performance electronics and lots of his formers students went on to have good industry careers. He was totally right about my academic commitment and ability and I really valued his accurate assessment of them and the thought he'd clearly put into non-academic career paths for his students in a field (experimental particle physics) which innately requires a lot more hard working PhD students than it can ever support professors.

One of the ways that first-generation students get taken for a ride is not understanding unstated things like this, or not understanding how the academic prestige of a for-profit college is positioned vs a cheaper state college. Within the world of vocational post-graduate studies, I also see this in both mid-low ranking business and law schools. The latter being tremendously dishonest about the likelihood of ending up on the right side of the bimodal lawyer income distribution and the former on the career value of what they are offering. If you don't know how to look for it, none of this information will come to you naturally and there is a pervasive cultural background that lawyers and people with MBAs make lots of money. With the right cultural background, there will be lots of people in your family who can tell you that going into six figures of debt to go the 72nd best law school in the US when you don't even know what being a lawyer is like is maybe not such a great idea.

A lot of my friend group from my undergraduate days actually did do PhDs and go into academia (and this was a nerdy, academic bunch, at a nerdy university). We graduated 15 years ago and here's where they are:
-Actually a full time academic at an elite research university on what an American would think of as tenure track. Three.
-Still doing mid-career temporary appointments or post-docs. Three.
-Left academia to do other things. Four.
-Didn't finish PhD. Two.

On the one hand, three out of nine grabbing the golden ring sounds pretty good for a PhD cohort, on the other hand that is exactly the problem! If you had taken a group of extremely clever and hard working young people and had them work 80 hours a week for more than a decade on something other this, I rather think you might expect a higher success rate. (n.b. they all did their PhDs in well regarded groups, I don't even want to think about the % of overall PhDs.)
posted by atrazine at 6:20 AM on April 7 [2 favorites]


I didn't go beyond a masters degree, but I'm pretty confused about all the people saying that it's about 'the culture'. My parents didn't have masters degrees, only my mom even went to some dinky no-name college, but entrance to state university and later grad school school was nothing more than an above average interest in education and learning, good enough grades on the tests, and money to afford it. All the stuff about filling out some papers and finding professors to write recommendations is easy if you meet those. It's a pretty low bar in terms of hiring complexity, even if the competition for positions is high.


Yeah, no. This might be true for the children of graduate students or contract lecturers (poverty) or support staff (more middle-class). But I am very familiar with the salaries and life-styles of tenure-track professors at several different universities in the United States and Canada - and they are making a middle-class to upper-middle-class salary.

It's interesting. A solid decade ago, it used to be argued that 'plumber' was an example of a blue collar class job that outearns higher class job 'professor', but now a decade later, reports come out that academia pays enough to bankroll a second generation of academics, even as the costs of college have spiraled. I wonder what the super-wealthy class of plumbers is doing considering they didn't have to pay for 2 generations of university? They don't seem to show up in any official stats....
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:19 AM on April 7


entrance to state university and later grad school school was nothing more than an above average interest in education and learning, good enough grades on the tests, and money to afford it. All the stuff about filling out some papers and finding professors to write recommendations is easy if you meet those. It's a pretty low bar in terms of hiring complexity, even if the competition for positions is high.

My grad school program admitted something like 7% of applicants the year I applied. If you're determined to go to grad school somewhere, you probably can. While I suppose fields vary, if you want to go somewhere where you at least have whatever pitiful chance is the best chance of getting hired, it's generally quite difficult. My Ivy undergrad advisor told me to apply to only three graduate schools, as the only ones matching my interests that were also professionally sensible. (Something I would never have known had I not had that advisor, and had that conversation.)
posted by praemunire at 8:56 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]


A solid decade ago, it used to be argued that 'plumber' was an example of a blue collar class job that outearns higher class job 'professor', but now a decade later, reports come out that academia pays enough to bankroll a second generation of academics

That strongly depends on what country you're in. I'm up for promotion to (the UK equivalent of) associate professor and I make considerably less than I did as a postdoc in the US. It also strongly depends on which type of institution you work at.

In my city, the average pay for a plumber (your example) seems to be around £30-40K/year, which is comparable to the starting salary for a lecturer (i.e. tenure-track assistant professor) at the university where I work.

Now, it's probable that academic salaries grow more steeply across a career than for plumbers, but professor salaries at my (large research) institution above £100K are rare enough that the university has to itemize them in financial statements.

I'm certain that children of academics are much better-represented among staff than children of plumbers, and this is almost certainly true among the postgraduate students and quite possibly true among the undergraduates.

But I don't think the parental income differences are sufficient to explain it.

(Once you mod out by the effect of parental income on who ends up in undergrad where, the way parental income -- rather than its cultural correlates -- most seriously makes itself felt is probably in determining who feels like they have enough of a safety net to live on a postgraduate stipend for several years.)

All the stuff about filling out some papers and finding professors to write recommendations is easy if you meet those. It's a pretty low bar in terms of hiring complexity, even if the competition for positions is high.

If the question is why the tenured/tenure-track workforce is so predominantly from professional-class-and-up backgrounds, then there are a lot more bars than that that have to be cleared.

For example, recommendation letters are (perhaps) less of a big deal when applying for studentships, but further along the pipeline (postdoc applications, tenure-track applications, tenure/promotion, etc.) they essentially make or break an application --- if you sit in hiring meetings, you find that most of the evidence cited by bickering colleagues is the content of letters, the names and reputations of the letter-writers, weird hearsay about different Exalted Figures' effusiveness in their letters, etc.

For the applicant, this means that success can hinge to a very large degree on having cultivated relationships with 3-5 senior people; these people have to know enough about the applicant's work to write a detailed (ideally pretty technical) letter, and applicants are informally competing for these relationships. That means they have to know which conferences to attend, have the confidence to approach Exalted Figures at conferences, get invited to give talks, etc. For a lot of PhD students, a lot of this rests on how much their advisor is looking out for them/how much effort their advisor is making to include them in the community.

Cultural factors are absolutely at play; some colleagues and I have, essentially, an informal helpline for PhD students and early postdocs in our field who are not having or did not have adequate supervisory support --- in most cases, this is because of preconceptions about the early-career person that are at least partly based on culture, gender, or class.

Generalising from experience, I would say that the specific factors that influence who ends up an academic (and in what sort of academic role) are pretty different from the specific factors influencing who starts a PhD.
posted by busted_crayons at 9:01 AM on April 7 [2 favorites]


I didn't go beyond a masters degree, but I'm pretty confused about all the people saying that it's about 'the culture'.

At the masters level, it's not quite as essential. The professionalization and networking expected for a successful PhD is different - or, at least it was so in my experience, as someone who did very well for my masters and flamed out of the PhD (mostly due to health, but also due to cultural issues).
posted by jb at 9:19 AM on April 7 [3 favorites]


For example, recommendation letters are (perhaps) less of a big deal when applying for studentships, but further along the pipeline (postdoc applications, tenure-track applications, tenure/promotion, etc.) they essentially make or break an application --- if you sit in hiring meetings, you find that most of the evidence cited by bickering colleagues is the content of letters, the names and reputations of the letter-writers, weird hearsay about different Exalted Figures' effusiveness in their letters, etc.

I think timing is an important issue here as well. I knew before I started undergraduate that I should be signing up for research opportunities during term time and in my first summer, going to the "optional" tutorials, etc. I'm sure that everyone I went to university with came out knowing that but if you just figure that out by osmosis halfway through your second year after applications for second year summer research have started to close, you're going to be way behind someone who was on-target from the beginning of year 1. My first year room-mate already knew he wanted to be a plasma physicist in first year and by the time it came to applying for PhDs he'd spent two summers at JET and was spending 10 hrs a week being paid (a pittance, but still) to work on MHD code. Of course he's now a plasma physicist and his PhD admission process was him picking his favourite from the offers.

I'm not saying that nobody who didn't have a parent in academia as he did could do that but statistically speaking they're probably a lot less likely to do it.
posted by atrazine at 9:45 AM on April 7 [2 favorites]


but now a decade later, reports come out that academia pays enough to bankroll a second generation of academics, even as the costs of college have spiraled.

Eh, I want to push back a bit on the idea that academics are all upper-middle class or above. Certainly, many of them are, but it really depends on the field. Glassdoor is a bad source to get a sense of what pay is actually like since the range of salaries can be pretty varied. You'll have on the one extreme all-star faculty, faculty in STEM/Business School/Law school who will tend to start off in high five-figures/low 6-figures, an then on the other end you have humanities faculty at non-prestigious schools making less than 50k a year. Some plumbers do make more than some professors! I know some humanities faculty from working class backgrounds, with spouses who have working class jobs, and they have a kid or two. They struggle to make ends meet.
posted by coffeecat at 10:30 AM on April 7 [3 favorites]


In engineering, the vast majority of faculty come from a subset of schools. (It's possible, but more difficult from other schools). Anybody who is able to gain admission to one of those PhD programs in engineering is probably also able to get a job that pays roughly double what they would be receiving as a PhD stipend. This is usually followed by moving somewhere to do a postdoc where once more you are probably able to get a job outside academia that pays significantly more (and if you have technical skills in certain hot topics it's a staggering amount more.) If you want a tenure track position, this is followed by moving once more to take a position where once more you could earn considerably more working in a non academic position. The entire time you will be expected to work 50 - 80 hour weeks.

There are, of course, upsides to working in academia, but the ability to decide that 'being a professor' is worth more than money is of course privilege. I saw a lot of my PhD classmates decide that if they were going to work that hard they would get paid accordingly and go into management consulting.
posted by Comrade_robot at 11:08 AM on April 7


BTW that glassdoor figure of $125K for the average CUNY prof is definitely high. Our union publishes the full salary schedule so you can see for yourself, really only full professors with considerable seniority can make that.

If glassdoor is accurate at all it must be conflating the administrators in with the professors, yet excluding the 60% of us who are adjuncts.
posted by anhedonic at 11:16 AM on April 7 [4 favorites]


I wonder if children of academics are likely to have more or less of the "pure scholarship is the only noble life" emotion that is, ah, not useful for strategic academic success (waves ABD hand).

I bet *successful* academic children-of-academics have less of it. There was one in my doctoral cohort who gave a lecture in our orientation sessions (!) about how clever it was to not report companies for breaking environmental laws because you would lose research access and funding. I asked if his family had set a bright line they wouldn't cross, or how they kept the companies from understanding that the researchers had been (at this point I stammered because I had just enough social sense not to say "suborned", but the more I learned about their research the less I liked it).
posted by clew at 12:27 PM on April 7 [4 favorites]


One of the things that this can really make an obvious difference at the start is in the funding packages given to grad students

One of the big reasons I didn't end up going to my dream PhD program was that the stipend they offered, which included a 2:1 course load, was less than I was making working 35 hours a week at a fucking bookstore. And this was a really competitive program! No regrets, but the idea expressed upthread that most PhD programs are fully funded for 5 years is risible, even at a number of elite institutions. It shouldn't be surprising that most people who succeed in academia have some degree (get it?) of parental administrative/financial support.

Neither of my parents finished college, although my mom did at least a couple years. Both of my partner's parents have doctoral degrees. Guess which one of us is a successful academic? Guess which one of us has substantial student loan debt that at age 42 is still higher than his annual salary?
posted by aspersioncast at 2:03 PM on April 7 [3 favorites]


Another significant factor to consider is the career advancement point at which a person starts earning a particular salary.

Apprentice electricians don't earn very much, around $35k/year, but someone starting that career path can enter it immediately after high school, say age 18 or so. An IBEW apprenticeship is also funded by the union. Conversely, someone beginning an academic career path first needs a bachelor's degree, requiring either family funding, student loans, or scholarships. As an example of one academic career track's pay, an NIH-supported graduate student, will receive a stipend of $25k/year, possibly supplemented for cost of living at some universities, and begins earning this at about age 22 if starting as soon as possible.

Following a 4-year apprenticeship, an electrician can advance to journeyman, and will earn about $50k/year, starting at about age 22. Following an average of about 5 years of graduate school, an academic in an NIH-funded discipline will almost certainly have to move on to a postdoc and will begin earning $55k/year, with annual experience raises after that, and will begin earning this at about age 27. As far as I know, electricians are usually able to advance in their career without needing to relocate. This isn't true for academics, who usually have to change institutions and thus cities in order to advance, which can be a significant expense itself, and may have to happen multiple times.

After about 2 years, a journeyman electrician can be licensed as a master (or "contractor" in some states), and will earn about $63k/year. Someone who starts this career path immediately could begin making this salary starting at about age 25 or so. A particularly lucky and ambitious NIH academic might manage to get an assistant professorship after about 2-3 years as a postdoc, earning an average of $66k (for biologists, specifically), and will begin earning this at about age 30. However, a typical academic in an NIH field spends closer to 5-6 years as a postdoc, but will roughly keep up, salary-wise, during this time thanks to the annual experience increases. This will also, again, almost certainly require at least one more expensive move to a new city, though for an assistant professorship there may be a relocation package at least.

At this point, I'm not familiar with what career advancement as an electrician would look like, or how long it takes to hit those milestones. For an academic in biomedical research who manages to make tenure, that process takes
another roughly 6 years, at which time one will be able to earn around $70k (again, for biologists, specifically), at which time one would generally be in one's late 30s at the earliest. Full professorship, if earned, will take several more years, and can push one up above a $90k salary sometime in one's 40s. Experienced electrical contractors can certainly make comparable or better salaries, but again I'm not sure how long it takes to hit that point.

All of the above numbers are for academics in biomedical sciences, who typically earn more money at basically every stage of the process than most other academics except for engineers. Graduate school for humanities may take longer than for science, and the postdoc phase is usually replaced by an adjunct faculty phase which pays much worse and may require more expensive moving around.

The point of all this of course is not that academics aren't earning a middle class salary for their work. Rather, the pay compensation is really pretty similar to what could be expected for another highly skilled profession, electricians. The difference though is that academics begin by lagging about 5 years behind in terms of earnings, with the period of their mid-20s spent earning considerably less than someone pursing a skilled trade would be at that time in their life. Academics don't really catch up until they're in their 40s at least, and that's not accounting for student loans, the loss of social support that comes with having to relocate away from family and friends several times, and so on. Folks in the humanities may never catch up. And of course the period of one's 20s and 30s are typically when most people who want children would be wanting to have them, so a delay in earnings during this time, combined with the fact of multiple significant disruptive moves for one's career, is going to be especially challenging.

And again, the point of this is not that academics have it worse than, say, electricians. There are certainly numerous challenges associated with a career in the trades that are very different from what academics face. But rather, when making choices about what kind of career to pursue, people who come from a background where they can't afford to be earning significantly less money during their 20s are basically forced out of academia, and even people who stick with it into their 30s may find that they're out-competed by people who have more family resources to lean on to support them while they develop their career. For academics fortunate enough to be in a field with highly transferable skills, there's also the opportunity cost of knowing at each major career decision point that you could be earning significantly more money, possibly for significantly less work, by leaving academia and going to industry, which again is going to be a stronger pull on those who have heavy loans to pay off and families to support than on those who can afford to earn less while pursuing the academic dream.
posted by biogeo at 10:05 PM on April 7 [5 favorites]


The difference though is that academics begin by lagging about 5 years behind in terms of earnings, with the period of their mid-20s spent earning considerably less than someone pursing a skilled trade would be at that time in their life.

Make that more like 10-15 years for a humanities academic in Canada - 4 years undergraduate, 2 years Masters, then 6-8 years PhD, then contract lecturing / post-docs...

I left that track after a masters and part of a PhD, and only started making a salary above $20k/year in my mid-30s.
posted by jb at 11:35 AM on April 8


But my original point re professorial salaries wasn't about the field as a whole, or even the lifetime earnings. It was more in reaction to the idea that the children of tenured professors were living a "lower-middle-class" lifestyle. As someone who grew up in an actually poor life-style and now with a close-to-median-household-income lifestyle, I've met faculty and their children - and they've all had middle to upper-middle class incomes, including public universities. In the last 20 years, starting tenure track pay at my not-prestigious undergraduate university literally doubled. Minimum wage also doubled, but going from $7/hour to $14/hour is a lot different than going from $42k starting c2000 to $80k starting c2020 - with increased to over $100k within the first ten years of teaching.

The pattern may be less extreme in the United States, but there is a general trend in the developed world - or at least, the Anglo bit of it - where higher salaried "knowledge workers" (e.g. tenured professors, doctors, lawyers, also software developers) have had increasing salaries, while "low-skilled" worker's pay has stagnated (or fallen due to inflation). This is part of the increasing inequality - and we see it the academic world, just like everywhere else. Even as large numbers of university teachers - part-time, contract and/or contingent - are teaching more for very little money, the disparity with the full-time, tenured faculty grows, or at least so in Ontario.

This will have an impact on future academics (returning to the FPP): not just the cultural advantages (which are very significant, and which I've benefited from through in-law connections), but also plain economic advantages. The children of successful, tenured faculty will start - like the children of other prestigious professions - a couple of steps up the ladder, compared to people from lower income backgrounds.
posted by jb at 11:52 AM on April 8 [6 favorites]


Another significant factor to consider is the career advancement point at which a person starts earning a particular salary.

Yes, since the early salaries are relatively low, having family that serves as either a spring board or a safety net makes enduring those low earning years feasible/possible. If you come from an academic family, you're also more informed when you make that gamble. So even if mom and dad can't pay all of your bills, you're better able to judge how much you're risking and when to cut your losses.

Plus, as you age, it's way easier to keep working a tenure track job rather than a physical trade.
posted by ghost phoneme at 11:09 AM on April 10


I mean, only on the margins? In most top programs grad funding is fixed and guaranteed for 5+ years.

Having extra money can help out in so many ways. Getting a place without roommates, roaches, rats, or junkies crawling in through the fire escape every two weeks does wonders for your concentration.
posted by benzenedream at 9:31 AM on April 13


The depressing thing about all of this is that even when you are published and tenured at an R1, it can still be too much.

That, along with the monstrous racism of my field, are why I am calling it quits, anyway.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 11:07 AM on April 13 [2 favorites]


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