We are the 30.3%

This morning @dataandpolitics asked an interesting question:

As I’m writing this about 400 people have replied. The responses and conversations that followed were a nice respite for all of us working on Labor Day. And especially for those of us who feel completely inadequate, and unprepared for life in academia.

Some data from NSF adds context to this discussion [2].

About 18% of all STEM PhDs have parents who only hold a high school degree. Another 12.3 % have parents with only ‘some’ college experience (aka they did not receive a bachelors degree).

Of course, we shouldn’t feel like outsiders. This is what we are told over and over again. “You belong here. We hired you, how much more validation do you need?”

But occasionally, and often embarrassingly, it doesn’t feel that way.

Here is a simple example from my first year as an assistant professor: Graduation.

Some back story: I finished my PhD in the summer of 2015 and immediately started a postdoc. I didn’t even think about traveling back across the country for graduation at my alma matter. First, It was expensive. Second, without a supporting family it seemed like it would be a profoundly awkward ceremony.

I did attend my undergraduate graduation. I vividly remember the hooding of a PhD candidate that I was close with — I remember him walking off stage and falling into the arms of his wife saying “It’s over!” His parents hugged them both. Wet eyes all around.

I remember really wanting to be him. I still do in many ways. But this vision of what graduation was supposed to look like did not match my reality. And so, I didn’t attend.

I hadn’t even considered that there were a number of faculty at my undergraduate commencement.(In my defense, it was a decade ago)

Fast forward to me as a brand new assistant professor mingling in the hall before a faculty meeting. A colleague asked if I wanted to get drinks before the graduation ceremony, and I responded curtly, “I’m not going, why would I?”

I was later very softly reprimanded by the associate dean. She reminded me (read: informed me) that attending graduation is a part of my job. In fact, I was encouraged to use part of my start-up package to purchase regalia so that I was prepared the next year. This was deeply embarrassing to me because I had been so cavalier in my “Why would I?” response in front of my new colleagues.

This scenario has a lot to do with the graph above. I am an 18 percenter. I don’t come from this world. I’m often confused by, and caught off guard by the norms that govern it.

Finding out that other academics I admire are from the same “class” as me was comforting.

It also reminded me that there are a lot of current PhD students in my department that are likely in the same position. And, I need to take being their ally seriously.


[1] @dataandpolitics is pseudo-anonymous twitter account run by a not-so-pseudo (read: awesome!) PhD candidate. 
[2] Data from NSF on STEM PhDs

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