Archive for: November, 2011

The lingering challenges of "bootstrapping" in academia

Nov 12 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Life Trajectories]

Some of you may have seen this piece in The Chronicle by Rachel Wagner, discussing her struggles as a single mom from an impoverished rural community trying to make it in academia.

To put it mildly, it stuck a chord with me. Enough to get me to un-mothball the blogge and post something, obviously. Her experience is mine. She discusses how financial troubles are one of those things you just don't speak of in academia, and describes how things as basic as finding money to go on an interview can be humiliating:

Here's what happens when you are living close to the financial edge as a single parent in academe: You need to attend an academic conference to interview for a job, as your current position is a one-year temporary position for someone on sabbatical. So you have to buy a plane ticket. Sure, you'll be reimbursed from the college's travel allowance for about 80 percent of the trip. But how will you buy that plane ticket in the first place, in order to be reimbursed a month or two later? Credit card? I'm afraid not. That was closed out last year because you couldn't pay for it while you worked as an adjunct for $15,000 a year.

Well, ask your parents for a loan. Weren't you listening? OK then, ask a colleague to help you. I could, but that violates all standards of friendship, especially the one where you aren't supposed to tell anyone affiliated with your job that you don't have enough money to go on an interview. And your nonacademic friends? They don't have any money, either. So why not ask the college for an advance? Because it doesn't give advances. And you have just violated the unspoken standard that stipulates you should never reveal your financial struggle if you are in academe.

This is all too familiar. To interview for my current position, I was offered travel expenses--but like the author, to be reimbursed at a later date. After college (where I worked 3 part-time jobs just to pay for books, rent, and food), grad school (raising Progeny and trying to pay student loans with almost all of my salary going toward daycare), and my post-doc (more income for me, but also more daycare, and I had to quit my part-time waitressing gig), the bare minimum of credit cards that I carried were close to maxed out. No way could I pay for a $400+ flight, so I drove instead (~$150 worth of gas for the round-trip drive in my hideously teal 1995 Dodge Neon).

Professorship made it better, right? Ah, but with that came divorce, single-parenthood, and a crushing amount of legal bills.

Yes, these are all due to my choices. I recognize that and am not asking for sympathy, or pity, or whatever. Thing is, life happens. Like the author, I come from a community where it was not weird at all to get married and have a child in my early 20s, no matter what my career trajectory. Hell, many in my graduating class already have children of their own graduating from high school, and one who graduated a year ahead of me is a grandma to a one-year-old at age 36. This is my normal. It's a different world in the Ivory Tower. A fellow graduate student (who also had a child) confided in me once that a professor had told him that "students who have children aren't serious about their studies. Might as well quit now." I've had other student-parents tell similar stories. It is a difficult road, but not insurmountable--and any bit of support helps.

As Dr. Wagner mentions, it's also difficult to discuss all of these issues in academia, especially pre-tenure, when your senior colleagues are also your judges and jury. Colleagues seem to assume you're on equal footing financially, perhaps forgetting that they're married to a surgeon and I (was) married to a blue-collar worker, and now am a single parent. The fact that I attended a pricey private college further serves to disguise my lower socioeconomic status, both currently and by upbringing--they only know the name on my diploma, not the fact that I worked my way through there waitressing, working in the dining halls, and calling alumni for donations (yes, I was that person, sorry--it paid $12/hour and allowed me to work evenings). They don't know that my dad worked third shift in a factory and my mom couldn't work, or that I started driving myself to extra-curriculars in my uncle's old beater on the rural backroads at age 14 just so I could participate in music and athletics. It's as if that background should just have evaporated now that I'm Professor Montague, replaced via the Pricey Degree University diploma with a person of a more privileged pedigree.

But it doesn't go away. My parents weren't university professors, doctors, lawyers, businessmen. I didn't really even comprehend academia as a career until after I started my PhD program. Yes, I knew I wanted to do research, but I didn't yet understand all that it entailed. I couldn't even tell you which was a higher rank--assistant or associate professor. The horrors! Ah, the depths of my ignorance and naïveté.

In any case, I realize that academia is not the only area where many of us from rural/impoverished backgrounds feel out of place, despite years of training and the trials of "bootstrapping." But to be good mentors and colleagues, it's important to keep these things in mind. So no, I can't attend your pricey golf outings. I can't go along on your extra side-trips at conferences to explore the wineries. And yes, I realize that you will likely "talk shop" on these outings and then leave me out afterwards, and I will think you're an asshole. So mentors, please don't assume that students, postdocs, or even junior faculty have the means to simply pay for interviews, conferences, even social lab meals. If there are ways to have things paid in advance, or supported by the department in some way, help them do so. If you will be discussing work on outings where they can't attend, don't be a dick and exclude them just because they don't have the financial means to tag along. Or, don't assume they don't want to attend and are uninterested--they may just be too humiliated to admit that they're broke. Just as you wouldn't discriminate against someone due to race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., don't let economics be a segregating factor either, as much as you can help it.

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