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Graduate students across disciplines find ourselves in academe for one core reason: we seek to belong to a community where our curiosity is nourished and our commitment to research, writing, teaching and discovery is appreciated. We are also bound to be aware of one of academe’s core problems: the academic job market, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, is dismal.
While that leads some graduate students to double down on their efforts to stand out in a growing pool of applicants for a shrinking number of jobs, many of us have resigned ourselves to look for careers outside higher education. The lack of jobs for us runs contrary to the narrative we’ve been sold: no matter who you are, through hard work and superior intelligence, you can make a career for yourself as an academic. You can belong here.
It is irresponsible for institutions to suggest to any graduate student that a career in the academy is a likely option in a job market where only an estimated 7 percent of Ph.D.s will find academic positions. But that myth is particularly pernicious for first-generation students from humble socioeconomic backgrounds for whom the stakes of belonging in academe are much higher. And when colleges and universities cannot retain first-generation academics, those academics are not the only ones who suffer: higher education’s reputation, reach and relevance suffer, too.
As a college-bound high schooler, I was consistently taught that higher education was my pathway to career opportunity and my ticket out of economic instability. But at my small liberal arts college, I learned quickly that this dream of career opportunity and financial stability was reserved for an already-in crowd. When I arrived on campus with my parents, we spent the last of our college move-in budget on a pizza that would be our only meal for the day. Between the three of us, we’d incurred tens of thousands of dollars in debt and spent hundreds more on travel, supplies and books. But as we ate our pizza and enjoyed the lake view that my new campus offered, all three of us remained convinced that the debt would be nothing compared to the money I’d be able to bring in with a college degree.
When classes began, however, I received less than the warm welcome I expected for my intellect and my drive to improve my station through education. In my first weeks on campus, I overheard other students talking about spending the summer traveling through Europe or mailing their laundry home each week for their housekeeper to do. It quickly became clear to me that I was not among like-minded peers. Although a few exceptional faculty members and administrators celebrated my first-generation status, most people failed to comprehend the struggles of students like me and to support our efforts.
Mostly, I experienced a cultural disconnect that lingered throughout my time as an undergraduate. Several days before graduation, I was invited with my parents to attend a cocktail hour at the president’s mansion. We felt significantly out of place among trustees and administrators whose outfits appeared to cost more than all three of ours combined. While no one was explicitly rude to us, we spent almost all of the evening in a family huddle by ourselves.
When the president and his wife came over to meet my parents, they were both surprised that this was the first time I’d visited their home, especially since the president’s wife held regular open houses for students. She asked why I’d never attended one, and as I stood next to my intimidated parents and imagined myself walking uninvited into a mansion whose residents had Ph.D.s and six-figure salaries, all I could manage to say was that I felt I’d be imposing. It was difficult for me, a first-generation student from a humble socioeconomic background, to step boldly into a place where I wasn’t explicitly asked. The president and his wife were kind and thoughtful educators, attentive to the socioeconomic diversity of the students at their school. But even they had not considered the more nuanced yet significant cultural obstacles to a first-generation student’s sense of belonging.
Thrift-Store Clothing and Side Jobs
Although many aspects of my undergraduate experience proved that academe was not the neutral starting place I had expected, I turned hopefully to graduate study. At this high level, where intellectual capability reigns supreme, I thought, surely socioeconomic background and family history won’t matter. I would be able to defer payment on my student loans, and with fellowships and teaching assistantships, I wouldn’t have to buy my way to belonging. I would work hard, produce quality writing and finally gain the ticket to stability that I was taught to believe lay in higher education. Unfortunately, I was wrong again.
I have only positive feelings toward the people in the department that nurtured my doctoral study, but the challenge of belonging in the academy is as real as ever. The financial and social stability that we expect graduate school to provide continue to be reserved for an already-in crowd. In an article for Inside Higher Ed, Bailey Smolarek points out that first-generation graduate students “not only continue to struggle with the same issues that they grappled with during their undergraduate studies, but that those struggles are amplified in graduate school settings -- where linguistic style, embodied habits and dress, and social connections become even more important to success.” She also highlights the inadequacy of the graduate student stipend in particular.
In my own experience, my humble socioeconomic background continues to set me apart. I am one of few students in my program who actually tries to live off my teaching assistantship stipend without outside help from family or a partner with a lucrative nonacademic job. I must supplement my stipend with side jobs that take away time I should be spending on conferencing and publishing in order to become a competitive applicant for academic positions. Spending additional hours earning money can also diminish the quality of my academic work, and I face the choice of paying my rent or positioning myself as a competitive candidate in order to get a job to pay my rent later. Like most people in my situation, I've chosen to pay the rent now.
In the latter half of my Ph.D. journey, I find myself, like so many other graduate students, first generation or otherwise, looking outside the academy for career options that will provide me with the financial stability and belonging that academe so misguidedly promised me by encouraging me to prepare for tenure-track faculty jobs that are increasingly difficult to find, let alone secure. Across the country, universities continue to admit graduate students into programs that funnel us toward a dead-end job market in order to use our labor and expertise to teach the least desirable undergraduate courses for minimal pay. While it is our own choice to seek the degree in the first place, the academy is less than honest with us -- and even, perhaps, with itself -- about the viability of a career as an academic.
I can now either attempt to stick it out in the academy so as to produce work that probably won’t even reach people like me or simply exit this supposed refuge for a smart young woman who didn’t fit in at home -- because I don’t fit in here, either. I’ve learned a lot and gained good professional experience in my graduate program, but that is not enough to succeed in an academic job market with fewer and fewer stable positions.
And it also may not be enough to succeed in a professional job market that is less than friendly toward the elitism that they assume when they see “Ph.D.” after a name on an application. While some of my colleagues look with anxiety toward the prospect of completing a dissertation, my anxious gaze looks toward what comes afterward, when I’m alone with my debt.
On my darkest days, I’m left with the feeling that no matter how hard I try to blaze a trail for myself and other first-generation students, the work I’ve been doing could lead me straight back to a life of little career opportunity and of economic instability -- a life from which I once was sure higher education would rescue me.
When I’m feeling more hopeful, I turn to resources like Beyond Academia, ImaginePhD and mentors in my own incredibly supportive and realistic department. I start to feel optimistic about my job prospects outside the academy. But I’m still left with a twinge of sadness when I think of academe losing the special perspective that first-generation academics bring to the conference table and seminar room. Smolarek cites first-generation students’ ability to “deal with it” as one of our primary strengths and values as academic colleagues. We are understanding teachers and mentors, and we are good at going with the flow.
More than that, we connect the academy to diverse communities by bringing our nonacademic life experiences to bear on our intellectual work. We empathize with a range of experiences when we’re teaching our students, and we speak to a wider audience when we’re writing our articles for publication. In short, we help make the academy relevant to people who would otherwise feel excluded, or even threatened, by the academy’s unnavigable systems.
But our altruism has its limits, both emotional and practical. We all reach a point in our academic careers when we cannot continue to add value to a system that doesn’t adequately compensate us. With our thrift-store clothing and our side jobs, we have the perspective and experience to bridge the gap between higher education and the rest of the world, but we lack the energy and resources to continue fighting academe’s exclusive nature from the inside. Academe has reneged on its promise of social belonging and financial stability, so it is losing our dedication, our distinct perspectives and our power to revise its elitist public image with our stories and the community-oriented focus of our work.
It’s disappointing that the academy has failed to extend a hand of belonging to me and people like me, but with our trademark first-generation resilience, we’ll bounce back. Ultimately, it’s the academy’s loss.