Academia is heritable

May 22, 2013

I tweeted a link to A Manifesto for Community Colleges, Lifelong Learning, and Autodidacts and include the lede

As some are raised a Catholic or an atheist or a vegetarian, I was raised an academic.

I was later bemused by the number of RTs and I started to think about why. I think it was the “raised an academic” part more so than any enthusiasm for the post itself.

Then today, someone on the Twitts responded to something or other about the dismal grant situation in science right now by referring to quitting to join the family business.

Academia IS my family business.

As with a great number of the people I ran across in graduate school, postdoctoral training and know now as a person with a RealJobTM in science, I was raised academic.

Are we at a particular juncture where this is possible? Did the GI bill and general expansion of higher education in the US following WWII lead us to a unique position where academic careers could become something other than a rarity within a family? Where that tendency to do what your parents do for a living was even possible when that job was within a University or College environment?

This I wonder.

21 Responses to “Academia is heritable”

  1. becca Says:

    Why do you think some institutions cover tuition for dependents?
    Scholar-caste, yo. The new priests.


  2. DrLizzyMoore Says:

    I never really gave it much thought, but academia is my family business too. It started with my Great Aunt (this is even more significant, because my family is from the deep south), then my father…and, well, now me. I’m the only scientist out of the group, but I spent plenty of time on college campuses growing up–enough that when someone broaches the subject: ‘what would you do if the funding dries up?’, I give them a blank stare. It’s hard for me to imagine being anywhere different or doing anything different–and I doubt it’s a lack of creativity. This is what I was raised to do-for better or worse.

    Related: Dad got through much of college on a GI bill…….


  3. From my totally subjective and anecdotal experience, most professions are heritable.

    From my college cohort, there were a large number of lawyers with lawyer parents, doctors with doctor parents, teachers with teacher parents, etc. I think people subconsciously look at their parents’ professions as an accept-reject decision.


  4. Also, parents have a ton of expertise in their own profession and very little in other professions. That expertise makes it much easier to follow in their footsteps. I personally got tons of useful advice for surviving grad school. Would have gotten zero advice for surviving law or med school.

    This is one reason why I support mentorship programs for high school and college students.


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    Sure, NP. Not surprised about the tendency, perhaps more surprised about the potential for it to happen.


  6. No, academia isn’t your family business any more than General Motors was for the proletarian side of my family — generations of your family may have the same (or similar) employer, but you don’t own it.


  7. My PhD supervisor is a third-generation PI, but in the UK, formerly the land of free education.

    Teaching is definitely genetic, btw.


  8. @NP
    My parents were puzzled by the idea that grad school was free, and that there were even living expenses included. I’m actually pretty surprised on how many children of academics there seem to be on this thread — yes, I know they exist, but I’d think if anything, people are biased *against* their parents’ professions. People decide what to go into as a teenager and in their early twenties — exactly the time when the desire to emulate one’s parents is at an all time low.


  9. coldhot3 Says:

    I am a third gen researcher too. But I do not think this trend is good. When I look back, I found myself made so may wise choices advised by parents and grand-parents, while other people in my cohort just made random choice and commit academic suicide. Such advise greatly improved my expectation for success, just like many ppl discussed in the randomness vs. inside information post (

    If the spread for success expectation keep getting wider, people from non-science background will just give up early. In an extreme case, if only son and daughter of a PI can have reasonable chance to become PI because all the secret know-hows and inside information, how could s/he persuade student from non-science based families to do PhD and PostDoc?


  10. Beaker Says:

    Sometimes scientific chops just run in the family. We shouldn’t be concerned about this any more than we need to be concerned about 2nd generation pro athletes. Our society needs people with good science genes to pursue careers in science. For example:

    Me, not so much. Dad drove a taxi and worked construction. Back in HS, dad told me to take metalworking instead of calculus; he argued that metalworking was more useful. Judging by the number of times I’ve used calculus in my research career, he may have been right.


  11. Steve Says:

    My dad is a janitor…at a university.

    But actually, I do think visiting him at the university had an effect on my desire to be part of that environment. So in my case it was nurture more than nature.


  12. SidVic Says:

    My dad was a PI. He sort of propagandized me into the profession. Can’t complain, taking broad view- have to conclude we are very very highly privileged. Up until ~100 hundred years ago, one had to be independently wealthy, or very lucky, to live the life of the mind. I did a stint at a factory and working in the coal mines and I think every modern scientist should try some blue collar work at some point. It would probably cut down on some the cry-baby crap (hey no offense-I’m guilty of it too).
    That stated, I have become conflicted recently. One of my four children is brilliant. They are all smart (say, top 5%), but this kid is scary; and so intellectually curious I ache for him. Where do I steer him? (my influence has waned, but is still significant). The calculating, coolly rational, part of me says business or high finance. Yet- I pull back thinking that the talent would be wasted at anything but basic research or pure math/physics. Most of my colleagues contend that there is no future in academic research and their kids have gone the professional school route for the most part. To be completely honest, if the kid became a practicing physician or dentist, or whatever, I would be a little disappointed. Raw egghead prejudice, I know.


  13. DrugMonkey Says:

    Let him find his way SidVic. If he’s that bright, he can understand the career alternatives that you describe. You don’t “steer”, you help him choose.


  14. Andy Says:

    To follow on SidVic’s comments, in grad school I (a first generation academic, born and raised on a farm in fairly blue-collar surroundings) was fairly annoyed by many of the second-generation academics. Nice enough people, but some had a sense of entitlement that was beyond belief. I was grateful to be paid to go to school–they were outraged that they weren’t paid enough. This didn’t go over too well with me, when I had close friends from college who were getting shot at in Iraq and Afghanistan because they joined the military to pay for school.


  15. qaz Says:

    There are lots of families where academia is the family business. It’s not a GI bill or anything like that. It’s much simpler than that: “They bring you up to do like your daddy done.” [Springsteen, The River]

    I certainly was – my family has been in academia for at least three generations. A lot more, depending on what you count as academia. But it was fun going back to read my grandfather’s papers – and his brother’s, which I was able to find on pubmed and are now available after the publishers put the old journals on pubmed. I grew up watching my relatives and their colleagues debate both the science of science and the business of science. My kids are clearly growing up that way too, being particularly interested in scientific questions, doing experiments, writing grant proposals to grand-parents…

    My understanding is that the data suggest the US is becoming more and more of a caste system. It has become particulalry noticeable at the high end, with politician’s kids becoming politicians, news media pundits kids becoming news media pundits, actors kids becoming actors, sports athletes’ kids becoming sports athletes, why would we expect academia to be any different?

    I understand the issue that DM is raising, however, which is that if we believe that PI-ness is hard to get into and that there is a random factor, shouldn’t that random factor eat at the “caste” effect? But an “ac-brat” or a “fac-brat” (pick your term) grows up seeing how its done in ways that others don’t. So just as the current crop of successful actors includes a lot of children of successful actors, the current crop of successful PIs will include a lot of children of successful PIs. We’re back in the grant percentage issue – yes, there’s a random factor, but there’s also underlying differences. So, sending in 10 random grants does not get you funded at a 1 in 10 chance (they’re not lottery tickets) – the people who write better grants and have a track record have a better than average chance of making it.

    In my experience (as an ac-brat), science families are trained differently as children, they get different opportunities, and they have contacts in the field. This means that they’re going to have an advantage.

    Note – I’m not defending it. I’m just saying that it’s not really unexpected. Especially in this tough economy where people who stumble aren’t getting second chances. I think it’s important that those of us who were raised in the science caste recognize that not everyone knows all of these things and we should be helping train people who come from different backgrounds. Truth is, that’s one of the things I think this blog does very well.


  16. The Other Dave Says:

    Wow. You guys have been livin’ off the govm’t teat fer a long time. Yourall just like them crack house welfare families, ‘cept instead of cigarettes and liquor you buy ‘reagents’.

    Can we get a genome-wide association study for academia? I think academic science costs the taxpayer more than autism and addiction.

    …oh, wait. I think there might be significant overlap there.


  17. Joe Says:

    My father was a professor, and my brother and I are both professors, though I am the only scientist. I think expectations play into the career path. Not that we were expected to go into academia, but that we were expected to go to college. After that, graduate school, though not expected, was a normal option – not something odd, extravagant, or frivolous. So we got both emotional support from the family as well as some financial support from Dad along the way.


  18. DJMH Says:

    Families that place a high value on education are going to tend to have kids who place a high value on education. No surprises there.

    I am the child of PhDs, but in humanities. The exposure to how academia works has nonetheless been useful to me, again no surprises there–same as the child of doctors, who probably understands the difference between residency and internships, which still leaves me totally cold. There’s a language and a set of assumptions you pick up.


  19. An Says:

    My parents have either only a high school diploma or a bachelor’s degree, yet I am a successful academic. I purposefully seeked out the unwritten rules and mentors. I systematically planned to have all necessary items on my CV. Is this due to my parents? To some extent. I and my siblings have been successful in acquiring our dream jobs, they are very different jobs, though they all required some amount of scholarship to get them. We share a high degree of perseverance and can very focused and single-mindedly pursue a goal. My parents are both inquisitive people, they ask a lot of questions, and look up the answers to their questions in books, and then discuss it. Of course the skills you require through your parents will help you in becoming successful, especially if these are transferable skills. I understand the importance of all the academic unwritten rules in becoming a successful academic, and I realize I only learned them because I asked, and I asked a lot of times, and I asked a lot of different people, and I read a lot of blogs, – I looked things up just as my parents do! I realize that many people simply don’t do this, so I pass on this knowledge as much as possible. I invite you to do the same.


  20. Alex Says:

    I vaguely recall that in my first year of grad school a lot of my classmates had parents with graduate degrees. It seemed a bit weird to me, then I settled in and ceased to care.

    I’m from a health professions family. Lots and lots of nurses, a few doctors, the clerical workers work in hospitals, the salesmen sell pharmaceuticals, etc. My high school summer job was in a hospital kitchen instead of a McDonald’s kitchen. I vowed to be different, so I went into physics. But after many years, I got into biomedical applications of physics. Heredity is a hard thing to overcome.


  21. Jen Says:

    I am the first person in my family to go to college let alone get a PhD and be a working scientist. I come from a family of entrepreneurs and artists (who also held down blue collar jobs to support their artistic endeavors). In grad school and postdoc I felt a bit sorry for my peers who had parents who were academics and scientists. The pressure and judgment from their family was crushing especially since the climate is different now compared to a generation ago -more competition as there are more young PhDs on the market now than at any other time in history yet not that many more jobs unless you count postdoc jobs. I had friends in grad school whose parents were disappointed that they were still postdocs and not independent PIs cos in their generation they became a professors almost straight out of grad school. One of my colleagues is the child of a Nobel prize winner and I think carries a big psychological burden because of it. If I were in those shoes I would not go into science as that is a tough act to follow! My family are just happy I went to college! (I paid my own way through college too and helped pay for my younger siblings)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: