First Generation

April 24, 2020

It can be difficult to be the first person in your family to do something when it comes to careers and training for them. There are always going to be aspects of that career, or training, that are opaque, obscure or intentionally concealed. Many of these things give an advantage, significantly so in many cases, to those who are aware of them.

Academia is our main concern around here and just about every aspect is easier if you know more about how things work, and especially “how things really work” in several cases where the latter is in contradiction to the surface level information.

In a prior brief post I mentioned that I am, more or less, in the family business, i.e., that of public funded education and academics. I’ve probably blogged or commented several related aspects but suffice it to say, academic careers were not strange to me at any part of my life that I can remember. “Dean is a four letter word” is a concept that was drilled into me since childhood. I’ve known about “undergraduate summer research experiences” since before I left elementary school. I knew about tenure and the difficulties associated with not being “amenable to the senior faculty” (yeah that’s a quote from an actual someone’s initial tenure denial after going up early). I got this sort of vague indoctrination into what it meant to be a “good” professor at a Primarily Undergraduate Instruction institution, as compared with various forms of phone-it-in-deadwood….in certain points of view, of course. I have known if you want to be a Professor you had to go to graduate school to get a PhD since approximately forever.

Despite all of this, there is a metric efftonne of stuff about my career as it unfolded that I had not the foggiest clue about until I was upon it or, most likely, after the fact. I attended a smaller college for undergraduate studies and the research opportunities were limited. My department faculty was all emeritizing at the time and were not doing much research at all. They were not trying to groom us for doctoral studies in any specific way. One relatively new professor took me under his wing, got me some summer research-project funding one year and tried to kind of help me along, but it was not super aggressive in terms of telling me all the ins and outs of career planning.

I have found many aspects of my career opaque, some of which is my own fault of course. I just blundered forward on the immediately observable rules in front of me at the time. “Apply for grad school, this Prof stuff seems like something I would like to do forever“. Apply for these graduate fellowships at the same time, sure why not? Financial aid was familiar from the college application/choice process so…”this is basically the same, I think?“. Which graduate programs? “Well, I want to live here, here or here and not there….I think these programs are somehow ranked in the top 25 of my discipline so..looks good!“.

I knew less than Jon Snow. Somewhere in the process of reviewing graduate school materials I realized they were going to pay me a stipend. Or maybe it was when I started looking for what I thought of initially as “financial aid” to cover tuition and maybe living expenses in part. At some point I connected the dots. I am certain I never cottoned on to this from my family experience. I was missing that piece. I don’t think any of my college professors ever told me this directly (and most of their experiences were decades out of date). I didn’t really think that hard about how graduate training disciplines came with important differences in how graduate support worked. Nobody explained any of this.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know and I didn’t know how to find out until….oh, around my second postdoc I started to get a clue.

I cannot imagine how hard all of this is for someone who does not have any family members who have completed a four year undergraduate education. I can’t imagine how random it would be for such a person to really grasp, as they are being educated at a research university even, all of these critical facts. I have gone out of my way with every undergraduate who has sought a research experience in my laboratory to point out that graduate school pays a salary. I think it is absolutely critical, if we are to do even the most basic of recruiting efforts with people who are underrepresented in academics and in science.

The world of academia, particularly the one I inhabit, has been much better in recent years about paying attention to first generation students. From undergraduate admissions, retention, support and assistance to the provision of graduate slots and fellowships, through to postdoctoral and faculty funding opportunities, we are treating first generation as special. Explictly or implicitly as if they are an underrepresented minority group.

Now yes, many such individuals are already within some other category of under-representation. Which then makes us ask who is leftover, and of course it generally means less-privileged white folks in these here United States of America. I grew up in a super majority white part of the country where the best hope for a really smart kid from one of the local deeply rooted families was to join the military and gtfo of that place. I am not kidding. Despite the presence of a local undergraduate institution and we, the families of the Professors of said institution, there is no friggin way the local yokel family kid who was really fricken smart (and I went to school with them, there were several) was going to end up where I ended up. Ok, ok, I know that statistically many of you, Dear Readers, did come from similar backgrounds, but the hit rate is really low. I get it. I believe in it. I work for it. We should focus on first generation people as if they are an underrepresented minority.


This gets us deep into the Oppression Olympics about who is most deserving and who needs to come second at the gravy train. There are no good answers and I am sure we all struggle with our own perspectives and biases.

One key issue is passing. A person from my home town who manages to make it into academia may be able to pass entirely. His or her colleagues will never know about their background unless they choose to share. This is countered by the “what about Obama’s kids???” cries about how visual distinction may hide a background that is advantaged and just like everyone in the majority.

Yep. Lots of nasty arguments to be had.

This sort of Oppression Olympics thinking affects our takes on any claims to first generation in academics in weird ways. I’ve seen, I think, people trying to claim that they are super underprivileged because they didn’t have a parent ever go to grad school. Now, Mummy and or Daddy may be four year college educated, possibly at a awesome-name college and the family may be rich as all get out due to success in some endeavor unrelated to anything PhD holders do. But the person has not been around life-long academic scientist types and so feels justified in identifying with hashtag-firstgen with a PhD addendum.

This angers some people.

I am not certain how I feel about it. I feel that many of us can be very much at sea about our careers despite a family steeped in higher education activity. Sometimes it is because the family experience was in a totally different discipline or our experience of it was when that family member was in a totally different job type than the one we are targeting. Sometimes it is because of the decades long gap and the changing nature of being an academic.

On the other hand, yeah, we have a problem in all of USian life right now where everyone in the upper-middle to frankly upper slice wants to define themselves as average. And to actually feel just a little bit under-privileged. Because of course we are always looking up at someone who has a little bit more than us, instead of the majority of this country which has less. It’s common. I get it. But it does also ring a little false to me when someone of apparent socio-economic privileges starts brandishing a “pity me” hashtag of first gen, just because they have two kids in their grad class with parents that published papers in the field they are in.