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.

17 responses so far

  • I often notice that the majority of rock star students are the progeny of either academics or the well educated. As the progeny of blue-collared parents, I often feel like I'm always catching up

  • Isabel says:

    "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."

    Unfortunately economic status is often invisible. According to Tenured Radical it has to be that way because it is "rude to ask about." Because we should be ashamed, I guess.

    Great post.

  • Isabel says:

    What happened to the comment I posted?

  • Isabel says:

    Oh okay, I didn't get the moderation message earlier, but now I see one. weird!

  • Monisha says:

    Thanks for this. It isn't my story, but i have a colleague for whom it is closer to reality than anyone knows, and my mother's family were tobacco farm sharecroppers, so while it's not my reality, i have cousins who started having babies at 16 and in some ways i'm 1 generation away. It is really important to put this out there and remind everyone. Even one generation away, it is easy to forget.

  • DNLee says:

    WOW! I can totally relate, too. I've been in spots (very recently) where it's like I need this money now not later to make this opportunity work. People treat you like you shouldn't be broke just because you have a PhD. For real? I got bills, lots of them, especially when I was a grad student. I also severed a domestic relationship that cost me - he so left me with ALL of the bills and some extra, too.

    Life is crazy, and when you come from a working class family, it's not like you can get money out of thin air.

    Well, here's to folks like us, making it happen one day at a time.

  • epj says:

    Like I've said before, most of the current problems are the cumulative result of money and the over saturated economic system.

    That is the sad reality delaying most progress.

    How do you like going to the university with a remodeled outfit from an older cousin, putting a straight face and blind faith in that no one will recognize it? that is called strength and assertiveness.

    Or just having one way bus ticket and hope you can borrow from 'wealthier friends' your trip back home? and so on...

    But, yeah, that would break the rules of the game of competition, so it does not count, and people are passed and left behind in. the way to the ivory tower

  • rebecca says:

    Apologies, I'm an idiot and forgot comment moderation was on. Everything should be posted now...

  • sciwo says:

    This post hit home for me this morning as I'm struggling to pay the bills. It doesn't take coming from a working-class background to face an economic struggle to make it in academia, though coming from that background surely makes it eleventy times worse. Anybody trying to run a family/household on a single academics income can get crushed by a flat income (no raises since I arrived) and mounting expenses. And that pre-pay/wait for reimbursement for travel thing is hard every single time. That's if you are lucky enough to even have support for the travel at all. This year I'm giving two invited talks at a conference across the country. University travel support: zero. Consequences of declining those talks and the conference in the year before tenure: non-zero. So merrily into debt I go, because I've got a family to support.

  • hydropsyche says:

    Although I'm from a more middle-class background, your post hits close to home for me because I teach at an open access 4 year public college which serves many first generation and non-traditional students.

    I don't know exactly what to tell the young, single mom who tells me she wants to be a pediatric neurologist or a cancer researcher. I know that they are intellectually capable of doing these things, but I also know that the road ahead for them is so much harder than it is for folks who grew up in a world like the one I grew up in, or went to the cliche fancy liberal arts college that I went to. I don't want to show them your post or the Chronicle article to discourage them, but I worry about the obstacles ahead of them.

    I know that some of my colleagues encourage them to pursue nursing, arguing that they can have a good paying job in 4 years that will be helping people and supporting their kids, rather than another 4+ years of grad/med school and residency/postdoc. But who am I to limit their dreams like that?

  • rebecca says:

    I don't think it's limiting their dreams to let them know the reality of the situation. It will always be their choice--better to know up-front the realities of the debt, working hours, etc. that they'll face than to get into a program and have to leave without a degree because of the extra financial pressures that they'll face.

    And sciwo--yes, even getting travel money in the first place is becoming more difficult. I attended an international conference in my area that I paid for without reimbursement about 2 years ago, and am still finishing up paying off that credit card. My institution pays almost enough for 1 meeting anymore; after that, we're on our own--another source of stress for those of us without means to pay our own way for everything, since it's definitely something that counts for tenure/promotion as you mention. Like ScientistMother says, I feel like I'm always catching up...

  • Heavy says:

    The post by Rachel Wagner was a powerful one and thank you for echoing similar experiences. The challenges you faced were not my own so new perspectives such as yours are vitally needed within academia. There are sympathetic ears out there, certainly within administrative staff who can sometimes make advances for travel without alerting the committee but I recognize this can be a gamble (but may beat a '95 Neon).

  • I'm currently holding $2k on my credit card from charges for a conference that was a month ago waiting to get reimbursed. The kicker is that I had to book the plane tickets 6 months ago and I can't even get reimbursed for those until the trip was taken.

  • always struggling to keep up says:

    Without financial support from someone (affluent parents, spouse with well paying job, or trust fund) it is nearly impossible to make it all the way through the long slog to an academic job in the ivory tower. As an undergraduate with multiple merit scholarships, I worked 3 separate jobs to keep my head above water. When I received my bachelor's degree, along with it came $20K in student loans (which is low considering what most people end up with) and several maxed out credit cards.

    I waited 3 years before starting my PhD, not because I was ambivalent about my career path, but because I had to work in order to pay down my debts to the point where I could afford to survive on a meager graduate student stipend and nothing else. When I began my postdoc, my credit cards were once again maxed out. Although my salary increased, so did my living expenses. Half my salary went to rent, and I ended most months with less than $10 in my bank account. The constant stress of worrying about money took a toll on my professional life. Trying to orchestrate funds for travel to conference or interviews was nearly impossible. And watching my peers spend all their time thinking about science while I was struggling with simply surviving was maddening. Even those who were not from incredibly privileged backgrounds had parents who routinely gave them cash infusions.

    Thank you for bringing attention to this situation. I don't know how anyone could go through the process with a child to support.

  • Isabel says:

    "But who am I to limit their dreams like that?"

    Please don't! Those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds should share their stories as inspiration, not to discourage others. Feeling alone in the situation is part of the problem. Yes, academia (in the US anyway) is shockingly elitist. Every step of the way it is more difficult for people from lower class backgrounds.

    Of course, as these stories illustrate, it doesn't all go away the minute someone is given a scholarship. There is so much ignorance about these issues in academia, even from those academics who consider them selves "enlightened". It isn't just young people or single moms who need to hear these stories!

  • DrunkSci says:

    "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."

    The moment my advisor found out I was having a second kid, he said "Looks like you have more time on your hands than me." Not long after I quit, wrote up my PhD as masters and left. I tried to do a PhD again after working as a tech for a couple years, but the financial stress was unbearable. I am a single earner for a family of 4. My wife stays home because we can't afford daycare. Her minimum wage job doing whatever wouldn't be worth it. After trying to be a good grad student the second time around, teaching at night and working freelance writing in, I couldn't handle it anymore. I was bitter, getting angry at my kids and not being the man I knew I was. Sadly, in both cases I was completely alone, no decent advising and definitely not a shred of interest in my personal life.

    So another dream down the drain (my first one was rockstardom). But I'm happy and yell at my kids a lot less. Slightly less financially burdened but still royally screwed.

  • heteromeles says:

    All I can say is, it happens to single male PhDs as well, even when they don't have kids. Success in academia right now requires a large support network, and if you don't have it, you're going to have a lot of trouble making it.

    This post should be on the required reading list for anyone.

    In my darker moments, I suspect that we're heading back to the 19th Century academic system, where doctorates depended either on familial wealth, connections, or lifelong vows of abstinence, poverty, and obedience.

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