WTF: Working-Class Academics

I’ve been putting off introducing this month’s theme: working-class and first-gen PhD students because it’s personal and because I don’t know where to start with something that is, simultaneously, so big and so close to home.

Let me start with why I’m addressing this topic at all. A month ago, I wanted to do a Weekly Roundup post with helpful links about what it’s like to come from a working-class background and be in a PhD program. I was absolutely certain that there would be enough posts to generate a Roundup (at least 3), but there weren’t.

Well, that’s not exactly true. There were posts aplenty but they were mostly from the UK and while they were well-written and insightful it can be hard to translate advice between the UK and US academic systems. There were, of course, also some great links to working-class scholar organizations (which will be in this week’s Roundup), but I couldn’t find the type of advice I was looking for–the type of advice I wish I’d had when I started. So, to paraphrase the great Toni Morrison, if there’s a post you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. That’s how this month’s focus on working-class and first-gen PhD students came to be.

Before properly beginning this month’s series, here’s a quick rundown of my background: My mother was a clerk for her whole career and, because she never got a college degree, was an hourly worker–never eligible for the promotion to salaried, exempt status. My step-dad drove dove a cement truck and then a dump truck. I was the first person in my immediate family to get a college degree. My mother did attend some community college before she had my oldest brother and both of my brothers gave college a try before leaving for different reasons. Neither of them got degrees.

I know some folks don’t count families who have had members attend college but not graduate as first-gen. I’m absolutely sure it’s a different experience. As hard and confusing as it was for me I had some people with some experience to rely on. I can only speak to my experience but if you know someone willing to guest post drop me a line on the contact page.

It’s also important to note that my family is white. Being white comes with a lot of privileges in general but one thing I’ve noticed in academia is that people are more willing to assume I’m middle-class than they are with my colleagues of color which, in turn, makes it easier for me to present as middle-class in professional situations which leads to a whole host of other benefits. It’s also important to note that being white played a part in allowing my family to move out of the trailer park and into a house-house when I was 15. And being white played a part in helping me to get an FHA loan to buy a house (with my mom’s help) when I entered a PhD program which has helped me immensely as well.

While I’m excited and nervous to spend the month of March sharing what I’ve learned about being a PhD student from a working-class background I am most aware of what I don’t know. Always, but especially this month, take what’s useful, leave the rest, and please use this as a space to share resources that have helped you navigate this experience.

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