Trading blue collars for scarlet robes, my working-class experience of academic life

More people are going to college, graduate school, and obtaining PhDs in STEM fields than ever before (Figure 1), and a growing minority of these PhD candidates are non-traditional or not white affluent males. While we celebrate this change, let us not forget that academia was built by – and for – the “traditional” student. My favourite analogy to explain this type of ingrown privilege is bicycles on USA streets. Bicycles are legally allowed to be on streets, some streets even have extra space just for bicycles, but streets were designed for automobiles. You may be allowed and, in some areas, encouraged to get on the street with your bicycle, but biking a street is going to be intrinsically more difficult than if you were driving a car.


Like Marconi and La Bamba in a city built on rock and roll, you will inevitably end up in situations that conflict with your way of life. You will not receive a warning before you stumble upon these bumps, and you will be judged by how quickly you accept traditional standards (if you can).  I remember a conversation with traditional tenured and tenure-track scientists discussing proposals for a large grant scheme. One tenure-track scientist was lamenting the process of shopping for editors for his proposal. He talked about it freely, how there were two companies that charged different rates and he was in talks with one but that company felt a conflict of interest that he had worked with another rival editing company. The rest of the traditional scientists nodded in mutual understanding. Finding good, cheap editors to improve your work is hard. My working-class ethos was busy screaming inside my head.  How can hiring someone to edit and improve written works that you will ultimately be rewarded for be so blithely acceptable? You’re not allowed to hire editors for any task throughout your training. You learn how to write from earning disappointing grades (or failing grant applications). You read more, you study written works, you develop a voice, and you try again. The results get better until you are at an appropriate level to move up another notch on the ladder, right? Not for traditionals.

Here are some more bizarre “traditional” customs you should expect if you are biking down the academic street:

Read More

On being an ally and being called out on your privilege

Privilege — within any given community, whether formal or ad hoc, social or professional, members will express varying levels of privilege. Some people will be playing the game on easy mode, others will be struggling with subtle and overtly oppressive societal and institutional structures. If you are a person of privilege who recognizes the reality of this imbalance and strives to make your community a more accessible and welcoming place to those who aren’t as privileged, you might identify yourself as an ally.

You are wrong.

Being an ally is not something you are, it’s something you do. “Ally” is not an identity, it is a set of behaviors that help acknowledge and promote underprivileged members of your community. But you have privileges that they do not and not all of your words and actions will fall under the banner of “being an ally”. Even if you consider yourself well-versed in your understanding of oppression and privilege, you will, eventually do or say something that reveals your privilege and is offensive, insensitive, or callous, if not outright cruel. The whole point of privilege is that it’s largely invisible to those who have it — including you. If you have colleagues that respect you, if people in the broader community value the work you do, if you are recognized as an important voice, people will call you out on your privilege.

How you respond to that criticism makes the difference between self-identifying as an ally, and actually being an ally.

Read More