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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.

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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:

If you are late to a meeting in the working-class world, you are reprimanded. If you are consistently late, you are fired. Know that the opposite is true in academia. It is acceptable for traditionals to be at least 10 minutes late to meetings. Since you are working-class you will be on-time, or worse – early – and you will be somewhat outcast for making everyone else look dilatory. It is OK for traditionals to make jokes at the expense of the administrative or janitorial staff because they are obviously much less intelligent, which is the only possible reason they are working that job and not vying for theirs.  This is when you know you’ve been accepted into their golden circle of trust and you should expect many more comments that are sexist, racist, xenophobic, etc.

One is highly regarded by the traditionals if they work countless unrecorded extra time. If the lab light is still on at 8pm, then that must be ole so-and-so. Gosh they work so hard! You can immediately tell most working-class academics from traditionals because we are nearly always going home at 5pm. We know what it was like to have parents that were forced to work 80-hour work weeks. We also know of the countless studies that show quality of work suffers the more you over-work. Peculiarly, it is commonplace for traditionals to over-stay their work or study contracts by a few years, even though they were lauded for regularly working until well after dark. If someone in the working-class did not finish their work during their shift, they wouldn’t get 2-3 years extra to work there, they would be fired.

Interns have the least workload, and this workload increases exponentially the higher you climb the traditional ladder. Responsibilities of traditionals also increase – i.e. being a good teacher to the students they supervise – but it is perfectly acceptable for traditionals to ignore these responsibilities to make room for more workload, which is never finished (see previous paragraph).

Then there are various socializing events that will alienate you. Do you have an opinion on the Champagne vs. Clairette debate or whether it’s more worthwhile to go on a skiing trip in the early spring or late winter? Probably not. Chances are, you would like to discuss how wrong it is that the cafeteria staff are being forced to do the landscaping around the building after “budget cuts” or how to tackle a completely unjust situation happening to one of your non-traditional colleagues. These topics are less well received by the traditionals. You may find yourself suffering from FOBLAB in due time.

My parents are lifetime United Auto Workers and Community College Educators union members. Therefore, I inherited a startlingly low tolerance for inequality and prejudice, or what we locally call “bullshit.” If someone is being treated poorly or you see someone cheating the system, organize and draw attention to that bullshit. Work hard, stay vigilant, and remember where you’ve come from. The latter is so deeply rooted that whenever someone is facing adversity, a common joke is, “Don’t they know where you’re from? Tell them where you’re from.” This is both a mockery of the upper class and a reminder that your problems are privileged compared to the real struggles of home life, so maybe stop bitching.

And this is the hardest bump on the academic street. At a certain stage, you will become lost. Traditionals will never understand you and your roots will no longer be able to relate to you. From that point forward, all of the problems you encounter will have to be waded through mostly alone. This post isn’t to discourage you. I report my experiences to help you recognize this as a normal part of the street ahead and to encourage you to record your journey. You have stepped out into the privileged “traditional” wilderness, and like all explorers, your observations and records will advance the pace of those following behind you.

Good luck, blue collar.